If there has ever been a better real-life example of idle hands being the devil’s plaything than Archie Comics, I would be amused and delighted to hear about it. (No, really: at me.)
From 1942 through 2014, Archie may have received the occasional update or fine-tuning, but he stayed the same basic Archie: redheaded, beloved of Betty and Veronica, safe as milk. Then, recently, Archie and the gang were delivered from the idle hands of his former curators and into the hot little mitts of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, where the devil got delightfully mixed up in things.
Aguirre-Sacasa, you see, rebooted the entire franchise from the ground up, giving it an occult twist. This included a reboot of the character Sabrina Spellman, a teenage witch who first appeared in Archie in 1962 and originally had a tween-oriented TV show that premiered in 1996 and ran for an inexplicable seven seasons.
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the new direction of Archie Comics. When I was first dipping a sneakered toe into the comic book ocean, Archie was considered inferior to the capes-and-tights fare that I consumed (although in the late 80s and early 90s, it would have been more accurate to refer to superhero titles as “skintight leather and refrigerator-size machine gun comics,” but I digress). The new Archieverse in the comics is dark, and often delightfully so. I’ve been particularly pleased with the artistic direction. Have a look at the cover of issue #1 of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (the comic), drawn by Robert Hack:
As far as comic books go, I’d recommend Sabrina (or Afterlife with Archie) if the aesthetic appeals to you as much as it does to me.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (the Netflix show), on the other hand, is a little more complicated. The series is a companion to 2017’s Archie adaptation Riverdale (which airs on the CW, the network for which Sabrina was initially developed). Sabrina is competently – at times beautifully — shot, and I find Kiernan Shipka’s version of Sabrina Spellman to be entirely charming. That said.
Sabrina’s corner of the live-action Archieverse can be viewed three ways. Seen one way, it’s a disjointed horror jukebox, alive with neon and noise but – in the end – little more than a product of its references, some of which are more obvious than others. Alternately, it can be viewed simply on its own terms: as an arch, self-aware little supernatural horror series. Lastly, if we cut through the rich referential fog that it inhabits, and remove the tropes it borrows from more satisfying shows, we’re left with the least appealing version of the show: Sabrina as the archetypal Good Witch, locked in a struggle with a Satanic straw man whose implications are much scarier than the generic corn-maze boogeyman conjured up in episode 1.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is at its most lovable when it’s glorying shamelessly in its own references and pop-horror-culture obsessions (which may explain, but does not excuse, its appropriation of some very specific real-life religious imagery – but we’ll get to that). To give you a taste of how baroque this magpie-like plucking and juxtaposition can become, I offer my favorite episode of the series, “Chapter 5: Dreams in a Witch House.” It shares the premise of my favorite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the season four finale “Restless.” In both “Restless” and “Dreams,” the cast of regulars is trapped in a world of dreams that reveal their insecurities and fixations.
Like “Restless,” “Dreams” structures itself as a series of dreams within a dream – unlike Buffy Summers, however, Sabrina and her pals seem to inhabit a story almost entirely about stories. At one point Chance Perdonno’s Ambrose is trapped in a recursive sequence in which he quotes from Hamlet – and then “In the Desert” by Stephen Crane – while “Night of the Living Dead” plays in the background — all in an episode whose very title is an H.P. Lovecraft reference. All of the above takes place in just four minutes, while still advancing the plot in a serviceable way (and delivering gory horror chills). It can get a little dizzying, but also intoxicating – a pink-champagne neon ride through a labyrinth of mirrors, where 21st-century teens get down (ironically? We’re never really sure) to “the Monster Mash” at a literal Halloween sock hop.
The problem is that we’ve seen this show before, both literally and figuratively. When you shear away the glittering pop culture detritus, you’re left with a remarkably unoriginal story, even for a property that has been a going concern since 1962. Call me old-school, but I had a lot more fun watching Buffy Summers hit most of these plot points the last time around, and that was two very long decades and a string of lesser imitators ago. Sabrina’s sidekicks are particularly one-dimensional, considering that they’re given an entire season to develop, not just a pilot episode, and while Ross Lynch can (I suppose) be forgiven for his Harvey Kinkell, given the thin material he’s presented with, he is one of the least interesting on-screen love interests I’ve ever seen.
