It’s Witch Week at Refinery29 Canada, and we’re exploring the modern world of witchcraft. Each day, we'll examine a different aspect of the culture — as well as the camaraderie, controversy, and accoutrement that come with it.
In the new Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a high-school student (played by Kiernan Shipka) is torn between her daily life and her dark destiny. A little creepier than the original comic book or the ’90s sitcom, this version is set in modern Greendale in the days leading up to Sabrina Spellman’s 16th birthday, when she is expected to abandon her human gang and hunky boyfriend and sign herself over to the dark lord. Viewers are loving it, critics are praising it, and a second season has already been ordered — but what does an actual witch think about TV’s buzziest new broom-rider?
Alexis Silvera is a 26-year-old bruja (a type of witch that traces her roots to Caribbean folklore), a shaman, and a pop-culture enthusiast from Toronto. When she heard about the Sabrina reboot she was stoked and a little skeptical about seeing her culture mined for entertainment. So what did she think after watching the premiere? Refinery29 asked Silvera to watch the premiere, share her impressions, and rate the highlights and lowlights on a scale of 1 to 5 bats (because stars are soooo mortal).
“I thought it was so great. I actually started into the second episode because I didn’t want it to end,” says Silvera. In particular, she was pleased with the tone of the series (funny, but unapologetically macabre) and the political undercurrent, which — with all due respect to Melissa Joan Hart and co. — feels appropriate for this era. In the show, Sabrina questions why she would give any man (including the dark lord) power over her body, and forms a club at school called WICCA (Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association).
Is Sally Draper fit to call herself a witch?
The show’s star, Kiernan Shipka, will be familiar to fans of Mad Men — before she was a teenage witch, the 18-year-old actress played Don Draper’s daughter. Silvera gives her performance two pointy hats up: “I think she does such a good job of embodying the earnestness of the character and then the mischievousness — not an easy balance to strike.” And it’s nice to see a high school student played someone who looks like they could be in high school.
As in previous iterations, Sabrina’s high school beau is Harvey Kinkle — sweet, hunky and unaware of his beloved’s other existence. “They were really cute together. I loved the scene where he tells her he loves her and then she runs into the house and has that Beatlejuice dance moment,” says Silvera. On the other hand, she found it a little hard to see this smart, powerful protagonist flipping out over a boy.
Silvera says dating “mortals” (ie, people outside the occult culture) can be tricky because if the other person doesn’t get it, they are left out of a huge part of your life. In the premiere, Sabrina does tell Harvey the truth, but he freaks out, and she erases the memory with a spell. “If she can’t be honest about who she is,” says Silvera, “then what is their relationship really worth?”
Representation on screen…
Silvera would have been thrilled if Sabrina were played by a black woman, but overall she appreciated the show’s diversity both in the coven and Sabrina’s mortal squad. “I was really excited to see black witches because we really don’t get to see that in pop culture despite the role that women of colour have played in the history of witchcraft,” she says. Another pro was Sabrina’s gender-non-conforming friend Susie. “There is a lot of overlap and kinship between the witch community and the queer community — it was nice to see that recognized.”
Representation in the writer’s room…
One of the best aspects of the show, says Silvera, was the accuracy of the details: “Using real tarot cards, talking about the right herbs. High John root, for example, which is a big thing in black magic.” The authenticity probably has a lot to do with the fact there's an actual witch on the writing staff. “I was just so thrilled when I heard that,” says Silvera.
Often lost in the spooky stereotype is the fact that withes are extremely funny, says Silvera. In particular, she appreciated the aunt Zelda character. “I love how unapologetically dark and creepy she is. The dark, creepy humour is something a lot of the witches I know have.” For instance, in a scene where a kid is murdered, Zelda says they haven’t had “long pig” in a long time. Long pig is witch slang for human. “There’s that wink, wink, nudge, nudge — we know the world thinks we’re evil.”
Too much sympathy for the devil
The witches on the show all follow a Luciferian form of witchcraft, and while Silvera gets that the devil makes a pretty compelling TV good guy, she says that for a lot of modern witches, the struggle against “Satanic panic” is real. “When I was first coming out of the broom closet, I felt almost unsafe and trying to explain to people, I’m not evil, I don’t believe in the devil.” She would be “overjoyed” to see a show delve into witchcraft’s African roots in future episodes, but worries about how that would be handled. “I loved American Horror Story: Coven, but the way the show set up the friction between Euro tradition and black tradition was like good witches vs. bad witches.”
Where were the good witches?
“There were some scenes that made me cringe,” says Silvera. “At one point a character slits her own throat and the coven devours her. That was a little much.” Silvera notes that these days a lot of people practice witchcraft as a means of self-mastery, connecting to the earth, and harnessing positive energy. “To watch the show, you’d think that all witches go around drinking blood and kidnapping children.”
Would she recommend the show to her coven?
Most definitely. “It’s fun and entertaining and there are lots of little inside jokes that witches in particular will love.” (See: long pig.) So as long as you’re okay with a little melodramatic devil depiction — binge away, my pretties.