True Detective Season 1 Analysis of the Occult Artwork

True Detective Carnival – a Puppet Show in Four Dimensions

flames

Truth is contained in dreams.

–Nic Pizzolatto, “Ghost Birds”


True Detective season 1 chronicles a physical and a metaphysical investigation. Rust Cohle isn’t just trying to catch the members of an evil cult; he’s struggling to learn everything he can about their fascinating mythology. “The lattices, the symbology—there’s some kind of culture to it,” he tells his partner Marty Hart (E3). Yet the scripts rarely tell us anything about the cult’s ancient history or their nuanced belief system. This is because creator Nic Pizzolatto was a painter long before he was a writer, and during the bizarre (mostly silent) crime scene investigations, he lets the images do the talking. There’s a reason why Rust obsesses over the cult’s artwork—sketching their sculptures, painting their spiral, even recreating the Dora Lang crime scene in his apartment—and it’s not just because he’s trying to catch the killers. It’s because Reggie Ledoux and Errol Childress are his teachers, and their crime scenes reveal a great deal about his reality. My image analysis demonstrates how the occult artwork and poetry express the same philosophical ideas the lead characters contemplate throughout the season.

Rust’s interview with Papania and Gilbough is quite odd, as we rarely see him discuss the case. He spends much more time elaborating on his pessimistic worldview. “Someone once told me that ‘time is a flat circle,’” he recalls, “that everything we’ve ever done or will do we’re gonna do over and over and over again” (E5). That “someone” was Reggie, who told Rust “time is a flat circle” moments before his execution (E5). This notion of cosmic horror is conveyed by each piece of abstract art—most notably, by the cult’s recurring spiral (figures 1.0-1.3).

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Figure 1.0 Episode 1 “The Long Bright Dark”

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Figure 1.1 Episode 1 “The Long Bright Dark”

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Figure 1.2 Episode 7 “When You’ve Gone”

yellow king

Figure 1.3: a set photo of Joshua Walsh’s sculpture “The Yellow King” from the final chamber in episode 8

The iconic spiral has no singular form. For some reason, it changes every time we see it. There is a pattern, though; each version of the spiral is composed of line segments. The individual lines represent the paths we take in life, and the angles represent the pivotal changes we make. When we start down a new path, we may feel like we’re moving forward, progressing toward something, but according to Rust, we’re all just traveling in circles toward the same destination (death).

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Figure 1.4 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

For the finale, production designer Alex DiGerlando wanted the characters to “experience this chase inside Errol’s art rather than merely running past it” (Martin). When the camera pulls back from Carcosa (1.4), the crane shot reveals the familiar shape of the fortress: it’s a three-dimensional rendering of the cult’s two-dimensional figure. At this point in the maze, Rust appears to be located in between the outer and middle level of the spiral.

Carcosa

My rough sketch (which has relatively accurate dimensions) shows what the fortress could look like from a distance. The first two corridors are visible in figure 1.4, while the central vault is shown later.

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Figure 1.5 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

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Figure 1.6 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

“There’s a spiral-like nature to the maze,” explains season 1 director Carey Joji Fukunaga, “but it’s hard to tell” (Blistein), partly because each tunnel runs straight. It’s easier to see if you refer to the cult’s symbol (see figures 1.0-1.3), which outlines Marty and Rust’s trajectory. At the end of each tunnel, they make a sharp right turn through an arch leading to another tunnel until they’ve reached the central vault.

This Stygian sequence literalizes Rust’s nihilistic monologue from the beginning of “The Locked Room”:       

The ontological fallacy of expecting a light at the end of the tunnel, now that’s what the preacher sells… See we all got what I call a life trap—a gene-deep certainty that things will be different. That you’ll move to another city and meet the people who will be the friends for the rest of your life, that you’ll fall in love and be fulfilled… Fuckin’ nothings ever fulfilled—until the very end! And closure– no, nothing is ever over. (E3) 

In the finale, the false promise of the preacher is represented by an alluring white light leading the detectives to the end of each tunnel (1.5, 1.6). Rust walks toward the light in a trance-like state, hypnotized by Errol’s soft voice guiding him through the maze: “To your right, little priest,” whispers the mad man. The scene recalls the tent revival (in the beginning of E3) where the Friends of Christ congregation are mesmerized by Reverend Theriot’s poetic sermon. Rust is more perceptive than most, yet not even he can resist his programming, tragically possessed by his incorrigible conviction to catch bad men.      

In the crane shot from figure 1.4, we see a multitude of doors that he has to choose from. These arches represent the many different directions we can take in life, each tunnel leading to the same point: the center of the spiral, where Rust finds himself trapped by the man he’s been hunting (who sneaks up behind him to attack).

Chapter I: Flesh Puppets

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Figure 1.7 Episode 1 “The Long Bright Dark”

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Figure 1.8 Episode 7 “When You’ve Gone”

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Figure 1.9 Episode 7 “When You’ve Gone”

In his misanthropic rants, Rust describes humans as identical creatures or AI blinded by a false sense of individuality. “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self… programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody—when in fact everybody is nobody” (E1). According to Rust, humans are nothing more than “biological puppets” (E3). The cultists appear to share this worldview, as their rituals involve identity erasure. In a childhood photo of Dora Lang (1.7), we see the girl standing with her back turned to five masked men (presumably members of the cult). Later, when Rust shows Marty the photographs (1.8) and videotape (1.9) from Reverend Tuttle’s safe, we see similar rituals involving blind-folds and monstrous masks.     

Part of what makes the cult intriguing is its disturbing anonymity. We learn the names of only four members: Reggie Ledoux, his partner Dewall, Reverend Tuttle, and Errol Childress. Only one appears in more than two scenes—yet we never actually learn anything about Errol’s true personality. Like Rust, he perceives identity as an illusion. In the final scene of episode 7, Errol changes his accent after Papania and Gilbough drive away, and in the opening of episode 8, he cycles through different personas (with distinct dialects) and practices movie lines. The lead characters displays a similar penchant for role-playing. During interrogations, Rust wears the mask of a priest to gain the criminal’s trust and elicit his/her confession. In episode 3, he tells the gullible pedophile, “You’ve got one way out, and that’s through the grace of God.” Then in episodes 5 and 6, he dupes the “Pharmacy Firearm Fiend” (who shot up and robbed a pharmacy) and “Marshland Medea” (who killed her children). By claiming that he can offer them absolution, he tricks the suspects into confessing their murderous sins. Like Reggie, who convinces Dora that he is her “king” (Charlie Lang explains in E1), Rust transforms his victims into puppets.     