So: if Sabrina is one part by-the-numbers supernatural teen drama and one part a cyclone of pop culture surfaces, what is its secret sauce, the X factor that Netflix seemed to be banking on here? Satan, that’s what, and Satan with a focus on cheekiness and quantity rather than intelligence and quality.
While there have been many dubious distinctions to mark the last three years, I’d argue that there have been a few positive developments in the zeitgeist, and one of those positive developments is a clear-headed, calm, open discussion of Satan and Satanism. This is a sentiment that – when expressed out loud – usually requires a bit of explanation. “A positive development?” you might ask. “Doesn’t Satan represent evil – represent human depravity – represent everything that decent people should be against?”
Not the way I figure it – and not the way that the Satanic Temple figures it. I’ve been a member of the Temple since 2014, although my philosophical interest in Satanism goes back about a decade and a half further than that. I should make a few things clear right out of the gate. First, neither I nor the Satanic Tempe believe in a literal, magical, actual Satan. I/we honor him as a literary symbol, a representation of rebellion against arbitrary tyranny and religious irrationality and oppression.
The Satanic Temple is the subject of “Hail Satan?,” which was at the Sundance Film Festival last year and will be released more widely on Good Friday of this year. 2018 also marked efforts to bring a 3,000-pound Baphomet monument to state capitols in Arkansas and Oklahoma. These are sites where Christian activists erected massive religious idols on public land– the Temple exists, in part, to serve as a counterbalance to such efforts and to preserve separation of church and state, and part as a nontheistic religion that promotes compassion and human freedom. But I’m not here to evangelize – if you’re interested in learning about what the Temple stands for, you can read the seven tenets here and an FAQ here.
And the aforementioned real-life Baphomet monument brings us back to the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and to the show’s odd specificity in appropriating a symbol for its absurd and slanderous portrayal of the (real) Satanic Temple – the (fictitious) Church of Night. Below, you can see a comparison of two monuments, one from the Temple’s original monument (top) and the one representing the Church of Night in Sabrina (bottom):
Over and over in the show, the Church of Night is identified visually with the Satanic Temple, while perversely demonstrating actions that run counter to each of the Temple’s Seven Tenets. Sabrina is presented as the Good Witch, endlessly lecturing the Bad Witches (with their Baphomet monument, black clothing, and blasphemous ways) about the various ways in which they are Evil and she and – get this – the Catholic Church are Good. At one point Sabrina asks, regarding the Church of Night, “Why should they get to tell me what I do with my body?” (Satanic Temple Fundamental Tenet #3: “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.”) Members of the Church of Night are portrayed as superstitious believers in magic who look askance at science. (Satanic Temple Tenet #5: “Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world.”) In another scene, Sabrina says (of the head of the Church of Night): “He’s not divine. He’s flesh and blood, and can be corrupted.” (Satanic Temple Tenet #6: “People are fallible.”)
Tell me: which sounds like the organization that represents evil, by Sabrina’s supposed standards? The Satanic Temple, which the show goes far out of its way to very specifically misrepresent, or the Catholic Church, portrayed as such a generic Good that the only college ever mentioned in the course of a show about teenagers in a small-town high school is Notre Dame?
Sabrina could have been so much more. It could have gone in the direction that the Magicians (another show better than this one) did, which was to almost entirely eschew the black/white paradigm in favor of something more interesting, nuanced, and wild. You don’t need to do away with fantasy to have a morally complicated show, as any Game of Thrones fan could tell you.
How did this show go so wrong? Sabrina is a wonderful character, who represents deep progressive values that I share. Her pals are equally great, on the surface – lovable and fierce, advocates for their communities, excellent role models one and all. So why are the show’s metaphysics so maddeningly unreconstructed – so reactionary?
Part of it, I think, lies in the true source material – no, not the comic books. Sabrina makes the same mistake that its forebear, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, did when it invented the genre. Buffy was one of the all-time great TV shows, and one whose influence on Sabrina is obviously stamped in the DNA of every on-screen moment. But like Buffy, Sabrina adopts – wholesale! – the grotesque “morality” and the worldview of witch trials and witch hunters, of the Malleus Maleficarum – in short, of G(o)od versus (d)Evil.
It’s 2019, and we deserve better than that.