These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find many Christians who still believe Harry Potter is evil. The story’s clear themes of good conquering evil through sacrificial love have helped many evangelicals to see Christian messages in Harry Potter, and as a result, they’ve learned to view the story’s witchcraft as harmless metaphor, on par with other fantasy magic systems. So it might be tempting to put Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina in the same category, especially with the family-friendly Sabrina the Teenage Witch in recent memory. But this Sabrina is not family-safe; it’s downright scary. This show is not made for children. But for those who are of age, Sabrina’s darkness may be its redemption.
On the surface, Sabrina has lots in common with the Harry Potter series. Both feature a half-witch, half-human, orphaned protagonist who attends a special witch school and gets into lots of crazy escapades with friends. Both heroes are destined for greatness, and that destiny puts them in the sights of the witch-world’s darkest, highest power. And on top of all that, both protagonists have to deal with all the joys and pains of growing up. But where Harry Potter basically sees magic as a tool to be used for good or ill according to the user, Sabrina’s magic system is unashamedly linked to evil.
The witchy world of Sabrina comes straight out of the pages of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story, but with less allegory and more blood. Members of the witch’s “Church of Night” must undergo a “dark baptism” and sign their name in the book of the beast to be initiated into witchhood. The Dark Lord, whom the witches worship with the devotion of the sincerest religious acolyte, bears no euphemistic names: he is known as Satan, Lucifer, and the Dark Lord. It’s a bit jarring to hear the characters casually say, “Praise Satan,” though we soon learn that there is nothing casual about his evil or power. When we see see the Dark Lord and other demons in their true forms, we see no beautiful actors; instead we see terrifying monsters. And the price of this kind of witchcraft is usually blood — depicted in chilling, gory detail. As half-mortal, half-witch Sabrina must choose whether to join the witches’ world or stay in the human world of her friends, it seems inconceivable that she would consider a life of such bald-faced evil.
Given such darkness, anyone — Christian or not — might reasonably feel uncomfortable about watching Sabrina. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina makes its dark side disturbingly clear from the first episode, the kitchy-retro vibe of the opening credits and the gorgeous House of Seven Gables-meets-Mad Men aesthetic of the sets and costumes notwithstanding. But the show offers plenty of light alongside its darkness that may make it worthwhile for many viewers.
Like Harry Potter, Sabrina features a significant theme of caring for the marginalized, standing up to bullies, and putting love of friends and family above love of self. As Sabrina struggles with her dual inheritance, she must learn to recognize the Dark Lord’s lies about free-will and power and discover the real power of human love.
But the show’s greatest strength may be the very darkness that could turn some well-meaning people away. The overt references to Satan, hell, darkness, and demons are not meant to be funny or silly. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina takes evil seriously. It does not gloss over darkness or pretend it doesn’t exist or that it’s not so bad. The dark is truly, terrifyingly dark — an important reminder for the Christian in a world where good and evil (at least on TV) are almost always blurred indistinguishably. In Sabrina, we see evil for what it is: a liar. The Dark Lord appeals with his promises of power, but he always lies and he always demands unacceptable sacrifice.
This overt display of the sickening reality of evil is lessened somewhat by the show’s predictable use of the “witches-are-feminists” trope. To its credit, Sabrina presents its feminist metaphor with a twist. Instead of presenting witchcraft as a worship of the goddess, as is often the case in other pop culture depictions, Sabrina’s brand of witchcraft struggles with the same kind of patriarchal constructs as the muggle world. Early on, a prominent female demon refers to the Dark Lord as just another male in power. The Church of Night repeatedly puts its female congregants in demeaning and deadly situations and shows overt favoritism to men and patriarchy. Almost all of the show’s most sickening and atrocious acts of evil are perpetrated by men on women. Among the darkest parts of the series, we learn of sexual assault and harassment from male leaders as well as a yearly sacrifice of female flesh, and we see desperate woman after desperate woman profess her unfulfilled longing for the Dark Lord’s favor. Watching the female protagonists each rage against the patriarchy in their own unique ways provides another enjoyable Mad Men parallel (that and lead actress Kiernan Shipka’s TV history as Sally Draper, of course.)
I have mixed feelings about Sabrina’s feminism. Turning the patriarchy into a deadly source of evil may seem cliche, but it certainly represents the rage and pain many women feel in the #MeToo era. So on one hand, the show’s feminism makes an important statement about our current culture. On the other hand, turning evil into a metaphor for the patriarchy may make the show’s disturbing witchcraft easier to stomach. We can assuage our discomfort by saying, “it’s only a metaphor.” But maybe discomfort is the point. Reducing evil to a metaphor for males in power robs us of what is perhaps the show’s greatest benefit: its timely reminder that evil exists and that the promises of sin and Satan are empty lies.