tis the season

Why Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Made a Holiday Episode

Photo: Jeff Weddell/Netflix

A witch celebrating Christmas? Satan forbid! No, no, when the winter season rolls around, practitioners of the dark arts like to gather around and find cheer in ritual, but they do it in a way that dates back to way before Christ’s birth. Enter the solstice. In the mystical world of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, witches like Sabrina and her aunts find winter warmth by celebrating the darkest day of the year. That’s the backdrop for the show’s holiday special, “A Midwinter’s Tale,” which debuted Friday, and it provides for a heaping helping of scares and revelations. We caught up with Chilling Adventures showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to talk about Icelandic holiday monsters, Christmas slasher movies, and Sabrina’s surprising holiday legacy.

So, I just watched the holiday special. Or, wait, what am I supposed to call it? The solstice special? The yuletide special? What do you prefer?
I think we’re doing “holiday special” or “solstice special,” instead of “Christmas special.”

Duly noted. Why do a holiday special?
You know, it’s funny — we weren’t originally going to do it. We knew that there was gonna be a break between parts one and two [of the series]. And when we were in the writer’s room, we started breaking the premiere of part two and it was the start of the new school year, ‘cause you always want to kick off your season — or your half-season, rather — with something like the beginning of the school year. We’d almost finished writing it, and I was having dinner with one of the writers, and we were talking about how much we liked Christmas horror movies. And I thought, Geez, I really wish we were doing a Christmas Sabrina to do some of those great Christmas horror legends. You know, lots of witches, lots of goblins, Krampus, lots of yuletide demons. And, basically, we hit pause on the episode. I called Warner Bros., I called Netflix, I called the producer, and I said, “Stop the presses, we wanna do a Christmas special. But instead of celebrating Christmas, the witches would celebrate solstice.”

Whose idea was it to have the baddies be Gryla and the Yule Lads? I’ll confess that I’d never heard tell of them before.
The first thing we did was, we talked about Christmas monsters, and there are many, the most famous one being Krampus. There had just been a movie about Krampus and Krampus has sort of been adopted by people in Brooklyn. It felt like Krampus was pretty mainstream, and we did a little more digging and learned about the Yule Lads [of Iceland], who were 12 or 13 imps who would cause mischief. And that felt great. And then, because our show’s about witches, it’s always good when our villain or our interloper is a witch, and Gryla was a very famous Norwegian witch.

I suppose it’s educational. We’re learning about Scandinavia.
Exactly, exactly.

What are some of your favorite Christmas horror movies?
Black Christmas stars Margot Kidder, and it’s [about] a bunch of sorority girls who get terrorized over the Christmas holiday at their sorority house. That’s one of the most classic Christmas horror movies. Another favorite — and this inspired, a little bit, the Yule Lads, and I don’t know if it’s a horror movie, but it has horror elements — [is] Gremlins, which is set at Christmastime. And that has that great Phoebe Cates monologue about her father in the chimney. There’s a great old Tales from the Crypt about a little girl who lets an escapee from a mental institution that’s dressed up as Santa into her house, thinking that she’s let Santa into the house.

There’s just a really proud tradition. Christmas, in a lot of places, a big […] tradition is telling ghost stories, with A Christmas Carol being one of the most famous ghost stories there is. So, it felt ripe for doing something like that. It’s also always fun to see the witch version of Thanksgiving and the witch version of Christmas, and we might be seeing a couple of other holidays in part two.

You have these stark, red title cards that occasionally pop up. Was that an homage to the greatest of great cold-weather horror flicks, The Shining?
We did that in the first episode and it was definitely an homage to The Shining, for sure.

How well-behaved was the baby as an actor? And how does one cast a baby?
Very good question. The baby was amazing. We luckily got a very wonderful baby who didn’t cry much. A lot of the baby is a very, very realistic-looking fake doll, which we shot a lot. And then for close ups, we’d bring in the baby. So there’s a little bit of sleight of hand there.

What has surprised you most about the response to Chilling Adventures so far, now that its been out for a little over a month?
It was similar to when Riverdale premiered. I suppose, on some level, there’s a worry of, What if this just doesn’t work? What if the idea, the central idea of doing a horror version of Sabrina that focuses on the occult, is just not what people want to see? Sometimes that happens: an idea that feels so, so good gets out there and [the audience is] like, No, this isn’t what I want to see. It happens a lot when you’re taking beloved properties and you’re making it dark. People might be like, No, but this wasn’t fun. I liked it when it was fun. One thing that has helped it is that even though it’s not the ’90s sitcom and it is dark and [it is] horror, there is a sense of humor about it, and there is a warmth about the show. There’s an innocence to it that not even Riverdale has, really. That’s helped balance the darker, more satanic elements. But, no, I think the biggest surprise is that people have embraced it so much.

Along those lines: Are there any critiques that you’ve heard and taken to heart? Ones that might influence the future of the show?
I’m not as social-media savvy as some of the writers on my show who really engage [with] that stuff. My husband does a little bit, as well. And Netflix provides us with a summary of stuff. I’ve read a bunch of stuff and it’s weird: On Riverdale, the episodes come once a week, so there’s always something new to dissect. Sabrina is all dropped at once and it’s suddenly a cacophony of voices. I read and absorb as much as I can, but there was no conscious shift. We’d already written and shot quite a lot of the second part, so it wasn’t really like, Oh, I now have to start adjusting. I will say that there are a lot of differences [in part two] that sort of echo some of the [audience] comments, but that was stuff we were doing ourselves organically or quite naturally.

What are the holiday traditions that you have in your household?
About four or five years ago, my husband and I would either go to my parents’ house or his mom’s house. He lives in Dallas. At the time, my parents lived in Washington, D.C. But about five or six years ago, we finally were like, It’s time to start our own Christmas tradition. We have an apartment in New York we’ve had for years, so we always spend the Christmas holiday in New York, which is my favorite time to be in New York. We always eat Chinese food, go to the movies, and catch up on all the Broadway shows we haven’t seen.

Without spoiling anything, what can people look forward to in part two?
The big difference is that in the first part of season one, the big story was Sabrina holding on to the mortal world. White-knuckling, not letting go of that. In the second part of the season, we see Sabrina diving into the witch world, fully and really embracing it. Her center of gravity has shifted from Baxter High to the Academy of Unseen Arts. That’s the biggest shift the show has done.

In the opening-credits animation for the holiday special, you include a panel from an old Sabrina comic in which she and her cohort are watching Santa fly by. One doesn’t typically associate Sabrina with Santa or Christmas. How did you track that down?
In the Archie Comics-verse, holidays are huge. There’s a comic book called Archie’s Christmas Stocking, which, every year, would come out with some comics that had holiday-related stories. In fact, that’s where Jingles the Christmas Elf comes [from]. Jingles the Christmas Elf, [who] Susie plays in the episode, that’s an Archie character that pops up in Riverdale every Christmas. So, that’s a big Easter egg. And then, I believe every year we would publish Sabrina’s Christmas Magic, which was a comic book that had Sabrina doing stuff around the holidays, like helping Santa deliver presents. So, actually, we had a plethora to choose from, strangely enough.

Why Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Made a Holiday Episode