Not Today, Satan
A Review of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Sabrina Spellman, teenage witch, has returned to television in the form of actress Kiernan Shipka—and this time, she’s here to fight back against Satan. The new Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, based on the iconic comic of the same name and the beloved ‘90s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch, is dark and moody much like its sister series Riverdale. But where Riverdale goes for murder mysteries and noir thrills, Sabrina goes for full-on occult horror. While Sabrina brings with her the familiar quirky aunts Hilda and Zelda and black cat Salem, the show’s first season is also filled with plenty of thoroughly spooky vibes—exorcisms, cannibalism, and appearances of the hoofed and horned “Dark Lord” himself.
Fighting Satan doesn’t seem like it would be the most relatable struggle for viewers, but in this show, it comes to stand in for what teen girls and feminists fight for in their daily lives: fighting against patriarchal systems, however large or small. Sabrina is half-witch, half-mortal. She must choose between joining the Church of Night by signing her name in the devil’s book on her 16th birthday (which falls during a blood-moon eclipse on Halloween, no less), or maintaining her mortal life with her human friends and boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch). Though she has major life decisions to make, spells to cast, and much dangerous astral projecting to do, Sabrina starts a high school club called Women's Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association (WICCA) with her best friends Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson). The club’s acronym nod to Wicca, a pagan religious movement, suggests a strong tie between practices of witchcraft and female empowerment. Sabrina is only 16 years old and still figuring out the complex rules governing the witching realm and her own powers, but she knows in her heart that she is not going to blindly follow any man, even if that man is Satan.
As I watched all of the episodes in rapid succession the weekend before Halloween, I couldn’t help but feel myself drawn into the eerie supernatural world of Greendale, a retro-styled town undoubtedly set in today’s current political climate. Witches have long been a symbol of female power and the threat it poses to the established social order, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina leans fully into the darkness and horrors that have plagued women throughout history and into modern day. Between Sabrina, Hilda and Zelda Spellman, the possessed teacher Ms. Wardwell, and the domineering witch-academy trio Weird Sisters, the show never has to look far for strong women in dark lipstick and enviable gothic outfits to fight the patriarchy.
I found myself most transfixed on the emphasis on female solidarity, even as everyone in the show begins to battle one another. In one episode, Sabrina is hazed by the Weird Sisters at the Academy of Unseen Arts and later confronts them about why they would want to attack other witches rather than band together as women. In other episodes, this question of witch vs. witch continues to arise; it is revealed that the Spellman family are descendants of witches who turned their back on other witches during the Greendale witch trials, and Sabrina often wonders to what extent Hilda and Zelda are complicit in the seedy and mysterious happenings of the Church of Night. Amidst her own identify crisis as a teenager with complex life choices, Sabrina knows one thing for sure: all women -- witchy or not -- should work together to fight oppression.
With plenty of flair from blood rituals, Latin chanting, and demon summoning, Sabrina and her friends explore gender identity, sexuality, feminism, patriarchal power, religion, abuse, family trauma… and, of course, witchcraft. While the spooky aesthetics satisfied my thirst for a dark and mystical series, it was also refreshing to see the way the show attempted to integrate topical issues into the show, even if that sometimes brought a little close to after-school special territory. Just like Riverdale, the show has plenty of campiness and absurdity that remove it from having much grounding in reality, even before the supernatural elements are factored in (love triangles? High school witch orgies? Sleep demons?). But strip away the ominous atmosphere, black velvet, and Satanic iconography, and you get a simple story of a young girl refusing to be what she’s told to be. It just happens that the girl is half-witch named Sabrina. Satan is not really Sabrina’s ultimate enemy either – it’s anybody telling her how she should live her life. Sabrina shows time and time again that she is dedicated to using all her power to fight for her free will. She’s a stubborn woman who wants it all – power and independence – and she sure is not going to let a man stand in her way. She may not know how to harness all her power yet, but there’s no doubt that she and the other women of Greendale have the fate of the town in their hands, and together, there is no stopping them.
By Katie Duggan
Princeton student, feminist film enthusiast, and lover of all things spooky.