Though their crimes are less severe, Rust and Marty share Reggie and Errol’s carnal instincts. “In an absolute horror story,” Pizzolatto believes “the self is the monster” (Calia). Thus, everything the detectives learn about the killers teaches them something about themselves. When Rust asks Kelly Reider (the girl he had found in Reggie’s trailer) about the man with the scars, she tells him, “He made me watch. . . what he did to Billy” (E6). Rust also forces others to witness the horrible death of children. “There’s something you’re gonna have to look at,” he tells Marty “no other way around it” (E7). Then he plays the videotape of Marie Fontenot’s ritual murder, scarring his partner the same way Errol had scarred Kelly. He plays the tape again (in the beginning of E8) for Steve Gerasi (the lazy cop who had inadvertently helped cover up Marie Fontenot’s abduction), this time getting some sadistic satisfaction from the spectator’s anguish.

Marty dehumanizes people in a different way: he treats women like playthings or cheap pieces of art that exist for his pleasure. In order to keep Lisa locked up in her house like a doll (so that she can’t sleep with other men), he tells her, “There’s a crazy man out there, and uh, he’s killin’ women… So, no need to go out” (E2). After he breaks up with Lisa (by trashing her apartment and threatening to kill her new lover in E3), Marty explains the purpose of the show’s shallow female side characters: “There is no pageant to perform, okay? Your disappointment is irrelevant” (E4). Pizzolatto explains, “my serial killer’s personal pathology is wrapped in very culturally relevant symbols that may not be immediately apparent. Not just hunting, but the idea of woman as trophy to be stuffed and displayed” (Romano). The opening crime scene is reminiscent of a strip club (like the one Marty visits in E4). A costumed, naked woman has been posed at the center of a stage, surrounded by men staring at her.   

When Marty brings handcuffs to Lisa’s house, we learn how he shares the cult’s bondage fetish (as the killer had tied Dora’s wrists to the roots) and penchant for fantasy enactment. “You have the right to remain silent,” recites Lisa, cuffing his hands to the shelf (E2). Later, Beth asks her father figure to play the role of an abusive john. “I want you to feel bad” (E6), she says, begging him to hurt her (with anal sex). When pleasuring his sister, Errol puts on a similar performance. “Can you tell me about Grandpa?” he says with a thick southern drawl (that he hadn’t used prior to this moment), asking her to perform the role of a girl falling prey to her grandfather (E8).

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stick figure 1

Figure 2.0 Episode 2 “Seeing Things”

stick figure 2

Figure 2.1 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

The stick lattices (which are also referred to as “bird traps” and “devil’s nests”) are, for the most part, utterly alien in their design. However, certain models contain disturbingly anthropomorphic features, like the deformed stick figure Rust finds in Marie Fontenot’s playhouse (2.0), or the one waiting for him to return to the Dora Lang crime scene (2.1).

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Figure 2.2 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

When Rust returns to Light of the Way Elementary School (which has been destroyed by a hurricane), he discovers a classroom full of twig sculptures. In figure 2.2, note how a tiny doll has been caged within the latticework. DiGerlando explains, “We wanted them to feel like they were sitting there, as if they were students in the classroom” (Martin)—mementos of the impoverished children ensnared by the pedophilic trustees of the Tuttle Wellspring Initiative (which funded Christian schools attended by Marie, Reanne, the hooker Tobey, and a few other kids we see in photos).

shoe strings 1

Figure 2.3 Episode 1 “The Long Bright Dark”

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Figure 2.4 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

While scouring coastal Louisiana for murder victims, Rust learns how the corpses of missing persons (or their torn up clothes) are often found in or around the bayou. Hence, ritual artist Joshua Walsh (who designed all the sculptures and crowns) made each lattice from driftwood—a material that, like so many of the cult’s victims (like Reanne), has traveled a great distance down the river—and he tied the sticks together with roots, strips of fabric, and/or colorful shoelaces—articles of clothing that the killers (presumably) rip from the bodies of dead women and children. The cult displays these vestiges of the lost like trophies, dangling them over the crime scenes (2.3-2.4) like a hunter hanging antlers over his mantle.

shoes 2

Figure 2.6 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

shoes 3

Figure 2.7 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

Inside Carcosa, Rust and Marty encounter several tiny shoes suspended like ornaments (figures 1.6, 2.6) or cast in a heap with other child-size garments (2.7). Evidently, this is the workshop where the killers sculpt the lattices.   

On the origin of the devil’s nests, the creator explains, “the stick lattices are actually things I discovered in researching early megalith cultures and the mound-builders in Louisiana” (Arkham). They invoke a prehistoric age and thereby suggest a culture as old as humanity itself. Building an atmosphere of atavistic dread, the cult’s artwork depicts a person as something monstrous—something malformed and primitive. Like the texts of the philosophers Pizzolatto admires (i.e., Nietzsche, Emil Cioran, Thomas Ligotti), True Detective features a disquieting reappraisal of human history. “I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution,” Rust tells his partner. “Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We should not exist by natural law” (E1). The dawn of mankind was an aberration, and now the jungle wants to devour its mistake.

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Figure 2.8 Episode 2 “Seeing Things”

The Friends of Christ Church mural (2.8) recreate the Dora Lang crime scene by depicting a devolved, female monster with a metaphysical connection to the forest. Note how the victim’s contorted legs twist around a tree. It appears her body has sprouted from its roots—or perhaps she’s being absorbed.

Dora praying

Figure 2.9 Episode 1 “The Long Bright Dark”

We’re never told who or what the cult worships. A few simple-minded cops (from E1 and E2) think the killer is a Satanist, and while they’re wrong about his specific religion, they’re not far off. Who or whatever the cult prays to, it’s clearly not a benevolent deity.     

In some of the artwork, they appear to be worshiping trees. Here (2.9), Dora is kneeling before the ancient oak, facing its trunk with hands folded and head bowed as if praying to the tree itself, offering her body as a sacrifice.

crime scene 2

Figure 3.0 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

When Rust returns to the Dora Lang crime scene (3.0), the setting is significantly more verdant, and the sculptures are larger. It’s as if the landscape has fed off the flesh of Dora’s corpse. The creator explains “if your character conveys a vision of cosmic horror, it felt appropriate for me to dramatize the Lovecraftian sense of madness, of a carnivorous universe in which you’re food” (Steele). This idea is conveyed by the cult’s circle of sticks and fabric, which resembles a maw (see figure 2.1). Rust also describes a carnivorous universe, as when he refers to humans as “sentient meat” (E8) and calls the world a “thresher” (E3).

shed mural

Figure 3.1 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

Just as Dora bows before the great oak with her hands bound to its roots, Errol’s stick figure (on the right side of the mural) kneels before and reaches out to a tree (which, in return, extends its branch toward its arm) like a supplicant struggling to grow closer to God.   

