The untold truth of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is worlds away — or roughly 666 miles — from previous depictions of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The plucky, 16-year-old spellcaster debuted in Archie Comics in the early 1970s with stories focused on the character balancing her powers with regular teen stuff, like high school and dating good-guy Harvey Kinkle. She also lived with her aunts Hilda and Zelda Spellman, and had a cat named Salem, all of which easily transferred over to the 1996-2003 sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is not that show. 

Sure, all the characters are there, but this one takes its premise seriously and darkly. Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) buts heads with Satan's earthly emissary and must decide whether or not to commit herself to a life of darkness and sorcery. The series already looks to be a horror classic in the making. Let's take a peek behind the black curtain to reveal the untold truth of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

'CW' doesn't stand for 'crafty witches'

Considering Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a hip, modern take on a decades-old comics property; a show about teenagers wise beyond their years; and a project centered around a strong female character, it's bewildering that it doesn't air on The CW. That network presents a programming lineup made up almost entirely of comic book shows (The Flash), teen shows (All American), or shows centered around remarkable women (Jane the Virgin). It's also the creation of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who also made Riverdale, a CW show based on Sabrina-adjacent Archie comic books. But Chilling Adventures is a Netflix show, because The CW and the show's producers just couldn't see eye to eye.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, The CW developed Chilling Adventures, but network executives lost interest — they were reportedly more committed to airing another witch-themed show: a reboot of Charmed. However, Chilling Adventures production company, Warner Bros., was pleased when Netflix picked up that which The CW dropped. On the streaming service, Warner retains full ownership of the series, but had it stayed at The CW, the latter's business structure would have required Warner Bros. to split revenue with "corporate cousin" CBS. 

They're not in Riverdale anymore

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is closely related to fellow moody teen show Riverdale. Both originated in Archie Comics, and both enjoyed dark, print revivals under the creative and watchful eye of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. He's in charge of Chilling Adventures, and yet he almost brought Sabrina back to TV by way of the other show he runs: Riverdale. Aguirre-Sacasa initially considered introducing Sabrina as a major, end-of-season twist for Riverdale's first season. "We were trying to think of a cliffhanger that would guarantee that we got a Season 2," Aguirre-Sacasa told Collider. He'd planned to add Veronica Lodge's father, Hiram Lodge, as a villain, but he didn't think that was enough and voiced his concerns to Riverdale Executive Producer Greg Berlanti. "And he said, 'What about Sabrina? I think that would mean more to the audience.'" 

Aguirre-Sacasa agreed but had difficulty fitting Sabrina into the Riverdale world. "The question became, would we introduce Sabrina as a supernatural character, or would we have to do a non-supernatural version of Sabrina, like for instance, say that she's a cult member or a practicing pagan, but not a supernatural witch." Eventually, Aguirre-Sacasa and his staff "ran out of time" to do anything with Sabrina and went with a cliffhanger that involved Archie Andrew's dad left for dead by a masked gunmen. Then, much later, when spin-off talks developed, the real Sabrina TV presence started to take form.

The creator took a Chance

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina maintains a lofty but narrow balance between dark and campy and fun and frightening, and it takes a seasoned cast of veteran performers to pull it off. Kiernan Shipka (Sabrina Spellman) grew up on TV as Sally Draper on Mad Men, while Lucy Davis is recognizable from her work in Wonder Woman and the original British version of The Office. Holding his own with those heavy hitters is Chance Perdomo, who plays warlock cousin Ambrose Spellman — a character who's initially under house arrest at the Spellman family's home and mortuary because of his role in a plot to blow up the Vatican (teen Satan-worshipping boys will be teen Satan-worshipping boys). 

Before Chilling Adventures, Perdomo had only about half a dozen screen credits to his name, so how did he land a major role on a prominent teen series? Because he almost won a major role on a different prominent teen series. According to Chilling Adventures creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (via The Hollywood Reporter), Perdomo auditioned to play Jughead Jones on Aguirre-Sacasa's Riverdale. The writer-producer loved Perdomo's audition but didn't think he was right for the part. When it came time to make Chilling Adventures, he crafted Ambrose with Perdomo in mind.

