There are witches in the woods. You might see them celebrating their sabbats or raising wands and athames on full moon nights. Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Krämer say, on the nights of the dark moon, you can see witches working their magic or stealing men’s most precious parts and using flying ointments to dance with the devil high in the air. There are witches in the woods, but some say they are not women but monsters who will offer a deal in exchange for a life.
In the opening of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Vol 1.: The Crucible (Archie, 2016), Edward Spellman prepares to surrender his infant daughter to two witches, Hilda and Zelda. Instead of honoring their pact, his wife, Diana flees with their child, Sabrina, into the woods only to be met by Edward and his coven. “[T]he woods, Diana? You believe the woods will hide you? We are the woods, Diana, but then you’ve never understood that about us, have you?”
They take the baby and then Edward lays his hand on his wife’s head and does something to her, something that means Diana’s locked up in an institution where she sings an old folk song—The Wicker Man (1973) kind–and remembers nothing.
This version of Sabrina the teenage witch first appears in the Archie horror comic, Afterlife With Archie, as the one who inadvertently causes a zombie apocalypse (and awakes Cthulhu in issue #6) by raising Jughead’s dog Hotdog from the dead. There’s something about Robert Hack’s art that makes it look as if it’s mixed media painted on hardwood. It’s very evocative. Though both books are written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa the tone and style of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is quite different from Afterlife with Archie. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s plotting and Robert Hack’s art evoke the cinematic witches of the 1960s and 1970s. The kind where people form covens dedicated to the devil and having unspeakable, but fashionably occult-robed rites in the woods. The kind where women are accused of hysteria, driven mad and committed to sanitaria. But the witches of Sabrina still aren’t quite human and they aren’t supposed to mingle with humans, let alone have children. It seems Edward and Diana made a pact so that they could have a child. But the price was Sabrina. I assume they were to hand her over a year and a day after Sabrina was born.
Sabrina wasn’t sacrificed. Instead, she was taken to Greendale where she was raised by Hilda and Zelda. They care for her and provide her with a familiar, a black cat who was once a powerful sorcerer. He was transformed into a cat by the coven for his crimes. Sabrina’s curious about the human world and is in love with classmate Harvey Kinkle, but her aunts warn her against getting enmeshed with human feelings. They are very much in the vein of Bell, Book And Candle (1958), though much less light-hearted, in which a witch loses her magical power if she falls in love. And, seriously, who wants that? (The only worse thing is willingly suppressing your witchy powers because they make your insecure husband feel emasculated). In the meantime, Madame Satan rises from Gehenna and makes herself a human body. She becomes a drama teacher at Sabrina’s school and in order to take revenge on the Spellman family after Edward had left her for a human being. Sabrina’s sixteenth birthday is coming up and she is expected to choose whether she wants to be human or witch. Her aunts lead her into the woods to commit herself body and soul to the coven and to sign the Devil’s book—but Harvey has followed them.
There are witches in the trees themselves in Scott Snyder and Jock’s Wytches, Vol. 1 (Image, 2015). And they are not human at all. Charlie Rook, Lucy Rook and their daughter Sailor have moved to Litchfield, New Hampshire trying to escape rumors that Sailor murdered a classmate. But the Rooks didn’t move far enough away. Sailor is struggling in school. She keeps remembering what happened before, what she saw in the forest outside her own town. The kids in Sailor’s new school have heard the rumors that she killed someone. And like seemingly every other town in New England, Litchfield has its own terrible secrets. There are witches in the Litchfield woods and the residents are receiving favors from them by pledging someone else’s life—anyone else’s life. In so much of the Western magical tradition, you can only trade what’s yours—your life, your soul, your child–but these witches don’t care about that. They wait in the woods for their victims to come to them. And they wait for human beings to corrupt ourselves. Through greed, pain or fear, we offer up someone else to them. Sailor is an easy target. The other kids want things and she’s a stranger who probably killed someone. She’s an easy pledge for someone else to make. And pledging is as easy as spraying someone with a catalyst that attracts the witches.
