It has been two decades since the Harry Potter series emerged as a cultural phenomenon. When the story of the boy wizard who attends the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry began to dominate children’s literature, evangelicals wondered if it was okay to allow their children to read the books.
As the series continued, however, it became increasingly clear that the mechanical nature of the magic practiced by Harry and his friends carried with it very little of the occult. Ultimately, Harry Potter seems more concerned with matters of the material world than the spiritual, despite the occasional contention with ghosts.
So for the majority of Christians, the question of whether or not Harry Potter was a sort of gateway drug for the harder stuff of real witchcraft fizzled into nothing. Evangelicals, just like everyone else, waited eagerly for each new book to be released, doing their part to enhance the series’ sales, currently pegged at around 400 million copies.
Now a new generation is experiencing their own moment of cultural resurgence when it comes to wizardry and witchcraft. Only this time around, it doesn’t seem quite so benign.
We’re Not in ‘Potterville Anymore’
This fall, Netflix released The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (with a bonus Christmas episode released in December). The series, which returns for a second season today, is based on the comic books published in 2014 by Archie Horror, which were a darker take on the character of the young witch Sabrina Spellman. Since first debuting in an Archie comic in 1962, Sabrina has made multiple appearances in various pop culture media, her fortunes rising and falling with the corresponding interest in the supernatural in pop culture. Before The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the most well-known of the recent iterations (among comic books, TV shows, and animated series) of Sabrina was the popular 1990s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch, starring the bright-eyed and chipper Melissa Joan Hart.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina may be similar to the ’90s sitcom in that it features a 15-year-old protagonist (the compelling Kiernan Shipka), but this is no show for kids. True, Sabrina Spellman is dealing with some ordinary teen problems in her beloved town of Greendale: the ups and downs of her relationship with her boyfriend, Harvey, her social life at Baxter High, and confronting the school’s smarmy principal as he refuses to stop the bullying of one of Sabrina’s best friends (who, in one of many of-the-moment plot threads, is attacked for not conforming to gender expectations). Domestic considerations are in play as well. Sabrina is the product of a love match between her high-born wizard father and her human mother. Orphaned as a young girl, she lives with her two aunts and her cousin, who, fittingly, are in the business of embalming and interring the dead as proprietors of Greendale’s mortuary. Sabrina’s conflict with her aunts ranges from the usual issues with curfew to the slightly more unusual: her strong desire to avoid pledging her life to Satan.
Sabrina is just days away from her 16th birthday, which happens to fall on an important day for her family and coven: the convergence of a blood moon and the holiday of Samhain. It is also the date of her dark baptism, when Sabrina will renounce her humanity and pledge her soul to the devil. This pledge is sealed by cutting her hand and using her own blood to write her name in Satan’s Book. This act can never be revoked, and Sabrina will have to obey every wish of the dark lord for the rest of her very long, sordid life.
The show is (sort of) set in the 1960s of the original Archie comic, although with plenty of anachronisms (a reference to the 1985 movie The Goonies, for instance). More to the point, Sabrina also borrows liberally from other entries into the witchcraft genre, with Sabrina’s admission into a boarding school for witches as a central conceit—the Netflix version of Hogwarts. The show also borrows from other, more disconcerting sources: a statue of Satan stands in the inner courtyard of the school, an exact replica of the very showy statue of the goat-headed Baphomet that the real-world members of the Satanic Temple have placed in front of the Arkansas capitol building. (The free publicity notwithstanding, this tribute, complete with adoring children gazing up at the devil, was not well-received by members of the Satanic Temple, who initially sued Netflix for copyright infringement before eventually settling out of court.)
In spite of all this, for much of the series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina manages a light touch. The show does not lose sight of the fact that it is ultimately intended as a piece of pop culture. The fast-paced dialogue and whip-smart acting (a combination of Gilmore Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) bring a wryness that is a welcome contrast to the dark—very dark—imagery. Sabrina herself is bright and cheery, if annoyingly earnest. When she’s not contemplating whether or not to be the bride of Satan, she is taking on moral crusades in the hallways of Baxter High, outwitting her principal to found a school-sponsored book club for girls. The name of the club is long and confusing, but succeeds in forming the acronym W.I.C.C.A. Subtle, Sabrina is not.
But neither is the real world. Something of a resurgence of interest in witchcraft is taking place in our culture, even though it hasn’t reached mainstream levels. Over an 18-year period beginning in 1990, Barry Kosmin of Trinity College conducted three studies on American Religious Self-Identification. Research indicated a sharp increase in the practice of Wicca, with the self-identified number of Wiccans growing from 8,000 in 1990 to 340,000 in 2008.
