Does the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina fetishise the occult?

When cult favourite Sabrina the Teenage Witch had its universe expanded onto Netflix, large swathes of people were understandably delirious. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, has been generally praised and offers viewers a deliciously darker experience than the 1990s classic series. Recently however, the producers of the show have had a lawsuit filed against them – by the Satanic Temple activist group.

The organisation’s co-founder Lucien Greaves posted a picture on Twitter comparing a statue used in the show to one belonging to the temple. He later confirmed on the social media platform that Satanic Temple “are taking legal action regarding #TheChillingAdventuresofSabrina appropriating our copyrighted monument design to promote their asinine Satanic Panic fiction.”

Satanic Temple, despite its name, does not believe in a supernatural lucifer. The statue is one of Baphomet, a goat deity who the Knights Templar were accused of worshipping and has been aligned with occultism ever since.

Despite this, the character seen with the statue in Sabrina are open devil worshippers who engage in non consensual prayer and dine on human flesh. Satanic Temple argue that the show’s choice of imagery incorrectly associates the activities of such “evil antagonists” with their organisation, who do nothing of the sort. Their goal, in their own words, is “to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people.”

Satanic Temple, founded in 2012, campaign for the separation of the church and the state, holding Satan up as a symbol of opposition against “arbitrary authority.” Their membership reportedly soared in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential election victory, which is perhaps how the show’s producers became aware of it. Unfortunately, whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, Netflix can be accused of a certain level of ignorance. Such beliefs are arguably commodified and fetishised for the purposes of entertainment, and at the same time they risk fuelling a lingering moral panic about minority groups such as this.

The United States, still a predominantly Christian nation, has a history of misrepresenting the non- religious and the occult throughout movies and television. Criticisms have been sent in the direction of films like The Craft (1996) or TV series like American Horror Story for promoting misconceptions about witches, namely that they are all devil-worshippers, anointed from birth or just pure evil.

In the UK, Ofcom came down hard on ‘occult-related practices’ in television advertisements, outright banning the promotion of palmistry and ouija among others and providing strict guidelines for the likes of tarot card readings. The occult is very rarely given the accuracy of portrayal often demanded for religious groups, and that is when it is allowed to be portrayed at all.

That being said, Satanic Temple do not speak for all. The Church of Satan – a completely separate organisation from Satanic Temple – released a statement explaining that to them the statue is not an example of appropriation nor an exact copy, since it took a number of references from elsewhere. Reverend Joel Ethan ends the statement by adding that the actions of Satanic Temple “are not in any way representative of the apolitical, individualistic and atheistic religion of Satanism.”

Leaving aside the argument as to whether appropriation has to offend everyone in order to be labelled wrong, this is clearly a contested issue. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is just the latest example of popular media having accusations of misrepresentation throw in its direction. While offence is not unanimously felt and injustice not indubitably present, the show’s producers may do well to be slightly more mindful of their role in the ever-volatile arena of media portrayal.

Image: NZHAMSTAR via Flickr

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