“The landscape is literally the third lead of the show,” explains Pizzolatto (Arkham). The frequent, haunting long-shots (as during travel scenes) emphasize the region’s widespread overgrowth and flooding, depicting Mother Nature as a lurking presence secretly devouring the decrepit buildings and oil refineries that scar and pollute the landscape. Then in the occult artwork, trees are personified as monstrous deities.

yellow king

Figure 3.2 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

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Figure 3.3 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

In the center vault of Carcosa, Rust finds a giant sculpture (3.2-3.3) made of driftwood, deer antlers, human skulls, and torn fabric. Like the charcoal stick figures (2.8, 3.1), this sculpture depicts a part-human, part-plant, and part-animal monster.

The filmmakers called this piece of art “the Yellow King” (DiGerlando reveals in his interview with Martin). This seems an appropriate title, given how it wears ochre robes and a crown of antlers and hangs sculptures from its outstretched branches like a puppeteer operating an apparatus of wires. Looming over a stone altar like a crucifix in a church, the Yellow King resembles an idol—an effigy of the mysterious, formless deity the cult prays to. 

yellow king 3

Figure 3.4 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

At the end of his sermon, Errol sneaks up behind Rust and plunges his knife into his side. “Now, take off your mask,” he snarls, reminding the detective (or “little priest,” as he calls him) that his life is a performance—that his true face is indistinguishable from the skulls worn by the Yellow King. As he lifts his acolyte into the air—posing ceremoniously before the monstrous idol (3.4)—the killer bends the detective to his will, forcing him to break his own face (by bashing his head against Errol’s) in an act of self-inflicted identity erasure.

While the script refuses to explain the cult’s motivations, their artwork and poetry reveal much about their disconcerting psychology. It seems they’re driven by a desire to return others and themselves to the jungle that spawned them. When Errol tells Rust, “You blessed Reggie. . Dewall” (E8), he reveals a key belief of their nameless religion: the cult views death as a gift. “Come and die with me, little priest,” intones the serial killer. Evidently, he has no interest in escaping his hunters. He wants them to return with him to the earth.

Chapter II: Endless Sprawl of Elder Things

barbies

Figure 3.5 Episode 2 “Seeing Things

classroom

Figure 3.6 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

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Figure 3.7 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

Everywhere they go, Rust and Marty are haunted by their memory of the Dora Lang crime scene. The disturbing reappearances of this stage represent the effects of trauma. Constantly, the detectives are returned to their horrible experience in the cane fields.     

In his daughters’ bedroom, the stage the girls have set reminds Marty of the scene he had investigated earlier (in E1). DiGerlando explains that in the script, “the devil nets were described as sort of watching over that first crime scene” (Martin), facing the naked corpse like perverts in a strip club. Here, five raucous Kens stand over a prostrate, naked barbie (3.5). This scene resembles other pieces of occult artwork, like the photograph of five menacing horseman standing behind Dora (1.7) and the stage in the flooded classroom, where several bird traps surround a central sculpture (which sits on a pedestal of books in figure 3.6). Rust sets a similar stage during his bizarre sculpting ritual (E3-E5), posing his tin men in a pentagram (3.7).

playhouse 1

Figure 3.8 Episode 1 “The Long Bright Dark”

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Figure 3.9 Episode 1 “The Long Bright Dark”

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Figure 4.0 Episode 6 “Haunted Houses”

Like the barbies in his daughter’s room, the figurines in Beth’s house remind Marty of his carnal sins. After the cop copulates with his mistress, he looks up at a demon looming over a glass angel (4.0). The scene recalls the detectives’ discovery at the end of “The Long Bright Dark.” Inside Marie Fontenot’s playhouse, an abandoned doll lies on the floorboards (3.8) as if dropped by the girl during her abduction. And looming over it– a monstrous twig sculpture (3.9).              

When he first meets Beth, Marty gives her money to help her escape the bunny ranch (where she works as an underage prostitute). “That a down payment?” asks his cynical partner (E2). Years later (when Marty runs into Beth at a T Mobile store), Rust’s prediction is proven accurate. Once Marty has cashed in on his down payment, Beth’s figurines remind him that he isn’t much different than the killers he hunts; he’s a predator who takes advantage of vulnerable, orphaned girls by posing as a surrogate father, gaining their trust and subservience.

kitchen spiral shopped

Figure 4.1 Episode 3 “The Locked Room”

When it first aired, True Detective famously incited a storm of online speculation in between episodes. TV forums overflowed with fans obsessing over details, guessing at the killers’ identities or predicting other plot twists. For instance, numerous bloggers and critics noticed how a child’s drawing of a spiral appears in Marty’s kitchen in episode 3 (which I’ve circled in red in figure 4.1). Some theorized that his daughters were somehow connected to the cult (see Fukunaga’s interview with Martin, where the director is asked about the significance of this drawing). The show never confirms this theory. Nonetheless, numerous images (see figures 3.5, 4.1, 4.3-4.4) certainly suggest such a connection. 

cherub

Figure 4.2 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

sketchbook flowers

Figure 4.3 Episode 3 “The Locked Room”

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Figure 4.4 Episode 3 “The Locked Room”

When requesting sex, Betty Childress asks her brother, “You wanna make flowers today?” (E8) In Audrey’s sketchbook, note how flowers have been drawn inside the womb (or splattered onto the belly?) of a half-naked woman (4.3). Also, the chubby girl with wings (4.3) resembles the fiendish cherubs painted on the walls of Tuttle’s school (4.2). On a different page, Audrey has drawn a masked man groping the breasts of a woman whose hands are tied behind her back (4.4). This depiction of sexual assault is disturbingly reminiscent of the occult rituals.     

Fan-made conspiracy theories often error by attempting to provide answers that aren’t there. It’s pointless to argue a literal connection between Marty’s daughters and the cult, as such a theory can never be proven. It’s more productive to observe the thematic connections and note how the show suggests the impossibly endless sprawl of the cult. Keep in mind, season 1 gives us the perspective of men who are losing their minds. The writer explains, “The form of this show is a closed point of view” (“A Conversation With Nic Pizzolatto and T Bone Burnett”). In every scene, the detectives’ perception of reality is distorted by their scarred minds. This is why Marty often encounters crude artwork that shares striking similarities with the cult’s iconography; he’s relentlessly haunted by his memory of the Dora Lang crime scene.   

