The ghost/Sabrina arc, eps. 20 and then 22-24, has a pretty tight thematic focus. It introduces ghosts and the gloriously creepy Sabrina. Ghosts are a thematic counterpoint to Sabrina’s overpowering domination of others’ minds and bodies. Haunter, disembodied himself, is the only character who can help make Sabrina less psychotic and socially isolated. Today I’m going to explore what Sabrina’s deal is and why/how Haunter, as a ghost, is able to help her work through some issues and make her less, erm… murdery.
Sabrina is messed up
A powerful psychic, Sabrina can sense Ash and co.’s intention to challenge her even before they arrive in Saffron City. She can also control mind and matter with her telekinesis. Her battling strategy has three steps–dominate, manipulate, and destroy. Actually, that’s pretty much how she relates to others in general.
We learn that when very young, Sabrina became obsessed with developing her psychic abilities. At the same time, she struggled with her inability to relate to others in a healthy way. Eventually she suffered some destructive, disassociative episode in which she psychically destroyed her home, turned her mother into a small cloth doll (her father escaped, being a psychic himself), and mentally split herself into two beings. Part of her personality now manifests in a small, doll-like apparition that’s basically a horror-movie child (see gif on the right). Sabrina’s gym leader alter-ego is usually silent, a tall, imposing woman, who, if I was making a live action reboot, would be played by Aubrey Plaza or Canada’s own Natasha Negovanlis. Her doll-self would be played by that demonic robot baby from the last Twilight movie.1
Sabrina is now isolated. Her gym hosts a cadre of would-be psychics who worship her as a remote, frightening master. Yet Sabrina wants to relate to others. The problem is that she can only do so through the aggressive paradigm of battling. In episode 22 Ash and Pikachu challenge Sabrina; her kadabra psychically dominates Pikachu, redirecting his attacks, making him dance, then brutally slamming him against the floor and the ceiling until Ash forfeits. As punishment Sabrina then shrinks Ash, Brock, and Misty and teleports them into her toy city. Her doll-self chases them down a street until they’re cornered. When the doll-Sabrina rolls a large ball toward them, Misty sums it up–“We’re gonna get squashed!” This is pretty much how Sabrina operates in all areas of her life–domination (redirecting Pikachu’s attacks, trapping Ash/Brock/Misty in the gym), manipulation (making Pikachu dance, shrinking the humans), and finally destruction (beating on Pikachu, nearly squashing the humans). Ash and co. are only saved by Sabrina’s psychic father, who teleports them out. Later, though, after Ash fails to defeat Sabrina a second time, she turns Brock and Misty into cloth dolls and stores them away in her toy city. She very literally objectifies others, using them as toy-friends.
And here’s where we get the hint that this is the only way she knows how to relate to people. Brock, able to speak to Sabrina psychically in doll form, tells her she has to turn them back into humans. Doll-Sabrina says, “If I change you back you’ll just run away from me. You have to stay as dolls!” Sabrina wants friends/playmates, but she doesn’t know how to relate to something she can’t dominate.
There are some nice visual parallels that suggests Sabrina relates to other humans in the same way her kadabra dominates in the arena.
So once again we find a character who is socially crippled by the competitive ethos of Kanto. Even her relationship to pokémon is based on complete domination–as her father tells Ash, “You can’t control a psychic pokémon without using telekinesis.” Sabrina fuses herself mentally with her kadabra not in an intimate partnership but to better “control” it. 2 She doesn’t just transgress boundaries of self/other (as Ash does when he electrocutes Pikachu in, what, episode 3?); Sabrina simply destroys them. In her practice of combative mastery, Sabrina makes herself into a god. Her gym looks, as Brock remarks, more like a temple, and her (really creepy) medical-masked lackey bows before her throne to announce her challengers. With a temple-like gym and a toy town populated by literally objectified humans, Sabrina performs a grossly exaggerated form of the mastery Kanto so destructively venerates.
Which is why Haunter as a ghostly ally is so vital (pun intended) to Ash’s victory. We already talked about how ghosts trouble human expectations. And because Haunter doesn’t have a body, in theory he can’t be controlled in the same way Kadabra controls Pikachu.
