by Elliott Ryan | October 29, 2020
Witches in media are experiencing a renaissance. As we’ve seen in TV programs like American Horror Story, The Order, and Motherland: Fort Salem, the witches on screen closely resemble the witches of old. They’re ruthless, brutal, and ingenious. They use the elements to their advantage. They kill and resurrect. They throw orgies. They eat flesh. And most importantly, they determine their own narratives.
Yes, everything old is new again, and the same can be said of Sabrina Spellman, the plucky sorceress created in 1962 by writer George Gladir and illustrator Dan DeCarlo for Archie’s Mad House. Sabrina’s debut in the comic book series was well received and she has continued to live on in print, film, and television. The most well known iteration is the quintessentially nineties sitcom, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. With its bright colors and moral compass, the show is more of an after school special than a coming of age tale about a young witch. At least, that’s how it feels watching it in 2020. It’s just not right for our current era of ambivalence, image consciousness, and brutalism. Sabrina and Archie remained culturally dormant until 2013, when writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was tasked with breathing new life into the Archie universe. First, he wrote a comic series about Archie and his pals surviving a zombie apocalypse, à la The Walking Dead. Its success led him to write another series in 2014 titled Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which was popular for its grim re-packaging of Sabrina’s magical life.
In 2017, Aguirre-Sacasa produced Riverdale, a gritty TV reboot where Archie and his friends are sexually adventurous, full of secrets, and getting murdered left and right. In the fall of 2018, he conjured a spinoff, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS), which has become one of Netflix’s most popular teen programs. The show features witches casting spells and fighting demons while wearing vintage couture and patent leather pumps. But it also reveals teenage girls and middle aged women navigating a mortal man’s world. To survive, sacrifices must be made. This is especially apparent in season one episode seven, “Feast of Feasts”, where sacrifice is an explicit, central theme.
In this chapter, Sabrina and her family, the Spellmans, are summoned by their coven, the Church of Night, to celebrate and host one of their “holiest holidays.” Early on in the episode, Sabrina’s aunt Zelda explains that this holiday is similar to Thanksgiving, but has a gruesome and mystical history.
Centuries ago, mortals besieged and exiled witches to the wilderness. Due to man’s careless overhunting, a famine ravaged the region. The starvation was so intense that Freya, one of the youngest and strongest witches of her coven, sacrificed herself to provide for her sisters. According to this oral hagiography, the witches survived off her body throughout the winter until the spring. Ever since, the coven living in the woods outside Greendale have honored Freya by celebrating the Feast of Feasts. To perform this annual cannibalistic ritual, the Church of Night selects fourteen families by nailing lamb entrails to the front door of their homes. The families then choose one female family member to serve as a tribute to Freya. At a selection ceremony, the tributes line up together, pick a piece of parchment, and set them ablaze. Whoever’s parchment burns white is named Queen of Feasts, and whoever’s parchment burns red is made Handmaiden. For a brief period, the Handmaiden is tasked with pampering the Queen and tending to all her carnal needs. Later, at the Feast of Feasts, the Queen slits her own throat and the coven feasts upon her raw flesh.
At one point in the episode, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) and her frenemy Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) are discussing the ritual. Prudence has just been named Queen and believes wholeheartedly in the ceremony while Sabrina, selected to be Handmaiden, thinks the Feast is barbaric. As Sabrina fulfills her maiden duties and bathes Prudence in a warm buttermilk bath, Prudence asks Sabrina if this will be her first time “supping on witch flesh.” Acting as the avatar for us mere mortals, Sabrina disgustedly exclaims that she’s not going to eat Prudence, and then asks her why she wants to sacrifice herself. Prudence proudly explains, “I’m about to be transubstantiated. After the coven consumes my body, I will be a part of every single witch in the Church of Night, forever. And that’s not even the best part. My spirit will reside in the Dark Lord’s heart alongside the other queens, basking in the glow of his glorious fire until the trumpets of the apocalypse are sounded.”
You see, sacrifice isn’t the only facet of the Feast of Feasts. There is also the consumption and transubstantiation of the Queen.
The writers of CAOS have appropriated very specific ideas from different faith traditions and woven them together to create their own theology of Satanic witchcraft. For example, the concept of transubstantiation is rooted within the Catholic tradition. It originally describes the metaphysical transformation of the Eucharist, the bread and wine that becomes Jesus’s flesh and blood through the consecration of a priest and the consumption by a congregation. These sacraments represent the corporeal sacrifice Jesus Christ made for all Catholics, and are partially why early Catholics were considered by some Roman pagans to be cannibals. Of course, in the world of CAOS, cannibalism is a very real component of their religion, albeit confined to certain ceremonies.
Since Chilling Adventures also draws heavy inspiration from Satanism, we have to see how closely it aligns with the tenets of the most widely recognized Satanic sect, the Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey. This group is distinguished from the other well known Satanic faction, The Satanic Temple, which was in the news a few years ago for suing Netflix over their appropriation of the Temple’s custom statue of Baphomet. According to LaVey’s seminal text, The Satanic Bible, sacrifice isn’t inherently necessary, primarily because witches should be able to derive power from their own selves instead of needing some external force to help them.
This idea directly contradicts the practices in CAOS, as the witches literally make a deal with the devil to enhance their magical powers. This plot is an important point of contention throughout the first season of Chilling Adventures, as it highlights Sabrina’s autonomy and decision of whether or not to sign her name in the Book of the Beast and submit herself to the Dark Lord.
Back to the Feast! In what turns out to be a twisted knot of a plot, it is revealed at the Queen’s last supper that Prudence was made Queen of Feasts not by the Dark Lord, but by Constance Blackwood, wife of Faustus Blackwood, High Priest of the Church of Night. After unwittingly eating a truth serum cake made at the behest of a suspicious Sabrina, Constance explains that she wanted to kill Prudence because she is the bastard daughter of Faustus. Constance worried that Prudence would pose a threat to her gestating twins and lay claim to the Church, so she hatched a plot to ensure her demise. Because the Dark Lord did not choose Prudence, Father Blackwood decides that she will not be sacrificed, but will still serve as Queen of Feasts and sit on the Throne of Skulls.
When Father Blackwood informs the coven that there will be no sacrifice, the witches cry out from their black pews, shouting that they’re ravenous from fasting. But then Mildred, a witch who desperately wanted to be Queen, stands up. She praises Freya and Satan, and then slits her own throat, continuing the cycle of consensual sacrifice. There is a moment of hushed confusion until the coven honors Mildred. They pull out their knives and begin hacking away at her corpse, devouring chunks of her flesh. Sabrina watches in horror as her coven submits to their most base animal instincts.
In the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the Queen of the Feast is the sacrament. Theologically speaking, this is a heretical idea within Catholic canon because it equates the feminine body with the body of Jesus. Both sacrifice themselves so that their community can live on. But in true Satanist form, the ritual is inverted. The depiction of death in CAOS isn’t humble or sorrowful like Jesus’. It’s violent and visceral. And it’s not some edible metaphor that comes in prepackaged boxes, like Eucharist wafers do now. It is a literal human body that is torn apart and consumed by other people. The writers of CAOS have utilized standard religious themes such as holy days, sacrifice, and hagiography to create their own subversive Satanic theology. And they’ve managed to do it while producing an enthralling program that simultaneously feels modern and ancient. There’s no other TV show I know where Satanic witches cast spells in dead languages and complain about dating in the same breath. Who knew Satanism and teen angst would pair so well.