Saturday, October 27, 2018

LIGHT AS A FEATHER, STIFF AS A BOARD: LITERARY AND HISTORIC REFERENCES IN THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA


I—like so many of you, I’m sure—have been watching Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Now I’m not even halfway through yet, but I have to say, the literature and history nerd in me is totally alive and well as I jump into Greendale and hang out with the Spellman family.

After a quick spell in Salem, MA a few weeks ago, the history and ghosts of the men and women involved in the Salem Witch Trials is still whispering to me at night. Couple that with the fact that I’ve been teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson, and Henry James the last few classes, and it’s easy to see why the occult has been brewing in my head.

What I love most about this series so far is how much the writers are pulling from literature to build their characters while still managing to pay homage to the past. Some of the examples I’ve seen so far:

Principal Hawthorne: This is a nod to either one of two people: (1) Nathaniel Hawthorne, who is a famous American writer who wrote about witchcraft in an effort to assuage the crimes of his ancestors, who were directly involved in the Salem Witch Trials. (Side note: He was so ashamed by his family’s actions that he even added a “W” to his last name in an effort to remove himself from them. My recommendation for those interested in checking out his work: “Young Goodman Brown”) OR (2) John Hathorne, who was one of the judges for the Salem Witch Trials who took on the role of prosecutor and became the only judge not to repent for his actions.

          “The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds--the creaking of the trees, the howling of            wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while sometimes the wind tolled like a distant church bell,            and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveler, as if all Nature were laughing him to 
          scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene and shrank not from its other horrors.” -
          Nathaniel Hawthorne.


Salem the Cat: This one is a pretty obvious choice what with the witch trails happening in Salem, MA and all, but for those of you interested in reading more about what happened there in 1692, I recommend the book A Season with the Witch by J.W. Ocker.



The Weird Sisters: The Weird Sisters are the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and if you look closely, they have a striking similarity to the Fates (Past, Present, and Future) of Greek Mythology. These are wise women, fortune tellers, masters of divination. In Macbeth, they act as beacons of Macbeth’s future, and in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, they act as entities trying to control Sabrina’s fate. I don’t need to say that I’m a fan of the feminist twist that's happening in this show, but what’s worth noting here is how Sabrina takes control of her life and focuses on the embodiment of free will.

            “What are these,
            So withered, and so wild in their attire,
            That look not like th'inhabitants o'th' earth
            And yet are on't? - Live you, or are you aught
            That man may question? You seem to understand me,
            By each at once her choppy finger laying
            Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
            And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
            That you are so.”  ― 
William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Susie Putnam: Susie Putnam is one of Sabrina’s closet friends in the show, and she’s someone who Sabrina is constantly trying to protect as she’s become a target of sexual abuse / gender shaming. She tells Sabrina at one point that four football payers lifted up her shirt to see if she was a girl, and when Sabrina took this to Principal Hawthorne, he asked her if the two of them were trying to start a witch hunt. How this relates to history is that Ann Putnam, who was a child at the time in Salem, MA, was friends with the girls who helped to start the witch hysteria in 1692, and who also claimed to be afflicted by witchcraft herself. Unlike some of the others, Ann made it out alive and apologized for her actions years later.

Quentin: Quentin is a ghost child who watches over Sabrina when she first enters The Academy of Unseen Arts. We find out that he is a victim of The Harrowing and that he—and the others—want revenge (thank you Auntie Hilda!) on those who are continuing this dangerous hazing ritual at the school. While this one is a bit of a stretch, it reminded me of Quint from “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James. Quint’s character is also a ghost who is attached to Bly and seems to have his heart set on Miles.  Again, this would be another example of flipping the character’s intent as Quentin in the show is there to help Sabrina, rather than act as her undoing.

The references I’ve listed above have made my own adventures with the show a lot of fun, and when you couple that with the feminist overtones and how the women are supporting each other throughout the series (seriously, that WICCA club made be so happy), it’s easy to see why I’ve so quickly become a fan. I plan to write more as I make my way through the series, but in the meantime, I’m curious: what references have you folks picked up on so far? Leave them in the comments!

With star dust and fire,
Stephanie M. Wytovich