True Detective and the Traditions of Horror

While having the name ‘detective’ in the title might imply otherwise, I have long argued True Detective is a horror show. Also, cards on the table, it is probably my favourite TV show of all time. And while the second series (we call them series not seasons here in the UK) came in for some well earned stick, I didn’t hate it as much as everyone else, meanwhile series three was a return to form that seemed to fly by unnoticed by the world at large. To my mind, as a self-confessed fanboy of series one, series three is just as good as the first, this is because series 3 shares a common thread with the first due to its understanding of, not just the traditions of detective noir fiction, but of horror fiction too, though both in very different ways, as series one is founded in Modernist Horror while series three is based on Gothic Horror. Which begs the question, what’s the difference? So let’s look at what defines these two traditions and how True Detective embodies them both so well.

When someone mentions Gothic Horror or Gothic Fiction it tends to make you picture certain aesthetic aspects of it: ageing castles, gloomy streets, full moons, mist coated graveyards, black robed figures, wailing ghosts, malevolent creatures, sinister villains and so on, but while these certainly can be elements of Gothic style it’s core is more than just the sum of these parts. The term ‘Gothic’, for instance, is actually a style of architecture popular in the 12th to 16th century, prior to the artistic revolution of the Renaissance. The genre of ‘Gothic’ fiction arguably began with the publication of The Castle of Otranto in 1764 that laid out a few of the genre’s key concepts. It’s set in a haunted house that is of Gothic architecture, it involves the supernatural, which was rare at the time, it was interested in the psychology of the protagonist, and it also involved themes of satire and social commentary, but, most significantly, it encapsulated and set in stone the idea of the lead character being bound to, or trapped by, the past. Gothic fiction, given that the name itself derives from a fascination with an older form of architecture, is almost always about the history of either a place or a person which is then haunted in some fashion by wrongs done in that past, be that the ghost of a dead relative or jealous lover, the desecration of some sacred place or building, or a forgotten debt. In Gothic fiction the past will always return to the present to harry and upset the lead characters in some way. Gothic horror, then, is a fear of the past.

This is in contrast to Modernist horror which is more to do with a fear of the future. As the name suggests, this form of horror fiction coincided with the era of Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th century. This was a time of extreme and violent change brought about mainly by advances in technology such as the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars. Unlike the artistic revolution of the Renaissance which caused some to reflect on the past, the global sea change caused by death and destruction made people terrified of the future. With the Industrial Revolution having changed societal structures so dramatically and so quickly, making millionaires of a few and leaving the rest destitute while global conflicts brought unimaginable horrors upon that vast majority of the population, dealing out death on an industrial scale for instance, no one knew what to expect next. The future seemed unknowable and scary. This sense of existential dread seeped into the Horror stories we think of today as ‘Weird Fiction’ by authors like HP Lovecraft, Robert Aickman, Robert E Howard, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Robert Chambers and Ambrose Bierce. These were stories that had unclear motives, unreliable narrators, inscrutable villains with unknowable agendas, jarring imagery and a sense of terrifying awe that Edmund Burke had characterised as The Sublime, all of which coalesced into a sense creeping dread that rarely offered any closure or a satisfying conclusion. This was the horror of one’s own mind and of the crushing isolation felt by the majority of people in a newly industrialised world represented by gargantuan, world swallowing entities that cared nothing for mankind, their desires and motivations remaining unknown to us, all in the name of ‘progress’. As such, Modernist horror is a fear of the future.

True Detective, either by accident or by design, understands these styles of horror and, what is more, recognises that both of these trends in fiction coincided with a boom in the publication of detective fiction. Gothic horror was popular at a similar time to the first detective novels, often written by one and the same authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, yet equally the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins were being published in the same era as MR James and Bram Stoker. Likewise, in the early 20th century, during the rise of Weird Fiction, this was also the heyday of ‘Pulp’ or Noir detective fiction. The similarities between these genres are clear and both benefit from incorporating elements of each other. For instance both Horror and Detective fiction thrive on mystery, a thick atmosphere, high emotion, often gruesome murders, an appraisal of the social context that the story is set in and a focus on the psychological impacts of events on characters. True Detective’s writer and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto recognises these similarities and stresses them throughout the show but most significantly he utilises these subgenres in each separate series to help deliver the respective series’ theme.

