Sometime later this year, Netflix will release a television series adaptation of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a horror comic that completely reimagines Sabrina Spellman of Archie Comics fame. It will star Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men, The Blackcoat’s Daughter) as the titular Sabrina. And much like the famous TGIF show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, this version of Sabrina will focus on her struggle to balance her witchy powers and duties with her yearning to belong with mortals. However, unlike the TGIF show, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina promises to be “worlds away” from the TGIF show and treat the story as “a dark coming-of-age story that traffics in horror, the occult and, of course, witchcraft.”
As a horror fan who firmly believes we need more witch stories, I could not be more stoked about this series. I love witches, almost as much as I love vampires. I love the recent witchy horrors, like American Horror Story: Coven, The Witch, A Dark Song, Hereditary. I love classics like Drag Me to Hell, The Witches, The Craft, Suspiria, Rosemary’s Baby, The Skeleton Key, and Black Sunday. The more witches, the better, as far as I’m concerned.
But how does Sabrina fit into this? I asked myself as I read more and more about Netflix’s new show. For so long, Sabrina has been a part of the squeaky-clean Archie Comics image. The TGIF show was an adorable, quirky, family-friendly sitcom that sanitized witches, transforming them into pop-culture sanctioned magical and benevolent beings. The Spellman family even celebrated Christmas! And in the comics, Sabrina was generally depicted as a typical girl who just happened to have amazing magical abilities. Other than that, her life was relatively normal.
Yeah, she’s a witch, I thought. I supposed that Archie Comics had never really explored that rich material. But how far will they willing to go? How dark would they get?
Answer: Really dark. In this version of Sabrina, she and her aunts are the certified human-eating, Satan-worshipping witches, depicted in notorious witch hunter manuals like the Malleus Maleficarum. Shit goes down.
This is not your TGIF Sabrina, and thank goodness it isn’t.
Funnily enough, considering my love of witches (I watched the TGIF Sabrina every Friday night), I somehow missed the boat on the Archie Comics’ foray into serious black magic. In fact, I was ignorant of Archie Comics new horror comics series, which includes Afterlife with Archie, Jughead: The Hunger, and Vampironica. First published in October 2014, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the second Archie Horror Comic and is written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa with art by Robert Hack. An engaging, thrilling piece of retro-inspired horror, the comic is set in the 1960s in the fictional town of Greendale. There, a young half-witch half-mortal teenager named Sabrina lives with her Aunts Hilda and Zelda in a charming old house by a cemetery, where they won’t be disturbed by nosey mortals and can take advantage of the “endless supply of food.”
In the first few issues, Sabrina is caught between wanting to take her place in the coven and building a picture-perfect life with Harvey Kinkle, her jocky but sweet boyfriend. She’s known about her powers for years, just as she knows all about the sinful rituals and evil deeds witches must perform as part of their religion. Gone are the days of Sabrina’s adorable hijinks. This Sabrina must confront grim questions, such as whether or not she should dedicate herself to Satan (though she still worries about being cast as the lead in the school musical). These sinister conflicts lead to a lot of blood and death.
It was weird to see Sabrina portrayed in this manner. At the same time, it was only a matter of time before her wholesome image wore thin. As we’ve seen in everything from superhero movies to TV shows and now comics, American audiences crave darkness and complexity. They don’t want to see cartoonish a Batman anymore—they want The Dark Knight. Sitcoms and episodic shows are losing ground to intricate tv dramas surrounding flawed antiheroes. And recently, horror comics, which have held firm footing and captivated audiences for decades, have enjoyed a great deal of mainstream attention. Adaptations of Blade, Hellboy, 30 Days of Night, and astronomically successful The Walking Dead have shown a bright light on horror comics. It seems that these stories, especially The Walking Dead, have tapped into some deep-seated longing for macabre and horrific stories told with compelling characters.
As such, I devoured Book One of Sabrina (Issues #1 – #5) in one afternoon. I fell in love with its visuals, characterized by sepia tones, vivid pops of reds and blues, harsh contrast, shadows creeping into the frame and crowding the space just beyond the panel. Hack’s use of unfocused, soft backgrounds, rough details, and noticeable brush and pencil strokes creates a dreamy yet creepy atmosphere full of dread and suspense. This artistic style also captures the frantic energy and violence of the more horrific scenes. The framing of each panel varies throughout, which invokes the cinematic feel of classic horror films and pays homage to the comic’s influences, like Rosemary’s Baby, The Amityville Horror, The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane, and underrated occult horror House of the Devil.
The story delivers the delightfully dark witchery it promised. As mentioned above, shit gets real in this version of Sabrina. The Spellmans worship Satan as part of a sinister religion, eat human flesh, and become revolting old hags in their true witch form. It’s as if the creators wanted to take every single rumor and old wives’ tale about witches and incorporate it. And they did a lot of research on the subject. Again, there was a dark edginess I did not suspect but which I found extremely interesting.
The narrative, like many comics, establishes a rich story in a relatively short space, setting up character motivation and conflict quickly without sacrificing the slowly mounting dread. I enjoyed how the comic managed its many flash-backs, especially when it introduced the main villain, Madam Satan. I also really enjoyed how the comic did not try to justify or rationalize the Spellmans’ actions. It’s not advocating for devil worship any more than it’s calling for witches to be rounded up and burnt at the stake. It’s merely telling a story we’ve never seen before, and we’re free to judge all the characters, even Sabrina.
In fact, I found nearly all the characters compelling, and not just because they were so different than their more conventional counterparts. A lot of the same personality quirks are there, like Sabrina’s compassion and her aunts’ trademark banter, but they’re new, fully developed characters in their own right. The same naivete lingers, as does the same struggle between being a witch and a regular human girl. But now the stakes are higher. Sabrina’s decisions have real weight to them. She finds herself at the center of a moral gray area where there is no compromise. Becoming a witch means Sabrina will wield unimaginable power, but it also means she engages in real devil worship, cannibalism, and other blasphemous rituals. It also means that the balance struck by her TGIF version is impossible to reach here—Sabrina cannot have her cake and eat it too.
Despite going full witch, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina doesn’t ever feel like a cheap ploy or cash grab. It feels like a real, nuanced, well-planned story. It continues the general trend of exploring and reexamining comic book characters, of probing beyond the splashy, colorful panels and peeling back the simplistic narratives for what lies underneath. Gone is the idealized American teenage experience, with its good, clean ideas of “fun” and silly “problems” that were never that serious.
Now, for Sabrina, an icon of American wholesomeness, everything has changed. Despite seeming wrong at first, this new Sabrina feels right. I can’t wait to see what the Netflix series does with this material.