Shirley Jackson Re-Imagined in Riverdale

This post contains spoilers for Season 6, Episode 1 of Riverdale.


Welcome to Rivervale

‘There’s a town that exists at the borderlands. A place of nightmares and dreamscapes. A place where folklore and myth carry the weight of fact and truth.’ I watch as Jughead Jones walks towards me on a lonely, forest road. Both narrator and participant, Jughead welcomes the viewer to Season 6 of the Netflix series Riverdale. Except there is a twist. If, like me, you have been watching the show for the last five seasons, then you are no stranger to the uncanny, bizarre and violent world that is Riverdale. Replete with serial killers, cults, killer board games, gangs, the supernatural, brothels and the usual high school drama, Riverdale offers a plethora of Gothic tropes. But Season 6 seems to take it one step further. As Jughead talks about this town at the borderlands, you realise something is off. This is no longer Riverdale.

Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones in Riverdale. Image credit IMDb.

Welcome to Rivervale (or Riverveil). The uncanny feeling deepens as we enter a town we recognise, but is not the same. This is a place where ‘superstitions and their laws overshadow the laws of science . . . and a place where old traditions die hard, if they die at all.’ Jughead assures us that although we think we know it, we do not. Rivervale is a shadow of the town we know; it is a Twilight Zone-esque space: the Upside Down in Stranger Things. Everything is a little bit darker, the music is slightly more jarring and in Rivervale, no one is safe from death. No matter what place your name holds in the credits.

By the end of Episode 1, I can’t help but feel like I’ve seen this story before. I rack my brain . . . And then, it hits me. Replaying the episode in my mind, I couldn’t help but think of ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson.

Now I know this might seem like a stretch, but stay with me.

The Lottery You Don’t Want to Win

Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ was published in 1948 for the first time in The New Yorker. It tells the story of a small town in Anywhere USA, during what is presumably the 40s. Every year, the town runs a lottery, in which each family must participate. The outcome of this lottery is not made clear until the very end. All the families gather in the town centre, pull a piece of paper from a box, and in the end, the family member who has pulled the paper with a black mark on it is stoned to death.

Jackson is a master of the American Gothic, and ‘The Lottery’ is perhaps one of her most disturbing stories. Beginning with a pastoral town that seems concerned with only the weather, crops and the dishes left in the sink back home, the tale quickly turns into a narrative of tradition, sacrifice and smalltown ruthlessness. There is no emotion behind the stoning. It is tradition. It must be done. Meant to help with the fertility of the land, it is merely backed by superstition. The sheer lack of questioning or acknowledgement of the fear of Tessie Hutchison as she begs for a redraw is bone chilling but effective. Jackson’s narratives have cropped up again and again (excuse the pun) in cinematic adaptations and TV shows, and inspired countless authors (such as Stephen King).

And now, she can be found in a place where you least expect it.

Anytime, Anywhere U.S.A

Like the town in ‘The Lottery’, the location of Riverdale/vale is uncertain. It has the vibe of being a small, East Coast town, which would fit with Jackson’s obsession with New England, but it could also be the Pacific Northwest, or even Canada (the show is filmed in Vancouver). It is never explicitly mentioned, rendering it slightly eerie. The time frame is also opaque. In both narratives, it is difficult to place the events in a particular decade. The characters of Riverdale dress in a mix of contemporary and retro styles. They drive old cars, run speakeasies, eat at old-fashioned all-American diners, use typewriters and yet all have cell phones. It is a hodgepodge of anachronisms. Riverdale mirrors essentially any geographically ambiguous town that appears in Shirley Jackson’s writings (except The Road Through the Wall), but it is the introduction of Rivervale that specifically reminds me of ‘The Lottery’, not only because of the setting, but because of the plot itself.

The episode begins with Jughead introducing the various domestic situations and constellations of characters. The intradiegetic version of him is moving in with his girlfriend, Betty and Archie are talking about starting a family together, Veronica and Reggie are the power couple with a successful business, Fangs and Tony are struggling with their newborn baby, and Cheryl is running a school for girls in her family home. In the older generation, Betty’s single mother, Alice, is trying to seduce Archie’s uncle as he fixes her kitchen appliances.

At first glance, all of these scenes seem to be quite typical; the usual joys and struggles indicative of any relationship. However, as the narrative progresses, any seemingly innocuous problem becomes worse. Jughead and Tabitha quickly find that their apartment is infested with bugs and believe themselves to be cursed. Betty learns that she is infertile and cannot give Archie a baby, something she keeps a secret. Reggie struggles with feelings of inadequacy and toxic masculinity as he compares himself to Archie, Veronica’s ex. Tony finds out that their baby has colic and is offered only out of date “traditional” cures. Alice gets rejected by Frank and does not take it well. While all these things could theoretically happen and no scenario is out of the realm of possibility, the fact they are all happening at once, coupled with Jughead’s ominous introduction in the beginning, makes it clear something is wrong.

