There’s a serious problem in the Spellman household: Sabrina is allergic to Salem. Or at least Kiernan Shipka is. “I get a call that says, ‘Kiernan is allergic to the cat,’” Sabrina showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa says. “It did go through my mind: Could Salem be a dog?” The ultimate answer, of course, was no. Salem has to be a cat… but does Sabrina have to be a witch?
That’s the central struggle during season 1 of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the latest project featuring the beloved Archie Comics character — best known from the ’90s sitcom Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, which starred Melissa Joan Hart as the half-mortal, half-witch who lived with her aunts and relied on Salem, her talking cat, for guidance (and snarky comments). But this adaptation is less about laughs — no hall closets double as portals — and instead is loosely based on the 2014 comic of the same title written by Aguirre-Sacasa.
“We’re not remaking Sabrina, The Teenage Witch,” says Lucy Davis, who plays Sabrina’s Aunt Hilda. “This is a different thing.” More specifically, Aguirre-Sacasa adds: “The idea was to do a dark horror version of Sabrina, something that was more of a slow-burn horror, like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby and all those great satanic horror movies from the 1960s and 1970s.”
The series kicks off in the town of Greendale in the days leading up to Sabrina’s 16th birthday. But a sweet 16 it is not. Rather, it’s the day Sabrina has to decide her future. While some teens are picking out their first cars, Sabrina is choosing between a human life and a magical one. That decision only becomes more complicated when choosing her powers could mean losing her free will.
“There’s this minor little thing of signing your soul away that sounds a little intense to Sabrina,” says Shipka. The star, who was Aguirre-Sacasa’s first choice, is best known for her work as Sally Draper on AMC’s Mad Men. Now she’s playing a Sabrina who has to decide whether she will pledge her allegiance to the Dark Lord (a must to become a full-fledged witch). “Sabrina has to stand up to the devil and these very formidable opponents, and someone like Kiernan has the gravitas and assuredness to do that,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. Adds Shipka: “She’s this young, really badass, outspoken girl who is still individuating herself and figuring out love, as well as honing in on her power and struggling between these two completely separate worlds.”
One world is home to her aunts Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda, with whom she lives, and the other is home to her boyfriend, Harvey (Ross Lynch), and her school friends. “The show melds a whole lot of different tones because there’s a sweet, lighter tone of the high school and the romance between Sabrina and Harvey, and then you’ve got the darker tone of the Spellman house and everything that goes on in there,” Otto says.
But what happens if Sabrina doesn’t want to give up either? “[The season is] following her dark education,” Aguirre-Sacasa says, referring to each episode as its own mini-movie (with one paying homage to The Exorcist). “It’s all part of a bigger arc, which is her trying to hold on to her humanity as her witch nature is developed.”
And by Sabrina’s side through the entire journey will be her familiar, Salem… though not too close. “We keep at a safe distance,” Shipka says, joking that “it’s like, ‘Actors That Didn’t Get Along in Shows: Kiernan and the Cat Hated Each Other.’”
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina hits Netflix on Oct. 26.