In his 1947 essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien uses the term eucatastrophe to describe an unexpected turn of events in which the protagonist is saved from certain doom. Tolkien’s theory of “happy endings” was informed by the theology of grace. (In fact, he describes the resurrection of Christ as “the Great Eucatastrophe.”) In True Detective Season One’s eucatastrophe, (spoiler alert!) the antagonist is revealed to be a rather ordinary “monster” that needs to be put down. And, by slaying the monster, the previously flawed heroes are redeemed. Rust Cohle, the show’s brooding protagonist (played by Matthew McConaughey), whose nihilistic musings about human consciousness as a sort of evolutionary disaster are inspired by the “philosophical pessimism” of horror writer Thomas Ligotti, undergoes a death and resurrection, appearing to return with positive knowledge of heaven. With his long hair, beard, and white hospital gown, Cohle unites the two figures of Christ and detective. This contributes to the show’s first season ultimately reading like an apology for the theories and methods used by cult cops, an ending that might be fine, if True Detective were not also a conversation about the actual plausibility of Satanic cults.
Pizzolatto and Ponchatoula
In interviews of the show’s creator, Pizzolatto has alluded to a report of alleged Satanic ritual abuse that occurred in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, as the basis of his narrative. That case began when pastor Louis Lamonica Jr. walked into a sheriff’s office in 2005 and gave an unsolicited confession in which he claimed his small church sexually abused children in Satanic rituals. Lamonica’s family and attorneys suggested he was mentally ill. In the end, Lamonica, as well as a youth pastor and another church member, received lengthy sentences for child molestation based on these confessions. However, there was no material evidence to substantiate claims of Satanism – even after the FBI excavated behind the church to a depth of forty feet.
By confounding this true but ultimately banal story with a story that is fiction but exciting, Pizzolatto achieved what a simple conspiracy theorist could not. In other words, if someone had proclaimed that murderous cults live in the Louisiana Bayou, the media would dismiss it as lunatic. Instead, Pizzolatto told a fictional story and hinted that parts of it might be true. As a result, in the spring of 2014, journalists for websites like Jezebel, Vice.com, and The Huffington Post built on the success of True Detective by “investigating” the 2005 case in Ponchatoula. Vice.com produced a twenty-minute segment, complete with ominous music and shots of the Louisiana bayou, proclaiming the investigators involved in the Ponchatoula case to be the “real” True Detectives. These journalists effectively created an echo chamber of Satanic rumor, and with a self-congratulatory tone, presented themselves as detectives who successfully deciphered the clues hidden in Pizzolatto’s text. This response to True Detective demonstrates how the relationship between fictional media and moral panic can be symbiotic, with each building off of the other.
The first season of True Detective also points to a subtler dimension of this process – the show appears to critique and even mock claims about occult crime made by law enforcement and the media – only to validate them in the finale. In essence, this plot device incorporates the critiques of Satanic Panic in order to produce a more resilient portrait of an evil conspiracy. This process, through which claims of occult crime continue to survive and evolve, can be compared to a virus that, when we attempt to eradicate it, only becomes more sophisticated and insidious.
The Cycle of Pop Culture and Moral Panic
In the 1920s, H.P. Lovecraft and his peers spun tales of ancient cults that secretly conducted human sacrifices in the Louisiana Bayou and other remote parts of modern America. A literary device used by these authors, as mentioned, was to fold bits of truth into their fiction. This created a sense of vertigo in which the reader is uncertain where truth ends and fiction begins. By dropping hints about the Ponchatoula case in interviews, Pizzolatto demonstrates that he has mastered this device as well.