In the pilot, Rust makes an esoteric remark with profound implications on the nature of the show’s reality: “I got a foul taste in my mouth out here—aluminum, ash—like you can smell the psychosphere.” The “psychosphere” is a concept originating in the work of weird fiction authors like Roland C. Wagner and H. P. Lovecraft. This uncommon term can best be defined as “the sphere of collective consciousness”—a theoretical space where every human thought is projected outward into an ethereal dimension. Everyone who inhabits this space has access to these airborne thoughts. Thus, the existence of the psychosphere compels people to respond to the same ideas, symbols, or myths. 

newspaper

Figure 4.5 Episode 1 “The Long Bright Dark”

Rust describes the psychosphere as something toxic and widespread, analogous to the factory smoke floating across the background of the Louisianan setting (as in the opening credits). When approaching the Childress property (E8), he tells Marty, “That taste. . . aluminum, ash– I’ve tasted it before” (when they had been driving away from the Dora Lang crime scene). Evidently, the psychosphere is spread by the depraved practices of the cult. In their insightful analysis “The Deeper Meaning of ‘True Detective’ – Season One,” Vigilant Citizen explains, “The concept of psychosphere is important in occult circles who conduct mega-rituals to influence the ‘collective unconscious’ – often for nefarious purposes.” In the show, “these mega-rituals are purposely staged to shock and traumatize the masses [primarily through depictions in the press], who then collectively send these thoughts to the psychosphere, creating the type of ambiance the occult elite revel in.”

In order to traumatize the masses in a predominately Christian region, the cult has infiltrated churches all along the coast. In the Friends of Christ church, they’ve added a macabre charcoal drawing to the mural painted by the congregation’s children (2.8). They’ve also infiltrated the ministers library where the Friends of Christ minister worked in the years after his church burns down. When Theriot opened a book written by a 12th century mystic, he discovered “pictures of children, naked” (he tells Rust in E6)—images so horrifying that he lost his faith, quit his job as a minister, and became an alcoholic. The occult elite also has roots in an African American church in Erath. When Rust asks the pastor if he recognizes the twig sculptures he’s drawn, the pastor explains, “Now that looks like something my old auntie taught us how to make. Old auntie told us that they were ‘devil nets.’ You put ’em around the bed, catch the devil before he gets too close” (E1). Evidently, the cult uses Bible lessons to teach children their rituals, instructing them to surround themselves with the lattices to create a stage similar to the Dora Lang crime scene.

There’s no way to determine how Audrey cultivated her lewd propensities (but we know there’s numerous ways she could have been exposed to the cult’s rituals, like at school or at church). The important thing to note is that clearly, the toxic psychosphere is present in the Hart residence. Audrey’s artwork reveals how she, like her father, shares the depraved thoughts of the occult elite.

The scope of the cult is preposterous. Much of the show authentically portrays the monotonous day-to-day life of a homicide detective (as during the fruitless interviews in the first three episodes, where we learn very little about the killer). However, not all of the story is meant to feel realistic. It’s quite difficult to believe that an entire state’s legislature, police force, and religious community is being controlled by an ancient conspiracy of psychopaths. When Rust shares his insane theory with his partner, Marty is understandably skeptical. “All this uh, this ‘sprawl,’ as you call it—which I would call conjecture—this shit about the Tuttles [Reverend Billy Lee and his cousin Edwin, who has served at least four terms as governor], the state PD, do you know how fuckin’ crazy that sounds?” (E6) Yet against all odds, Rust ends up being right. That doesn’t mean he’s not insane. When Major Salter tells Rust, “You’re building something in your head” (E6), he’s not wrong. Rust is building this case inside his head, and that’s where the show takes place—in an uncanny reality constructed by unstable minds.

storage unit

Figure 4.6 Episode 7 “When You’ve Gone”

Rust believes “all your life” is “a dream that you had inside a locked room” (E3). In other words, “Your life is what you think you’ve experienced, and all of that takes place inside your head, and your head is a locked room” (Pizzolatto, qtd. in “Inside Episode 3”). Thus, the case Rust builds inside his storage unit can be interpreted as a product of his artistic imagination.

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Figure 4.6

credits 1

Figure 4.7

The opening credits (4.6-4.7) feature polluted landscapes contained within the actors’ fragmented profiles—abstract images reinforcing the idea that this toxic world exists within the minds of broken men.

Reflecting on the Dora Lang crime scene, Rust tells Marty, “The cane fields are his stage” (E3). This stage, as well as the stage set at every other artistic crime scene, can be interpreted as a scene from the mysterious play “The King in Yellow.” The King in Yellow is the title of an anthology written by Robert W. Chambers in 1895 and the name of a fictional play featured in each short story. The apocryphal play tells of a fantastical realm called Carcosa ruled by a ruthless demiurge named the Yellow King. Once a man reads its poisonous poetry, the imagery scars his mind and warps his perception of reality. Visions of Carcosa start haunting his dreams, growing more and more vivid until he can no longer distinguish the nightmare from the real world. Pizzolatto explains, “The King In Yellow is in there because it’s a story about a story, one that drives people to madness” (Jensen). So whenever Rust and Marty find evidence of the cult’s sprawl in an unlikely setting, their discovery is symptomatic of their mental illness. Once read, the play can resurface at any moment. 

classroom mural 1

Figure 4.8 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

Figures 4.8 and 4.9 are from the beginning and end of a tracking shot. 

At the end of “The Secret Fate of All Life,” Rust is essentially participating in the reenactment of an occult ritual. The killer has rearranged the desks to create a spiral-shaped path akin to the maze in Carcosa. At each corner of the spiral is a sculpture (see figure 2.2) looking up at him (like the tripod at the end of the tunnel in figure 1.5), taking the place of a costumed killer (like one of the masked men leading Marie to the altar in Tuttle’s video).  

classroom mural 2

Figure 4.9 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

The episode’s final shot pulls us out of the classroom and frames the detective at the center of a mural. Note how the black stars painted onto the glass and wallpaper (attached to the cane stalks) resemble some of the hanging sculptures (like the black metal sculpture in figure 3.3) and the black stars painted above the stick figures on Errol’s shed (3.1). Also, the two sculptures at Rust’s feet (visible in figure 4.8) recall the tripods situated on either side of Dora.    

 Yet again, Rust finds himself back in the cane fields. Here, he becomes part of the cult’s artwork, taking the place of the victim or killer (who is a victim of the same violence he inflicts). When he lifts the devil net into the mystical spot light, the detective resembles a ventriloquist performing in a side-show booth.

shed

Figure 5.0 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

Inside Errol’s shed (5.0), the walls and windows are covered with character names and lines from “The King in Yellow.” This strange graffiti reminds us that these crime scenes take place in a story written by a mad man.     

