WARNING: This articles contains spoilers for the first season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Proceed at your own risk, witches.
Greendale is a town that’s been lost in time. It’s late September at Baxter High School and walking the halls feels like drifting through a montage of different decades: Posters about the upcoming school dance cover the walls, loose pieces of homework float around with Tumblr domains scrawled in cursive, and ghost-like black and white portraits hang in the school library. Teenagers amble around, dressed like Grease extras in tailored button-downs and a-line dresses, their lips rouged and their shoes shined.
If Greendale — the idyllic small town where Netflix’s new series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, takes place — feels like someone handpicked the best parts of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and then meticulously pieced them all together, that’s exactly what it should feel like. Chilling Adventures is supposed to make you feel nostalgic — even if you’re not quite sure for what.
“We’re trying to pride ourselves very much on being timeless,” production designer Lisa Soper said during a September visit to the show’s set in Vancouver. “You see cell phones [but also] Victorian dresses.” Soper described the show’s aesthetic as “a layering of history” that gives every viewer “a chance to grab onto something they’re nostalgic for.” But for all the nostalgia Millennials and Gen Xers might feel watching the genre-bending show — it’s part teen drama, part horror — Sabrina Spellman and her magical crew clearly belong to a new wave of young viewers: Generation Z.
Generation Z Questions Everything
Poised between girlhood and adulthood, half-witch and half-mortal Sabrina Spellman (played by Kiernan Shipka) is refreshingly unwilling to compromise. No, she will not sign her namesake away to the Devil in exchange for immense magical powers on her 16th birthday — but she also won’t forfeit those powers entirely. Sabrina refuses to conform to any easy definition, despite immense pressure from the female adults she loves and trusts — her two witch aunts, Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto), and her deceptive mentor Miss Wardwell (Michelle Gomez) — and the male authority figures she refuses to follow — High Priest of the Church of Night and headmaster of her magical school, Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle), and the head of her mortal school, Principal Hawthorne (Bronson Pinchot).
During the 10-episode first season of Chilling Adventures, Sabrina often marches around the sprawling, cozy-creepy Spellman home that doubles as a mortuary, announcing that there’s some kind of supernatural problem plaguing Greendale. On one such occasion, Zelda croaks back, “Mephistopheles, save us from the melodramatics of a teenage witch.” She’s not wrong: Sabrina’s conviction, stubbornness, and flair for the dramatic are emblematic of most teenagers wielding the confidence of youth. But Sabrina’s also grounded, logical, and uncommonly objective — and those qualities are especially emblematic of Generation Z.
“It’s so important, it’s so important, to ask questions all the time,” Shipka, who’s 18 years old and a member of Gen Z herself, said during the set visit. “I think that it’s really cool to see a character that is truly questioning these beliefs, and especially for younger people to see that.” Though she wouldn’t call her on-screen persona a role model, Shipka does want her peers to absorb Sabrina’s overall message. “I’m very excited that some 13-year-old girls are going to be watching this show and have [Sabrina] as a character to think about, or [to] be for Halloween. She’s a really strong, smart, educated girl and I couldn’t be prouder to be part of a show that has very clear intentions [on] that front.”
You Can’t Scare These Kids With Fake Blood
Like every generation that was once the youngest, Generation Z is a fascinating mystery to everyone who’s older than them. We know all too well that Millennials ruin everything and Gen Xers only care about themselves, but what about Gen Z? Do they really eat Tide Pods? What’s the deal with Zendaya and Mechee? Why don’t they understand the subtle art of burning CDs?
Cultural questions aside, the cut-off for Millennial birthdays is 1997, making the oldest members of Generation Z around age 21. By 2020, they’ll comprise 2.56 billion members of the population and 40% of all consumers. They have the potential to become major players in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, as well as the 2020 elections. In short, they’re immensely powerful. But, like Sabrina, they’re still learning how they want to use that power; they’re not sure if they want to summon Hellfire just yet.
Chilling Adventures is a sister show to the CW’s Riverdale. Greendale is just a boat ride across Sweetwater River away from Riverdale. The two shows share a creator in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who’s pushing the envelope with teen content — characters in Riverdale use sex as an emotional coping mechanism (back in 2001, it took Pacey and Joey four seasons to do the deed on Dawson’s Creek), while Chilling Adventures is more horror show than teen drama, full of blood magic and devilry and heart-eating (we had to wait three seasons for Angel to finally suck on Buffy’s neck in 1999, and even then we only saw tiny trickles of blood). But TV alone can’t push a generation to maturity. Aguirre-Sacasa is simply answering the new demands of a generation forced to grow up too fast.
