“The Devil’s Cathedral”: Puritan Visions of the Wilderness in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

As a child, I was obsessed with witches. The moment those vibrant autumnal leaves began to fall from the trees and the slick tarmac roads started to look as though they had been adorned in a festive Halloween crepe of orange and black, I would begin to plan my costume: constructing a cape from a plastic rubbish bag; scouring shops for the blackest, pointiest hat available; testing various brands of face paint to determine the most appropriately cadaverous shade of green. Of course I wanted to be a witch! Witches are powerful women, adept in arcane skills, capable of bending the pliable forms of reality to their will. For me, though, it wasn’t just the power wielded by witches that attracted me to this archetypal character; I was also entranced by the manner in which these potent, peripheral figures inhabited the wild places of the dark world. Witches always seemed at one with natural spaces. They thrived in tenebrous forests, in moonlit clearings, at the icy source of mountain springs. Witches, to my childish mind, seemed inextricably linked to the liminal space of the wilderness, merging with its shadows, inhabiting its most savage corners. More than just their entanglement with nature, witches seemed capable of imbuing the everyday with a sense of wonder, transforming the mundane into something spectacular. In numerous depictions of pagan masses and witches’ sabbaths, the architecture of nature is transformed into a resplendent pantheistic cathedral: trees become swooping buttresses, a rock becomes an altar, a twig transforms into a wand. Witches always seemed possessed of a unique capacity to inhabit and transform these dark, sunless places. They slipped so secretly, like spectres, into darkened forests and within the howling wilderness built their churches, their cathedrals, their houses of worship.

Salvator Rosa, “The Witches’ Sabbath” (1635/1654)

This association between witchcraft and the wild has long been a key facet of American thought. From the moment the first Puritan settlers arrived on the shores of the vast, inhospitable New World, the immensity of the American continent and its dark, wooded expanses inspired an awe and terror so great that the fledgling community could only conceive of their new environs in apocalyptic, biblical terms. Commenting on the darkness that appears to have always lurked within the American landscape, playing tricks on the demon-haunted minds of the new settlers and casting phantasmagoric shadows against the walls of their isolated cottages, the author Joyce Carol Oates writes:

How uncanny, how mysterious, how unknowable and infinitely beyond their control must have seemed the vast wilderness of the New World, to the seventeenth-century Puritan settlers! The inscrutable silence of Nature the muteness that, not heralding God, must be a dominion of Satan’s […]

The immense vistas of North America were a contradictory space, invoking awe in both their terrifying vastness and their potential for rejuvenation and renewal. Indeed, for the early American colonists, utopian dreamers who sought to build God’s kingdom in the wilds of New England, the American continent initially presented itself as an Edenic space, a return to prelapsarian innocence in which an ideal community could be built according to the ecclesiastical demands of Puritanism. Enthusiastic accounts of the early New England plantations describe a land that was not only fruitful and ripe for colonisation, but virtually paradisiacal in its supposed virtues. One colonist, Francis Higginson (1588 – 1630), described the fledging community at Salem as uniquely peaceful, fertile and salubrious:

The Temper of Aire of New-England is one speciall thing that commends this place. Experience doth manifest that there is hardly a more healthfull place to be found in the world that agreeth better with our English Bodyes. Many that have beene weake and sickly in old England, by coming hither have been thoroughly healed and growne healthfull and strong […] (qtd. in The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings, edited by Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, pp. 124)

Yet despite this idealism and the promise of an earthly paradise where the air is purer and the land yields a wealth of riches and resources, the seventeenth-century Puritan exiles were nevertheless confronted by an immense, inscrutable wilderness whose obsidian forests evoked an awe that was perhaps more diabolical than divine.

