November 19, 2018

Folklore and History in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

In October Netflix released The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the newest version of the teen witch from the Archie comics. A far cry from the playful character introduced in the 1960s or the goofy witch of the 1990s sitcom, the current Sabrina struggles with dark impulses and whether she should sign away her soul to Satan. 

The show has received significant media attention, whether for its accurate portrayal of certain occult practices or because Salem's Satanic Temple is suing Netflix for copying the Temple's Baphomet statue. I'm enjoying the show for a few different reasons: good acting, amazing set design, and because I'm just a sucker for shows about witchcraft. I've also been pleasantly surprised to see how the writers and producers have incorporated pieces of New England's history and witch lore, in both subtle and unsubtle ways.

The show isn't explicitly set in New England. Chilling Adventures takes place in Greendale, a vaguely all-American small town located near Riverdale, the setting for the other current show (Riverdale) based on Archie comics. It's a foggy, creepy small town where it always feels like Halloween. It's not clear where exactly Greendale is, and the setting is unmoored in time as well as space. Characters drive vintage American cars, use phones with cords, and watch black and white movies at the cinema downtown. On the other hand, some of them use laptops, the high school students talk about gender and intersectionality, and Greendale is racially integrated in a way that small towns never were in the 1950s.

Given the vagueness of the setting, I was pleasantly surprised to see what looks like an early Colonial New England home in Greendale. It's the Spellman Mortuary, where Sabrina lives in it with her aunts Hilda and Zelda and cousin Ambrose. Here's a photo:

Spellman Mortuary from Chilling Adventure of Sabrina.
Their dramatically gabled home looks an awful lot like a 17th century New England house, just with a porch added and some extra tall chimneys. For example, here is Salem's House of Seven Gables:

The House of Seven Gables (photo from Wikipedia)
As another example, compare Spellman Mortuary to Salem's Witch House, the 17th century home of witch trial judge Joseph Corwin:

The Witch House (photo from TripAdvisor)
It's pretty clear the set designers were inspired by New England's old First Period homes. Large wooden houses, lots of gables, dark paint and big chimneys: the Spellman Mortuary looks like some well-known 17th century Salem houses.

In addition to the designers, the shows writers were also inspired by New England history, particularly that of Salem. Several characters have names that are drawn from Salem history.

Miss Wardwell: Sabrina's possessed teacher shares a last name with Samuel Wardwell, the Andover carpenter and fortune-teller who was executed for witchcraft during the 1692 Salem trials. 

Michelle Gomez as Miss Wardwell
Principal Hawthorne: The principal of Greendale's high school shares a name with iconic New England author and Salem native Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was raised in the House of Seven Gables, and his great-great grandfather was John Hathorne, a judge in the Salem trials. Hawthorne probably added the "w" to his name to distance himself from his infamous ancestor. 

The Weird Sisters: The Weird Sisters are three mean-girl witches named Prudence, Dorcas and Agatha. Two of these names hark back to the Puritan era. The Puritans often named their children after desirable moral traits, like Charity, Obedience, and Prudence. Dorcas on the other hand is a Greek name, but was also popular with the Puritans. Several women named Dorcas were involved with the Salem witch trials, including Dorcas Hoar (found guilty but saved by a reprieve) and Dorcas Good, a four-year old child who confessed to being a witch. Agatha isn't a particularly Puritan name, but two out of three isn't bad. 

Susie Putnam: Sabrina's friend navigates high school as a non-binary person, and she also shares a last name with the Putnams, a Salem village family who accused many neighbors of witchcraft. Ann Putnam Jr. was one of the "afflicted girls" who sent many people to the gallows, but after the trials she confessed that she had lied and begged her neighbors for forgiveness.

Salem: This one is so obvious I almost forgot to include it, but Sabrina's black cat familiar is named after the epicenter of New England witchcraft.

Daniel Webster: A Greendale lawyer with a mysterious past, Webster is obviously inspired by the historical Daniel Webster (1782 - 1852), a lawyer from New England who served as a U.S. senator and as secretary of state for three presidents. Webster was the subject of Stephen Vincent Benet's popular 1936 short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster," where he argues with Satan in court for a New Hampshire farmer's soul.

The Greendale Thirteen

In addition to the names, the show's writers have given Greendale a fictional town history with a definite New England vibe. A key incident in Greendale's past was the execution of the Greendale Thirteen, a coven of witches who were hanged by the townspeople. Although there were a few witch trials in other American colonies, the only large scale executions happened in New England. This means that Greendale probably isn't in the Midwest or the South.

Finally, I'll mention Sabrina's "dark baptism." In this rite, Sabrina is supposed to sign her name in blood into the Book of the Beast, thereby giving her soul over to Satan. The ceremony takes place in the woods at night. In many 17th century New England witchcraft accounts, the alleged witch confessed to signing the Devil's book in blood. In other cases, they confessed that the Devil had baptized them, using a pond, river, or even a bucket of water.

Sabrina's Dark Baptism
There's no actual water used on the show, but the ritual is still called a baptism. If anything, this sequence reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown," where a Puritan journeys into the nighttime forest to sign his name in the Devil's book. Goodman Brown has his doubts about his decision, and the story comes to a dramatic conclusion as he wrestles with his conscience in front of the Devil's gathered congregants. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but the writers of Sabrina probably read this story before they wrote their episode.

Although Hawthorne's story is set in the Puritan era it's not really about Puritans history or witch lore. He uses those subjects to craft an allegory about the evil we all harbor in our hearts and what that realization can mean to someone. And despite drawing from New England history and folklore, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina isn't about those things either. It's about patriarchy, misogyny,and gender roles. It's also about young people rebelling against their elders, a perpetually fresh theme in pop culture. The writers and producers are just using New England history as a material to create their fictional world and add some spooky atmosphere. So, while I'll keep my eyes peeled for more shoutouts to New England, I'll mostly just continue to enjoy the show for the teen drama and supernatural shenanigans. 


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