The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina showrunner talks channelling The Exorcist, why it's not Buffy, and our fascination with witches

An image from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Being a teenage girl can feel like hell on earth. Unless you’re pretty and popular, it’s a nightmare of insecurities, trying to make new friends, getting good grades and surviving mortifying crushes. But imagine how much worse it would be if you had to live between two worlds as a half mortal and half witch. If you were split between being an ordinary high school girl and a young princess of the Church of the Night...

When Sabrina Spellman debuted in Archie’s Mad House in 1962 her appeal was simple: she was a sweet, bubbly blonde whose magical hijinks got her into cauldrons of trouble. But 50 years on, audiences have darker, more complex appetites. It’s the perfect time for the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a Netflix series based on the Archie Horror comic book that weaves a darker story for the budding sorceress. 

This isn’t a world of charms and sparkles, but one where Sabrina eats human flesh for dinner, engages in necromancy and dances with her coven in the pitch-black woods. Luckily, series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has experience with spiky reimaginings. He gave the dweeby teens of Archie Comics an edgy makeover in hit show Riverdale and brought their comic counterparts into the zombie apocalypse in Afterlife With Archie.

An image from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

“After working on Afterlife, I began thinking about a companion series featuring Sabrina, who has a cameo in the comic,” he says. “And I thought, well I really love those old Satanic horror movies from the ’60s and ’70s. Classic ones like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen. I thought, that would be fun to give Sabrina a different style and a different identity.” 

Chilling Adventures takes Sabrina back to her childhood, where she’s orphaned as a baby and adopted by her witchy aunts, Hilda and Zelda. Sabrina grows up broken in two, learning the dark arts at home while outwardly living as a normal girl who attends Baxter High. As she nears her 16th birthday, she has a terrible decision to make: does she choose a simple mortal life with her boyfriend Harvey or embrace her powers and write her name in the Dark Lord’s book? 

Sixteen candles

It’s obvious what a lot of Sabrina fans have been thinking. How can Chilling Adventures ever compare with the beloved ABC sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart as the teen witch? “I watched Sabrina growing up and I thought I knew it,” says Agurirre-Sacasa, “but working on this show, I’ve met people who really know it. They’re like hardcore fans.”

Despite these concerns, Aguirre-Sacasa believes that bringing in horror elements only elevate the coming-of-age story at Sabrina’s core. “Sabrina as a teenage witch just felt like such a great metaphor,” he explains. “Horror and teenagers are a very potent combination. It’s something we’ve seen in movies from Carrie, who’s a teenager when she gets her powers, to The Exorcist. The young girl from The Exorcist is just becoming a teenager. There’s something about those teenage years and that age that just works. So we thought, we could make Sabrina hardcore horror and really tap into some primal emotions.” 

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There are other reasons why Sabrina feels like such an important character. As more women come forward with stories of harassment and inequality, the need for empowered female characters has never felt keener. And who could be a better role model for young women than a witch who refuses to be told what to do, whether by her family or the patriarchal institution of her coven, led by the domineering High Priest Father Blackwood. 

“Sabrina’s about to celebrate her 16th birthday when we meet her,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “She’s got insecurities like other girls, but at her heart she is an activist, and she questions traditions and she questions dogma. She questions the patriarchy and the High Priest, and she’s always asking, ‘Why do I have to do this? It doesn’t feel right. It shouldn’t be this way.’ She is very political in that way. And I think that comes from the fact that she’s half witch and half mortal, so she has two sets of concerns on her mind at all times.” 

An image from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Aguirre is also adamant that his story isn’t simply a parallel to shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which has also been optioned for a modern retelling. “Unlike Buffy, high school is the opposition to the demonic side of Sabrina. High school is Sabrina’s safe haven from Blackwood and those forces of darkness. So it’s a completely different metaphor to something like Buffy.”

The most important factor in adapting Chilling Adventures was finding the perfect Sabrina – a challenge in an industry full of talented young actors. But Aguirre-Sacasa was quickly enchanted by Kiernan Shipka, who grew up on Mad Men playing the rebellious daughter of Don and Betty Draper. Although it was actually Shipka’s performance in Oz Perkins’ 2015 horror film The Blackcoat’s Daughter that caught Aguirre-Sacasa’s eye, where she plays a teenage girl whose loneliness makes her vulnerable to demonic possession. 

"Horror and teenagers are a very potent mix. That age just works."

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

"One of the wonderful things about Kiernan is that she’s a teenager,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “She’s 18-years-old. So she feels very much Sabrina’s age. I thought she was Sabrina even before she auditioned. She was really my first choice. I was so happy when she read the script and responded to it. And then she really fought for the role and knocked everyone’s socks off. It was one of these rare cases where it was the perfect part at the perfect time in her career.” 

“Kiernan is youthful and girlish, but she also has a certain wisdom, and carries herself a certain way,” he continues. “She’s an intelligent, confident actor. When she came in and read the scenes, all I thought was, she’s Sabrina! I said there’s no other Sabrina, this is Sabrina. It was just a quality she had. And, of course, she played an iconic blonde character in the ’60s, and that resonated with the role.” 

Spell it out

An image from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Stories of witches have been used as tools for empowerment for years. There’s an entire wave of horror cinema devoted to the persecuted woman, whose powers become synonymous with sexuality and power. For Aguirre-Sacasa, this fascination with witchcraft is a deeply personal one. As he grew up in a strict, religious household, watching films about witches became a source of freedom. 

“It’s true, some of my favourite horror movies are witch movies,” he says. “I saw Rosemary’s Baby at a young age and became obsessed with it. I didn’t understand it at the time because it didn’t feel like many scary things happened in it. It wasn’t until I was older that I understood how terrifying it was, and how much of a betrayal had happened in it."

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"I grew up Catholic in Georgetown, close to where The Exorcist took place, which made me very scared of the Devil. And devils and witches have always been associated, so I think that’s where the fascination came from. I also love narratives that have strong female protagonists and I love the way witchcraft combines horror and feminism. It’s a very strong mix; that’s always attracted me.”

It looks like Aguirre-Sacasa has fully embraced the imagery of his favourite films, with pictures of Shipka walking with her broomstick and undergoing her initiation into the coven. Then there’s the eerie teaser, which shows Sabrina about to blow out the candles on her birthday cake as she sits opposite a horned figure steeped in shadow. Its mix of sweet and sinister is seriously creepy, and that’s exactly what Aguirre-Sacasa wants. 

“It doesn’t start as dark as the comic,” he says. “But as the series progresses and the episodes unfold, it gets darker and darker. Sabrina is put through the ringer. It does get gory and there’s quite a bit of body horror. It goes to some pretty disturbing places!”

This feature originally appeared in our sister publication, SFX magazine. Pick up the latest copy now or subscribe so you never miss an issue.

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