“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” has received critical acclaim for its progressive take on the popular 1960s Archie Comics character, but fans are disappointed with one change: Salem the cat does not speak. It’s a jarring switch compared to the mouthy, wisecracking feline that inspired countless GIFs from the 1990s sitcom “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”
Kiernan Shipka, who now plays the titular Sabrina Spellman, said, “It’s nothing like the ‘90s sassy, mean Salem at all. That’s its own thing that we’re not going to try to compete with or be in the slightest because you can’t live up to that in any way. This is more of a subtle sort of nod, I would say, to the old show.”
Salem does talk in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ comic book, but that wasn’t his original intent. The comic was dark, and a talking cat wasn’t. “It felt like if you have a talking cat, it would almost inherently be funny and be a comedy,” he said. “As I was writing the comic book, I realized that when you read a comic book, you just read the words. You don’t necessarily see any characters’ lips move. ‘Oh, of course Salem should talk. It’s going to be like anyone else talking.’”
However, in adapting “Sabrina” for Netflix, Aguirre-Sacasa decided to dispense with the chatty cat altogether and stick with his original instinct. “When we did the show, [he doesn’t speak] partly to project the horror tone,” he said. “That isn’t to say that Salem won’t talk in the future.”
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Here, Salem first appears as an eerie goblin that Sabrina summons for help. He speaks in sibilant tones, but as soon as he changes into his form as a familiar — an animal guide who assists witches — Salem only speaks with the usual cat vocalizations of meows, purrs, and chirrups.
This new Salem isn’t the first non-speaker. George Gladir and Dan DeCarlo first conceived of Salem as a non-verbal orange cat for Issue No. 22 of “Archie’s Mad House” in 1962. It wasn’t until the live-action sitcom’s puppet voiced by Nick Bakay stole every scene that the comic book was retconned with an articulate black cat.
Similarly, Salem’s backstory has changed through the years. Most start with Salem as a human sailor or witch who was cursed to take the form of a feline familiar. In Aguirre-Sacasa’s comic books, Salem has a whole issue, “That Damn Cat,” dedicated to his backstory, which places him at the Salem witch trials of 1692. Aguirre-Sacasa hopes to dig into that in the future. “We’ve definitely talked about doing a Salem-centric episode where we would learn more about his life,” he said.
Adding to the realism is the use of real cat actors as opposed to the sitcom’s animatronic version. Unfortunately, Shipka is allergic to cats. Although she’s seen cuddling him when they’re first introduced, in later scenes he’s at a comfortable distance.
“It’s difficult if you’re operating off of antihistamines,” she said. “Don’t take a Benadryl. I did that once. Horrible experience. I was all sorts of drugged for the last six hours of set. I’m fine being in the same room as Salem as long as I’m not continuously petting and touching him. He’s fine. He shows up, knows his lines, does his lines.”
Having Salem mum also keeps the show from going over the top with fantastical elements. “We’ve got a lot of things in our show that are very heightened with demons and just different things, and I think you’ve got to ground everything in as much reality as you can,” said Lucy Davis who plays Sabrina’s Aunt Hilda.
Miranda Otto, who portrays Aunt Zelda, said, “And other people have familiars as well, so then we’d have a lot of talking animals.”
“We would. I’d have talking spiders,” said Davis.
”Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” Season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix.