Warning: Spoilers ahead for Netflix's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
In the new Netflix series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sabrina Spellman has some serious doubts about her impending dark baptism. According to her aunts Hilda and Zelda, the rite of passage, which will take place on her 16th birthday, involves detoxifying her body, choosing a familiar and a baptismal name, cutting off all contact with her mortal friends, signing her name in the Dark Lord’s book, and, oh! A bit of spilled human blood.
But Sabrina isn’t so sure that she wants to leave her friends — and especially her boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle — behind, for what she believes to be eternal servitude to Satan. On the night of her dark baptism, with the lunar eclipse taking place high in the sky, she kneels before a dark high priest in the middle of the forest and promises to “forsake the Path of Light for the Path of Night,” and to sign away her life to the Dark Lord.
At the last minute, however, just as she’s about to sign her name in the book using her own blood, she balks. “You said I would have free will,” she murmurs as she steps away from the book. The gathered crowd of witches and warlocks begin to close in on her ominously.
When it comes to television depictions, witchcraft is often portrayed alongside “other occult practices that it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with,” she says. “It tends to be that when writers or Hollywood need to flesh out their magical storylines about witchcraft, they’ll just draw from all over the place. And oftentimes, they’ll draw from Satanic rituals, but witchcraft has nothing to do with Satan.” The idea of Satan, she explains, is a Christian creation. And indeed, Bible-induced fear of the so-called “Devil’s magic” is what led the Puritans in New England’s early colonies to persecute women they believed to be witches.
As for the idea of dark baptisms, Yates Garcia says she “doesn’t know if that’s a real thing in witchcraft,” though she says there are so many different traditions that there will likely be practicing witches out there who will watch the series and identify with some part of the ritual. (The U.S. Army recognized witchcraft as a religion in 1975, adding it to its Chaplains Handbook, though there are a myriad of traditions that fall under that umbrella term, including Wicca and Dianic.)
“Every witch’s practice is different, and while there are traditions in witchcraft, a lot of it is also syncretic and so it’s hard to trace the roots,” Yates Garcia says. “It tends to be very much passed down orally and we have people who learn about witchcraft hereditarily.” Yates Garcia herself was raised as a witch by her mother, who was in turn raised a witch by Yates Garcia’s grandmother.
A big part of the reason that Hollywood and literature tends to gravitate toward the idea of a dark baptism, she says, is because baptisms are theatrical, and they “look good.” There’s a history there, too. “The practice of magic, at least in the west, goes all the way back to ancient Greece, if not further, and part of it has the same history as theatrical traditions,” she says.
“Dunking someone in water,” Yates Garcia adds, is nothing new, and the idea of rebirth and the spirit world is “very primal and archetypal.” This is why popular culture has gravitated toward this as a visual representation of new beginnings. But in terms of the “dark” aspects of such a ritual, Yates Garcia says, it’s more likely that that perspective comes from the persecutors and not the practitioners.
“For instance, when I was 13, I did a rite that involved ancestral magic and reciting the names of my ancestors and cutting a cord and essentially, yes, devoting yourself to the Goddess,” she says. “But the idea [of] witches writing their name in some scary book — that probably comes from the medieval persecution of witches more than it comes from actual practices of witchcraft.”
For our fictional friend Sabrina Spellman, who ultimately makes the decision not to sign the book, her power will likely arise from a different source: choosing her own path, to live neither wholly in the mortal world nor in the witching world.
“Witchcraft is a spiritual practice that is about helping you find your personal power and tapping into the sacred in all beings,” Yates Garcia says. “It's not about wiggling your nose and turning your husband into a toad or something. … I feel like there’s a witch resurgence now because women are like, ‘We're not gonna take this anymore. We’re finding our power. Don’t cross us.’”