Much has been made of the intertexuality and references in the first True Detective series that refers to classic works of Modernist horror like The King in yellow, A Resident of Carcosa and the many works of Lovecraft, but the show equally stands on its own as a true-blue work of Modernist horror itself in the way it is crafted. In series one the framing device for the show is that the lead characters Rust Cohle and Marty Hart are being interviewed in the present day relating the story behind a major case they investigated early in their careers. The reasons for this interview are not clear to the audience but the more we hear about what happened in the past the more we realise that this is directly related to the why they are being interviewed in the present. This creates the growing sense of unease and dread about what will happen in the future that is the hallmark of the Weird Fiction stories it seeks to emulate. The vast, far reaching and inscrutable machinations of the people at the heart of the conspiracy in series one are represented in the creepy and devilish iconography of the wooden statues found at the crime scenes, the symbols drawn on the dead bodies and painted on church walls and in the eerie visions Cohle sees throughout. They all hint at some sort of far reaching web in which all of the characters are ensnared that we are never given a satisfactory explanation for and, in its finale, are left to realise that, though the killer was found and stopped and our heroes survived, almost none of the evil is undone nor has any of it been stopped from happening again. This is true existential horror at its best, that vast and unknowable horrors exist on the periphery of our vision that can and will destroy us without a thought. This is the reality of day to day life for most people just trying to get by in the world today and True Detective series one is a perfect encapsulation of that thesis in its aesthetics, its influence and its delivery.

In series two, however, the story is deliberately structured differently. The premise is that an old case investigated by Detective Wayne Hays is affecting the present, just like series one, but this time the story told in the present is told by an unreliable narrator with a poor memory. This means we see the effects the past has on the present without us knowing what happened in the past to create these problems. This creates the effect of the past haunting the present in the same way the future haunted the present in series one. We are spoon-fed revelations of the case in the past as we learn more in the present to create that gothic sense of being ‘haunted’. This is embodied in that most classic of Gothic tropes, a ghost. Hays is literally and figuratively haunted by his deceased wife throughout the series as she encourages him to uncover the truth behind the old case just like we see in classic Gothic horror stories where a mystery is uncovered through supernatural means, like in The Telltale Heart and The Turn of the Screw. Just as series one used elements of weird fiction to underpin its theme, series three uses standards of Gothic fiction to tell the story of unresolved past traumas coming back to haunt the present but also understands that part of the thrill is in the aesthetics of the genre too. As such we get a haunted old house (with a dungeon no less), eerie forests with bare skeletal trees, creaking doors, familial trauma, missing children and complicated love stories. Consequently True Detective series three is as much Rebecca as it is The Big Sleep. Attempting to forget, at best, or gloss over, at worst, the traumas of the past that then causes them to push through into the present to disrupt our ordered and comfortable lives, is also a harrowing reality being felt by everyone all over the world right now whether its through climate change or the entrenched white supremacy at the heart of many organisations, systems and nations today. This theme is at the core of Gothic fiction and True Detective series three.

As a fan of both detective fiction and horror fiction, it is no wonder then that True Detective remains an absolute favourite of mine with its heavy atmosphere, impenetrable mysteries, biting social commentary and its psychological and philosophical depth. HBO have managed to combine, reinvent and reestablish all kinds of genres over the years, whether its high fantasy with Game of Thrones, evening talk shows with Last Week Tonight, the gangster genre with Sopranos or cops and robbers with The Wire, for me, however, True Detective found a sweet spot I never knew I wanted. As one of the best modern Detective Noirs it remains unbeaten but equally it’s one of the most subtle and atmospheric examples of horror in any medium I’ve seen in years. If you want a bit more bite than you get from family classics like Hocus Pocus or The Addams Family but you’re tired of watching the latest jump-scare ridden snore-fests shot through instagram filters that clog up the streaming services this Hallowe’en, then might I recommend either a re-watch or a first viewing of one of the best horror TV shows ever made? There aren’t many jump scares in True Detective but it will certainly make you terrified to leave your house…

Happy Hallowe’en everyone.




Peripatetic Writer analysing Pop Culture. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

Peripatetic Writer analysing Pop Culture. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.

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