The cast looked to the past

It's hard to believe that Miranda Otto, the same woman who played warrior queen Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings movies, also plays the clever and wicked Zelda Spellman on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Performers pull from all around, both inside themselves and outside influences, to craft a character. Otto's distinctive, stylized take on the unabashedly evil (but family first) witch largely hails from two distinct places. "She has a lot of male characteristics. She's not super-soft and she's not super-nurturing," Otto told Vulture. "Sitting behind the newspaper at breakfast, like images of the dads from the 1950s or something." Balancing out that Ward Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver vibe is a dose of classic Hollywood leading lady. "There's a Gloria Swanson reference. There's a Joan Crawford-y, Bette Davis thing going on."

Actress Tati Gabrielle similarly looked to icons of the past to inform her ever-so-slightly campy work as the extremely confident, swirling ball of energy that is Prudence Night, leader of the Weird Sisters. "Eartha Kitt was a really big inspiration," she told Vulture. "The way that Eartha Kitt carried herself was very elegant but so powerful. The way that she moved and the way that she spoke was so pointed."

Salem's lot

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is easily the darkest and most sober adaptation of the character to date, with most of the sillier elements excised, such as a talking cat. But one just can't make a Sabrina show and fail to include Salem. He may not crack wise with the voice of Nick Bakay as he did on the '90s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but the sleek black cat does silently and importantly factor into many episodes' plot lines. And to think, Salem almost didn't make the cut.

That's because Kiernan Shipka, the actress who portrays Sabrina, is allergic to cats. "It's not a respiratory thing. I break out in really bad hives," she told Collider. "It's really only when I touch the cat. It's not like if I go in a house where a cat lives I'm going to stop breathing all of a sudden or something like that." While she makes that seem like not a huge deal, it was potentially devastating for Chilling Adventures creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. "I get a call that says, 'Kiernan is allergic to the cat,'" he told Entertainment Weekly. "It did go through my mind: Could Salem be a dog?" (He finally came to his senses — witches traditionally hang out with cats, not dogs.)

Hair's the story

One element of the Sabrina mythos that carried over in Chilling Adventures: Sabrina's extra-bright, platinum blonde hair. When actress Kiernan Shipka first tried out for the part, she may have nailed the role, but her hair wasn't working for producers. "I had long, dark brown hair during my first audition and was really just living my best life," she told Glamour. "I've always been blond, so it was like, 'I'm free from the blond hair!' But then the folks in charge told her they needed to see her one more time … and to lighten up. "They were like, 'We gotta have you audition again, and we think you need blond hair for it." Shipka dyed her hair and got the role.

However, if Sabrina would be blonde, they couldn't well have her boyfriend, Harvey, also be blond, now could they? And so, just as the dark-haired Shipka had to lighten her locks, the blond Ross Lynch — as seen in My Friend Dahmer and videos for his band, Driver Era — had to dye his 'do brown. "I'm pretty much used to it now," Lynch told Elle. "I'll probably go back to blond eventually. But so far I like that Harvey's brunette."

It's refreshingly inclusive

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has made positive strides toward diversity in television. It's low-key one of the most inclusive shows on mainstream American TV. The series is realistic in that there are characters of many races, sexual identities, and gender identities, and those differences are rarely if ever discussed — it's all intentional on the part of the creative team. "When you talk about any television show now, especially youth shows, it's so important for young people to see themselves on screen, or to see a version of their story and their journey on screen," creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa told Collider. He said team members "wanted to include as many kinds of diverse characters and characters of different orientation on the show as we could." 

The show consulted GLAAD and other organizations to make sure it got it right and specifically sought out performers "who identified as queer, identified as non-binary, and identified as transgender." Lachlan Watson, who portrays Sabrina's close friend, Susie Putnam, identities as non-binary and helped Aguirre develop her character to make for "a more authentic journey." The character of Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) identifies as pansexual. At a New York Comic Con panel (via The Hollywood Reporter), Perdomo said he finds it "personally and artistically gratifying" to portray "a pansexual person of color with depth, who is not one-dimensional." Additionally, Production Designer Lisa Soper is a practicing pagan and actress Lucy Davis (Aunt Hilda) says one of the show's writers and a crew member identify as witches.

Yep, the set is haunted

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a horror series that deals with all kinds of scary stuff, from Satanic rituals to cannibalistic demons to witches who bring loved ones back from the dead. Dealing with that kind of subject matter on the set, all day long for months on end, may have summoned up some things the cast and crew would have preferred to have left alone.