In Chambers’ book, the plot of “The King in Yellow” is never elucidated (as it pains the narrator to think about it). The play remains a mystery in Pizzolatto’s show. Clearly, though, it’s a story terrifying enough to drive Rust mad.

In weird fiction, cosmic horror involves the realization of man’s insignificance and powerlessness in the cosmos. In the work of H.P. Lovecraft (who was inspired by Chambers’ book The King in Yellow), the narrator experiences this dread when learning of nameless, malicious aliens (commonly referred to as “old ones,” “elder things,” or the “elder race”) that watch us from a higher dimension. The investigator (usually) can’t see these creatures (as they’re made of matter from another universe), but he can detect their bodiless consciousness in the air around him, sensing them in a cloud of unearthly colors, an indescribable howl, or an unbearable odor. Rust experiences similar extrasensory phenomena, as when he envisions spirals (during his hallucinations in E2 and E8) or smells the psychosphere.    

Eventually, Lovecrafts’ investigator discovers physical evidence of the aliens—like human corpses transformed into monsters or trees deformed by poisonous groundwater—but only after his research has driven him mad. Consequently, he must continuously questions whether this has all been a dream. Typically, his first glimpse of the elder race arrives in a piece of ancient artwork (such as an otherworldly sculpture or mural) that fascinates the researcher with its alien geometry and disturbs him with the depiction of malformed, anthropomorphic figures. For instance, “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928) begins with the narrator stumbling upon an ancient bas-relief designed by the cult that worships the titular elder thing. The bas-relief, which depicts Cthulhu walking through his mythical city, scars the mind of the beholder, troubling him with the inescapable notion that men are not the first (or last) masters of the earth. The more he investigates the cult, the more the narrator suspects that Cthuhlhu really does exist. At the end of the story, the legend becomes a reality. Once the cultists have performed a murderous ritual, the nightmare city of R’lyeh rises from the depths of the ocean.

Like each of Lovecraft’s weird tales, True Detective is a story about a story of monsters. When studying Dora’s diary, Rust reads, “’I closed my eyes and saw the King in Yellow moving through the forest.’” Evidently, the Yellow King is more than just a man. Dora describes it as a spirit (analogous to the biblical God) that can be envisioned during prayer. Before his death, Reggie also sees things we cannot. “The black stars rise,” he whispers, eyes moving across the sky. Then (presumably referring to the Yellow King) he tells Rust, “With me, he sees ye!” (E5) In the finale, Betty Childress describes a similar voyeuristic force. “Where is he?” snarls Marty (inquiring about her father). “All around us,” intones the mad woman. “Before you were born, and after you die!” (E8) Marty wants the location of the killer, but Betty tells him about something else—something that isn’t human. “The alligators are swimmin’ around us and we don’t even know that they’re there. You know why?” Rust asks Marty and Major Salter, who silently question his sanity. “It’s ’cause we don’t see them” (E6). This bizarre remark has an obvious, literal interpretation: Rust and Marty are surrounded by cultists disguised as ordinary people (like Errol, who Rust and Gilbough interview while he’s mowing the lawn in E3 and E7). However, the show’s metaphysical subtext allows for a much more sinister interpretation (more on that in the next chapter).

Like Lovecraft’s investigators, Rust believes in (or at least suspects) the existence of non-corporeal entities. “Do you believe in ghosts?” he asks Marty in episode 1. Then in episode 5, he tells his partner, “Reggie Ledoux deserved to die, Marty, that was justice. But I’m not ruling out other agencies.” “Uh, okay,” replies Marty. “What does that mean?” Good question. What kind of agency could have influenced the cop’s murderous rage? Rust appears to be referring to the psychosphere—an immaterial force that influences the thoughts of men without them knowing it.

Thought control is a major theme throughout the work of Lovecraft. In “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (1941), the soul of an evil sorcerer from the past returns to the present by possessing the mind of his descendant. In “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932), an invisible force takes control of the narrator’s body and forces him to murder an infant during a witchcraft ritual. And in “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), the titular, invisible aliens possess a family of farmers and remove their free will, forcing them to mechanically drink poisoned well water and slowly kill themselves. True Detective also explores the idea that men are controlled by malignant, unknowable forces.

silhouette 1

Figure 5.1

silhouette 2

Figure 5.2

When comforting the pedophile (during an interrogation scene), Rust tells him, “You’re not bad. It’s not you. There’s a weight, and it’s got its fish hooks in your heart and your soul… You, me, people, we don’t choose our feelings” (E3). In this universe, control is an illusion. “You got a demon, little man,” Dewall tells Rust (E5). In the opening credits, the idea of demonic possession is reinforced by numerous images, like figure 5.1 and 5.2, where a mysterious shadow appears within the heads of the two protagonists.      

The more Rust searches for monsters (human or otherwise), the crazier he becomes (partly due to the cosmic dread he experiences when studying their artwork). Like Lovecraft’s investigators, he projects his nightmares onto his environment. That’s why the sprawl of the cult grows at an exponential rate in the second half of the season. Once the detective has lost his mind, the nightmare takes over.

Chapter III: Ascension

vision of flock

Figure 5.4 Episode 2 “Seeing Things”

While the show never goes full-blown supernatural, the scripts are littered with strange coincidences and occult portents that build an ethereal tone. Consider the detective’s hallucination at the end of “Seeing Things” (outside the Friends of Christ Church). When a flock of birds rises from the bayou and forms a spiral (5.4), Rust receives a vision of the cult’s sign before he enters the church and finds a new crime scene. Thus, the scene imparts him with an almost preternatural foresight. It’s as if he senses the psychosphere flowing from Dora’s church (which has been burnt down by the killer), alerting him of the cult’s presence before he discovers their artwork. The scene certainly helps explain why he keeps drawing different versions of their sign: apparently, these are shapes he’s dreamed up.

Occasionally, it feels like the entire case is being engineered by forces unseen (like the mysterious “other agencies” that Rust suspects had had a hand in Reggie’s execution; see Chapter II). Reflecting on the church mural, Rust tells his partner, “He wanted us to find it, like he was showing off” (E3). Throughout the investigation, the killers set up their crime scenes like art exhibitions and invite the detectives to the show.

Dora's stage

Figure 5.5 Episode 1 “The Long Bright Dark”

The wooden tripods serve as dramaturgical guideposts predicting the characters’ movement. In figure 5.5, note how the tripods are aligned with the protagonists (who stand as still as the statues behind them), positioned at the edge of the stage like puppeteers or an audience to the hideous scene.

