Cult Cops and Moral Entrepreneurs
Since the time of the Puritans, Americans have feared that witches and other subversive agents of Satan have infiltrated our society. Fictional narratives about Satanic cults provide a window into these fears, but in the right circumstances they also amplify them. The sociologist of religion Douglas Cowan argued that horror films, for example, are a “sociophobic window” into the inner fears of a society. The most popular and compelling horror stories often point to specific fears that lurk deep in the fabric of a culture. The horror genre allows us to imagine what it would look like to have an evil cult hidden in our midst and thereby renders this idea more plausible. True Detective’s first season storyline is a stark example of this process of making fears seem believable. Set in 1995, just after the peak of the American Satanic Panic of the 80s, it combines century-old motifs of hidden cults with actual contemporary rumors of Satanism that came out of Pizzolatto’s home state of Louisiana.
Just as important as True Detective’s depiction of the cult is the depiction of the detectives and the “cult cops” who investigate it. The Satanic Panic of the 80s was promoted by an unlikely coalition of “moral entrepreneurs” that included Evangelical Christians, law enforcement, mental health professionals, TV talk show hosts, and even some feminists who advocated for the importance of believing the stories of abuse survivors. Of these factions, law enforcement showed the most egregious lapse in responsibility. Robert Hicks, a former police officer and criminal justice analyst for the commonwealth of Virginia, became an important whistleblower who reported on dubious police practices used during the Panic. Hicks coined the term “cult cops” to describe officers who became preoccupied with hunting for Satanists. He reported that many cult cops subscribed to a theology of spiritual warfare and that their work entangled policing with religious beliefs. The cult cops organized seminars on “occult crime” in which they trained other officers in how to identify and arrest cultists. Invariably, the telltale sign of a cultist was said to be participation in some sort of subculture: wearing a hippie peace sign, wearing exclusively black clothing, listening to heavy metal music, playing Dungeons & Dragons, etc. In keeping with a long tradition of conspiracy-driven thinking, these claims served to link numerous mundane acts of youth rebellion into a grand pattern that, for the conspiracy theorists, was simultaneously frightening and tantalizing.
Cosmic Horror or Eucatastrophe?
I started watching True Detective because it approached the subject of “occult crime” in a way that seemed smart and critical. I was especially intrigued by the show’s use of mythology borrowed from early occult-themed literature such as the work of H.P. Lovecraft, who was a major contributor to the fantasy and horror pulp magazine Weird Tales. I was interested in the notion that, as historian Philip Jenkins has suggested, the origins of Satanic Panic lie in this genre of fiction from the 1920s. In addition to sinister cults, fin-de-siècle weird tale authors like Lovecraft and Robert Chambers also emphasized a theme known as “cosmic horror,” in which everything familiar is obliterated by a hideous reveal. However, rather disappointingly, in True Detective’s Season One finale, the story steered sharply away from cosmic horror to something more like what J.R.R. Tolkien called a “eucatastrophe.”