How Harbor Springs became the fictional ‘murder capital of the world’

Tribune Content Agency

HARBOR SPRINGS, Mich. — This small town in a corner of Little Traverse Bay has seen zero homicides this year and last year, and in fact, Police Chief Kyle Knight says he doesn’t believe there is one on record ever.

But fans of “Riverdale” — The CW’s campy, edgy and corpse-filled TV take on Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead and other beloved characters from the classic comic book series — may recognize the northern Michigan town across the bay from Petoskey as none other than the “murder capital of the world” itself while driving down its quintessential American small-town Main Street.

It’s likely by some happy accident that royalty-free aerial footage over the downtown of Harbor Springs, a bayside resort town of less than 1,300 residents, became the first shot of the hit series. At its peak, “Riverdale” reached 2.3 million live viewers, according to ratings tracker The Nielsen Co. Drops of the most recent season typically land among the top 10 shows on Netflix, and it’s spun out numerous memes on social media. The show that’s in the midst of airing the last episodes of its seven-season run airs at 9 p.m. ET Wednesdays on The CW.

The creators of “Riverdale” aren’t the only ones to have noticed Harbor Springs’ charms. The Hallmark Channel’s website had a livestream of the downtown’s Christmas lights and tree featured along with a few other festive towns last winter as a part of its “Countdown to Christmas.”

Inquiries about the selection of the Harbor Springs footage in “Riverdale” were sent to representatives of The CW and on Instagram to Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, “Riverdale’s” showrunner and the chief content officer at Archie Comics. The Detroit News didn’t receive a response.

“Riverdale” is a mystery drama that has followed the unraveling of a seemingly perfect facade of a small American town through the story of red-headed Archie Andrews (KJ Apa) and the gang as they go through high school, adulthood and back to high school in the 1950s (it’s a long story) while facing the SATs, romance, mobsters, serial killers, organ-harvesting cults, time travel and more. Canceled sister shows in the “Archieverse,” Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and The CW’s “Katy Keene,” have referenced Riverdale as the “murder capital of the world.”

But before all of that, the story was “about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town,” the narrator voice of Cole Sprouse, who plays a beanie-wearing Jughead Jones, says about the fictional town of Riverdale in the show’s pilot as the visual of Harbor Springs pops on the screen followed by other picturesque video clips of small-town life. “From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world. Safe, decent, innocent. Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath.”

“Riverdale” is actually based in upstate New York and filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia. The show frequently uses overhead images of various towns, many of which aren’t Harbor Springs. But the familiar first image of the white steeple of Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church at the end of a streetlight-free main street backdropped by green trees off a lakeside is immediately recognizable in connection with the show. (There also, though, is a Riverdale in Gratiot County.)

Perhaps it’s fitting a Michigan community was chosen for the show to represent the fictional town that in the comics had been a sort of a relatable everytown that offered the setting for all sorts of plots. Bob Montana, the cartoonist who created the likeness of the Archie characters, imagined them in Midwestern suburbia, because publisher John Goldwater had fond memories of his time in Hiawatha, Kansas, according to The New York Times.

“It captures that small-town feel that they’re looking for,” said Melissa Ford Lucken, author of “The Binge Watcher’s Guide to Riverdale: An Unofficial Companion,” who teaches creative writing and composition at Lansing Community College. “They’re trying to capture the comics version of Riverdale. That particular shot has a lot in the shot: the church, houses, the water, the forest, but also the downtown, which is pretty similar to the comics vibe for the Riverdale version.”

She added that the show frequently plays with religious themes and pulls from pop culture and cult classics, including ABC’s crime drama “Twin Peaks” (“Twin Peaks” actress Madchen Amick plays the mother of Lili Reinhart’s Betty Cooper in “Riverdale,” for example). The creators of “Twin Peaks,” Ford Lucken noted, were influenced by “Peyton Place,” a 1950s novel and film that emphasizes a church at the center of a small, gossipy town.

The Harbor Springs shots appear to have come from a 24-second, royalty-free clip that’s part of a portfolio of overhead shots of the city uploaded online by Lynn Media Global LLC, an entity registered to Benjamin Lynn of Atlanta. Lynn, 42, said he had heard about the use of his video in the show that first aired in January 2017. He believes he filmed it in 2014 with a DJI Phantom 4 Pro or Inspire 1 Pro drone during a brief trip Up North with his girlfriend at the time to a relative’s house there.

“I liked the lake,” he said. “I don’t know about the town. I just was shooting some drone footage and got some cool shots of it.”

Lynn has made shooting stock video and some paid gigs his full-time job while also working part-time for Delta Air Lines Inc. for the travel perks to fly across the country and around the globe. He started in 2009 after hearing about the work from a friend. He’s seen his work mostly used as B-roll in commercials, TV shows and movies like Netflix’s “Ozark” and “Murder Mystery 2.”

Although he doesn’t receive royalties, typically when his stock video is used in a big show or feature film, it’s under a full or extended license that allows it to use the footage as much as the creators want. Lynn can get $200 to $1,000 for that.

“I do a lot of traveling and get to see a lot of states and cities and places,” he said, though he admits the business is tougher nowadays. “It’s a lot more saturated now.”

But Lynn’s footage managed to stand out, at least for “Riverdale.” Its use hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially by local viewers.

Hanni Yothers is the owner of the Hanni Gallery in downtown Harbor Springs. She recognized her hometown while her teenage daughter was watching the show a few years ago.

“I was like ‘Kael, that’s Harbor Springs!'” she recalled from the conversation with her daughter. “The shot was coming right into the church. We looked it up, and someone had taken some drone shots. I was like, ‘That’s really cool.'”

Yothers wasn’t surprised and has thought for a long time that the beauty of the town should be more of a spectacle, she said: “It’s such a great town. It’s picturesque, quaint. It’s a good place to be. We enjoy living here.”

Mayor Matt Bugera said the show’s premiere caused quite the buzz when it first aired, and while the residents of the fictional Riverdale may have plenty of mysteries to solve, Harbor Springs remains “the crime-free capital of the world.”

“You can keep your keys in your car because the Jaguar next to you has its keys in the car,” Bugera said. “Everyone says we’re kind of the Norman Rockwell town. You come down Main Street, and see the church, and the stores. It is a special place.”

Dan Ernst, 58, of Olathe, Missouri grew up in Harbor Springs and was in town earlier this month with his family. His daughter, Katie, 26, of Dallas has seen the show and didn’t realize the downtown made an appearance but said it makes sense: “It’s peaceful. It’s quaint.”

Ernst appreciates the commitment to the small-town charms: “They still have the Memorial Day and July 4th parades. They do those small-town things to keep the nostalgia. They still do bowling down the street,” a decades-old tradition held up by the Harbor Springs Area Chamber of Commerce.

The subtle inclusion in “Riverdale” hasn’t become a major draw to the community built off tourism. Jim Powell, executive director of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau, says he wasn’t aware the city made an appearance in the show, though he’s also unsurprised. The bureau uses aerial shots in its marketing.

“If I was going to draw a picture-perfect postcard, Harbor Springs would be that town,” Powell said. “It is very quaint in its nature. Its main street is classic. Harbor Springs does have a reputation for being that.”