Winthrop Chandler, Landscape, 1767–1769

While initially conceived of as a fresh, innocent pasture upon which a new kingdom of God could be established to illuminate a world of darkness and sin, the unassailable terror of the mysterious American continent became an inescapable source of horror for its first European settlers. In his exploration of the paranoid phantasmagoria that haunted the nascent communities of seventeenth-century America, Arthur Miller describes how:

The edge of the wilderness was close by. The American continent stretched endlessly west, and it was full of mystery for them. It stood, dark and threatening, over their shoulders night and day […] (The Crucible, Act I)

The omnipresence of the wilderness, and the dark potential which it signified, was a pervasive cause of concern for American Puritan communities. Yet more than just the anxiety of the wilds encroaching on the borders of meagre civilisation, the impenetrable forests of the New World appeared to signify something more sinister, something diabolical. More than just a place of mystery and threat, this alien landscape seemed possessed by the nefarious adversary whose sole purpose appeared to be the destruction of the Puritan Eden. In perhaps the most well-known articulation of the threats facing the godly settlers of the seventeenth century, the influential clergyman Cotton Mather (1663-1728) famously conflated the danger posed by the natural and the supernatural worlds, imagining the dim, shadowy regions of the American wilderness to be the domain of the devil. For Mather, the Puritans who were tasked with building a new Jerusalem in the wilds of America would inevitably find themselves besieged by the forces of the Devil, the bestial entity who, banished from the gentle garden of the heavenly paradise, acts as the master of the savage wastes. The unknown spaces of nature are thus the Devil’s realm. As Mather observes in his theological and historical investigation of the diabolical, Wonders of the Invisible World (1693):

The New-Englanders, are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devils Territories; and it may easily be supposed that the Devil was Exceedingly disturbed, when he perceived such a people here accomplishing the Promise of old made unto our Blessed Jesus […] (S II.)

In his assertion that the New England settlers, in their mission to create an ideal Christian community at the furthest reaches of the known world, were venturing into the Devil’s territories, Mather not only established a tradition of American paranoia that would reverberate through the subsequent centuries, but he also exposed a deep-seated anxiety about the limits of the Puritans’ “civilising”, Christianising endeavour. While Mather’s pious New-Englanders may have been ardently striving to carve out an ecclesiastical utopia in the unfamiliar expanses of North America, his belief that the community had trespassed upon the Devil’s domain suggests that even for the most idealistic missionaries, there were places that could not be reached, forever mysterious and beyond the bounds of God’s grace.

Yet in conceiving of natural spaces as imbued with a demonic magic, Mather still frames his vision of diabolism in decidedly Christian terms, through the lens of church sacraments and ecclesiastical rites. In his description of evidence presented during the Salem witch trials of 1692, for example, Mather notes how at a meeting of the witches in a village field the assembly “partook of a Diabolical Sacrament, in Bread and Wine then Administred” (II.IV). While it is possible that the perverted sacramental iconography that defines Mather’s account, and hundreds of other descriptions of witches’ sabbaths, may speak to the limits of the Early Modern imagination and its meagre capacity to visualise non-Christian worship as anything other than an inversion of Christianity, there is also a sense in which Mather’s vision speaks of the transformative potential of the wilderness. Not only is the forest the realm of the Devil, it is also a space wherein, through the metamorphic power of the supernatural, mundane features of nature are transmogrified into a church hewn from wood, rock and earth. Consequently, the wilderness serves as a shadowy reflection of the ordered, man-made dogmatism of God’s church on earth, where the strictures and hierarchies of Christianity are reconfigured as a liberated, natural space.

Woodcut of witches and devils, England, late 17th – early 18th century

It is this conception of the natural world as a dark reflection of the Christian church, a wild perversion of the dogma and rites of the godly Puritans, that presents one of the most intriguing legacies of early American witchcraft hysteria. Moreover, this construction of the wilderness as fundamentally diabolical, a depraved church beyond the bounds of law and order, is one that has continued to enliven the American popular imagination, even centuries after Cotton Mather penned his treatise on the subject. Re-emerging in such canonical texts as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), the Puritan vision of nature as the realm of the demonic continues to inform American literary culture. Recently, the demon-haunted wilderness of Mather’s paranoid screed has found its home not in the pages of theological discourse nor in volumes of canonical literary works, but instead it has manifested in the panels of that most populist of media: the comic book.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a comic book series created in 2014 by writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Robert Hack. Set in the 1960s, it explores the uniquely metamorphic experience of adolescence through the narrative conceit of a teenage witch developing her powers and growing into her magical identity. If the basic plot seems familiar, it is probable that many readers will recognise Sabrina Spellman from the popular Archie Comics publications and from her own series Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The character of Sabrina Spellman was created in 1962 and remained a popular feature of both comics and animated television shows throughout the following decades. However, children of the 1990s, like myself, will probably be most familiar with Sabrina from the live-action television sitcom that ran on ABC from 1996 until 2003.

