In a dark, shadowy forest barely lit by an eclipsing blood moon, a young girl walks through the trees towards distant candlelight and voices. As she approaches, her wedding dress turns black. The clearing is filled with relatives and family acquaintances, eagerly waiting. In the middle there lies a large leather-bound book: The Book of the Beast, in which she needs to sign her name away to the devil. This is the night of Sabrina Spellman’s dark baptism.
When I was little, I wanted to be a witch. I ran around the woods next to my house with my best friend and pretended I was flying on a broom, fighting magical enemies. I fell asleep chanting spells. Any animal I came across was a potential familiar to bring me to the magical world.
A witch is not simply the female equivalent of wizard. There are witches who do not carry wands and who conjure up very different kinds of spells. Witches who were burnt at the stake and caused mischief around them. I wanted to be that kind of witch too. I wanted to be like Sabrina Spellman, both from the original sitcom and the animated spinoff “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”
Sabrina went to a regular high school and dealt with normal, human problems. Except her powers granted her options that normal humans didn’t have. She tackled her bullies with spells and had a talking cat who gave her advice. The magic world offered her an escape from school drama. Who wouldn’t love the liberty of ditching their homework to deal with an evil clone? I wished my name was as cool as Sabrina’s or my hair as pretty. Except, my cat wasn’t even black, let alone talking.
Sabrina remained in the hazy realm of childhood along with my bubbly fantasies of magic. I knew that watching the show again would bore me. Her problems were too trivial now; she wouldn’t have fulfilled my teenage cravings for moral ambiguity.
In October of 2018 Netflix treated me to a welcome surprise, announcing an original show based on a much darker iteration of the goofy witch story, called “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” (CAOS). Sabrina had grown up. After all, the devil himself was listed as a character. I decided it was time for Sabrina to catch up with me.
Once the show released, I couldn’t tear myself away from the screen. Once again, Sabrina had managed to bewitch me.
Today’s supernatural stories are almost synonymous with escapism. Fantasy either seduces us into an idyllic image of an alternative past or introduces a different universe hiding in the midst of our realities. Either way, its landscape is far removed from our own. Even if its issues echo those we face, the means to resolve them are unrealistic, bordering on wish fulfilment. Fantasy veils the magnitude of the real world problems with magical solutions that we can never physically access.
Except Sabrina of CAOS is, as pointed out by the actress playing her, “a woke witch.” This show about witchcraft has an overt political agenda in line with modern feminist messages. The first episode has Sabrina instating a female empowerment club at her high school, which she says is based on a witches coven.That storyline continues throughout the show, but becomes overshadowed by the development of the main plot: Sabrina’s upcoming “dark baptism” and her following indoctrination into the witch realm.
It quickly becomes apparent that the witch world is a stringent patriarchy. Absolute devotion to Lucifer is required in exchange for supernatural powers, with a scene of a witch kissing his hooves. Sabrina hesitates to sign her name and soul away, saying “Why does the Dark Lord get to decide what I do with my body?” Her dark baptism uses the language of marriage, stating that she needs to save herself, physically and mentally, for servitude to a powerful male figure. She struggles with the system she is placed in because she wants to have both freedom and power but her society makes the two mutually exclusive. “The thought of any of us having both terrifies him”, another witch explains to Sabrina. “He’s a man, isn’t he?” The same words could ring just as true for women in many offices and government cabinets, far removed from the fantastical world of the show.
The enduring myth of witchcraft has long been one of female power. By becoming a servant of the devil rather than one of god, a woman could hope to take control and agency, even if that freedom came at the price of giving up traditional religious promises of a peaceful afterlife and instead surrendering one’s soul to the devil. According to “The Witch in History” by Diane Purkiss, such a myth was perpetuated more by women. It helped them to express the unspeakable, which was their desire to overcome social constraint. Witches transcend limitations. They are scary precisely because they do not obey traditional conceptions of morality.
In late October I was on a train to a small town in the Czech Republic. My boyfriend and I rushed into the car minutes before departure and struggled to look for free seats. Eventually, we came across three vacant spots, two of them next to each other. As we settled in and took out our travel snacks, the door opened. A man walked in and stood in front of me. He pointed at the vacant seat across, signaling for me to move. As I looked at him, I saw anger in his half-closed drooping eyes. The more I lingered, the more I worried he would hit me. He was bigger than me. He looked at me as if I were a dog who had taken a shit on his carpet. I silently switched seats. The rest of the train ride was spent in silence as I hid the tears streaming down my face with a book. I wished I could have said something. I wished I could have harmed him.
At our destination, Kutna Hora, we visited a church famous for being decorated entirely with human bones. As we stood among crucifixes and chandeliers assembled from the remains of over 60,000 people, I found myself thinking of the man on the train. He would too, one day, become no more than bones. The entirety of his being, including the reasons for his seeming entitlement, will boil down to a set of gray objects that could be rearranged as the base of a lantern.
Witches also embody a fascination with death. A contract with the devil allows them to learn otherwise inaccessible control over the afterlife. While traditional religion promises heaven or peace on the condition of following a certain moral standard in life, witchcraft allows for a certainty about a postmortal destiny without further restriction after the initial deal has been made. Witches don’t have to fear death, and because of that, they don’t fear killing. In mainstream Western culture, traditionally the deceased is dressed in his or her best clothes and treated with a notion of respect as the corpse is put into a coffin and lowered into the ground. Witches, much like the (surprisingly, Catholic) person who arranged the bones in Kutna Hora church, feel no need to treat the dead with reverence. Life can be taken away at whim and the body is an object of ritual. Even postmortem, the dead are sacrificed for the comfort of the living.
When dissatisfied with her principal, Sabrina sends an army of spiders into his house at night,
knowing that arachnids are his greatest fear. In her world, enemies are obstacles to be eliminated. The powers of a witch come with the liberty to control the fate of others. I couldn’t help wishing, in the moment, that I could destroy that man on the train and watch him join the pile of skulls at the church. If I were a witch, I might not have hesitated to take revenge when disrespected. But I couldn’t. And I am glad.
Power does indeed come with responsibility. CAOS is conscious that power can be abused. Sabrina’s heroism is dangerous and often at odds with the show’s reality, harming those around her. Her pretty rhetoric claiming that rules can be circumvented for the sake of her wishes has to give in to the weight of consequence. Sabrina constantly acts in the name of rebellion and yet fails to notice how often her actions serve the system rather than oppose it.
The fantastical doesn’t have to be synonymous with escapism, and CAOS demonstrates that pop culture is catching up with a better use for these narrative tools. Witchcraft has been entangled in battle with mainstream social norms through a lot of Western history and this show pays tribute to that legacy. However, simply because something is counter-culture does not mean that it is devoid of problems that it attempts to criticize. Mindless opposition may be just as dangerous as blind acceptance, and while Sabrina may believe in herself as an agent for radical change, even her power comes at the expense of something else, be it freedom or humanity.
Gaining supernatural abilities does not excuse one from moral responsibility, even if it can cloud perception of it. A cat talks only if he is a cursed warlock or a recruited demon, and a witch who kills is still a murderer. Even a magical world has consequences, and I don’t think I want to be a witch anymore.
Diane Purkiss. The Witch in History: Early modern and twentieth-century representations.
Image from Wired