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Riverdale embracing its horror-filled roots makes it an even better show

Contributed by
May 9, 2018

Now heading toward the penultimate episode of its second season, Riverdale has taken audiences through a bevy of narrative ups and downs along the way—and trying to sum up The CW’s hit adaptation of the classic Archie Comics isn’t as easy as one might think.

Since the series premiered early last year, Riverdale has acquired plenty of well-deserving accolades for its willingness to pay homage to genre material, from honoring the works of horror legend Wes Craven to basing one of its most insidious villains, the Black Hood, on the real-life history of the Zodiac killer. There are times when the show makes more tongue-in-cheek references to classic film (like its nearby "Shankshaw" prison, for example), but when Riverdale chooses to go full horror, it makes for thoroughly entertaining television.

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Nowhere is that more apparent as of late than with the series’ recent episode "A Night to Remember,” which saw Riverdale High students putting on their production of Carrie: The Musical. There are a lot of parallels one could draw between the show’s version of Cheryl Blossom and Carrie, the most obvious being Cheryl’s relationship with her manipulative mother Penelope (who certainly gives Margaret White a run for her money on more than one occasion). Yet Cheryl’s story had already been wrapped up in all the trimmings of Gothic horror long before she made a ploy to star as one of Stephen King’s most iconic female characters.

The Blossom family homes of Thornhill and, later, Thistlehouse wouldn’t look out of place on a windy moor—and Cheryl’s grandmother Rose possesses shades of what has often been referred to as “Gothic feminism,” in which female characters feign or stage weakness to disguise their own power. Who could forget the scene from "The Noose Tightens” in which Rose, despite her frailty, crawls across the floor to warn Toni Topaz that Cheryl has been placed into conversion therapy against her will? It’s a powerful moment, not just because it reminds us that Cheryl has an ally in the midst of wolves —but also that Nana Rose, though largely a shut-in, is still not one to be underestimated.

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Amid the dark romanticism of the Blossom family tree, Riverdale enlisted one of horror’s most famous veterans to guest on an earlier episode. "Chapter Twenty: Tales From the Darkside" sees Archie and Jughead en route to neighboring Greendale on a mission for Penny Peabody—though they soon find themselves in a rather sketchy area when their truck gets a flat tire. Coming to their rescue is a somewhat creepy man called Farmer McGinty, though he’s played by an actor with many other frightening performances on his resume: Tony Todd. So far, Todd has appeared just once on Riverdale, but his cameo was chilling in that it lent much-needed gravitas to the already eerie undertones of the episode. Even though McGinty doesn’t do anything to Archie and Jughead beyond warning them of an infamous killer called the Riverdale Reaper, Todd’s prominence in horror contributed a guillotine of tension to every single one of his moments on screen. It’s hard not to feel a little nervous when the Candyman is offering to give you a ride.

Now the Black Hood has seemingly reared his ugly head once again to terrorize the town of Riverdale after brutally murdering Midge Klump in “A Night to Remember.” One particular moment in the following episode, "Prisoners,” bears an undeniable resemblance to a scene in John Carpenter’s Halloween, in which Michael Myers stands menacingly still beside a row of hedges in broad daylight.

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The Black Hood is similarly scary because of the reminders he conjures up for us when it comes to iconic horror films. We’ve seen it done before, but that doesn’t mean the terror has grown stale. Riverdale taking cues and even specific shots from classic slasher flicks is actually an exciting prospect. It’s fun to spot the homages, and it’s even more fun to speculate which ones might be around the next corner. Diligent fans have pointed out that even the names of Riverdale’s episodes are often references in themselves—whether it’s the actual title of an old movie or some variation on it—and can provide hints about what’s to come within those 42 minutes. 

One avenue Riverdale has yet to fully delve into so far in terms of horror is when it links up with the supernatural—but we’ll be getting the dark magical horror we’ve been waiting for thanks to Netflix’s upcoming series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which may share some loose connections to Archie and the gang even if the two shows never cross over. Thus far, Riverdale has never really hinted about the possibility of magic in its existing canon, so if the series is steering clear of the paranormal for now we can at least look forward to Sabrina’s occult horror.

There’s already some speculation that the Black Hood’s reappearance signifies another potential reveal in the ongoing mystery: that maybe there wasn’t just one killer, but two. Given the show’s previous homages to classic Craven films, it wouldn’t necessarily surprise if they’ve taken a page from Scream after all. But regardless of how this latest theory pans out, Riverdale embracing various shades of horror and the trappings that come with them all means that the show can open itself up to all kinds of narrative possibilities—and all the unexpected twists, turns, and scares that we love best about the genre.