I’m a little ambivalent about this portrayal of witches, though the book itself says that human beings persecuted as “witches” were trying to protect humanity from the real monsters. I might feel better if the creatures in the woods were called something else, but the book does capture that folk horror feeling that Snyder evokes in his foreword about how he came to write the book:
Our neighbors had a boy my age, Ryan, and we became fast friends. I’d cross the woods to his house and we’d play Nintendo, D&D, we’d trade comics… we were both geeks, imaginative kids. It was around age eleven that we started monster hunting in the woods…. [H]aving both recently read Roald Dahl’s The Witches, we were both particularly interested in the notion of witches living in the woods. Men and women who worshipped Satan! Sacrificing animals and worse, deep in the trees across the road!…One windy day, we were hanging out by [an abandoned]car [in the woods], eating and joking around and all of a sudden Ryan jumped to his feet. ‘Who the hell are you?’ I remember him saying, literally reaching for his bat. Terrified, I turned and looked and didn’t see anything. I asked him what was the matter and he said he saw someone, or something, peeking out from behind a tree. But the person was big, he said, like taller than a normal man or woman. Way taller than we’d thought a witch would be. ‘It was huge,’ he said, ‘just watching us.’
Nervously, we explored the area, but of course found nothing. The witch must’ve been a tree, swaying in the wind, and we laughed about it afterwards, on the way out of the woods, how he’d nearly shit himself over nothing,, what a pussy, and so on, but I think both of us walked a little faster than normal that day.
Snyder went back as an adult and saw the witch again.
Of course, a moment later, the sun shifted and the witch vanished, somehow changed into a tree, a freakishly human looking tree, but still, and my body relaxed and I turned and walked away.
“Later that night, I found myself haunted by the image of the witch, peeking out from behind the tree. I knew what had really frightenend me wasn’t the ‘witch’ in the trees…but…the idea that this witch had ALWAYS been there. That all the years between were nothing to it. Because it knew…it knew one day I’d come back and it would be waiting.
While Wytches is good and creepy, I found Snyder’s story more compelling than the comic. It’s probably the witch in me. But I’m not surprised that Snyder and Jock have been offered a deal to make a television adaptation. Wytches falls in line with a lot of the folk horror Keith’s been writing about lately. It’s good, unsettling horror and an interesting conception of monsters who passively corrupt and actively consume. Like a lot of good horror, it has an extra resonance with the fears of parents about losing their children. I think if the adaptation is done right, a lot of people, especially people who loved Stranger Things, will probably love the show. And I really love the look of the book—the lettering, Jock’s art and Matthew Hollingsworth’s colors.
Like Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina and Wytches, Black Magick starts in the woods, in another New England town, Portsmouth. Det. Rowan Black is in the middle of a Mabon ritual with her coven when she receives a call. A man is holding hostages and has asked to speak with Black. Black’s High Priestess, Alex, grumpily opens a path back to the mudane world and Det. Black is on the case. But it turns out that Black doesn’t know this man and why he wants to speak with her face to face. It turns out that he’s only a conduit for some other power and someone or something is trying to kill her. Black worries that she and her coven are being hunted by “the Hammer,” which is a nice nod to Sprenger and Krämer’s Malleus Maleficarum, “The Hammer of the Witches.” (And I can’t help but think Rowan’s name is a bit of a reference to Rowan Morrison, the missing girl in The Wicker Man). And there are the Aira, witch hunters willing to unleash supernatural forces to keep witches from infringing on free will. Meanwhile, every action Black takes, especially the magical ones, have unforeseen and difficult consequences for both her career and her coven in the woods.
I might have to write a whole other article just to talk about Nicola Scott’s use of color in Black Magick, Vol. 1: Awakening (Image, 2016). In creating Black Magick, Rucka, Scott and editor Jeanine Schaefer have consulted with Wiccans on Wiccan practice and beliefs and it grounds the book, even while the coven and whatever pursues them are their own thing, specific to the world of Black Magick. Rucka, Scott and Schaefer have described the book as a neo-Gothic noir. And with a Wiccan detective, it is certainly my speed. Just the overlap between her badge and a pentacle is so satisfying.
Scott and Rucka’s book has also been optioned for a potential television show. Black Magick is on hiatus until April, 2017. I imagine making the comic into a tv series is taking a lot of time. God knows, Rucka and Scott have a lot of other work that they’re doing. Wytches seems to be complete for now. And The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is ongoing, though writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is also busy being Chief Creative Officer at Archie Comics, so its publishing schedule is sporadic.
Carol Borden wrote more about Afterlife with Archie and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina in, “Anything Can Happen In Riverdale.” And she wrote way more about witchyness and The Wicker Man in, “Sex and Naps: Lessons from The Wicker Man.”
This essay was originally published by The Cultural Gutter.