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How Riverdale uses horror elements to keep Archie fans guessing

By Caitlin Busch
Riverdale Season 3 finale Veronica Betty and Jughead

When Riverdale premiered on The CW in 2017, no one familiar with the classic, clean-cut Archie Comics stories on which it is based could have predicted where the show would be by the Season 3 finale.

What started as a neon-lit teenage curiosity has spiraled out in fantastically nonsensical, genre-adjacent fashion. An organ-nabbing cult has overtaken the town, and a Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing game is brainwashing and killing its players left and right at the behest of a shadowy monster known as the Gargoyle King. Veronica Lodge’s dad, mob man Hiram Lodge, is trying to buy the town as he imprisons and beats up on teenagers. Oh, and the Black Hood, a serial killer who might still be Betty Cooper’s psychotic dad (if he faked his own death), is back. Oh, and the local drug of choice, Fizzle Rocks, is making a comeback at the hands of Jughead Jones’ mom.

In short, Riverdale is a loop-de-looping, high-stakes melodrama set in a small town that appears to be inhabited mostly by ridiculously beautiful teenagers and their parents, following in the tradition of all good small-town, high-stakes TV melodramas.

Season 1 started out with a murder mystery and Archie Andrews’ (KJ Apa) High School Musical-level angst over playing football versus following his passion for music. With Season 2 came more drama for the town’s resident gang, the South Side Serpents, as well as a serial killer and some quality teen slasher-flick elements. Riverdale Season 3 hasn’t so much jumped the shark (as some accuse it of doing) as it has found a way to incorporate the most outlandish storylines in such a way that audiences keep coming back.

“When it came to telling stories within the show of Riverdale, we sort of just took it with the same fearlessness that we take telling the stories in the comic books as well,” Archie Comics CEO and Riverdale Executive Producer Jon Goldwater told SYFY WIRE ahead of the Riverdale Season 3 finale. “You know, just the proverbial bend it, don't break it; as long as you keep the integrity and the DNA of the characters intact, you could tell a lot of stories around those characters."

Riverdale got darker and, over time, has leaned more heavily into the elements Archie Comics has been promoting in its most recent genre-bent series. The show uses genre elements, mainly horror, to forcibly ground and challenge its characters.

Riverdale Season 3 Episode 17

"The fun thing is, we're not your traditional comic book company. We're not telling superhero stories, we're telling stories of people," Goldwater says. "Now, obviously, in Riverdale, it's a very heightened version of what goes on in the real world, but it's still based in people that you know, can bleed, could have things happen to them, and you know it's based on the foundation of the real world.”

Taking elements commonly associated with horror and fantasy and blending them into a real-world narrative isn’t a new concept by any means. What’s unusual is the wide audience that’s accepted those elements and are willing to go along for the ride. Whether you’re watching Riverdale for the interpersonal drama or the zombie elements, there’s really something for everyone — and most fans seem to enjoy every moment of it.

Riverdale Season 3 Episode 15

Archie Comics — which has been in business since 1939 in one form or another — rebranded in 2015 for a new generation of readers, to publish a collection of new comics series that put its classic characters in progressively more outrageous situations. Among the more recognizable Archie stories such as Archie, Betty and Veronica: Friends Forever, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch came new life for the Archie Horror imprint, which consists of stories about werewolves (Jughead: The Hunger), vampires (Vampironica), the Antichrist (Blossoms 666), and more.

“The cool thing about what we do is, I don't think it's horror for the sake of horror,” Goldwater says. “I think the reason that people love the Archie Horror line is because we've consistently been telling [great] stories — especially from the comic book side on the Archie Horror line. We told a great story around Archie Andrews and Veronica Lodge — Jughead Jones kicks off the zombie apocalypse and it's just fun. You have these characters that are known for one thing and all of a sudden they're fighting for their lives, and people enjoy it. They really do.”

While Goldwater says Riverdale will never go full horror or fantasy — leave that for Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, for which Goldwater also serves as EP — those elements serve as a dynamic lens through which to tell a seemingly outrageous but consistently entertaining story.

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As for the remainder of Season 3, which concludes tomorrow with the finale, Goldwater reassures that many of the questions raised throughout will be answered: “People put a lot of time and energy into Season 3, and we love that and we respect that,” he says. The show sows so many seemingly unconnected plotlines due to the narrative chances it takes along the way that every season finale is a truly wild ride. And it seems Season 3 will be no different.

While the Gargoyle King is likely to be a person over a supernatural entity — last week’s episode suggested it’s Jason Blossom, who was murdered at the start of Season 1, behind that mask — that doesn’t make the conclusion any less thrilling. The mere suggestion that something otherworldly might reside in Riverdale is enough to keep audiences coming back for more.