Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
So, I just binged Netflixs’ The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and I loved it. It was cute when it needed to be, it was funny when the viewer needed it, and it was dark and creepy at all the right times. The series is just well written all around. The show’s success has a lot to do with the absolutely adorable Kierman Shipka, who plays the titular teenage witch. She perfectly captures a young woman caught between the human world and the supernatural.
The show is also shocking in the fact that most of the characters are Satanist. I suspect that this will create quite a bit of controversy. They are not however Leveyist or any type of real-world Satanist, more like an insiders point of view of how witches acted if all the the 17th century New Englander’s superstitions about witches were true. I will discuss this more when I talk about witches and Lovecraft.
I though that the show would be packed full of Lovecraft references, since the big squid himself appears as a suitor of Sabrina in After Life with Archie, and CAoS’, companion show Riverdale, had a throwaway reference to HPL’s 1923 Miskatonic University’s Antarctic Expidition, form his story The Mountains of Madness. And there are some, but they are not as blatant as I thought there might be.
Before we go too far let’s set some definitions. There are two kind of Lovecraftian Easter eggs in the show. The first is Lovecraft tropes, these are themes and motifs that are now common place in horror that HPL popularized. The second one is a Lovecraft shout out, where the writers seem to be deliberately tipping their hat to Lovecraft.
The show of course pays homage to much more than Lovecraft. There are shoutouts to Hellraiser, The Exorcist, Harry Potter, Ray Bradberry, The Fog, The Hunger Games, and many others including of course the whole mythos of Archie Comics.
I could not write this with out some spoilers for both Sabrina and The Cthulhu Mythos if you have read those stories I would encourage you to do os.
The first trope is Lovecraft Country. Most of HPL’s stories where set in his beloved New England. His most famous cities are Arkham, Innsmouth and Dunwich, are all set in Massachusetts. Creepy rural east coast towns cut off from mainstream civilization were a staple of Lovecraft’s pulp writings. Sabrina’s hometown of Greendale has a lot in common with the Whatley’s old stomping ground of Dunwich MA (not the least of which is a witch cult) In the comic books it is stated to be in Massachusetts, though it is implied that the television version is near the town in the CW’s Riverdale which is apparently in upstate New York. But with the, leaves turning on trees, crumbling buildings, railroad tracks that lead to nowhere and indefinite time period, Greendale is firmly in Lovecraft country no matter what its zip code it’s in physically.
Lovecraft subverted a lot of the traditional ideas of 1920’s pulp horror. The vampire in The Shunned House was a plant-like alien creature, magic is an advanced form of mathematics, but his witches are pretty much strait out of standard New England superstition’s and folklore. The witch or warlock is seen in several HPL tales, The Festival, Dreams of the Witch House, Dunwhich Horror, The Thing at the Doorstep, Dream Quest of the Unknown Kadath and The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Witches show up in his stories more often than the shaggoths, deep ones and ghouls combined. They are never however very factual representations of historical witches though.
In the writtings of HPL only the wisest and most experienced of warlocks or sorcerers (all of whom are pretty much male) understand that they gain their power form creatures form a different planet or dimension, and that much of the superstitious trappings are added by uneducated cultists. The Coven in Sabrina is called The Church of Night, whose name is similar to the name of the one is The Haunter of the Dark, The Church of the Starry Wisdom. Sabrina and her family have familiars, her cousin Ambrose’s is changed from snakes in the comic books to a mouse named Leviathan (the name of Lovecraftian creature like entity in the old testament) where Kaziah Mason has a rat familiar named Brown Jenkin in Dreams in the Witch house. Both versions of witches have unhallowed ceremonies, such as is showcased in HPL’s The Festival and Sabrina’s, The Feast of Feasts. Both have cannibals, Aunt Zilda, “Its been a long time since I have long pig.”, and the ending of Rats in the Wall. Basically, the witches in Sabrina have more in common with Lovecraft’s than they do with real witches.
Lovecraft didn’t create the idea of a dark book of things that men weren’t meant to learn, but he perfected it in the Necronomicon. Soon after he reveled his evil book, everyone in his circle had to create one, De Vermniiss Mysteriies, Cultes Du Ghoules or Nameless Cults. Sabrina has quite a few too. Nick Scratch even warns the teenage witch to quote the words from a grimoire correctly, much like the warning to Ash about the Necronomicon in Army of Darkness (“Maybe I didn’t say every syllable”) However they are a bit tongue in cheek calling one “The Satanic Verses” which of course in not a magical tome, but Salaman Rushdie’s, satirical work on Mohmad. At one point they are reading “The Satanic Bible.” Which is Anton LeVey’s philosophical attack on traditional religion rather than a real or serious demonic scripture. The closest a book comes to the Necornomicon in the show, is The Book of the Dead, which has the spell ot resurrect Tommy, Harvey’s brother.
Supernaturally induced insanity is a mainstay of Lovecraft’s writings. It is so prevalent that there is an entire game mechanic built in to the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Role Playing Game. We see this happen in CAoS when Harvey saw the Dark Lord in the mines as a child he develops a lifelong fear of his family mines. When Suzie’s Uncle Jesse is posed in the minds by Apothis he is driven insane, but is seemingly cured when he is exercised.
Now DCotU leaves Trope Town and heads to Shoutout City. Before we are now going to talk about where I think the writers are specify paying homage to Lovecraft, as opposed to just using Lovecraftian Tropes.
Other Authors. There are different shout outs to other authors. Father Blackwood’s name come from Algernon Blackwood, the author of the short story The Wendigo. Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose shares his name with horror writer extraordinaire Ambrose Bierce. Principle Hawthorne is of course an homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne who wrote among other things The House of the Seven Gables. And Sabrina’s high school teams are named The Ravens, in Honor of Edgar Allen Poe. So, what does this have to do with Lovecraft? Well all four of these authors were singled out by HP in his book Supernatural Horror in Literature as influences on him.
One of the most obvious shout outs to HP is the painting of Cthulhu in father Blackwood’s office. Did you miss it? It’s seen clearly three times. It is opposite his desk, so the huge painting is seen clearly three times once when he is talking to aunt Zelda, then Mary Wardwell, and then finally when he is talking to Ambrose. It has a huge head green with many tentacles sprouting out it like rays of light form the sun. I tried twice to screen capture it so I could share it with you but both times I got just black squares and so I thought, maybe I shouldn’t trifle with things that are beyond my control. Bonus points like all other 150 paintings in The Unseen Academy it was drawn by horror master Clive Barker.
A Psychopomp is a literary embodiment of an escort to the afterlife, like the Grim Reaper. In Sabrina, they are being that roam the astral plane and take the form of birds in the physical realm. Psychopomp is also the name of a poem by HP Lovecraft, his creatures in it are closer to werewolves and possibly the most traditional of all his monsters. But his most famous use of a psychopomp is in the Dunwhich Horror, where he plumbs New England folklore and comes up with the Whippoorwill. Legend has it that these birds escort the souls the departed. Remember how I told you CAoS uses birds to represent the Psychopomps they are a different color, but their bodies look a lot like whippoorwills.
The final Lovecraft shoutout I am going to mention is a big one. TCAoS episode five is Called Dreams in a Witch House. Lovecraft of course wrote The Dreams in the Witch House. There is a lot in Spellman Mortuary that reminds of the wicked domicile in Lovecraft’s short story, especially the description of the ill-fated student Walter Gillman’s loft and what we see of Ambrose’s room. The sleep demon Batibat (who takes its name from a Pilipino demon) looks and acts a lot like Lovecraft’s witch Keziah Mason.