Tracing the Unseen Web: Mysticism and the Occult in True Detective


“Time after time those fanatical minds try to rule all the world,” or so The Flaming Lips told us in their eleventh studio album, At War with the Mystics. In my opinion, they got it right. We see it every day. In our phones and our cars, our work and our play, and yes, too, in our fiction: in the world of True Detective. We might not get the corporate exploration of this theme that appears in Mr. Robot (which, by the way, you should absolutely check out), but we are treated to something equally alluring: the secret world of the occult.

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Occult overtones abound in seasons one and two of True Detective, not so much in the pentagram, devil worship sense of the word, but in its true sense: “knowledge of the hidden.” True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto loves him a good conspiracy, especially when it involves “big people” and the rituals they perform in private.

It almost seems like you can’t reach the top of the ladder without putting on a mask and embracing the darkness. With all our leaders dancing the grim fandango, what are we to do?

The Yellow King and Carcosa were the driving forces behind occult intrigue in season one of True Detective. Literary allusions to The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers and Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” sparked a compelling dialogue among viewers. As we waited each week for the next episode to air, we could thumb through these works in hopes of finding a reference or clue that would “break the case,” revealing some aspect of the mystery. From a storytelling perspective, this was a stroke of genius. True Detective lived in on the minds of viewers from week to week as they tried to figure out what was coming next.

While we didn’t get the cosmic horror ending some viewers anticipated for season one, we did get a taste of the theatricality that underlined the history of violence in Southern Louisiana. Victims of the Yellow King were not simply gunned down in an alleyway or pushed into traffic; they were executed in an elaborate death ritual. As we saw in the creepy VHS footage in “After You’ve Gone,” masked men (five, to be exact) dressed in intricate costumes were shown approaching a victim. Mercifully, Marty shut off the tape before we saw what was about to happen, but the footage revealed three key aspects of Pizzolatto’s approach to the death ritual that carry over to season two: sex, masks, and videotape.

“As our detectives investigate the murder of Ben Caspere in season two, we learn that sex, masks, and videotape are once again at play.”

“Powerful people” may very well be a fourth aspect of the death ritual that is shared between seasons one and two of True Detective, but since the masked men in the VHS tape are never identified, we can’t say for sure. As our detectives investigate the murder of Ben Caspere in season two, we learn that sex, masks, and videotape are once again at play. The “ritual” aspect is also suggested in the use of acid to burn out Caspere’s eyes, adding complexity to the conspiracy.

It runs deeper still. Theo and Austin Chessani, the heads of a very powerful family in Vinci, once ran a “lodge” at the Panticapaeum, the word having a longstanding association with Masonic and occult traditions. Perhaps they were merely “researching dynamics of communal living,” as Eliot Bezzerides claims, or perhaps they were up to something a little more nefarious. As Betty Chessani says of her father, “he is a very bad person.”

But what does all of this say about Nic Pizzolatto’s fascination with the occult? While he never fully embraces the supernatural, Pizzolatto does seem to have more than a passing interest in the uncanny. So why does he never cross the line? Pizzolatto actually addressed this in an interview with HitFix back in March, 2014. In discussing the ending of season one of True Detective, Pizzolatto said:

"“To retreat to the supernatural, or to take the easy dramatic route of killing a character in order to achieve an emotional response from the audience, I thought would have been a disservice to the story… The show was never concerned with the supernatural, but it was concerned with supernatural thought, and it was concerned with supernatural thinking to the degree that it was concerned with storytelling. So if there was one overarching theme to “True Detective,” I would say it was that as human beings, we are nothing but the stories we live and die by — so you’d better be careful what stories you tell yourself.”"

From that statement, it seems that in the world of True Detective, mysticism and the occult only exist in conceptual terms; they are stories we tell ourselves. The show is willing to think about the supernatural, it’s willing to explore the uncanny in as much as it relates to storytelling, but nothing more. So if you’re still holding your breath for Cthulhu, you might be in for a disappointment.

Next: Is Nic Pizzolatto True Detective's worst enemy?

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