reference check

Riverdale’s References Are a Guide to This Season’s Central Mystery

Photo: Dean Buscher/THE CW

Riverdale has established its reputation for borrowing heavily from pop culture — past seasons have seen homages to everything from Twin Peaks to Zodiac — and injecting these touchstones with its own signature bonkers energy. In season five, after wrapping up loose ends from a fourth season shortened by COVID, the show jumped ahead seven years and opened up several new narrative cans of worms, including two storylines that have major parallels in film.

References to The Silence of Lambs and Destroyer abound as Betty, wracked with PTSD from narrowly escaping the Trash Bag Killer, or TBK, returns to Riverdale (after FBI training in Quantico) to investigate missing girls who have possibly been abducted on the Lonely Highway. Meanwhile, publishing wonderkind — or soon-to-be one-hit wonder — Jughead is having close encounters of another kind, in a storyline rife with science-fiction and paranormal references, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Fire in the Sky, Slaughterhouse-Five, and especially The Mothman Prophecies. As the first half of the season progresses and the mysteries collide, Jughead suggests at one point that the kidnapping, torture, and murder of women that Betty is investigating could be explained by paranormal phenomena. Naturally, this makes Betty furious, but when you break down the season’s events thus far, it’s clear the characters’ story lines have more in common than either of them initially thought.

When Riverdale went on hiatus in March 2021, both Betty and Jughead were defined by their desire to find answers to what may be unexplainable phenomena as a path forward from their own personal traumas. As the show returns this week, perhaps we can prophesize where the rest of the season is headed based on the cultural touchstones the season has been alluding to all along.

The Mothman Prophecies

On the run from debt collectors in NYC and unable to make ends meet teaching at Riverdale High, Jughead also works as a waiter at Pop’s, now run by Pop Tate’s granddaughter Tabitha. Looking for stories for his next book, tentatively titled “Elegy For A Small Town,” Jughead is introduced by Tabitha to kooky Old Man Dreyfuss, who lives in a junkyard filled with giant statues of creatures with red eyes: the Mothmen. In “Chapter 82: Back To School,” Old Man Dreyfuss tells of an incident 50 years earlier (this would be 1977) when men from his crew were abducted one by one by the Mothmen, who he claims live in caves off — you guessed it — the Lonely Highway.

The 2002 film The Mothman Prophecies, starring Richard Gere, is based on a novel of the same name by John Keel. His novel in turn was based on real events that occurred in and around Point Pleasant, West Virginia, from November 1966 to December of 1967, when numerous residents of the rural area reported seeing eight-foot-tall winged Mothman with glowing red eyes, as well as other unexplained lights and aerial phenomena. The sightings increased to a fever pitch until December 1967 with the collapse of the Silver Bridge, which resulted in the death of 46 people. Keel’s book suggests the two events are connected, and in the film, Gere’s character, reeling from the death of his wife at the beginning of the film, is drawn to the area without knowing why. He meets a paranormal researcher who suggests the Mothmen communicate telepathically through an electrical-like current, forewarning us of tragedies before they occur. Keel’s book and the film imply that regardless of what Mothmen are, they appear only to those whose lives have been touched by trauma, be it on a personal level or as a community.

As the Riverdale season progresses, several characters are drawn to the Lonely Highway without knowing why, and tragedies abound. This could mean we are heading toward something as cataclysmic as a bridge collapse with mass casualties; perhaps the other storylines revolving around the community will collide here as well. Returning to a Riverdale on the brink of economic collapse, the crew have rallied to save the town: Archie by running Riverdale High’s ROTC and football team; Cheryl, Toni, Kevin, and Fangs by resuscitating their alma mater, despite being caught in a romantic quadrangle; Veronica by creating a new currency and opening a jewelry store, all while trying to exit a failed marriage. It’s easy to imagine how any and all of these story lines may converge in one big disaster that will shape the final episodes.

In the following episode, “Chapter 83: Fire In The Sky,” Jughead finds clippings connecting Pop Tate and Nana Rose to the 1970s Mothman sighting in Riverdale. Nana Rose also casually mentions that she met the Mothmen when they were looking for their “missing friends” and conducted an autopsy on one of their corpses. Which — what? It seems Nana Rose may have actually spoken to these creatures; she’s also indicated that more than one went missing way back when. The Blossoms’ residence, Thornhill, has a history of strange occurrences, from family members murdering each other to keeping their dead as mummies, so nothing is too far-fetched for this cursed property.

