It’s been a while since I really sank my teeth into a fantasy series. I used to love them growing up – Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter (that last one took serious begging to be allowed to read when I was a kid) were some of my favorites. But lately, I’ve found fantasy a bit too tropey for me, preferring science fiction, especially dystopian fiction, when I wanted to venture into something speculative. But then Netflix released the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and mostly out of nostalgia for the sitcom from my childhood (another series I had to beg and beg my parents to let me watch), I decided to give it a go.
There are a lot of elements that feel super relevant and timely. Sabrina’s classmates and close friends feature a gender nonconforming character, as well as a movement to empower women and give students access to banned books. It touches on disability and disaster, family dynamics and growing up. I wouldn’t say it’s the most realistic story ever, but I’m able to check my disbelief at the door more often than not. What I find particularly fascinating though is the choice to build a world so unlike that of the sitcom, and more like the imagined witchcraft found in the Salem witch trials. Christian mythology is expanded upon to include magic power bestowed by the devil. Sabrina must choose whether or not to sign her name in the book of the beast, agreeing to do the devil’s bidding if called upon, in exchange for greater magical powers.
Once I realized this series would rely heavily on expanded Christian stories, I tried to see if I could pinpoint what branch of Christianity seemed prevalent in the writing. The answer came within a few episodes (stop reading here if you don’t want spoilers) when it’s revealed that Sabrina has been baptized a Catholic, indicating that perhaps her human mother was Catholic, and priming the audience to think about the ways Catholicism interacts with the series. In a later episode, Sabrina looks to rid a possessed character of a demon, and it’s a significant plot point that this is not something done by witches, only by Catholics priests, so how does she intend to do this when witches don’t seem to view demons as something needing to be removed?
The aspect of the show I found most difficult to suspend disbelief for is the idea that people could follow Satan as a benevolent character, when he’s attributed to some pretty f’d up sh*t within the show itself. Then again, is this where the critique on religion begins? The Abrahamic God is attributed to some downright awful things. The Exodus story (Moses leading his people away) is complicated not ultimately by Pharaoh, but by God himself, who keeps “hardening his heart” (or in 2018 speak, changing Pharaoh’s mind), making the plagues God unleashes on Egypt pretty unjustified. Or what about the flood in Noah’s Arc? That’s a pretty messed up genocide by most standards, isn’t it? The tower of Babel? The walls of Jericho?
Getting back to the point: this TV show makes a pretty strong point about the actual authority of religious leadership, and about how easily religion and tradition get out of hand, creating an unstoppable mob mentality.
There’s an episode about a Satanic, cannibalistic ritual, in which a witch is chosen to be eaten by the other witches. (I’m going to spoil the end, stop reading if you want to watch it first.) The episode centers around Sabrina trying to stop the ritual from being completed, to save the life of the chosen witch. When the Satanic leader presiding over the whole thing is eventually persuaded to say he’s had a revelation that this ritual should be discontinued, he fails to stop the devoted crowd. He saves the life of the chosen witch, but another witch springs forward, kills herself, and is devoured.
I find this scene absolutely brilliant in the context of present-day Catholicism, and discussions around the real or perceived authority of Pope Francis. The pope has said the church should focus more on helping the poor rather than condemning and punishing sinners within its ranks. He’s been far more forgiving (though I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s been truly fair) to divorced people, for example. But whenever the Pope says something mildly less conservative than a previous Pope, Catholics will be quick to declare that in that moment he isn’t speaking with papal authority. Yet I guarantee, if he gives a speech against abortion, his words will be taken at face value.
In a community that insists on obedience to a rigid set of traditions and rules that are supposed to be perfect (coming from a higher power), challenging those traditions creates major cognitive dissonance, which needs to be explained. It’s easier for a devout believer who thinks their religion is perfect to believe a human made an error, than to think their God did.
Does this story of religious authority being dismissed strike a nerve in anyone else? Or is it just me? Are there parallels in other denominations or religions I’m not as familiar with? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think things through before posting.