Being a teenager is hard—perhaps even more so when you’re a witch. Much like its 1990s predecessor, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a relatable bildungsroman that feels timely and timeless at once. Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) is the fourth incarnation of Archie Comics’s half-mortal teen witch, and Netflix’s dark-yet-vibrant series expands her already beloved story while conjuring something entirely new. Inspired by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s 2014 comic series of the same name, the series is as captivating as it is unsettling. Whether dancing at a Halloween party with friends, choosing a familiar, battling misogynists at Baxter High, or practicing necromancy, Aguirre-Sacasa’s Sabrina is a force to be reckoned with, even when her actions are entwined with doubt, rage, or fear.
As with TV’s first live-action Sabrina (Melissa Joan Hart) as well as Louise Miller of 1989’s supernatural cult favorite, Teen Witch, Sabrina’s awakening as a witch occurs on her 16th birthday. Turning 16 is a rite of passage for mortals and witches alike, but Sabrina’s pivotal moment also coincides with her Dark Baptism, a symbolic initiation into the Church of Night and the Greendale coven. A pagan riff on a Christian tradition, Sabrina’s Dark Baptism is a public ritual (on the Sabbath, during a Blood Moon eclipse) that demonstrates alliance to her coven and willingness to follow the tenets of their master, the Dark Lord Satan.
The show’s central question is whether Sabrina is willing to leave behind her freedom, her friends, and her connections to the mortal world in service to the coven. Once anointed in the name of the Dark Lord, Sabrina’s connection to the mortal world—her best friends Susie (Lachlan Watson) and Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair), her boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch), and her life as a student at Baxter High—will be irrevocably severed. Her aunts, evangelically zealous Zelda (Miranda Otto) and warm-hearted Hilda (Lucy Davis), promise her that the sacrifice is worth it, but Sabrina isn’t sure she’s ready to leave her dual identity behind and give herself over to the Dark Lord for eternity.
From its earliest moments, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is awash in allusions to horror classics like The Night of the Living Dead, Beetlejuice, and The Craft; embedded references to the larger Archie universe; and homages to Toni Morrison and 1960s activist group W.I.T.C.H.. As satisfying as that is, the series’s larger strength is its macro engagement with cultural and religious systems: the danger of unquestioning allegiance, the importance of boundaries and consent, and the way power can corrupt as easily as it can liberate. Sabrina’s rejection of inherited traditions and distrust in patriarchy—represented by the Dark Lord and his sinister liaison, Father Blackwell (Richard Coyle), as well as by her school principal and her own father—becomes one of the show’s key themes. Through her rejection of tradition, Sabrina embarks on a transformative journey toward self-possession. The links between Sabrina’s witch life and her life in high school—and the influence of patriarchal structures on both—aren’t subtle: The acronym for Baxter High’s Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association (WICCA), is a reference to W.I.T.C.H.; when she and three frenemy witches pursue vengeance on behalf of a classmate assaulted by jocks, her teacher and ominous mentor, Miss Wardell (Michelle Gomez) urges her to fight fire with “hellfire and enlist “the baddest bitches you know.”
And when she turns her back on the Dark Lord and defies the expectations of her late father, the women who surround her—her aunts, her friends, and even Miss Wardwell—become a force capable of destabilizing the male status quo, whether in Hell or in high school. Sabrina’s rebellion and willingness to question authority cracks the Church’s veneer, brings truth and secrets to the surface, and shifts her own definitions of community and solidarity in both of the realms she inhabits.
Whether major or minor, the characters in Chilling Adventures must eventually confront their personal power and privilege and bump up against limitations of a worldview rooted in patriarchal control. The citizens of Greendale, mortal and human alike, are perpetually challenged the differences between what they believe and how those beliefs are enacted. Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) acknowledges his nightmares; her boyfriend, Harvey, reckons with the crimes committed by his witch-hunting ancestors; Ros learns that her biggest fear is her greatest strength; while Susie embraces who she is and silences the hiss of her inner demons with the affirmation that she is not alone.
Like a match struck during the witching hour, each rejection of the powers that be illuminates a path toward what Sabrina and her friends and family yearn for most, leading them closer to empowerment, communal solidarity, and real freedom. Even in its most maudlin moments, Chilling Adventures never stops examining the toll of privileging heteronormative masculinity over other modes of intellectual, spiritual, physical, and political selfhood—a perfect testament to the archetype of the witch as a subversive outlier who dares to speak truth to power even in the dead of night.
Kristen J. Sollée’s Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, traces the history and multiplicity of the witch’s identity, celebrating the adaptability, strength, and foresight of the divine feminine. Historically, the witch has been feared, vilified, and—of course—burned, but the witch and everything she embodies is experiencing resurgence and reclamation. For all genders, the witch archetype is embraced as a way to make sense of the world, conjure political progress, and seek healing in community with others. As Sollée urges, “The witch is at once female divinity, female ferocity, and female transgression. She is all and she is one. The witch has as many moods and as many faces as the moon.” Sabrina and her allies affirm that the witch’s politics are as diverse as her powers and embodiment.
Narratives like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina reinvent and counterbalance the typical patriarchal misrepresentation of the feminine divine, cultivating embodiments of witchhood that challenge the heteronormative male gaze, masculine dominance, and patriarchal hierarchy. Although its depiction of witches might be jarring and at times problematic to some, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina aides in restructuring our culture’s definition of not only what a witch is—in the fantastical or literal sense—but also offers its audience a visual metaphor for the way non-masculine modes of power can bring about change.
Sabrina’s defiance, doubt, and determination start a schism that alters all that surrounds her. In a way, she’s a revolution.
Sabrina challenges her audience to imagine a world where the patriarchy is under constant scrutiny, men are held accountable for their actions, and those that abuse their power are exposed. It’s a reminder that change begins with awareness and a willingness to rebel and disrupt.
The intention of this series isn’t to comfort or lull viewers with a palatable depiction of good versus evil, but rather to give its audience something more ambiguous and haunting: a portrait of humanity and the many contradictions that define who we are collectively and as individuals. Within this context, distrust of the powers that be leads to salvation, self-possession, and community. Sabrina’s coming of age triggers an awakening in the lives of those closest to her and as a consequence, the coven and communities that she’s a part of are irrevocably changed. Her defiance, doubt, and determination start a schism that alters all that surrounds her. In a way, she’s a revolution.
Amidst fratricide, cannibalism, Baphomet’s hooves, hexes, demonic possessions, and chants of “Hail Satan,” The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina still offers viewers, what- and whoever they worship, an alternative to a world still propping up patriarchy, white supremacy, and other systems that limit and damage us. Even when the show is difficult to watch, the discomfort it evokes is necessary. The horror of the series lies not in its depiction of witchcraft or Satanism, but in the way it mirrors our current political climate, our nation’s inability to come to terms with its puritanical past, and the ways in which those who confront hypocrisy are coerced into silence.
The character of Sabrina has always served as something of a role model for young women navigating the perplexing and often unfair imperatives of teen girlhood, but Netflix’s update is much more than that. Like Hecate, Lilith, Isis, and Persephone, Sabrina is divine in her own right, and the voice of this dark, provocative, and unnerving show sounds to me like a call to arms.
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