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Cult Cops and Moral Panic, page 5

But when the murderer is finally confronted in the finale, the revelation enforces, rather than challenges, our normative, ordered worldview – what sociologist Peter Berger called “our sacred canopy.” It turns out that the cultists do what they do simply because they are evil and insane. Slaying the killer is the eucatastrophe that redeems Hart and Cohle. In the aftermath at the hospital, Hart has a moment of reconciliation with his estranged family and Cohle’s nihilism abruptly vanishes. As if to cement this Manichaean worldview, in the final scene, Cohle looks to the stars and states that there is “just one story, the oldest: light vs. dark.”

If the boundaries between fiction and belief were less porous, this ending would be merely disappointing. But uncritical articles that describe the Lamonica case as the “true” basis for True Detective demonstrate the power of pop culture to shape the public’s notions of what is plausible. Because of this link between fiction and moral panic, one could justifiably feel that True Detective is potentially a dangerous show.

In the end, the psychological allure of an evil conspiracy theory may be so tantalizing that it drowns out our critical thinking. Especially in an era where journalists frantically compete for eyeballs on a screen. The implications of the police tactics portrayed in True Detective are especially disturbing. Hart and Cohle are ruthless in their hunt for cultists, committing numerous felonies as they attempt to find evidence of a conspiracy and exact vigilante justice on the conspirators. Journalists writing on True Detective and the Lamonica case might be more critical of claims of Satanic cults if they were aware these claims have hurt innocent people.

In raising these concerns, I do not mean to suggest that Pizzolatto set out to panic America. His goal was to tell a good story and he has succeeded. True Detective is disturbing because it shows just how deep the trope of the Satanic conspiracy lurks within the fabric of American culture. Much of the show’s genius comes from its creator’s ability to combine his favorite influences into a single story: the weird tales and detective pulps of the 1920s, the pessimism of Thomas Ligotti, and a strange case that occurred in Pizzolatto’s home state of Louisiana. This creative process stirred up some of the earliest tropes of dangerous hidden cults and invigorated them with contemporary claims of occult crime. What True Detective ultimately demonstrates may be that American culture is so saturated with ideas of subversive cults that conspiracy theorists are no longer required to promote conspiracy theories.

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