The Ambiguous Satanism of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

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Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) in ep. 1

Me and my wife recently finished watching season 1 of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix. We loved it. Beginning a week before Sabrina’s sixteenth birthday, the first season explores the trials faced by a teenage half-mortal, half-witch. A ten-episode horror-lite, the show is a particularly darker rendition of Archie Comics’ Sabrina the Teenage Witch (something I only learnt this week), more famously as a sitcom featuring Melissa Joan Hart throughout seven seasons in the nineties and early noughties. The new take is not without its own comedy though, and Lucy Davis’s performance as Sabrina’s Aunt Hilda is especially notable here. Aside from that, it is the lore, the gradual unfolding of the story with its revelations about the pasts of different characters, and the ongoing tension between Sabrina’s two worlds that gives the show its biggest appeal. My main criticism, other than that which appears in the discussion below, is that Sabrina has its characters spell out key features of the witch world or important aspects of character history, rather than have these arise more organically. But overall I found the show thoroughly enjoyable.

>>SPOILERS BELOW<<

On a yet deeper level, I think the show falls short in its depiction of Satan. Speaking generally, outside of the world of Sabrina, I would first like to point to two different uses of Satan as a symbol (though of course there will in reality be more than two). The first is that of Christian faith, where Satan is a symbol of evil. Here, the world’s greatest evils, everyday slip-ups, and even things that are good but judged by the church to be bad have all alike been associated with Satan and his primeval rebellion against God. That is, Satan has been associated with everything from Hitler to playing cards.

The second, in reaction to this misapplication of the symbol to so broad a litany of inadmirable and admirable, co-opts it and effectively employs Satan against the church. A famous example of this is the attempt by the Satanic Temple to have a statue of Baphomet installed next to the monument of the Ten Commandments on Oklahoma State Capitol grounds. Significantly, here Satan is explicitly acknowledged to be a symbol, rather than a supernatural being. The Times article puts it as follows: “Most vitally, though, the group does not ‘promote a belief in a personal Satan.’ By their logic, Satan is an abstraction, or, as Nancy Kaffer wrote for The Daily Beast last year, ‘a literary figure, not a deity — he stands for rationality, for skepticism, for speaking truth to power, even at great personal cost.'” The proposal for the statue’s installation raises questions about religious freedom and the relationship between church and state in the U.S. As Ivy Forrester, cofounder of Satanic Arkansas, recently claimed in a similar attempt, “If you’re going to have one religious monument up then it should be open to others, and if you don’t agree with that then let’s just not have any at all.”

Somewhat ironically, The Satanic Temple just sued Netflix and Warner Bros. for $50 million for the use of an almost identical-looking statue in the Sabrina series. But there is yet some logic behind this:

There is some good discussion on each thread too. To be honest, I am less sympathetic to the comparison with Islam and Judaism, but maybe I just don’t know enough about Satanism.

For our purposes, Greaves’s reference to “Satanic Panic” is particularly interesting (setting aside the fact, of course, that the effectiveness of The Satanic Temple’s statue protests relies on existing Satanic Panic). Satanic Panic, as I’ve since found out, is a sociological term for the fear of real or perceived practices due to their apparent association with Satan. It could be anything from Pokémon to Charles Manson. For Greaves, Sabrina adopts Satanic Panic tropes.

This is true, but I want to argue that because of its ambiguous handling of the material, Sabrina ends up in an awkward medium between the traditional Christian symbol of Satan as great evil and the Satanist interpretation of Satan as a symbol of individual freedom and anti-Christian protest.

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The first glimpse of Dezmelda (Brenda McDonald)

This awkward medium becomes especially clear in Chapter Seven: Feast of Feasts. Here, Sabrina attempts to convince Prudence not to allow herself to be eaten by others in the coven, a yearly ritual in which a witch is cannibalised and “transubstantiated,” spending eternity with the Dark Lord. It is not the practice itself, however, that I want to draw attention to. For Sabrina, the rite is merely human and as such can be changed by humans. In order to sway Prudence, she takes her into the woods to meet Dezmelda, an older witch in hiding. Dezmelda claims that she, too, was once selected to be eaten in the feast of feasts but she escaped after her high priest attempted to rape her, a child, as he claimed that he had received a revelation from Satan informing him to do so. It becomes clear that high priests presiding over the feast of feasts are indeed merely human. The message is that child rape is a human misappropriating of the rite and not something that the Dark Lord himself would ever command!

But the problem is that while such a claim could be made of a certain Satan, perhaps a Satan who champions freedom of choice and expression, this is not the Satan that Sabrina has presented its audience with. Sabrina’s Satan is a Satan whose favourite dish is children, whose right-hand demon slays and cannibalises mortals, and attempts to wipe out a town in order to force Sabrina to come to a decision. Another demon slowly brings a man to his death through possession, the man being chosen for possession because he is gay. Then there is the Church of Night, Sabrina’s coven, which seeks to serve the Dark Lord. Members have no moral qualms about killing mortals, and a tradition of “harrowing” new entrants at the school has seen many children murdered.

Of course, there are numerous fantasy worlds where acts such as these are a matter of course and no one protests. What I am trying to do is to draw attention to the cognitive dissonance in presenting child sexual abuse as anti-Satanist but murder and other evils as normal, everyday life. The unconscious course to this dissonance probably lies in the fact that child sexual abuse is a major issue that is still taking place in our world, whereas death by demons and witches belongs to a faraway fantasy world. But if they are both real in the world of Sabrina, I cannot see the logic in finding one abhorrent and the other acceptable. The series itself is a good symbol over current cultural confusion over what to do with the symbol of Satan: a great evil or a champion of human freedom against religious institutions?

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