In Chilling Adventures, the adults are just as flawed and complex as the teens — they’re too busy murdering (and resurrecting) each other, engaging in religious BDSM, and stealing babies to hover. More often than not, Sabrina and her friends help themselves. When no one will punish the Baxter High jocks for bullying, Sabrina and the three Weird Sisters (Tati Gabrielle, Adeline Rudolph, and Abigail Cowen) cast a spell to blackmail them with incriminating photos; when Principal Hawthorne bans books, Sabrina and her best friend Rosalind Walker (Jaz Sinclair) form WICCA (Women’s Intersectional Creative and Cultural Association). Gen Z has shown similarly fierce independence.
Reared on screens and nursery rhymes about how to survive when someone walks into your school with a gun, this new generation doesn’t just hang out on MySpace and tweak the emo lyrics in their AIM away messages. They’ve used social media to educate themselves on issues and hold political leaders accountable. They’ve called out authority figures that people twice (and thrice) their age fear. They’ve spearheaded national protests.
And we shouldn’t be surprised. Gen Z grew up surrounded by books and major movie franchises about looming dystopia and teens leading political revolution; even John Green’s wildly popular non-dystopian young adult fare centers around teen death (The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska) and abandonment (Paper Towns). Much like Sabrina gleefully watching a zombie movie while everyone around her shields their eyes from the horror, it’s really hard to scare these kids. They’ve been unblinkingly watching the horror play out on every available platform their whole lives.
The New Generation Won’t Let Anyone Define Them
Older members of the Chilling Adventures cast agree that their younger castmates are different than they were at a similar age. Gomez said that Shipka has taught her “how to behave professionally.” She laughed, “At 18, I was dumb as hell. And they’re really together, these kids.” Davis echoed the sentiment, saying, “I was never that at 16; I was never that brave [or] outspoken, and Kiernan [Shipka] is that. She shows a very different generation nowadays. When I am around the young ones on the show, they teach me so much. I love being around them, their energy and their light that they bring with them; it’s wonderful to bask in.”
The new generation is also ushering in social change. Chilling Adventures includes storylines about intersectional feminism, toxic masculinity, workplace harassment, living with a disability, and, most centrally, gender identity. Sabrina’s warlock cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) identifies as pansexual and is attracted to both men and women in the show, and her best friend Susie Putnam (Lachlan Watson) spends the season beginning what Watson describes as a “queer journey.”
“These new narratives [aren’t] necessarily spoken of or given light,” 22-year-old Perdomo said about the show’s gender representation. “It’s kind of about time. We’ve seen the heroic white male story perpetuated throughout Hollywood since time immemorial. So now to have a pansexual person of color played with depth and as a multi-faceted individual is not only artistically satisfying, it’s gratifying to be able to showcase that. [Ambrose is] a human being that’s more representative of the world we live in.”
That representation is both a refreshing step toward more inclusive gender representation on TV and a logical narrative to include for the show’s key demographic: Studies show that 38% of Gen Zers don’t believe that gender defines a person, and 56% of 13-20 year-olds know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns.
Watson, clear-eyed and eloquent, has been through a queer journey similar to Susie’s and prefers male pronouns — and talking about gender is his favorite thing to do. “There were a lot of points in my life where I thought I knew who I was, but I didn’t,” the 17-year-old explained. “I knew who I thought I was supposed to be; I knew how I thought I was supposed to identify and how I was supposed to act and how I was supposed to dress. I was who I was for other people, and that’s never gonna be fulfilling.”
That refusal to meet past cultural expectations is a common theme among the young cast members. Tati Gabrielle — who’s 22 years old and plays Prudence, Sabrina’s frenemy and leader of the Weird Sisters — said, “I think [the show] can appeal to my generation in terms of figuring out who you are and going to the limits.” She also hopes Chilling Adventures can teach her generation, especially young women, “to believe in something and to stand strong by your beliefs. We can take a stand despite the pressures the world puts on us; we can, at any point, step out of that and defy the laws of social interaction, or defy the place we’re supposed to fit into.”
Gen Z is Growing Up and Growing More Powerful
If the first season of Chilling Adventures is a story about a young girl embracing her power and crossing the threshold into adulthood, the (unconfirmed but inevitable) second season will be about how she decides to use it. In the season finale, Miss Wardwell pushes her young pupil to embrace her prospective greatness: “Own your power. Don’t accept it from the Dark Lord. Take it, wield it.”
In person, Gomez takes a more measured approach about the moment when Sabrina finally signs her name away to Satan and receives her dark magic (and witchy platinum blonde hair). “It’s a girl in the last moments of her childhood as she becomes an adult,” Gomez said, “and what happens to all of us in those last moments when you cross that threshold into young adulthood — and the responsibilities that come with being that.”
It’s too perfect a parallel, too broad a sweep to say that Sabrina’s singular potential to power change mirrors that of an entire generation. But when the real-life equivalent of the Greendale Thirteen — ghosts of old political grudges, dangerous relics of times passed, specters of an outdated belief system — threaten the people they love and the values they hold, you can bet that Generation Z will follow Sabrina across the threshold and sign away their childhood comforts in exchange for power. That day is coming, and you can expect Hellfire.