Note: Spoilers for the first season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina below
Netflix’s twisted teen series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina begins and ends with a baptism, which doesn’t sound that subversive until you realize that it is, of course, to the Dark Lord. But for those who have grown up in the Christian church, particularly those familiar with Catholic traditions, Sabrina’s religious focus feels exceptionally familiar — if entirely inverted. Obviously, in Sabrina’s case, these traditions are all in service of Satan, humanity’s foremost enemy and Biblically-established adversary. That’s an extremely dark premise for a show, and yet, Sabrina handles it in two particularly interesting ways: by creating a surprisingly moral world (with some key exceptions), and organically depicting a life lived in faith.
Now, it’s a little hard to see Sabrina’s moral world when there are, admittedly, things like cannibalism and a roasted baby in particular depicted in the show (although that was, to be fair, in a dream). But for most of the series, Sabrina Spellman herself is a hero — if an often misguided one. She fights for those who don’t have a voice, she tries to right the wrongs of the witch world (most drastically regarding the mine collapse and Tommy’s death), and she tries to end many demonic practices. Sabrina may enjoy the convenience of spells, but that’s just part of a power she’s been given.
Despite being followers of Satan, there are certain things that Sabrina sets up for the coven that are still considered evil; bullying, for one (regarding the Harrowing and the children who were killed during it), as well as child molestation (that’s always a solid thing to rally against). The witches may have goblins as familiars, but there are demons who are their adversaries, not allies, such as the Dream Demon or the demon who possesses Susie’s uncle. Even in the case of the 13 witches who come back to destroy the town, the Spellmans side with the humans as “the right thing to do.” The show’s inversion of Biblical values can only go so far without becoming chaotic evil; otherwise, it would just be a cesspit of depravity.
It makes sense, though, that Satan’s minions would be constantly in battle with one another, because they are granted free will — but doesn’t that sound familiar? The Original Sin of Genesis, when Adam and Eve eat forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, which Satan encourages them to do, is indeed their own choice. That has continued throughout Biblical tradition. Becoming a follower of God, and later more specifically a follower of Christ, is one rooted in choice but never without a continuation of sin. Humans aren’t perfect, that’s the point, and us stumbling is always a result of our own choices. Sabrina obviously doesn’t get into the mercy and grace side of the “False God’s” teachings (as Alexander Pope eloquently puts it, “To err is human; to forgive, divine”), but it mirrors other ideas in intriguing ways.
The presentation of faith in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is one primarily of piety and often restraint (including the note that Sabrina is a virgin, and plans to stay that way; her relationship with Harvey is exceptionally chaste), which seems at odds with the central promise of freedom that the Dark Lord tries to tempt Sabrina with. It’s not really freedom though — in exchange for Satan’s powers in this world, your soul belongs to hell. In that, the show isn’t inverting anything at all, that’s part of the original story. But where it’s more interesting is in the trappings of the Church of Night and its structure, with a High Priest and sacraments like baptism and a communion of flesh. (Of note, the Protestant Reformation focused on that rite as being one of consubstantiation; that rather than a transformation of the elements into the literal body and blood of Christ, it was figurative. It makes sense for the Church of Night to take a bloodier option).
Even more fascinating, though, are the casual ways that faith is an ever-present part of the lives of the Spellmans. Their whole coven’s faith is based on reverence, deference, and obedience, including an absolute belief in the afterlife. The way Prudence in particular almost looks forward to death as part of a splendid afterlife, one that acts as a reward for service here on Earth, could not be more Evangelical. There is no cynicism here — the followers of the Church of Night are true believers. The results of a Dark Baptism also seems equivalent to being “born again” for Christians; you are renewed in spirit, and bolstered by faith and a deeper connection to God as one of his children.
As such, Hilda and Zelda in particular make constant small comments that support this reverence and constant attention to their deity, all of which are based on familiar religious speech. They talk about things being in “his will,” and part of “his plan,” and their dialogue is peppered with thanks and praise and acknowledgements to the Dark Lord. It’s funny, though, because it’s recognizable as how those of faith typically speak, and yet (of course) it is in service here to an evil master.
There is plenty in the series that is extremely dark, and it seems like after Sabrina’s choice to sign the book in the finale, the show may get even more twisted (if that’s possible). But it isn’t, and really shouldn’t, be viewed as a glorification of Satanic worship — the consequences of that devotion within the show are often bleak and dire, as they should be. But if you strip away the specifics of who or what, exactly, the Spellmans are worshiping, the show becomes an unexpectedly accurate look at a life lived in faith. It does so by acknowledging faults and mistakes not as world-ending decisions, but human errors fueled by our pride that we can control the world around us ourselves, and by sheer will we can fix things. And ultimately, they look for help from something more powerful.
Most series shy away from incorporating Christian—or even more broadly just religious—elements into the lives of its characters, probably because when they do it seems like a drag. But what these shows forget, or don’t know, is that faith should be interwoven with a celebration of life, not a self-conscious dampening of experiences. What Sabrina gets so right about this depiction is how it informs the lives of those who are devoted to it, and how organically it exists within their stories. It feels real and oddly (in this context) uplifting in the way it depicts community and peace. For the Spellmans, worship is a way of life, yet one that they aren’t afraid to question and investigate, often coming away with even more fully informed beliefs. The series allows the exploration of faith to be a living thing by cloaking it in often outrageous satire, which gives it freedom from the pressure to always get things right, by any definition. Thank God for that.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is currently available on Netflix.