In the first episode of the Netflix series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018–, henceforth CAoS), the title character’s Aunt Hilda declares, misty-eyed, that she is so proud of the young woman her nearly 16-year-old niece has become. Sabrina’s more cutting, rigid, and severe Aunt Zelda corrects her – “of the young witch you are becoming.” Zelda’s emphasis on the process of becoming, of the continual metamorphosis of young supernatural adulthood, speaks to the ways in which the series blurs boundaries, questions hierarchies, and constantly confounds binaries of identity. CAoS transforms the pathological, masculinist, and puritanical anxieties of the traditional American Gothic into a more fluid and shifting investigation of adolescence, femininity, and the uncanny.
Based on the comic book character dating from 1962, Sabrina Spellman ranks amongst the most famous fictional American witches, and perhaps the most famous witches in pop culture worldwide. Her charming personality and conventionally attractive all-American looks align her with Samantha Stephens from Bewitched and Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie. The three characters together reshaped the way American pop culture in the postwar era conceptualised the relationship between women, magic, and the supernatural in general. The 2018 Netflix show, starring Kiernan Shipka, Miranda Otto, Lucy Davis, Ross Lynch, and others is drawn not from the original comics but from a highly gothicised series of the same title, under the Archie Horror imprint, produced in 2014. Both the programme and the comics are written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Sabrina as a transmedial character has always interrogated the tensions of white American identity, through her mysterious parentage and unclear history (she is an orphan, and only a half-witch), her integration into a web of international and otherworldly magical organisations and councils, and her struggles to come to terms with and understand her own complex heritage. In every iteration, however, Sabrina’s mortal boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle, has played an integral part in her coming of age and reckoning with her powers. Despite Sabrina’s witchcraft, her narrative has not always been particularly Gothic, and in fact most of Sabrina lore is, to put it frankly, comic, based around the typical problematic of being a middle-class American teenager with the added quirks of casting spells and flying.
CAoS returns the character to a more sinister, Gothic generic footing, closely tied to the dynamics and aesthetics of puritanical, early American histories of witchcraft. Where previous iterations of Sabrina has tended to look forward, towards modernity, the Sabrina of CAoS is suspended in an ambiguous temporality that constantly returns to the past: the cars are from the 1970s or earlier, the characters dress in mid–century styles, and few, if any digital devices are seen throughout. Thus, the show constantly asks viewers to consider American history, and in doing so the characters also face the traumas at the core of the American Gothic tradition. Such positioning undermines androcentric myths of that American Gothic by placing Sabrina herself on a journey into an unknown and dangerous wilderness, both literal (the Greendale woods) and metaphorical (adulthood). In doing so, the series questions the national framework of uncanny masculinity upheld by critics such as Leslie Fielder, who once argued that all classic American texts are ultimately “horror for boys” (29). The typical journey into the dark wilderness, made by early European-American fictional men such as Young Goodman Brown, Rip Van Winkle, or Ichabod Crane, and underpinned by an often-unspoken emphasis upon whiteness, is updated and reworked by Sabrina as she comes of age. Sabrina is tasked with venturing into the forest under a full Halloween moon, to sign her name in the devil’s book, the Book of the Beast, and realise her full supernatural strength. However, despite transgressing this gendered generic construct, Sabrina is still a white American witch, and alongside that identity, the same typical American hauntings of racist, misogynistic, and colonialist ideologies begin to emerge.
Thus, as Sabrina questions patriarchal and normative power structures, she is repeatedly forced to acknowledge and reckon with the reality of––and her own complicity in––those very hierarchies. With each attempt to help a mortal friend or family member using magic, she inadvertently creates two more problems. As one example, Sabrina’s interference in the death of Harvey’s brother, Tommy, in the Greendale mines, threatens the whole community, as the balance of scales between life and afterlife become uneven and the world around Sabrina begins to unravel in an attempt to realign itself. Sabrina also makes unwanted and haphazard intrusions into the lives of her friends Roz and Theo (played by nonbinary actor Lachlan Watson, Theo comes out as a trans man in season two, but is known as Susie in season one). Both storylines, Roz’s and Theo’s, also involve complex family histories associated with the Greendale witches, and have supernatural repercussions in the show’s present day. For Roz, who is Black, this includes a “curse” of blindness impacting not only her but every woman in the Walker family, making way for an enhanced sixth sense Roz’s grandmother terms “the cunning”. Theo, on the other hand, reads his ancestor, Dorothea Putnam’s, diaries and letters, and begins seeing her ghost. Dorothea guides Theo through several crises, including those stemming from Sabrina’s actions, which impact Roz and Theo in more complex ways given the extra social burdens of gender, race, class, and dis/ability they face between themselves.
Straying from the traditional Gothic theme of the passive and victimised woman, the depiction of Sabrina as an agent of, in fact, chaos, leads to a more modern discourse on nuanced, variable, and changeable characters who demonstrate in particular the range of human experiences beyond normative, conventional manhood (which dominates American Gothic texts and scholarship). CAoS also attempts to show how binaries, polarities, and rigid prescriptivism lie at the heart of virtually all social problems. The show argues that attempts to deny your own identity or alter the balance between natural forces will always end in tragedy. Sabrina’s magic is a proxy for her privilege, and she must learn how to use that force to lift up and amplify her community rather than forcefully “solving” their problems for them. The severity of Sabrina’s failures in this regard, in light of her outspoken feminism and ostensible progressivism, manifest as a striking social commentary on white, cisgender, straight American femininity’s lack of self-awareness, and they ways it still benefits from ongoing structures of inequality.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina therefore becomes a text of “horror for girls” which reveals the contradictions inherent to American subjectivity: the fallacies of American whiteness, the dangers of ignoring or repressing one’s heritage and history, and, more immediately, the complexities of learning to take responsibility for your actions. Sabrina comes into contact with what Renée Bergland calls the “national uncanny” of the United States, the inherent dual hauntings of internal expansionism and self-denial. Indeed, for all its self-reflection, the noticeable absence of native characters in a show so heavily focussed around the ambiguities of history and the continuation of traditions from a puritanical, pre-revolutionary era of North America is especially marked. Much of the imbalance and disaster Sabrina comes up against is borne out of her misunderstanding of her role in her ecosystem: rather than subtly manipulating and reshaping small details with her magic, she tries to fundamentally alter her world, stealing time and power that does not belong to her. In this way, CAoS affirms Bergland’s theory that all American territory is “haunted because it is stolen” (9). The show, like its protagonist, is still finding its footing after two seasons (with a third on the way), but it is remarkable for its ability to tackle issues of inclusion, historical inequality, and repressed/repressive national traumas while also fostering a true sense of magic and possibility.
Bergland, Renée L. The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects. Dartmouth College published by University Press of New England, 2000.
Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.