Errol's lattice 1

Figure 5.6 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

Errol's lattice 2

Figure 5.7 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

When the pupil reaches his teacher (who stands motionless for several seconds, patiently waiting for him to approach), the stage has already been set (in figure 5.6). Rust is merely one biological puppet replacing another, standing where the wooden sculpture had stood (5.7), aiming his gun where its arm had extended.

Reggie's tripod 1

Figure 5.8 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

Reggie's tripod 2

Figure 5.9 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

Reggie's tripod 3

Figure 6.0 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

When the detectives arrive at Reggie’s compound (5.8), the crooked tripod marks the spot of the serial killer’s execution. In figure 5.9 (the moment before Marty removes Reggie’s face), the tripod has been mysteriously moved to the other side of the stage (a continuity error so blatant that it feels like an intentional breach of realism). In figure 6.0, note how the wooden monster has been replaced by a human corpse. A minute earlier, Reggie had told his captors, “I know what happens next!” He couldn’t possibly know the future—yet the uncanny arrangement of his artwork corroborates his assertion. 

lattice photo

Figure 6.1 Episode 7 “When You’ve Gone”

Isn’t it odd how every twig lattice is found standing up? When Rust returns to the Dora Lang crime scene (see figure 3.0), we can hear rolling thunder in the distance. Given the coastal region’s tumultuous climate, one wouldn’t expect to find two flimsy sculptures in the upright position—yet there they stand. In the subsequent flashback, the detective investigates the flooded classroom (which has been destroyed by a hurricane) and finds the desks in a state of disarray (2.2, 3.6)—yet the sculptures have yet to be knocked over. After Rust tells his interrogators about the twig sculpture he had found (standing up) in Marie’s playhouse, Papania is incredulous. “Kinda strange it turns up like that, years later” (after Marie’s abduction). “Yeah nobody knew why that thing was in the play-house,” replies Rust (E2). Neither can we can explain why the stick things show up at the cane fields years after Dora’s murder, or at Light of the Way School years after it had been shut down. It’s as if the killer knew Rust would find them, just as he had known the detectives would find his church mural (or so Rust believes). And stranger still—the killer appears to have set up these crime scenes recently as if somehow, he knew when Rust would arrive. Perhaps Reggie wasn’t lying when he told Rust, “I saw you in my dreams” (E5).

The cultists are motivated by more than just sadomasochistic hunger. Like Rust, they’re struggling to learn (and share) the secrets of space and time. In the opening scene of “Form and Void,” Errol briefly describes a strange, spiritual journey. “I have very important work to do,” he tells his sister. “My ascension lifts me above the disc and the loop. I’m near a final stage. Some mornings, I can see the infernal plain” (E8). When he mentions this impending “final stage,” Errol evinces an awareness of his imminent demise (as Reggie had in E5) or the end of the season—and when he describes his vision of an “infernal plain,” he’s clearly referencing the iconic image of the burning cane field from the pilot’s opening ritual (6.3), thereby suggesting his ability to envision a past event. Offering him an arcane knowledge of time, Errol’s “ascension above the disc and the loop” is akin to the transcendent experience Rust articulates throughout “The Secret Fate of All Life” (E5). During his famous spacetime monologue, the detective describes a higher dimension that, if traversed, would enable one to view every moment in time at every coordinate in space superimposed within an infinitely-complex, spinning superstructure.

sphere

Figure 6.2; This image is from the season 2 opening credits. The text is a quote from season 1 episode 5.

When writing this bizarre monologue, the creator coupled quantum physics with Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return (Pizzolatto explains in the episode 5 DVD commentary). Brane theory (also known as “string theory” or “the theory of everything”) posits the existence of a four-dimensional* region called “the bulk” (or “hyperspace”) in which our 3D “brane” (or “spacetime”) resides. If humans were somehow able to traverse the bulk, the matter from our brane would appear less-dimensional, and theoretically, we’d be able to watch any (past or future) event in the history of the universe unfold before us (see Interstellar for a comprehensive visualization of the bulk). This perspective is analogous to the POV of the spectator (or filmmaker). When we watch (or edit) a film, we view 3D space in two dimensions, and the technology enables us to jump back and forth to any point in the timeline of the story.

*In modern physics, “the fourth dimension” typically refers to “time” or “the present,” the only temporal dimension humans are able to experience. For the sake of clarity, I’ll use the term “the fourth dimension” as Rust uses it: to refer to the region outside our spacetime (the bulk) that resides in four spatial dimensions (where time, as we experience it in three spatial dimensions, would not exist).

At the end of his spacetime monologue, Rust describes mysterious forces (“eternity looking down on us” and a nameless “them”) watching his universe from the fourth dimension. According to Pizzolatto, he’s articulating his vague awareness of the television screen and the space lying beyond. “Aren’t we the creatures of that higher dimension—the creatures who can see the totality of his world?” the writer encourages us to ask. “After all, we get to see all eight episodes of his life. On a flat screen. And we can watch him live that same life over and over again, the exact same way.” (Romano). While most the characters are blind to the true nature of their reality, Rust realizes he exists within still images cycling endlessly through the same, two-dimensional frame.      

While studying Dora’s diary, Rust notes, “It reads like fantasy” (E2). The detective hates religion—and he calls himself a “realist” (E1)—yet he reads the occult narratives with the deference of a Christian reading the Bible. This is because the cult’s fantasy stories adapt the same philosophical texts he applies to his metaphysical theories. If we juxtapose the detective’s description of “eternity” (the fourth dimension) with Mrs. Delores’ description of Carcosa, it becomes clear that the (theoretically) real dimension Rust describes (when applying actual scientific theories) is fundamentally identical to the fictional realm the cultists describe. 

• “In eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow,” explains Rust. “Nothing changes. So Death created time to grow the things that it would kill. And you are reborn—but into the same life that you’ve always been born into. (E5)      

• “You know Carcosa?” whispers Mrs. Delores (when Rust shows her his twig sculpture drawings). “What is it?” asks Rust. “Him. . . who eats time,” she answers. “Rejoice. . Death is not the end, rejoice!” (E7)

Like Rust—who describes a mysterious entity named “Death” who harvests humans like crops—the cultists can feel the presence of a carnivorous force existing outside and controlling their spacetime, forcing them to relive the same life of suffering over and over.

infernal plain; night

Figure 6.3 Episode 1 “The Long Bright Dark”

True Detective expresses Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return (expressed in the above excerpt) in both the metaphorical and literal sense. Rust truly believes in eternal life—though he most certainly does not believe in heaven. After Miss Delores finishes ranting about Carcosa (beset by a coughing fit), her niece tells the detectives, “Most days she can’t even make any sense.” “She sure made sense to me,” says Rust. “That should worry you, mister,” replies the niece—and it does. “I sure hope that lady was wrong,” he tells his partner. “’Bout what?” asks Marty. “’Bout death not being the end of it.”

infernal plain sunset

Figure 6.4 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

Reggie gas mask

Figure 6.5 Episode 3 “The Locked Room”

lawnmower spiral

Figure 6.6 Episode 7 “When You’ve Gone”

Of course, Rust isn’t just talking about a supernatural rebirth. When applied to the individual life, the philosophy of eternal recurrence suggests that people continuously restart chapters in their lives and relive them exactly as they had lived them before (without realizing they’re traveling in circles).      

