Television Series Review
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Editor’s Note: This review contains graphic descriptions of occult themes mixed with sexual acts, and may not be suitable for all readers.
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Move over, Harry Potter, there’s a new icon in magical fantasy entertainment, and her name is Sabrina. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS), a Netflix series now in its second season (April 2019), has fast become one of the most popular shows on TV, ranked second behind the HBO series Game of Thrones.1 Based on the Archie comics of the same name by Roberto Aguierre-Sacasa, this companion series to Riverdale (TV show) is set in the nearby town of Greendale. But don’t expect a teen drama with Archie and the gang. These Chilling Adventures are a macabre satanic horror story subjecting audiences to a glut of most everything occultism has to offer. CAOS is loosely tied to Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996–2003), but whereas the older series was a campy situation comedy, this show is dark. And by dark, I mean it’s so dark that it masquerades as light. This version of Sabrina depicts explicit Satanism in a positive light. I don’t say this for hyperbole or alarmism, like, “Anything with magic is satanic.” This show centers around the lives of literal, explicitly Satan-worshipping witches and warlocks gathering as the Church of Night, learning satanic law, casting spells, performing unholy rituals, offering animal sacrifices, and chanting blasphemies such as “Hail Satan” in hopes of summoning Satan himself.2
I have a confession. I love horror movies. One of my all-time favorite films is Night of the Living Dead. I’ve enjoyed cinematic classics such as the Oscar-winning films Jaws, Exorcist, and Silence of the Lambs. I’ve laughed through Evil Dead and Sharknado. And I’m a big fan of scary TV shows such as X-Files, Stranger Things, and The Walking Dead.3 And, while it’s a fantasy story and not a horror story, I’m even a fan of the wizarding world of Harry Potter.4 I’m not saying these are all great viewing choices, but the point is that I’m no prude when it comes to occult themes and horror stories.5 So, when I say no one should be watching Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, it’s not because I’m a Puritan (I’m not), or because I hate horror movies (I don’t), or because I “don’t understand” the artistry and entertainment value of occult stories. I completely understand their appeal. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, however, is another beast entirely. This show is so far over the boundary line of responsible Christian viewing that I cannot recommend it for anyone. There are many worthwhile films and series that Christians can watch on Netflix; this isn’t one of them.
The story follows the exploits of the half-human, half-witch Sabrina Spellman (sixteen years old), wrestling through her prophesied fate. She’s fated to become Satan’s queen and the harbinger of hell on earth. Surprise, surprise, she doesn’t want to. As an orphan, Sabrina has been raised by her aunts, Zelda and Hilda Spellman, both witches in the Satanic Church. Her cousin Ambrose Spellman, living with them, is a pansexual warlock with a penchant for necromancy (conjuring the dead).
Besides her witch family, Sabrina has three best friends, mortal classmates at Baxter High School — Harvey Kinkle, Sabrina’s sometimes boyfriend and descendant of witch hunters; Rosalind Walker, who has extrasensory perception; and Susie or Theo Putnam, descendant of the Putnam family, famous for their role in the Salem Witch Trials (1692–1693 in colonial Massachusetts). Susie is biologically female but identifies as a male named Theo. Susie/Theo communes with her dead ancestor Dorthea who started the coven (“church” for witches) in Greendale.
Over the course of the series, Sabrina uses darker and darker magic, such as a downward spiraling dance with Satan, all the while trying to escape his grasp. She tortures people (Season 1, Episode 2), unleashes a demon (S1:E4–5), kills a classmate (S1:E7–8), conspires with Madam Satan to invade limbo (S1:E9), and signs the book of the beast, promising her soul to Satan (S1:E10). After baptism into the Satanic Church, she wields Satan’s power to rain hellfire on ghosts and banish an avenging angel (S1:E10). She conducts a séance to talk with her dead mother (S1:E11), summons demons from hell (S2:E1), and tries to burn down Baxter High (S2:E3). She plays a lead role in Lucifer-Morningstar, a play heroicizing the devil (S2:E2), and later, when she becomes a demigod, she resurrects herself and three dead/dying witches, while killing two angels (S2:E6). Then she begins evangelizing the school about a new age of witches and mortals living in harmony (S2:E7). And she’s crowned Queen over the Church of Satan (S2:E9).
This laundry list of evil deeds is just from Sabrina, the heroine of the show. Debauchery is a central theme of the show. It’s a deliberate “thumb in the eye” of Christian moralism. You name it, these characters do it — promote witchcraft, engage in school-sanctioned alcoholic sex parties, sexual assault, orgies, murder, incest, torture, sadomasochism, and even cannibalism.