Still, even at its verifiable peak, this represents a tiny fraction of the American population, and it is unclear if the numbers have increased as dramatically in the decade since data from the last study was released. That said, the sense that interest in the practice of witchcraft is spreading is fueled by the anecdotal and aesthetic—an increased disaffection with organized religion, an increase in Etsy sales of sage bundles and crystals, and a pop culture boom.
Writer and filmmaker Alex Mar wrote of the rising profile of witchcraft in her 2015 book Witches of America. Initially taking on the detached perspective of the documentarian, Mar becomes increasingly attracted to the practice of witchcraft by meeting witches who convey a sense of purpose and self-fulfillment—qualities Mar longs for. She decides to study the Feri form of witchcraft, with the goal of becoming a full-fledged, practicing witch. As a thoroughly secular person, one studiously raised to be open to all truths and committed to none, Mar longs for the certainty and reassurance of belief. In the end, she is struck by the religious aspect of witchcraft. “To have a legitimate, unpretended connection to God or Goddess or an entire army of godlike forms,” Alex Mar writes, “to have sincere religious beliefs at all—you have to connect on a level that is more than intellectual.” In the end, Mar cannot commit.
The real-world Alex Mar is never confronted in the same way as the fictional Sabrina Spellman: No one asks her to pledge her soul to the Prince of Darkness himself. But she does come to realize that she is being asked to believe. The practice of witchcraft is to take on and attempt to channel the power of a force outside of ourselves, one we cannot understand.
This truth, in a way, is the great gift that The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is offering to a culture increasingly enamored of witchcraft. The series does not sugarcoat what is happening to the characters; it does not wrap Sabrina’s dilemma in a charming veneer of quirky house elves and Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavored Beans. Sabrina cannot gain the world—in this case, the magical world—without losing her soul.
This is a choice Harry Potter never has to make. His dilemma is framed more generally as being between light and darkness, of choosing the noble Dumbledore over the wretched Voldemort. Sabrina, on the other hand, faces the nature of evil itself head-on. Satan in Sabrina is not somewhere offstage, an unseen dark force animating a range of haunted house villains. In this story, Satan is front and center, and he has not been rehabilitated for a secular, 21st-century audience. Sabrina’s Satan is depicted in imagery that draws directly from the horned devil found in illustrated versions of Milton and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Satan is ugly, he smells of sulfur, and we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that the havoc he wreaks in the world can be overcome with just a bit of magic—especially if choosing magic explicitly means choosing evil. And in the show, the devil and his work are undeniably evil. The penultimate scene is one in which death, orchestrated by Satan’s chief minion, the mistress of demons (whose name is Lilith, in keeping with the myth of Adam’s first wife) is unleashed on the entire town of Greendale. In Sabrina, Satan revels in death and destruction.
Yet as a pop culture artifact in keeping with its times, the show still cannot resist glamorizing Sabrina’s eventual decision to throw in her lot with him. That decision, according to TVLine, gave her “a new look, a new attitude and a new outlook on the screwed up world around her.” The show’s star, Kiernan Shipka, says, “It’s the right amount of heartbreaking and sexy and intriguing,” and suggests that the character’s new power may help her beat Satan at his own game, even as she has taken a blood oath to serve him forever.
But underneath the sexiness, Sabrina’s story is still a dark, disturbing tale, one reminiscent of the foundational human story found in the Garden of Eden. We are all asked to choose, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina seems to be saying, between good and evil, between God and ourselves. But while the show evokes the temptation of Eve in the Bible (in a scene with Sabrina plucking an apple from an ancient tree in order to gain knowledge), Sabrina never truly confronts the very human dilemma of choosing between God and the self. Instead, Sabrina’s trouble is framed as that of choosing between different kinds of self-empowerment: her life lived according to the dictates of her own power or one in which she submits her power to Satan. In this way Sabrina’s dilemma is, perhaps, a false one, since she is choosing her self either way. The concept of submitting to a good God is never even mentioned, let alone framed as an option.
The choice Sabrina makes—regardless of the nobility of her motives and the resulting increase of her power through her self-knowledge—means that she cannot, in the ultimate sense, possibly do good. And if The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina continues to be honest about the devil’s purpose, it will eventually have to acknowledge that all the glamour and empowerment in the world can’t enable us to use his power for our own ends. “You cannot serve two masters,” Jesus said. We can cloak the choice in vagaries and obfuscation, in fantastic stories of fulfilling destinies and personal empowerment, but, in the end, we must make an answer, and there is no middle ground.
S.D. Kelly is a writer living in New England, where she works with community nonprofits.
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Author: S. D. Kelly