Other than getting to know the characters as they are in Rivervale, the driving plot point in the episode is Archie’s idea to reforest the town. It seems that the main export of Rivervale was maple syrup. Unfortunately, the maple trees not only dried up, but they belong to the Blossoms, Cheryl’s family. Once she inherited the trees and land, in an act of defiance against the town and their persecutions against her and her family, Cheryl declares her property, Thornhill, a sovereign state, effectively cutting off all revenue from the maple syrup. Archie suggests replanting maple trees in each family’s yard, in hopes of restoring the land and its profits. After his speech, the scene cuts to Cheryl and her students having dinner at Thornhill. Cheryl claims that her trees are dry and lifeless because ‘we have forgotten the old ways’.

Cheryl Blossom is perhaps the most Jackson-esque character in the whole series. She is an outsider, living on the fringes of society, both spatially and socially. She is a lesbian, a witch and a recluse, who remains for the most part behind the walls of her exaggeratedly Gothic home. She is the one who wants to bring back ‘the old ways’; those old traditions that die hard. She echoes the voices in ‘The Lottery’ who scoff at other villages who have let traditions be forgotten. She talks about an ancient deity, ‘She Who Walks Amongst the Trees’, a goddess of the land who is responsible for making the land fertile, based on worship and sacrifice. While the people in ‘The Lottery’ may not explicitly worship Gaia or any of her forms, the idea of sacrifice for the sake of fertility is not new to them. Cheryl is the perfect representation of the Other that plagues Gothic literature. Yet it will be both the townspeople’s fascination and fear that draw them to her, just to stand by and watch as she sacrifices one of their own.

The concept of fertility, or lack of it, is a theme that runs throughout this episode. Betty is barren, as is the land. Not only that, but according to the doctor, she is the fifth young woman he has seen with the same problem. As in ‘The Lottery’, the desire of fertility or virility is what drives this episode. Cheryl convinces her students that ‘we must return to the old ways, the blood ways, the pagan ways’, and in order to do that, this requires sacrifice. Suddenly, an innocent small town seems capable of a great horror. But it is not until the final moment in both narratives that the savagery is made abundantly clear.

Let’s Kill the Boy Next Door

K.J. Apa, Madelaine Petsch and Lili Reinhart as Archie, Cheryl and Betty in Riverdale. Image credit IMDb.

In an effort to keep her trees as the only source of syrup, Cheryl curses all the recently planted saplings. She then goes around to all the aforementioned couples and promises them an answer to their problems (usually in the form of some talisman or potion). In return, they must help her in a ritual, and then ‘everything will be as it should’. Tradition is everything to Cheryl and as she enlists the help of the town, it becomes their mantra as well.

The episode culminates in a Maple Festival, hosted by Cheryl at Thornhill. The whole town gathers at what has now become the equivalent of a village centre. Everybody is acting a little strange, as if they are expecting something to happen, but we are kept in the dark until the very end, fidgeting with a growing sense of unease, a familiar feeling while reading ‘The Lottery’.

After the party, Archie gets a phone call from his friend Kevin, telling him he has to hurry. Cheryl has taken Betty and is about to perform some weird ritual with her. When Archie arrives, we see the looming, Gothic forest illuminated by torches and a full, blood red moon. However, instead of finding his girlfriend in distress, he finds his friends, family and neighbours all standing in a circle. Everyone is wearing white and holding flowers. He sees Betty in a dress and a floral crown with horns on her head. Cheryl welcomes him and tells him: ‘If we want our maple trees to thrive again, if we want Rivervale to have a bountiful year in all respects, a sacrifice has to be made’, echoing the words of Jackson: ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’ (297). Fertility must be paid for with blood. Betty explains to him that it is a miracle, but she is pregnant. Just like the land, Betty is no longer barren. When he realises he is meant to be the sacrifice, he tries to reason with them, but is suddenly struck on the back of the head with a stone by Veronica, a chilling reminder of what ultimately killed Tessie: ‘Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual . . . they still remembered to use stones’ (301). The same horror descends. As they tie Archie to a pole, now singled out as the other, I couldn’t help but think of Tessie, holding out her hands ‘desperately as the villagers moved in on her’ (301). Her screams go unheeded, ‘and then they were upon her’ (302). Cheryl stabs Archie, the final act of the ritual, and the hero of Rivervale is dead. As Cheryl holds his beating heart in her hands, tradition is restored. All is well.

Until next year, anyway.

Sources

Jackson, Shirley. ‘The Lottery’. The Lottery and Other Stories. Penguin, 2009, pp. 291-302.

Riverdale. ‘Welcome to Rivervale’. Dir. Gabriel Correa. 2021.


Bryanna Weiche is a first year PhD student of American Literature at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Her focus is on the thematic language of Shirley Jackson and how it pertains to hysteria and authorship as power within the genre of the feminine gothic. When she isn’t studying, she can be found reading murder mysteries, thrillers and true crime. She is currently working on her first novel (and yes, it is a paranormal murder mystery).