Must resist urge to post hundreds of Salem quotes

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack’s reimaging of the character, however, signals something of a departure from these earlier iterations. Although continuing the original comic’s thematic conflation of the tribulations of adolescence with the unpredictable machinations of occult magic, Aguirre-Sacasa and Hack have produced a much darker rendering of both witchcraft and the teenage experience. In the introduction to the first volume of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, appropriately entitled The Crucible, Aguirre-Sacasa explicitly acknowledges his debt to previous literary and cinematic portrayals of witchcraft, including Miller’s influential critique of McCarthy-era paranoia and Roman Polanski’s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby(1968). Yet, as I have suggested, the core of the story remains Sabrina’s navigation of the adolescent experience, as the motifs and iconography of witchcraft are coded as manifestations of adolescent transformation and the turmoil of puberty. In his introduction to Volume I, Aguirre-Sacasa characterises The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina as a “dark, occult coming of age story”, and indeed the first issues of the comic are wholly preoccupied with Sabrina’s transition to adulthood, her transformation from child to woman.

Panel from Aguirre-Sacasa and Hack’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

As such, while the comic revisits many of the narrative hallmarks of both the ‘60s comic and the ‘90s television show—the intricacies of teen girl society, high school hierarchies, first romance—the centrepiece of the new incarnation of Sabrina is her initiation into the occult and her baptism as a witch. Echoing Mather’s construction of satanic rituals as a sinister inversion of Christian rites, the climax of the comic series is Sabrina’s baptism at the hands of her dark lord, Satan, in a secluded forest grove.

Sabrina’s baptism and her burgeoning identity as a witch are both explicitly framed in terms of puberty and the process of navigating nascent female sexuality. Indeed, across all the issues of the comic, Sabrina’s entrance into womanhood is presented as being coterminous with her entry into the esoteric realm of witchcraft. Describing her impending baptism, her rebirth as a witch, Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda draws on a language of mystical femininity that conflates the magic of the moon with the potency of menstrual blood:

As discussed, the ceremony would customarily take place on the first full moon after your sixteenth birthday… but I’ve already had your astral chart prepared … and your sixteenth birthday falls not just on a full moon, but on the best kind of full moon … a blood-moon… the same night as a lunar eclipse… on Samhain… (Chapter 3)

Within this ritualistic schema, womanhood and the biological manoeuvrings of the female body are clearly and deliberately connected to the mysterious powers of nature, that wild realm where the devil holds court over his subjects. In situating Sabrina’s diabolical baptism in the dark woods beneath a luminescent blood moon Aguirre-Sacasa is drawing on a tradition wherein femininity is conceived of as a subversive, dangerous and uncontrollable force. As such, Sabrina’s bloody initiation into both witchcraft and womanhood recalls the pervasive belief that female sexuality is not simply an unruly entity, but also one closely linked to the diabolical. Helping to codify this conflation of the feminine and the demonic, the early Christian leader Tertullian wrote in 197 CE that woman is “the Devil’s gateway” (qtd. in The Witch Hunts: A History of the Witch Persecutions in Europe and North America by Robert W. Thurston, pp. 65). For him, as for many theologians, the female body—with its unknowable interiority, mysterious cycles and porous boundaries—is inextricably bound up with both the inscrutable machinations of the devil and the mysteries of an equally obscure natural world. In this way, Tertullian’s rhetoric forms part of a larger set of cultural and medical discourses which have historically figured the feminine not only as more susceptible to occult influence, but also as closely associated with the sinister supernaturalism of nature. If nature is wild and unruly, beyond the reach of man’s control and antithetical to the rigid dogma of organised religion, then the female body too epitomises similar conceptions of incomprehensibility, threat and insubordination. After all, Tertullian was writing within an ideological framework which associated men with the mental, the rational and the civilised, while women were linked to physicality, irrationality and nature.

