The Netflix series comes from the 1990s programme Sabrina The Teenage Witch. It is slightly tainted by Hollywood obsessive market segmentation which dictates specific styles and motifs to appeal to specific demographics; yet this Sabrina is really not for young impressionable girls. It is a dark tale of family and Satanism.
No Witchcraft, but Satanism
There’s nothing in the series that is remotely relevant to witchcraft, except for some black magic (necromancy). There’s also no feminist witchcraft, which had a strong presence in America in the 1970s (with the most famous witch being Starhawk, author of The Spiral Dance). Sabrina’s friends set up a feminist club named WICCA, but no connection is made between feminism and witchcraft or Wicca (something that was done much better by The Coven, American Horror Story, Season 3). Sabrina’s friends are not witches but all teenagers would have at least some awareness of witchcraft as fantasy. It is extraordinary how people in films/TV are often devoid of any knowledge of popular culture, including that coming from films.
There’s also no reference to any witchcraft narrative or practice, in terms of nature and in terms of magic/consciousness (see Magliocco, Witching Culture). In this series, nature is completely absent, which is odd given the urgency of Climate Change. The focus on nature is also what grounds much witchcraft and Paganism and distinguishes them from Christianity, which focuses on the salvation of human beings in the other-world. Witchcraft is about the here and now, the spiritual in human beings and nature, human consciousness and personal moral development. Sabrina and her family are not witches but Satanists, understood according to the classical Christian mythology in opposition to Christianity and very much unlike the ‘self-religion’ of Satanists today (see Petersen, Contemporary Religious Satanism).
The Boundaries of Goodness
Sabrina is ‘half-witch and half-human:’ her mother was human and her father a warlock, Sabrina was brought up by her witch aunts, after the death of her parents. This ‘biological’ element turns being a witch into some sort of race, according to a biological and deterministic notion of race. This is something that is unfortunately all too common in the portrayal of witchcraft in popular culture (think Harry Potter). It is racist and severs any connection with witchcraft as a spiritual path. It tends to be all about one’s powers and being chosen. It speaks of the individualistic elitism of American society where the individual needs to be in some way special (and excel in sport or business if a man, or in beauty if a woman. Yuk!)
Sabrina is perhaps destined to be a witch, but she is manipulated into following that path by a powerful witch. At every step, Sabrina gets closer to the ‘dark path’ of devil worship. There are two significant ‘tests’ in balancing goodness and crossing the boundary between human and Satanist.
In the first test, Sabrina performs necromancy to bring back to life her boyfriend’s brother. She slashes the throat of another witch (thinking that she’ll be able to bring her back), in exchange for the life of her boyfriend’s brother. Against the warning of her cousin, a warlock, and the hesitancy of another witch-in-training, Sabrina goes ahead anyway, like the entitled teenager she is. Her cousin tells her that by doing necromancy, she’s crossed a line. She has, the line between human and Satanist, but she has also taken another step in growing up. Sabrina had put her love for a human ahead of all other considerations, including whether the means justify the ends. Now, she has to face the repercussions of her gruesome act and learn about consequences.
The second test comes from the barbaric ritual of witches celebrating by eating a selected witch, the Queen of the Feast. This echoes the perennial fear of whoever is seen as the Other eating children (witches, Jews, heretics etc.). Sabrina takes a stance against the practice by revealing that the selection for the victim was rigged. This is a clear moral boundary that separates Sabrina, but also her aunts, from the coven. She, her aunts, and a ‘conscientious objector,’ refuse to take part in the ritual.
Faith in the Family
The family seems to be the sacred element in most, if not all, American TV series. It doesn’t matter if one lies and murders (Once Upon A Time), makes and traffics drugs (Breaking Bad), or launders money (Ozark), as long as they look after their children, it’s all good. This perverse attachment to the clan is morally repulsive. In Sabrina, it is (for the first season at least) toned down. When a witch ‘apocalypse’ is unleashed (don’t ask!), Sabrina makes sure that not only her best friends and boyfriend are safe, but also that the rest of the town is. What is interesting is that, due to Sabrina’s ‘hybrid’ nature, the focus of the series is on who Sabrina’s family really is and her relationship with them. In the beginning, Sabrina is more attached to her mortal friends than her witch aunts. She’s also more attached to one aunt, who is a reluctant witch, than the other, who wants Sabrina to sign her name in the Book of the Beast. In navigating the supernatural world, Sabrina, but interestingly also her friends, get further away from each other and then closer; yet Sabrina joins the Satanist coven. A choice that, I presume, will be explored in the next season.