Consider how the end of each season 1 episode involves the detectives’ arrival at a horror story from their past. At the end of episodes 1, 2, and 5, an occult crime scene returns them to the cane fields (see figures 2.8, 3.8-3.9, 4.9). At the end of episode 4, Rust resumes his past life as an outlaw named Crash. At the end of episode 6, he and Marty resume their partnership and restart their search for the Yellow King. At the end of episode 3, Rust’s memory returns him to the jungle, where he finds a ghost waiting for him (6.5). At the end of episode 8, a landscape montage carries us over various, prior crime scenes (while Rust reflects on his life in the hospital bed), ending with a shot of the scene where the case had begun (6.4). And in the overtly cliche, final scene of episode 7, Gilbough relives the encounter Rust had had with the killer in E3. In both scenes, the detective asks about a Christian site that’s been destroyed by a hurricane (a school in E3; a church in E7), inquires about the killer’s past, then drives away oblivious to the lawnmower’s identity. When a crane shot lifts us from the ground and reveals the cult’s sign (an irregular, 2D spiral; figure 6.6), we experience an “ascension” akin to the one Errol describes in the beginning of the next episode (which lifts him “above the disc and the loop”), providing us with another abstract representation of his spacetime.     

In Chambers’ anthology, “The King in Yellow” is known as “a book of great truths.” In True Detective, it teaches the detectives that they’re nothing more than puppets performing the role of hunter over and over for a cruel, unreachable audience. When Rust talks about “eternity” (the dimension outside our spacetime) in episode 5, Pizzolatto suggests that he’s “complaining about being a character in a story on a TV show who has to relive his life every time somebody replays it” (E5 commentary). “How many times have we had this conversation, detectives?” Rust asks Papania and Gilbough, suspecting that they’ve played these roles before. “Who knows? I mean, you can’t remember your lives – you can’t, change your lives. And that is the terrible and secret fate of all life: you’re trapped. . . like a nightmare you keep waking up into” (E5). In the final shot of the episode (which frames him in the center of a mural of the cane fields), Fukunaga expresses this idea of eternal imprisonment by confining him within a depiction of the horror story that’s been retold throughout the season (in the killer’s crime scenes and in the voyeuristic scenes set up by other characters, like the stage of Kens surrounding the naked barbie in figure 3.5). In the “secondary language” of the scripts, “the notion of cosmic horror becomes a very real part of the environment” (Pizzolatto, qtd. in Jensen).

By the finale, the nightmare has supplanted the detectives’ reality. When Errol reveals, “This is Carcosa” (shortly after Rust enters the labyrinth), the announcement is, on the surface, completely unsurprising. After Charlie Lang tells the detectives about “some place called Carcosa… out in the woods, where people go to like, worship” (in E4), the viewer is of course anticipating the discovery of this evil temple by the end of the season. The finale becomes much more meaningful and disquieting when we interpret the secondary language—when we consider how the show immerses Rust within the fantastical setting from the cult’s literature and artwork.

diary

Figure 6.7 Episode 2 “Seeing Things”

In her diary, Dora has copied lines from “Cassilde’s Song” (6.7)—a poem from “The King in Yellow” that appears in Chambers’ book. Most of the text is undecipherable, but Fukunaga keeps the pertinent verses in-focus. During Rust’s climactic vision in “Form and Void” (6.8-6.9), these images spring to life. When the vortex starts spinning around him, “the shadows lengthen” in an encroaching void that spreads from the mystical blue light and effaces the stone walls. Then we see “the black stars rise.” (Note the black dots hovering over the blue light)

vortex 2

Figure 6.8 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

Finally, Rust sees what he could not see before (when Reggie had watched the black stars rise over his compound in E5). It seems the fictional stories from the tent revival service (which Rust had shrugged off as “fairy tales”) had been truer than the detective was willing to admit.“This world, is a veil,” Reverand Theriot had told his flock. “And the face you wear is not your own!” (E3) During his vision of a supernatural realm, Rust is overcome with such a notion of cosmic dread—with the notion that his world (and identity) isn’t real.

vortex 3

Figure 6.9 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

The celestial object resembles a black hole, a portal, or an image of the universe itself (which, like the blue spiral, is constantly expanding). It also resembles something we see in the first scene of the series.

lens

Figure 7.0 Episode 1 “The Long Bright Dark”

After the iconic shot of the burning cane fields (6.3) fades to black, we get an unnerving close-up of Gilbough’s camera (while he opens the shutter and starts recording). Perhaps this is what Errol sees on the other side of the abyss: a voyeuristic mechanism that controls time.      

Note the striking similarities between the lens (7.0) and the vortex (6.8-6.9). Both objects are conical in shape, both are colored with shades of blue and black, and the dots of light reflecting off the lens resemble the stars hanging in the void. Also, note how a concentrated beam of light extends from the circular aperture at the apex of the spiral. This effect strongly resembles the projection of film (which creates illusory vistas made of light, not unlike Rust’s mind). Given these thematic associations, Rust’s vision of the vortex can be interpreted as a metaphorical discovery of the camera—or a discovery of the higher dimension inhabited by the viewer/filmmaker. Like him, we’re staring through a window to another universe.     

The script never explains Rust’s climactic vision, so obviously, this scene is open to interpretation. The camera analogy I propose is just one symbolic reading of an image that (like any other provocative, poetic idea) has been imprinted with numerous layers of meaning. A Lovecraftian vision of cosmic horror is something too vast and alien to fully comprehend. However, we know this much: Rust has reached an outside vantage of his universe akin to the one he described throughout his spacetime monologue.

ladder storage unit

Figure 7.1 Episode 7 “When You’ve Gone”

On the cult’s religion, DiGerlando explains, “This artwork is the killer’s way of ascension to reach this spiritual plain that he has in his mind. Thus, the ladder aspect. You’ll notice a lot of the tripods have cross-members going up the sides” (Martin), like the bird trap hanging from the ceiling of Rust’s storage unit (7.1).

mural 3

Figure 7.2 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

The idea of ascension is also expressed in Errol’s charcoal drawings. On the left side of his shed, a stick figure reaches up to a black monstrosity, arms curved like antlers. Look closely, and you can see several, tiny black stars extending from its hands, arcing over its head to close the loop. It seems this is the final act of the cult’s play—a stage involving enlightenment, (metaphorical or literal) death, and transcendence.