“Sabrina’s Goat Ride” by Robert Hack on Deviant Art

Dominant ideologies of the feminine, particularly those operative in early America, thus conceived of the feminine as an insubordinate, threatening force. Like the diabolical and its abode in the wilds of nature, femininity represented the potential to violently disrupt the ordered world of patriarchy, authority and dogma. As such, in the popular imagination, womanhood was regularly conflated with both the demonic and the wilderness. This is a theme which has recently manifested in Robert Eggers’s 2015 horror masterpiece, The Witch, a film wherein the burgeoning femininity of the teenage protagonist summons the unfettered feminine supernaturalism that resides deep within the woods and draws it into the rigid, patriarchal realm of the Puritan family home. In this context, incipient womanhood is a dangerous and powerful force. It is associated with transgression and with liminal spaces. Like the wilds of New England, it resists attempts to contain and subdue it, to enfold it within a Christian schema wherein it can be safely subordinated to a dogmatic patriarchy.

While the complex subject of how The Witch engages with Puritan conceptions of the natural world in relation to both femininity and the aesthetic concept of the sublime is a topic I am currently exploring in an article (co-authored with a colleague from the Department of Philosophy), I cannot help but be struck by how The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina foregrounds a similar vision of nature as closely intertwined with the dual subversive powers of femininity and the supernatural. Sabrina’s entry into witchcraft—and her concomitant entry into womanhood—necessarily takes place in the wilderness, in a space that was, for the early Puritan settlers, the domain of the devil. In one particularly emblematic scene, when a character queries where Sabrina’s baptism will take place, they are told that it will be carried out in the woods because “the woods are the Devil’s cathedral” (Chapter 3). Mirroring the Puritan understanding of the wilderness as a perverted, demonic church, Sabrina’s baptism rite recalls a satanic parody of the Christian sacraments. Like the diabolical sabbaths described in Mather’s writings, the witches in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina can only enter into the demonic coven once “they have Signed unto a Book, which the Devil show’d them” (Wonders of the Invisible World SII).

Moreover, the ceremony interweaves the natural, the demonic and the feminine into a single horrifying triptych, as the baptism is presided over by “the Queen of the Sabbath” who arrives in the guise of a Hecatean nun riding a monstrous stag. As though in mockery of the Christian rite of communion, Sabrina must also slaughter a goat, revelling in its blood before committing herself to the Devil. Again, the parallels between witchcraft and womanhood are rendered explicit, as witchcraft, like femininity, is associated with the chaotic, visceral realm of nature. Indeed, Aguirre-Sacasa and Hack depict the wilderness as not only the abode of the supernatural, but also as a thoroughly feminine space where witches dance naked under the full moon and chant “Hail Satan” in ecstasy.

Although created some three hundred years after Cotton Mather designated the American wilderness as “the Devils Territories”, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is explicitly informed by the Puritanical construction of the natural world as a diabolical church. Existing in opposition to the synthetic, man-made world of art, architecture, theology and culture; nature embodies the sensuality of the corporeal, the atavistic, the mystical and the feminine. As Sabrina initiates her rebirth as a witch*, saturated in blood and guided by the rhythms of the moon, it is clear that her emergence into the realm of the occult is defined by signifiers not only of puberty, menstruation and sexuality, but also by the setting of her initiation, in the wild spaces far from the control of patriarchal social structures. The woods in which Sabrina receives her satanic sacraments are overtly reminiscent of the evil natural spaces whose unknowable expanses tormented Mather and the early Puritans. Far beyond the ken of the religious exiles who laboured to build God’s kingdom in the alien landscape of the New World, nature appeared in Puritan tracts and sermons as a fundamentally inscrutable force. It was a mysterious entity whose vastness signalled not the placidity of Eden or the promise prelapsarian bliss, but rather the nefarious, byzantine workings of the devil and his ilk. Yet, in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, this savage space, far from the rigid strictures of civilisation, is also presented as the site of liberation and of a uniquely feminine freedom. As Sabrina’s aunt explains, the scene of her baptism is significant because of its liminal location, it “is an in-between place”, situated “between the wilds of the woods and the settled of the town” (Chapter 3). Thus, the witches’ sabbath depicted in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina not only draws on the Puritanical construction of nature as the realm of the demonic, it also reclaims the subversive power of nature, transforming the infernal wilderness into its own unique place of worship, a subversive church in which the paraphernalia of ritual is comprised of leaves and wood and bone instead of pews and hymn sheets and pulpits.

* I am consciously choosing not to discuss how and why her baptism is interrupted as the comic is still relatively new, and I feel this might spoil the plot for potential readers

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