Warning: this post contains spoilers for Riverdale season four and the novel The Secret History.
Riverdale isn’t a show known for realism. The candy-dipped CW series is a kaleidoscope of camp, crammed with so many storylines and references, it’s hard to see straight. But that overwroughtness is exactly why we love Riverdale. Because it’s so unabashedly, bombastically its own thing. A soap opera loaded with Truman Capote and Patricia Highmsmith references, set to a throbbing Imagine Dragons score. What’s not to love?
And sometimes, when we’re least expecting it, Riverdale sneaks in fun reference that makes up a whole storyline. That was certainly the case with season four’s Stonewall Preparatory plot. As many fans correctly assumed, Jughead’s stodgy prep school and scheming classmates were inspired by the Donna Tartt novel The Secret History. But did you know real people and real events also inspired the novel?
Here’s the true story behind Riverdale’s fourth season murder plot, its ties to the real-life Bennington College, and why it made for such ripe and addictive television.
Who is Donna Tartt and what’s is The Secret History?
Tartt is a prestigious novelist whose 2013 novel The Goldfinch won her the Pulitzer Prize. But before she was dripping in accolades, she was a student at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont—a very real place she used as inspiration for the fictional Hampden College in her debut novel The Secret History.
Published in 1992, The Secret History tells the story of an elite group of Greek majors at Hampden College who murder one of their own after he threatens to expose their unsavory behavior. (This character death is not a major spoiler: Tartt reveals it on the very first page. She describes The Secret History as a “whydunnit” as opposed to a “whodunnit.”) They plan to stage his death as an accident, but then a snowstorm comes and buries the body. So begins an elaborate search-and-rescue that involves most of the college and neighboring town, and puts the murderous teens in a pickle. They are left to deal with the moral consequences of their actions in slow-motion. Their perfect murder is in fact as imperfect as it could possibly get.
Riverdale’s fourth season is a play on Tartt’s novel.
Riverdale borrowed this premise for its Stonewall Prep storyline. In the show, Jughead is accepted to a prestigious academy where he spends most of his time with a small group of fiercely intelligent students. He immediately butts heads with two of his classmates: Bret Weston Wallis and Donna Sweett. Jughead finds himself the subject of Stonewall’s own murderous plot. Sweett hatches a plan to kill him and blame it on his girlfriend, Betty, as part of a long-con revenge coup. (Stonewall Prep professor Mr. DuPont murdered Sweett’s grandmother after taking credit for the mystery series she had written. Killing Jughead is somehow part of Sweett’s plan to retrieve the rights to her grandmother’s story because, you know, Riverdale!)
The “murder” goes all wrong. Jughead isn’t actually dead. He’s just conscious. Betty finds him and they fake his death to make the Stonewall kids feel culpable. They give him a fake funeral and everything, a distraction while they unlock Sweett’s master plan. It all comes to a head eventually. Sweett is exposed, Jughead lives, and then there’s a Hedwig and the Angry Inch tribute episode because, again, Riverdale!
There are a number of parallels to draw between this latest season of Riverdale and The Secret History. The failed perfect murder plot, mainly. The erudite prep school that sounds a lot like Hampden. Donna Sweett is clearly a name homage to Donna Tartt. And then there’s Bret Weston Wallis, whose name derives from real-life author Bret Easton Ellis—a classmate of Tartt’s at Bennington and one of literature’s most controversial figures.
The real story of Bennington College also influenced Riverdale.
Tartt and Ellis’s reign at Bennington was documented in an excellent Esquire article titled, “The Secret Oral History of Bennington: The 1980s Most Decadent College.” There, the literary troublemakers were part of an elite group of creatives, which also included author Jonathan Lethem. The article—which features interviews from Ellis, Lethem, and their classmates—denotes a competitive atmosphere, with the school as the backdrop constant in their mischievous, brilliant journeys.
“When I was at Bennington, I felt like I was in a kind of, I don’t know—a time warp or a different dimension or something,” said Tartt’s classmate and friend, the musician Brixton Smith Start. “It was like all of us, collectively, were tapping the source.”
Ellis, the popular druggie bad boy, would channel his time at Bennington into two popular novels: Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction. (He would go on to write the infamous American Psycho.) He befriended and briefly dated Tartt, who shared with him early drafts of The Secret History. She dedicated her book to him.
Tartt was wrapped up in her own intense Greek studies at Bennington, which she channeled into the story. And though there was no murder on campus during her time there, her classmates say the book was far from pure fiction.
“It’s a work of thinly veiled reality—a roman à clef,” said Tartt’s classmate, Todd O’Neal. “When it came out, [Tartt’s classmates and friends] Claude and Matt and I got endless calls. Everybody was saying, “Oh, did you know Donna just wrote a book about Claude and you all?”
So while the murderous plot of The Secret History—and by proxy Riverdale—is a total fabrication, the walls of Stonewall Prep and characters like Donna Sweett and Bret Weston Wallis recall a very real time. A time when literary history was made and mythologized.
Featured Image: The CW/Ballantine Books