If You Want to Understand True Detective, You Need to Understand Louisiana

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March 4 2014 1:29 PM

Santeria and Voodoo All Mashed Together

If you want to understand True Detective, you need to understand Louisiana.

A scene from True Detective
A scene from True Detective

Still courtesy of HBO

In Ambrose Bierce’s enigmatic short story, “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886), an unnamed narrator awakens from a prolonged fever to find himself wandering in a shadow realm. “On every side of me,” he says, “stretched a bleak and desolate expanse of plain, covered with a tall overgrowth of sere grass, which rustled and whistled in the autumn wind … A few blasted trees here and there appeared as leaders in this malevolent conspiracy of silent expectation.”

That image of scattered trees dotting an “expanse of plain” has a visual rhyme in an early scene in True Detective, set in the field outside Erath, La., where detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) discover Dora Lange’s body. Bierce’s narrator concludes that the plain where he wanders is some distance “from the ruins of the famous and ancient city of Carcosa,” which too finds its rhyme in True Detective’s omnipresent oil distilleries, a spectral cityscape forever on a distant horizon, not to mention a haunting background for Hart and Cohle’s murder investigation.

Much has been made of the connections between True Detective and the cosmic-horror tradition, of which Bierce’s story is an early example, and rightly so. But what’s largely been missed is that the cosmic-horror genre—rooted, as it is, in humankind’s subprime position in the pecking order of the universe—is deeply entwined with the character of Louisiana’s physical and cultural landscape. Understanding the long-standing relationship between the heel of the so-called “dirty boot” and cosmic horror’s existential nihilism can furnish us with a key for unlocking the show, helping us make sense of what it’s up to.

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Consider “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most beloved and anthologized stories, in which policemen descend on a swamp south of New Orleans. There, “ugly roots and malignant hanging nooses of Spanish moss beset them,” and they come upon a “voodoo orgy,” distant fires in the dark. We see something similar, and just as obliquely, in the opening seconds of True Detective: a hulking body carrying something, moving toward a “reddish glare,” to borrow a phrase from Lovecraft’s story. Our first real suspect in the Lange murder case, Reggie Ledoux, could also have been plucked right from “The Call of Cthulhu,” wherein a ranting “mestizo named Castro” remembers “bits of hideous legend that paled the speculations of theosophists and made man and the world seem recent and transient indeed.” In Lovecraft, those distant fires that filter “through the pale undergrowth beyond endless avenues of forest night” (a description echoed by the name of True Detective’s first episode, “The Long Bright Dark”), turn out to be a “monstrous ring-shaped bonfire” where a “hybrid spawn” of worshippers reels in ecstasy around a “carven statuette” of the bat-winged cephalopod Cthulhu.

With the benefit of distance, we can see that Lovecraft’s story expresses unease not just about Louisiana’s physical landscape, but its cultural landscape as well, which boasted the Civil War­–era South’s largest population of “free people of color,” and to this day revels in the masking and unmasking of carnival, along with other vibrant admixtures of race, culture, and religious practice. For many, this mix defines the region’s beauty. Some find it unsettling. Unsurprisingly, a similar unease percolates among the characters on True Detective, particularly as the show begins to explore Cajun Mardi Gras and revival-tent religion. Cohle, a Texan, notes that the area they’re investigating has a winter festival that goes “heavy on the Saturnalia, a place where that Santeria and Voudon all mashed together.”

Voodoo and Santeria have long inspired the authors who dabbled in cosmic horror. Louisiana Voodoo (otherwise known as “Hoodoo”), which draws upon African and European folk traditions alike, derives much of its occult resonance from such practices as vengeance by proxy (voodoo dolls), suspended animation (zombification), and gris-gris (talismans, not unlike the knocked-together fetish sculptures that Hart and Cohle discover at the scene of Dora Lange’s murder). The particular appeal of Louisiana Voodoo to cosmic-horror writers like Lovecraft and those who have followed in his footsteps comes not only from its supernaturalism, but from its cultural otherness as well. On the one hand there is Papa Legba (a horned trickster god who presides over the fates of humans) and zombification rituals (to which human bodies respond like those “biological puppets” Cohle mentions in the third episode). On the other, there is fear of blackness and the demonization of non-Christian faiths.

Not that True Detective goes easier on Christianity: The show seems to reel back in equal-opportunity horror and disgust from all religion, or what Cohle calls “the ontological fallacy of expecting a light at the end of the tunnel.” And yet True Detective, for the moment anyway, seems to be availing itself handsomely of the white man’s fear of Voodoo as a kind of foil for the existence of far more insidious forces. Especially now as Hart and Cohle’s investigation begins to center on the ruined evangelicalism of the Tuttle-Ledoux clan (hinting, by the way, at an actual satanic sex abuse case also involving a corrupt church that rocked southern Louisiana in the early 2000s).

It’s not just the cultural landscape that’s fodder for the horror of True Detective. Director Cary Fukunaga’s crow’s-eye views of oil refineries belching smoke and the stark geography of levee-locked parishes coupled with the pronouncements of Detective Cohle—“Pipeline covering up this coast like a jigsaw. Place is going to be under water within 30 years”—locate the viewer on unsteady ground. Even True Detectives timeline (1995, 2002, and 2012) takes its measure from the mouths of ancillary characters, many of them played by Louisiana locals, in terms of “after Andrew” or “after Katrina.” Detective Cohle even theorizes at one point in the seventh episode that the man they’re after “had a real good time after” Hurricane Katrina. “Chaos. People missing and people gone. Cops gone. I think he had a real good year.” Laissez le bon temps rouler.

The lingering trauma of Katrina may help explain why Louisiana, particularly southern Louisiana, has come to occupy such a broad swath of the American imagination of late, especially on television, and also why True Detective has taken such a hold on viewers. Two more HBO shows, True Blood and Treme, are set there, as was FX’s grandly ridiculous third installment of American Horror Story, called Coven.* This gorgeously dilapidated region—every year more worried away by hurricanes, the oil-drilling erosion of protective wetlands, and sinking clay foundations—is the perfect earthly limbo for staging True Detective’s elemental drama.

Lost cities, liminal realms, and cosmic fear come more or less naturally to Louisiana, which suggests to me that the webwork plot of True Detective will not venture in a supernatural direction, as some have predicted. The chief-most horrors of the show are not voodoo curses or tentacled monsters or consciousness-destroying plays, but environmental slippage, religious perversion, badly mangled family trees. True Detective wears the cosmic-horror genre and its lineage, in other words, not unlike the Mardi Gras masks being worn today all over its native state. The mask is scary, sure enough, but what’s underneath can be even more frightening: one place in the U.S. where anything, it seems, can happen.

Correction, March 4, 2014: This piece originally referred to American Horror Story as an AMC series. It airs on FX. (Return.)

Adrian Van Young is the author of The Man Who Noticed Everything. His work has appeared in Lumina, Gigantic, Electric Literature, Black Warrior Review, the Believer, and more. He lives in New Orleans.