The Hidden Message
But, honestly, what worries me more than the garish in-your-face satanism woven throughout the series is the subtext of the show. Beneath the shouts of “Hail Satan” and lurid revelries, this show whispers a subtle and seductive defense of an occult worldview. In fact, it’s easy to miss the occult message of this show, letting it slip past our filters, since most of Sabrina’s bad behavior aims at escaping Satan’s clutches. Escaping Satan should be good, right? What the audience doesn’t realize is that underneath the sensationalized satanism lurks an enticing occult way of life. By backing away from satanism, Sabrina backs into Wicca, witchcraft, and a lighter shade of satanism — and the audience is manipulated into cheering for her the whole time. By using the foot-in-the-door method, CAOS basically becomes promotional marketing for occult dabbling, all in the name of peace, harmony, and the auspices of being anti-Satan. Audiences who follow and empathize with Sabrina are subjecting themselves to a false dichotomy, as if they have to choose between Hollywood satanism or real-world occultism. By default, the audience begins sympathizing with an occult worldview. If that doesn’t make you want to block it from your kids’ watch list, I don’t know what will.
Another reason the occult subtext of the show might slip past our filters is that many people never realized that occult ideals and satanic values are fairly similar to atheistic humanism.6 Social justice, individual liberty, and pleasure-seeking might not sound satanic, yet are in fact the explicit tenets of real-life satanism.7
How Does This Show Work?
With all these red flags, one has to wonder, “How does this show keep an audience?” CAOS is a popular success. Loyal followers have decorated the internet with fan pages clamoring for insights into its characters, esoterica, and culture references.8 I think the success of the show can be explained in three ways.
How It Works Culturally. CAOS would have sunk if it launched in any other era. Forty years ago, the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons made Christian families nervous, but TV programming included mainly sitcoms, game shows, and family dramas. Occult themes survived only on the fringe, in reruns of Dark Shadows, Outer Limits, and The Twilight Zone.
Thirty years ago, the character Bart Simpson of The Simpsons TV show was cultural enemy #1 for saying, “Eat my shorts!” But family shows still ruled in mainstream programming. Married with Children was the raunchiest series on TV. The trippy occult drama Twin Peaks was in its first running but was soon canceled over poor ratings.
Twenty years ago, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and reruns of Twin Peaks began drawing cult followings while toying with occultism. Explicit occultism was starting to bleed into mainstream entertainment.
Around ten years ago, when reality and competition shows like Survivor and American Idol were big hits, another subgenre rose from the shadows into mainstream acceptance. Bleak nihilistic dramas about ubermensch antiheros, such as Walter White in Breaking Bad9 and Dexter Morgan in Dexter,10 became mainstream entertainment even while they trained audiences to cheer for sociopaths and criminal deviants.
Today, it’s common fare to weave the most scandalous themes from those eras into a TV series such as American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful, and Lucifer. And now lewd and brutal megahits such as Game of Thrones and Westworld test common decency with tawdry scenes of rape, incest, graphic nudity, and explicit, bloody violence.11 Family dramas and sitcoms no longer garner the most cultural buzz.
Television is trending like a race off the ledge of moral decency. The witching world of Sabrina is no exception. Decadent immorality adorns every episode so that even offended viewers may find themselves watching in morbid fascination like onlookers at a crime scene.
Besides the allure of immorality, other viewers may be drawn to the show for its social progressivism — namely, feminism and LGBTQ advocacy. Susie Putnam, a trans-male protagonist, uses magic to exact revenge on her bullies and to join the varsity men’s basketball team. Ambrose Spellman is a suave satanic hero who glamorizes bisexual romance and polyamorous flings. As for feminism, one fan, and self-identified witch, explains, Sabrina “is decidedly woke…a heroine…plucky, smart and overtly feminist…committed to righting the wrongs that take place in small-town Greendale” while “making her way under capitalist patriarchy.”12 This show has the makings of an angsty “girl versus the world” underdog story.
How It Works Artistically. CAOS is low art. It appeals to the masses through tawdry and titillating “fun” and lacks any serious consideration of philosophical themes or the timeless exploration of the “human condition.” CAOS encourages viewers to turn off their brains (and their discernment) to enjoy a creepy midnight matinee of satanic exploits.
The artistic treatment of these sins isn’t tastefully handled, either. It’s an over-the-top display. One critic says CAOS “is a pure product of horror in its decadent phase….it offers a collection of ritual gestures in the direction of previous tales…a riot of borrowed tropes with nothing original to say.”13 Indeed CAOS is loaded with allusions to occult lore and horror stories.14 It’s filled with “Easter eggs” — hidden references, jokes, and messages designed to reward observant audiences for paying close attention. Observant fans can see references to the famed nineteenth-century satanist Aleister Crowley, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the early vampire film Nosferatu, and the “soul-selling” stories of Faust and The Devil and Tom Walker. Of course, those Easter egg hunts appeal only to hard-core geek culture aficionados. And even Christian geeks shouldn’t endure hours of flagrant blasphemy for the sake of Easter egg hunting.
