The CW’s Riverdale is advertising itself as a sexy, pulpy noir take on the world of the classic Archie comics. And while it does contain these qualities, it also embodies another genre that isn’t as buzzed-about: gothic horror. In nodding to classic gothic tropes, Riverdale is taking a leaf out of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s book to elevate the conversation around the universality of adolescence.
Betty Cooper’s story on Riverdale contains the largest dose of gothic fare. Her sister Polly is literally a woman locked away like Mr. Rochester’s wife, and she’s pregnant. The man who impregnated her — the murdered Jason Blossom — also grew up in a giant gothic mansion and is revealed to have been something of a lech.
Aside from the typical creepy-crawly moments, gothic horror typically contains several distinct tropes: remote locations, fallen women, predatory men, hints of incest, at least one formerly grand location that’s in a state of ruin and decay, and intergenerational secrets.
Betty aside, every character’s sub plot contains nods to the gothic. Jughead used to live at a movie drive-in past its heyday — which fits the trope of splendor falling to ruin. When he relocates to living in the school, Archie even appears behind him in a mirror early one morning, horror-movie style.
As a member of the local gang, the Serpents, Jughead’s father also joins the ranks of corrupted parents. Veronica’s mother deceives her daughter and begins an affair with Archie’s father, and Betty’s mother gleefully speaks of wishing she had murdered Jason. While Riverdale does not contain literal monsters like Buffy, it shares the commonality that hardly any authority figure has credibility. The teens’ former teacher Ms. Grundy is implied to have a predatory penchant for teen boys. Riverdale cleverly gender-bends the gothic trope of the young ingenue corrupted by the older man. Grundy has an affair with her student Archie throughout the first handful of episodes, and while she initially seems hesitant and kindhearted, when she leaves town — eyes lingering on a teen boy — it’s later implied that Archie was not her first. It doesn’t get more gothic than that.
As Tom Hardy’s show Taboo and Guillermo del Toro’s underrated Crimson Peak both show, incest is also a gothic staple. And while Riverdale has not quite gone the distance yet, it’s leaned into implications that Cheryl and Jason Blossom’s relationship was not quite kosher. Even the notorious Betty and Veronica kiss in the pilot has whiffs of the gothic. Cheryl Blossom proclaimed that “faux lesbian” hasn’t been taboo since 1994, but the original lesbian taboo tale was famous gothic short story Carmilla.
Riverdale is a modern, fast-talking, pop culture referencing noir show. But beneath the surface, it’s highly gothic — and it’s that quality that makes it more than just another teen drama.
Riverdale is currently airing on Thursday nights on The CW.