Netflix’s new Halloween TV show, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, was yet another attempt to capitalize on the massive success of the classic 1940s Archie comics. Following in the footsteps of the (objectively terrible) Riverdale, Sabrina is also based on the ‘90s American sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch, with a few more R–rated twists (including blood sacrifice, Faustian bargains, and teenage rebellion against one’s parental figures and educational institution) which were not included in either the comics or the daytime television show.
Having watched the show, I can’t necessarily say that it’s the most compelling thing to hit Netflix this year. Its dialogue is a little stiff, and its acting is characteristically melodramatic. It is, however, very enjoyable viewing, and if you don’t mind some of the horror elements, you should definitely bother watching it (there’s a Christmas special being released this week, to get you in the festive mood). But beyond being an interesting and entertaining television show, Sabrina also raises some very age–old and valuable questions about womanhood and witchery. Among these questions is an exceptionally pertinent and thought–provoking one: why must witches, who are almost always singularly powerful women, sell their soul to a masculine figure of authority such as the Devil?
The history of this agreement is long and complex, with many cultural and mythological facets to it. In most versions of the story, however, there are a few basic components: the deal takes place between a human and the Devil (or a demon serving in his place), and in return for a certain favour (either specifically asked, or granted generally, such as great physical strength and intelligence), the human will sacrifice their soul. Sometimes that’s the end of the bargain; other times, the human is required to continue to commit acts for the Devil, from sacrificing children to sleeping with demons. Effectively, at great personal cost and in return for relatively little, a human gives up their humanity and agency to a dangerous figure who will control them until the end of their lives (and as if that wasn’t enough, the human will then likely go to Hell when they die).
What is interesting about this agreement when it concerns witches is that: witches are almost always female, and to become a witch is to have power and agency not otherwise granted to you in a patriarchal world. Men are scared of witches; in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Abigail’s power stems from her sexual manipulation, but at the start of the play she is implied to have performed a ritual possibly similar to the Faustian bargain that is selling your soul to the Devil. She is a powerful female character aligned with magic and witchcraft, and she is terrifying to the men of the town. So why, if witches are independently powerful women, capable of intimidating men using their magic, does that magic stem from such a patriarchal figure as the Devil?
In Sabrina, much of the conflict of the plot comes from the fact that the titular character refuses to sign her name in the Devil’s Book, therefore refusing to sign away her soul, because she doesn’t like the control that the Devil would hold over her thereafter. Unfortunately for Sabrina, the Devil is also the source of her magical powers, and without signing away her soul to him, those powers will slowly fade until she is essentially human. And this problem illustrates and parallels a key issue in today’s society, unconnected to witchcraft: women are expected to succumb to the whims of men, and when they would rather have agency over themselves, they are punished by being rendered powerless. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Portrayals of the relationship witches have with the Devil have been many and varied. In my last article, I wrote about Lolly Willowes, who encounters the Devil as a kindly rural huntsman when she is lying in a ditch. This renders the Devil a sympathetic figure, who grants Lolly agency over her own life, and demands little in return. But even in one of the most positive representations of the witch–Devil relationship, it is still up to the male figure to liberate Lolly from her oppression. Even whilst he is helping her escape the whims of her nightmarish family and the repression of her small–town community, he presumably has the power to place her right back into that situation. Lolly, like so many other witches before and after her, and so many other women in societies throughout all of history, is not truly free. And neither, really, is Sabrina.
It is a difficult question to answer, and a difficult topic to think about. It raises many other questions: is it better to have power, no matter the cost or who granted it to you, or should you spend your whole life trying to rescue yourself from oppression, even if you cannot do so? Are there any realms where truly powerful women can achieve that power of their own accord, rather than having it granted to them by a supposedly ‘benevolent’ figure of male authority? The show itself directly poses an interesting question when one of Sabrina’s aunts asks, ‘What does it mean to be a witch?’. Perhaps some measure of servitude is inherent in being a witch. But it shouldn’t be that way. Shows like Sabrina teach us important lessons about how female power works and call for us to help remedy the problems. We just have to find the right way to do so.