Further, in a later episode titled “Chapter 85: Destroyer,” one of Jughead’s students turns in a paper that has a red-eyed Mothman drawn on the cover. The story tells of a kid who is kidnapped by the Mothmen, taken on their ship, and then escapes. The child, we find out, is a sleepwalker, always drawn to the Lonely Highway. In fact, he once went missing for an entire week, returning without a clue as to where he had been.

While investigating Pop Tate and Nana Rose’s story about their interaction with the Mothmen, Jughead has a close encounter of his own, which leads us to …

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

In Spielberg’s 1977 classic, Richard Dreyfuss (see what Riverdale did there?) plays a man who encounters strange lights one night out on a desolate road in middle-of-nowhere Indiana. He then becomes preoccupied by the image of a shape he cannot shake, which he eventually learns represents Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. He journeys there with a woman whose son was taken by the craft, and together they discover the government has known about the aliens this whole time. Those who are drawn to the craft start their journey to Devil’s Tower first by drawing images of the place — or in Dreyfuss’s case, crafting it in mashed potatoes. Similarly, in The Mothman Prophecies, characters who have encounters with the beings are compelled to draw images of them over and over as a way to process what they’ve experienced.

So far in this season, we’ve seen characters who are compelled to draw the Mothmen, as well as those who are drawn to a central point — the Lonely Highway — but we don’t know what the heck is really going on there. If the remaining episodes follow the trajectory of both films, the compulsion to move toward a central point should lead us if not to an explanation, then at least to the source from which all the mysteries stem.

As Jughead guards Nana Rose’s corpse, awaiting an expert anthropologist’s analysis, he experiences the same freaky lights and unexplained electrical phenomena that Pop Tate described to him earlier. Both sequences use the same intense yellow lighting and song playing on the jukebox as in Close Encounters’ abduction sequence. When Jughead heads outside to get a better look, he is struck by a blinding white light in a direct homage to …

Fire in the Sky

The namesake of this episode is a 1993 film based on an incident that took place on November 5, 1975, in Snowflake, Arizona. Fire in the Sky tells of logger Travis Walton, who was supposedly abducted by a craft in the middle of the woods. As in Old Man Dreyfuss’s tale, this event was witnessed by the five other men on his crew. Similar to Jughead’s student, he was discovered a week later completely naked on the side of a deserted highway.

After Jughead is struck by the light, the episode cuts away, and in the next scene we discover that he has no memory of the subsequent period of time. He recalls to Tabitha that the abduction took place at roughly 2 a.m. — the exact same time that Gere’s character in The Mothman Prophecies loses time on an isolated road outside Point Pleasant. Jughead has also lost the alien body. It seems the Mothmen may have finally come back for their missing friend, or at least someone has.

Meanwhile, in the same episode, while investigating the disappearance of her sister Polly, Betty discovers not only that many girls have gone missing over the last few years, but that it appears someone is dumping their bodies in Sledlow Swamp — just off our old friend the Lonely Highway.

When their mother, Alice, receives a frantic phone call from Polly in “Chapter 84: Lock & Key,” she describes her surroundings in such a way that it sounds like she’s in an alien craft. When Polly calls again later in the episode, it’s from a pay phone on the highway, in a scene reminiscent of Walton’s return in Fire in the Sky, which was notable for its graphic depiction of his abduction and torture while on board the craft, and for its exploration of lingering trauma. She tells Alice to hurry and says that “they’re coming.”

What we don’t know is whether Polly really was aboard a spaceship; she had been missing for weeks before her two phone calls, yet Jughead’s student returned after only one week. Were they abducted by the same people? Could it be the Mothmen, or someone more terrestrial — more sinister — like TBK?

When Tabitha and Jughead finally meet with the anthropologist who had come to see the now-missing corpse, she tells them that often “when someone claims to have a close encounter they are often in fact repressing a traumatic experience.” This idea of close-encounter stories as a way to explore lingering trauma is found throughout UFO studies, as well as science-fiction novels like …


After their meeting with the anthropologist, Jughead sees a flash of a gray alien looming in the doorway while teaching Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. In that novel, Billy Pilgrim gets unstuck from time and simultaneously lives through his childhood, his time as a prisoner of war, the firebombing of Dresden, and his capture by aliens to populate a zoo. It’s left up to the reader whether Pilgrim is experiencing PTSD from his time in World War II or if he really has been abducted by aliens and figured out how to time travel using his mind.