How It Works Spiritually. CAOS draws a lot of its audience through a morbid focus on the occult. Occultism, sadly, has always been appealing at some level. Occult knowledge and power have intrigued people ever since the serpent tempted Eve with the promise of becoming “like God, knowing good and evil” on her own terms (Gen. 3:5 NIV). CAOS is full of occult symbols, practices, and ideology, with too many examples to recount, none of which are redeeming. There is no heroic escape from witchcraft, no fateful retribution reminding people that witchcraft is bad. There’s not a single positive comment about Christianity. The only explicit references to Christianity are negative (S2:E3, 7).
Worse, CAOS pressures viewers to question their religious and moral convictions, as biblical good and evil are turned on their heads. Isaiah warns, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isa. 5:20 NIV). Sabrina starts a club called “WICCA” — Women’s Intersection Cultural and Creative Association (S1:E2). Later there’s a satanic orgy and cannibalistic desecration of the Eucharist (S1:E7). Viewers also hear postcoital witches boast about fusing sacramental confession with sexual sadomasochism (S1:E7). By Season 2, Sabrina offers this chipper suggestion, “Take Lucifer Morningstar into your hearts and I promise you mercy. But you must say his prayer. ‘Oh, mighty dark lord by whom all things are set afire. Praise Satan’” (S2:E6).
What’s the Harm? Some may still say, “It’s just a TV show! What’s the harm in watching?” Merely watching the show isn’t the same as practicing witchcraft.15 The main problem is that CAOS doesn’t merely depict evil but venerates it. It glorifies blasphemy, promotes sin, and trains audiences to sympathize with and condone occultism. I found the show to have a desensitizing effect on me. That’s troubling, since I’ve been researching satanism and the occult for at least fifteen years. I’ve read the Satanic Bible (LaVey, 1969), but I still cringed when I first heard CAOS characters chanting, “Hail Satan.” By the end of the series, however, after hearing satanic praises in every episode, I hardly even noticed when they’d say, “Satan be praised,” “Dear lord in hell,” “Thank Beelzebub,” “Hail Satan, Hail Judas!,” and even a twist on Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Story, “Satan bless us, everyone” (S1:E9).
The blasphemous and sinful elements aren’t even balanced with a redeeming message or transcendent virtues that Christians can support. Explicit violence can have redeeming value, as in The Passion of the Christ (2004). Occult themes can be artfully woven across stories about virtue, such as in the tales of Hans Christian Andersen.16 Great Christian literature such as The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien are full of violent battle scenes, magic, ghosts, ghouls, witches, and warlocks, and yet they don’t glorify violence or promote occultism. Instead, they treat magic as a literary trope for all the powers in reality.17 The worldview underwriting those stories is redemptive and promotes Christian virtues. But CAOS is none of these. What would you expect when the show has a real-life witch, Joshua Conkel, among its writers?18
CAOS is also deceptive. Consider for a moment, stage magicians Lance Burton and David Copperfield. In their craft, artful distraction is the name of the game. Hand waving and a lovely assistant direct your attention away from the action, so you don’t see their trickery. It’s the same with CAOS; clever distraction obscures the real goals. Terrifying images of satanic slavery direct the style of the show and steal our attention so that viewers don’t even notice the subtle defense of witchcraft peddled throughout the story. Almost all of its heroes are witches. The social justice club is called WICCA. Sabrina and Susie use magic to exact vengeance on transphobic bullies. Yahweh is either ignored or scorned as the “false god.” The only “deity” in view in the show is Satan. And every episode features some positive use of witchcraft to solve problems. If this show has a message, it’s that witchcraft is a legitimate and liberating lifestyle for promoting social justice and toppling patriarchies.
Contrary to the Christian command to avoid occultism (Deut. 18:10–14; Lev. 19:26, 31; Acts 19:19), this show glorifies occultism by desensitizing viewers to the point of cheering it on. There’s no redeeming value that could justify choosing to amuse ourselves with this show. All it does is tempt our own morbid fascination with occult immorality.