Following in the killer’s footsteps, Rust finds himself participating in this scene throughout the investigation (as in figures 7.3-7.8).

ascension tilt 1

Figure 7.3 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

ascension tilt 2

Figure 7.4 Episode 8 “Form and Void”

With its arms stretched wide, the Yellow King resembles one of the enraptured members of the tent revival congregation or the caricatures from the shed mural (7.2). When Rust steps into the final chamber of Carcosa, Fukunaga tilts the camera up from the idol (7.3) and frames a colossal circle in the sky (7.4). Recall how the fortress renders the cult’s sign in three dimensions and serves as a model of the show’s universe (see the introduction of this article). Once Rust reaches the center of the maze and looks up through the window, it’s as if he’s looking outside his spacetime. Moments later, he finds himself in a void (6.8-6.9).

classroom spiral 1

Figure 7.5 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

At the end of the classroom maze (a spiraling path akin to the finale’s “bride’s path”), Rust experiences a remarkably similar vision—though here, the uncanny details are much more difficult to notice.     

Sculptor Joshua Walsh gave the lattices a “spiral motif,” which is conveyed by their conical structure and, in same cases (when hanging from tree branches), their spinning motion. When he inspects the lattice in figure 7.5, the motif is hardly noticeable (neither is it notable in the few dozen other irregularly shaped lattices). But in the next shot (7.6), “you can really see when he picks up that devil’s nest and looks from the bottom how it has that spiral effect,” notes the production designer (Martin).

classroom spiral 2

Figure 7.6 Episode 5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”

Once Rust starts rotating the tripod, the theatrical spotlight shapes its figure into a coiling spire. The brief and sudden appearance of the spiral signifies a major discovery akin to his vision of the vortex (6.8-6.9). By rendering the cult’s sign in three dimensions, this misshapen model offers Rust a privileged view of his spacetime. The theme of discovery is reinforced by the tracking shot, which pulls us through a window and offers us an outside vantage of the classroom.  

shadow mural 1

Figure 7.7 Episode 6 “Haunted Houses”

shadow mural 2

Figure 7.8 Episode 6 “Haunted Houses”

In the next episode, we find Rust casting the shadows of a stick lattice and deer antlers over the photographs of the killers’ (supposed) victims (7.7-7.8). Merging the cult’s iconography into a black mass, the detective’s shadow mural is not unlike Errol’s giant sculpture (8.2). In both pieces of art, dead faces are surrounded by horns and sticks.

Obviously, this drunken experiment lacks any apparent practical purpose—but Rust’s madness is not without logic (or so he claims, telling Marty that he was “hammered, but functional” when building the case on his own; E7). Like all the season’s silent rituals, this arcane exercise becomes much more meaningful when we consider how it is informed by Rust’s cosmological theories.     

It’s impossible for humans to comprehend a fourth spatial dimension. In order to represent the bulk in a 3D diagram, physicists remove one or more dimensions from our brane (for instance, by confining our 3D universe to a 2D plane). Science-fiction directors like Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan use similar methods to imagine how we might perceive our spacetime from a higher dimension. In films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick; 1968) and Interstellar (Nolan; 2013), the filmmakers play with time (for instance, by returning characters to their past) and employ various stylistic devices to warp light, making 3D space appear less dimensional. Rust employs a similar process of abstraction during his artistic experiment in “Haunted Houses.”

When he casts shadows of the cult’s artifacts over the photographs of their prey, he creates a flattened image of the Dora Lang crime scene and attains a vantage akin to that of the viewer. Just as we occupy one more spatial and one more temporal dimension than the protagonist, the protagonist occupies one more spatial and one more temporal dimension than the (dead) characters in the photographs. When he pans his flashlight back-and-forth (throughout the experiment), he animates the monstrous shadows, creating the illusion of motion with a beam of light—not unlike the television he exists within, which creates the illusion of motion by projecting still images onto a screen.   

Throughout his metaphysical investigation, Rust “sees the whole of our dimension as one superstructure with matter superimposed at every position it had ever occupied,” explains the creator (Romano). Here, he layers 2D simulacra over a map of Louisiana, creating a single, abstract image of the crime scene spread across the entire world of his story.

credits; Marty's stripper

Figure 7.9

credits; Rust's shadow

Figure 8.0

credits; black circle

Figure 8.1

On the show’s application of quantum physics, continues Pizzolatto: “Higher dimensional universes would be more mathematically complex and dimensionally dense than our universe. To everything viewing us from such a vantage, we would be flattened, and they can see the whole of us” (E5 commentary). In other words, beings residing in a higher dimension would be able to see through us (and through every other solid object). This cosmological theory is expressed throughout the opening credits (7.9-8.1), where landscapes, occult artifacts, and/or fragmented bodies have been superimposed over transparent character profiles.

Yellow King set photo

Figure 8.2: a set photo of Joshua Walsh’s sculpture “The Yellow King” from episode 8

 When imagining how our world might appear from within the bulk, Rust describes “a single sculpture” with all “matter in a superposition” (E5). Errol seems to have experienced a similar vision. Within his giant idol, various organisms (humans, deer, and trees) occupy the same space. This imagery recalls the Bible verse (I Corinthians 12:12) that had inspired Rust to become a homicide detective. “’The body is not one member, but many,’” quotes the detective. “’Now are they many, but of one body.’” “What’s that mean though?” asks Papania. “I was just tryin’ to stay a part of the body,” explains Rust, confessing his innate need for human companionship. Theriot echoes Rust when narrating a biblical history, describing a time when God “broke you from his body”—a body that he and his flock yearn to rejoin (E3). The finale conveys a similar metaphysical idea—but with much more sinister implications.

True Detective’s version of “The King in Yellow” takes place on a cosmic farm where dead things are grown. Inside Carcosa, Errol’s artwork depicts a sort of evolution (or devolution). As the detectives delve deeper into the maze, the sculptures grow bigger and increasingly humanoid.

3 thoughts on “True Detective Season 1 Analysis of the Occult Artwork

  1. Fascinating reading. As a True Detective fanatic it’s been so enjoyable to read through such a rigorous analysis. Thank you for sharing your view of the stories with such clarity and insight, I feel like I can view the show from yet another, even more compelling angle. Thanks again.

    • Is it mere coincidence that the triangle shaped spiral is a well known sign for pedophelia – a calling card of sorts.

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