With war a central theme of Vonnegut’s novel, and Archie himself dealing with the aftermath of shady events that happened while he was off fighting an unnamed war, I can’t help but think all the threads will eventually collide. In “Chapter 80: Purgatorio,” Archie is ordered to reinstate the ROTC at Riverdale High, which has been established throughout the season as on the brink of closure. Why would the army care about the ROTC in such a podunk town… unless the general who ordered him back there is in cahoots with the beings, like the army in Close Encounters?

In “Chapter 85: Destroyer” Jughead informs his agent that while he’s writing about aliens, like Vonnegut’s novel, his work is really about personal trauma and possibly even collective trauma. In the midseason finale, Jughead takes maple mushrooms to get his creative juices flowing and meet a deadline. Tabitha handcuffs him to his writing desk, and after she leaves, he hallucinates rats, the gray alien again, and multiple taunting ex-girlfriends. Waking up from his hallucinations, it appears he’s finished his novel excerpt, titled “Episode 4: The Transubstantiation.”

Found in Catholic doctrine, transubstantiation is when the substance of bread is turned into the substance of the body of Christ during the eucharist. Not symbolically, but literally. Sci-fi author Philip K. Dick ponders the idea of transubstantiation in his 1965 novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch with a humorous story about a missing steak and a sly cat. While Vonnegut’s novel doesn’t tackle the doctrine as directly as Dick, he does explore how something can be many things at once. The alien race known as Tralfamadorians appear in many of his novels, including Slaughterhouse-Five. Their main doctrine is that you cannot change the past, the present, or the future, since all moments in time already exist. Jughead appears to be referencing both authors with the title of his novel, but he also may have found himself truly unstuck in time.

In an earlier episode, Old Man Dreyfuss indicated that angels, aliens, and Mothmen were interchangeable words for the same beings, all stemming from the human desire to make sense of the unexplainable. For the Tralfamadorians, there is no point in seeking explanations, because it’s all already happened. So perhaps the key to unlocking the mysteries of the season lay not in what is yet to happen, but in what has already passed — which brings us back to Betty and …


The episode in which Betty and Jughead’s mysteries finally do collide is named after Karyn Kusama’s neo-noir Destroyer, in which a gritty detective played by Nicole Kidman attempts to solve a murder, but whose action is propelled via flashbacks. By the time you get to the end you realize it’s actually the beginning.

So it seems our heroes need to look to the past to understand their future, which is underscored every time they visit Old Man Dreyfuss. After hearing that the phone booth where Polly had called from was crushed like a tin can, he claims this was caused by antimatter fusion that allows the Mothmen to levitate; he also casually mentions that the Mothmen were active not only in 1977, but also in the summer of 1982. Betty and Jughead do not follow up, leaving the viewer wondering what the heck happened in 1982. I immediately thought of Poltergeist, which is not exactly about aliens, but was originally conceived by Spielberg as a horror sequel to Close Encounters — and it is about paranormal activity and did come out in the summer of 1982. If that’s the case, then we’re looking at some very cursed land. Perhaps as cursed as Nana Rose insists Thornhill is?

All this to say that …

“Two Possibilities Exist”

At the beginning of “Chapter 85,” Jughead quotes another science-fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, who said about aliens, “Two possibilities exist. Either we’re alone in the universe or we’re not. Both are equally terrifying.” Clarke co-wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick; it was based on his short story “The Sentinel,” which was first published in 1951 and expanded into a novel in 1968. In the film, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) finds himself unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, after a close encounter with an ominous extraterrestrial black monolith. He faces himself at various stages of life, first as an old man and eventually as a fetus. While high on magic mushrooms in the midseason finale, Jughead was visited by visions of girlfriends past and indicated that he was prone to blackouts during his years in New York City. It seems that to figure out what is going on with Jughead and the Mothmen, we’ll have to find out what exactly went down back then.

The midseason finale ends with Betty driving a truck down the Lonely Highway, the official lost-girls investigation having been taken away from her by the FBI. Again, like many characters in the films referenced throughout the season, she is drawn to this central point. Maybe she’ll find the answers she’s looking for. Maybe she’ll find Jughead out there. All we know for sure is that these mysteries are intertwined, and as we head into the back half of Riverdale’s fifth season, we’re looking at two possibilities: Either we really are witnessing alien abductions and manipulation of time, or yet another serial killer is on the loose. Like Clarke said, both options are equally terrifying.

Riverdale’s References Are a Guide to Season 5’s Big Mystery