What’s the Verdict? If CAOS was just campy pulp fiction, it might not be so bad. Even junk food is still food. This show, however, is more like that Halloween legend about candy with razor blade inside. Everyone should avoid this show, but especially Christian viewers, since we should be agents of God’s light, not reveling in darkness (Eph. 5:3–12; Gal. 5:13–26). —John D. Ferrer
John D. Ferrer (PhD, Philosophy of Religion, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) taught for six years with Texas Wesleyan University and Pantego Christianity Academy. He currently is a teaching fellow with the Equal Rights Institute.
- According to IMDB on April 20 2019, https://www.imdb.com/search/title?title_type=tv_series.
- This brand of satanism is theistic (AKA, Temple of Set), recognizing Satan as a real, sentient being. See Richard Howe, “Satanism: A Taste for the Dark Side,” Christian Research Journal 25, no. 5 (2005), https://www.equip.org/article/satanism-a-taste-for-the-dark-side/.
- Scott Klusendorff, “What The Walking Dead Can Teach Pro-Lifers,” Christian Research Journal 34, no. 4 (2011), https://www.equip.org/article/what-the-walking-dead-can-teach-pro-lifers/.
- See Mark Ryan and Carol Haussman Ryan, “Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings,” Christian Research Journal 24, no. 4 (2002), https://www.equip.org/article/harry-potter-and-the-lord-of-the-rings/.
- Horror stories can be allowed in Christian culture, though we need to be selective and discerning in our entertainment choices. See Brian Godawa, “An Apologetic of Horror,” Christian Research Journal, June 22, 2011, https://www.equip.org/article/an-apologetic-of-horror/.
- Richard G. Howe, “Satanism: A Taste for the Dark Side,” Christian Research Journal 28, no. 5 (2005), https://www.equip.org/article/satanism-a-taste-for-the-dark-side/.
- The first of nine satanic statements defining the Church of Satan (founded in 1963), is “Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence.” See https://www.churchofsatan.com/nine-satanic-statements/. The Satanic Temple, another brand of satanism, founded in 2013, lists seven core tenets, roughly summarized as (1) compassion/empathy (2) social justice (3) personal autonomy/liberty (4) respect for other people’s freedoms, (5) science, (6) fix your own mistakes, and (7) follow spirit of the law over the letter of the law; https://thesatanictemple.com/pages/tenets.
- Anjelica Oswald, “Hidden References You May Have Missed on Netflix’s ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,’” Business Insider Australia, November 1, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com.au/chilling-adventures-of-sabrina-hidden-references-details-in2018-10-2018-11; and Hahn Nguyen and Jamie Righetti, “‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina:’ An Epic Spellbinding Guide to All the Horror References Episode by Episode,” IndieWire, November 3, 2018, https://www.indiewire.com/2018/11/chilling-adventures-of-sabrina-references-easter-eggs-horror-witch-suspiria-1202017636/.
- Bob Perry and Robert Velarde, “Breaking Bad’s Addicting Defense of Moral Realism,” Christian Research Journal 36, no. 5 (2013), https://www.equip.org/article/breaking-bads-addicting-defense-moral-realism/.
- Robert Velarde, “Television as the New Literature: Understanding and Evaluating the Medium,” Christian Research Journal 33, no. 4 (2011), https://www.equip.org/article/television-as-the-new-literature-understanding-and-evaluating-the-medium/.
- John McAteer, “HBO’s Westworld and the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence,” Christian Research Journal 41, no. 4 (2018): 34.
- Charlotte Richardson-Andrews, “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Reviewed by a Real Witch,” Dazed, November 2, 2018, para. 2–3, 13, http://www.dazeddigital.com/film-tv/article/42078/1/the-chilling-adventures-of-sabrina-netflix-reviewed-by-a-real-witch.
- Kevin Power, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: The Horror of Tautology,” Antihuman, October 30, 2018, para. 16, https://antihumansite.wordpress.com/2018/10/30/chilling-adventures-of-sabrina-the-horror-of-tautology/.
- Oswald, “Hidden References”; Nguyen and Rhigetti, “’Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’”; Power, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: The Horror of Tautology.”
- Richard G. Howe, “Modern Witchcraft: It May Not Be What You Think,” Christian Research Journal 28, no. 1 (2005), https://www.equip.org/article/modern-witchcraft/.
- Holly Ordway, “Once upon a Time: The Enduring Appeal of Fairy Tales,” Christian Research Journal 38, no. 5 (2015), https://www.equip.org/article/upon-time-enduring-appeal-fairy-tales/.
- Gene Edward Veith, “Good Fantasy and Bad Fantasy,” Christian Research Journal 23, no. 1 (2000), https://www.equip.org/article/fantasy-media/.
- Mat Auryn, “The Real Witchcraft in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” Patheos, November 10, 2018, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/matauryn/2018/11/10/occultism-in-sabrina/.