"Those sets are genuinely spooky when you're on your own," actress Michelle Gomez (Miss Wardell) revealed during a cast interview with TV Insider. "The walls are holding some energy, for sure." Lucy Davis (Aunt Hilda) spoke of a general feeling of unease on one part of the set. "I've brought a few guests in and none of them like being in the embalming room," she said. But perhaps the spookiest thing went down during an episode read-through. As the cast read the script out loud, one phrase scarily activated a heretofore unknown smartphone feature. According to Chance Perdomo, "As soon as we mentioned the Dark Lord, Siri went, 'You summoned me?' And we all went, 'Whoa!"

The Solstice episode was a holiday miracle

In late 2018, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina fans received a surprise Solstice present: a bonus holiday episode called "A Midwinter's Tale." A standalone episode that satiated fans until new episodes dropped the following spring, it's probably the first Winter Solstice-themed episode in TV holiday history. (This is, after all, a show about witches and ancient religion, where a Solstice is much more important than Christmas.)

The special is just as well-made as the rest of Chilling Adventures, and yet it was a rather last-minute addition to the series. "We weren't originally going to do it," creator and showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa told Vulture, but then some holiday magic intervened. "I was having dinner with one of the writers, and we were talking about how much we liked Christmas horror movies. And I thought, Geez, I really wish we were doing a Christmas Sabrina to do some of those great Christmas horror legends." Aguirre-Sacasa decided to push their other work aside in favor of some holiday horror. The team decided to tell the story of Gryla and Yule Lads, based on Scandinavian mythological tales. They opted to avoid the most famous Christmas monster, Krampus, because there'd been a mainstream movie about it and because that idea "has sort of been adopted by people in Brooklyn." Thanks, hipsters!

Give this Hack some credit

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina boasts such an elaborate, stylish, and mood-setting animated opening sequence that makes it difficult to take Netflix's suggestion to skip the intro. The show is based on a dark comic book of the same name, which, like the show, came from the mind of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. A comic book's cover is comparable to a show's credit sequence, and so, when Aguirre-Sacasa sold his Chilling Adventures TV adaptation, he brought in the comic's prominent cover artist, Robert Hack, to create that intro. The comic veteran put together the images that make up the animated sequence, some of them taken straight from the pages of the book series. 

One thing he did have to change, ever so slightly, where the visages of the characters depicted. "Towards the end of the process, they brought me in to do some specific images of the cast, but I really tried to do them as if they were specific panels from the book, so that they would match with what was taken from the book," Hack told Vulture. Specifically, he made "drawn" Sabrina and Harvey more closely resemble the actors who play them, Kiernan Shipka and Ross Lynch, respectively. Hack had experience with that sort of work, having created comic adaptations of Doctor Who and The X-Files with faces of the actors from those shows.

A statute over a statue

Sabrina Spellman attends classes at the Academy of the Unseen Arts, which is like a dark and frightening Hogwarts. Enjoying a prominent position in the school is a statue meant to depict the Dark Lord (Satan), who has the head of a goat and is flanked by worshipful kids. It looks ancient, but, as a lawsuit alleges, the sculpture was built only a few years ago, under the direction of the Satanic Temple. According to The New York Times, that's not a devil-worshipping church, but rather an activist group that seeks to "reject tyrannical authority" and to "encourage benevolence and empathy among all people." 

The Satanic Temple also keeps tabs on the power of organized religions. It used its goat-headed statue, "Baphomet With Children," to "protest religious statues appearing on public property," the NYT reported. The Satanic Temple tried to get its statue installed on the grounds of the Oklahoma Capitol building, challenging the existence of a Ten Commandments monument there. (The Oklahoma Supreme Court ordered that the Ten Commandments be removed, and so Baphomet took his mission elsewhere.)

Alleging that the Academy of the Unseen Arts statue completely ripped off the design of its statue, the Satanic Temple sued Chilling Adventures producer Warner Bros. and Netflix for copyright infringement, and for negatively impacting the Temple's reputation (because it equated the statue with evil). The parties reportedly reached an out-of-court agreement in November 2018, just two weeks after filing suit.