The problem is that when Ash arrives to battle Sabrina in ep. 24, Haunter disappears. Ash must flee, leaving Brock and Misty as dolls. Ash finds Haunter and convinces him to come along and challenge Sabrina a third time. But Haunter yet again disappears as the battle begins. Haunter doesn’t belong to Ash, remember; the ghost ‘mon is a shifty, unstable ally. In the first few minutes, Brock even suggests that Haunter may be sinister, saying to Ash, “Maybe Haunter’s the one controlling you.” Even if Haunter isn’t plotting Ash’s destruction, he is certainly not taking the arena very seriously.
Without Haunter, Ash and Pikachu don’t have much of a chance… But in the middle of a pretty grim battle, Haunter reappears in the arena. The rules are one on one, and Pikachu has already been declared the combatant; but as Sabrina’s father (Ash’s temporary mentor) points out, because Haunter doesn’t belong to Ash and wasn’t declared a combatant, “Haunter is just playing around on its own.” Haunter isn’t technically breaking the rules.
Haunter is being a typical ghost, entering into human cultural space/situation in a way that is unexpected and that defamiliarizes the expected tropes/rules. The arena is also the only space Sabrina seems to be comfortable interacting with others. Haunter, coming to her in a way that’s not illegal but is surprising, is outside of Sabrina’s control without being outside her comprehension. Haunter meets her halfway. And my favorite part of this whole arc is that Haunter doesn’t come to fight. After all, that would be against the rules. Haunter may meet Sabrina on her own turf, but it’s on Haunter’s terms–it does a comedy routine. (A pretty dumb comedy routine, to be honest, with a few ridiculous faces and tricks.) By coming to Sabrina in a space of battle but with humor rather than aggression, Haunter offers her a different way of relating to others.
Haunter gets through to Sabrina, who cracks a smile and then an uncontrollable laugh. Because of their psychic link, Kadabra also collapses with laughter, making him unable to battle. Ash wins, Brock, Misty, and Sabrina’s mother are restored to original size and form, and Haunter stays with Sabrina as her creepy buddy, and all things considered, it’s a happy ending.3
This arc is weird. Gym leaders can obviously do whatever they want, and the ghosts and Sabrina’s TK powers show us that Kanto isn’t just a sci-fi world but also a fantasy. What I like, though, is the thematic consistency and, honestly, Sabrina’s arc. Sabrina has issues. Haunter seems to get that. It accepts that Sabrina has a space in which she feels comfortable, but gently refuses to accept the destructive way she acts toward others in that space. By extension, Haunter also rejects the paradigm of mastery that we’ve seen destroy several families (Misty’s and Brock’s). Haunter models a more positive form of relationship, too, and it’s kind of nice, honestly. Once again Ash aligns himself, however unintentionally, with a ‘mon who defies Kanto’s traditional narratives of pokémon training.
1. Misty could be played by Chloe Grace-Moretz, Brock by Donald Glover, and I honestly can’t think of anyone who would work as Ash, partly because there are so few young Asian actors and partly because Ash is just so ridiculously irritating he may have no real-life counterpart.↩
When Sabrina’s father says that only TKs can “control” psychic ‘mon, it may be his own ideological bias showing–i.e., the assumption that control is better than a more equal form of relationships between trainer/trainee. This would speaks loads to Sabrina’s background, maybe explain some of why she turned out so scary. It may also indicate that psychics in Kanto, as a rule, primarily use their powers to control. Most likely it’s a bit of both. ↩
3. 2. Well, except for Team Rocket, who plunged several stories to the street below after Haunter startled them and made them laugh themselves off the edge of a window cleaning platform. At the end of the episode they’re still stuck in deep, Rocket-shaped holes in the sidewalk, which are being filled in by a cement mixer as Team Rocket splutter and call for someone to save them. This is actually really horrific. They’re drowning in cement, crying for help, and we’re supposed to be okay with that just because they’re “bad guys?” Good lord, non-grievable subjects much? ↩