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Credit: The CW

When it embraces horror, Riverdale continues to be its best self

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Dec 4, 2019

Throughout its four seasons, Riverdale has embraced horror in all forms. From a nod to the real-life Zodiac killer to the very literal bloody production of Carrie: The Musical, creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has fully leaned into the darker elements of the town that promises pep. This all started with Jason Blossom's death at the start of Season 1, introducing elements inspired by the weird and wonderful world of Twin Peaks paired with the teen investigative skills of Veronica Mars.

Since then, Riverdale has devolved into a buffet of creepy influences that swing wildly between Edgar Allan Poe and John Carpenter. The recent wave of episodes only continued this tradition and as with previous years, the most compelling storylines are dripping in horror.

Credit: The CW

In terms of the overarching narrative, Riverdale often feels like you are watching four different shows at once. Between Veronica going full Velma Kelly from Chicago singing "All That Jazz" at a press conference about her parents' legal woes (don't ask) and Archie returning to his vigilante predilection, there is a lot of genre whiplash. The sheer volume and speed at which the writers tear through plot points delivers a fever dream-like viewing experience, which makes explaining this show to anyone that doesn't watch a challenge. But when it comes to the thread of scares weaving its way through this season, those themes continue to hit all the right notes.

Pop culture and literary references cherry-picked from an array of eras have been a Riverdale signature from its inception, but the recent Halloween episode doubled down on this aspect with a horror spectacular.

Credit: The CW

The references spanned from Betty dressed as Laurie Strode as she experiences creepy calls coming from inside the house to Cheryl and Toni doing their best Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn impressions all while stuck in the Annabelle universe. Each storyline is half-urban legend, half-iconic horror story

The typeface announcing what day it is over external shots of the Cooper home is a direct nod to Halloween. Unlike Jamie Lee Curtis' iconic babysitter, Betty has already been through more than her fair share of scary movie scenarios. Sure, the videotape that has been left on their doorstep featuring hours of footage of their home is unnerving, but Betty's dad was a serial killer. This is nothing on that whole endurance test and Betty has the gumption of a Final Girl beyond her outfit ode to Laurie.

Credit: The CW

"Halloween" is one of the most fun (and creepy) chapters of the entire run, which manages to propel each character's story forward within their standalone tale of terror. Jughead is now attending the elite Stonewall Prep and with each episode, this school edges closer toward the Joshua Jackson-starring secret society college vehicle The Skulls. Meanwhile, the decor of Stonewall would fit right in at the Academy of the Unseen Arts and just as Sabrina Spellman is seen as an interloper in her Chilling Adventures, Jughead is very much an outsider, even though his grandfather is an alumnus. The school is steeped in mystery, which we all know is Jughead's specialty.

His Halloween surprise is so on-brand for a literary seminar: Jughead is "buried" alive in a move straight out of Poe's Gothic tales "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Premature Burial." The macabre doesn't just come in the form of hazing pranks; Jughead eventually witnesses his teacher purposefully throwing himself out of a window. Creepy doesn't take a Thanksgiving break either; he's also confronted by an ax-wielding bunny (that turns out to be his classmate).

Jughead is in the middle of exposing the origin of the extremely popular "Baxter Brothers" books, a series that built Stonewall Prep and is worth a staggering $200 million. These elements weave together, building on the terrifying proposition that the extremely wealthy are beyond reproach and can control matters with deadly force. In a classic Jughead/Betty team-up, she has dedicated an investigation board to the web her boyfriend has found himself entangled in.

After foiling Edgar Evernever's murder-suicide cult plans, Betty is pulling investigation double-duty in helping her boyfriend and looking into their FBI Agent half-brother Charles. Everything to do with Betty and Jughead's half-sibling is part-soap, part-Mindhunter serial killer exploration. Charles is playing with Betty and despite her wariness, she cautiously trusts his shady behavior and FBI credentials. In reality, he is cooking up something with his boyfriend Chic, who is currently residing in prison. (In a previous season, Chic pretended to be Betty's half-brother before falling under the wing of the Black Hood.)

Credit: The CW

The Dark Betty persona has been a concern since the first season, a side of Betty that exists beneath her girl-next-door persona. Having the so-called serial killer gene was a big Season 3 revelation, which reared its ugly head as a result of the junior FBI class that Charles enrolled his half-sister in. She was suspiciously good at picking out mass murderers; a "one of us" scenario has formed in Betty's head.

In and out of context, the many serial killers of this small town are pretty ridiculous, but this ongoing narrative featuring the Black Hood, the Gargoyle King, and whatever moniker Charles comes up with feeds into the exploration of suburbia's dark heart. Nothing is truly ever as it seems. It doesn't matter how manicured your lawn is; secrets, lies, and monsters still lurk on every corner.

Credit: The CW

For the truly deranged and Gothic ghoulish scares, look no further than the chapel of Thistle House. Cheryl has gone a little Norman Bates in keeping the taxidermied body of twin brother Jason in the basement of her home. After some discussion, Toni convinces her girlfriend to re-bury her twin in "Halloween," but the universe has other plans. "I know you're upset that I made you bury your dead brother's corpse, but this is messed up," Toni exclaims when Jason is magically back in the land of the living, but Cheryl claims she had nothing to do with this resurrection of sorts.

A non-supernatural explanation is likely, but a doll by the name of Julian is the lead contender at the moment. A doll possessed with the spirit of the baby Cheryl allegedly consumed in the womb might be a step too far toward the absurd, but this storyline is so deliciously silly (and creepy) that one can't help but feel joy every time little Julian in his sailor's outfit appears on the screen.

Credit: The CW

Dialogue-wise, it is as if Cheryl has swallowed a dictionary from the 19th century, using words like "phantasmagoria" to describe what she thinks is a fabrication of her mind. She has been dreaming of her family looking for a human body for poor little Julian to inhabit, but the presence of her extended relatives is real, resulting in Toni killing of Cheryl's uncle (in self-defense) and leaving them with a body to dispose of.

They put on a cannibal pie-inspired Thanksgiving performance — baking your enemies into a pie is as old as time, just ask Arya Stark or Shakespeare — to rid Thistle House of those trying to sell the family business. Again, this whole scenario is a 'greatest hits' of horror with even a dash of Texas Chain Saw Massacre thrown in for good dinnertime measure.

Credit: The CW

Riverdale has never suggested it is anything resembling real life; the town is stuck in a time warp resembling the present day and any decade from the last 70 years. The stylized retro aesthetic only adds to the heightened realism, and this is why the writers can go wild with some of the narrative choices. With so many different storylines occurring at once, the atmosphere of mystery, dread, and Gothic whimsy is where Riverdale's strength lies.

The "Town with Pep" moniker is now an ironic sentiment, which lends itself to possessed dolls, mysteries, and serial killers. The TripAdvisor scores are probably low, but if you long for fanciful horror with a healthy dose of pop culture, this town (and show) is still a must-visit.

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