True Detective: Occult Symbolism and Plot Devices in HBO’s Hit New Series

(Beware – Major Spoilers Ahead!)

This season’s breakout hit on HBO was undoubtedly True Detective.  The eight-episode series was a surprise hit for executive producers who are also the show’s stars, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, and the show’s creator Nic Pizzolatto.


The eight episode season featured stellar acting and writing, but what surprised many viewers and  helped make the show into a pop culture phenomenon, was the elaborate and grisly plot.  The story features a powerful and mysterious Satanic-pagan cult comprised of U.S. Senators, pastors and police brass, collectively involved in decades of covering up child abductions and ritualistic murders on the Louisiana coast.

Harrelson plays a hard drinking, combative Louisiana State Police Detective named Marty Hart.  His new partner is a fastidious note-taking detective named Rustin “Rust” Cohle, played by McConaughey.  The two police detectives are assigned to investigate the discovery of the slain body of prostitute Dora Lange, who has been tied up to resemble a person kneeling in prayer before a tree, murdered, raped, mutilated and crowned with deer antlers in a mock crown of thorns.

On Lange’s back is tattooed a black spiral symbol, and in the tree near her corpse is a circular vortex shape, fashioned from dead tree branches.  Surrounding her lifeless corpse are triangular tent-like structures also made of tree branches. The state police detectives are both stumped and personally traumatized by the bizarrely occult nature of the serial murder, and are intent on finding the perpetrators.




The two detectives follow a series of leads down paths that bring them to a ruined church that has been painted with a strange wall mural resembling the Lange murder scene.


Upon discovering the ruined church, Cohle experiences a vision of a spiral cloud of birds.


(These recurring images and Cohle’s strange visions resurface throughout the series).

As the investigation progressives down this metaphorical spiral, it brings the two detectives to dark places, both literally and figuratively.  For example, Hart’s relationship with his wife utterly deteriorates, leading to an eventual separation and divorce.  The familial tension is particularly heightened when he discovers that his eldest daughter has begun engage in drugs and the occult, and his marriage ends when he is caught committing adultery with first a coworker, and later a former prostitute.  Hart further discovers that his daughters may have been exposed to some of these occult influences, when he discovers his daughters’ journals, as well as his children’s toys arranged to represent a strangely familiar ritual scene.

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Armed with his own personal brand of nihilism, Cohle becomes addicted to alcohol and quaaludes, and begins to despair.  He ends up having sex with Hart’s estranged wife, leading to an interpersonal conflict with his partner that forces him to quit the police force entirely and return to Alaska.  He later comes back to Louisiana and takes a job as a bartender at a local bar.   Both Cohle and Hart have become heavily dependent on alcohol and substances as a result of facing these dark realities.

During their on-again, off-again investigation and relationship, which spans 17 years, the detectives had discovered the deceased prostitute’s diary, which included many occult symbols and obscure references to “The Yellow King,” and something called “Carcosa.”


Other undercover informants had also referenced this “Yellow King” and “Carcosa.”  Of note is that “Carcosa” is a fictional city in the Ambrose Bierce short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1891).  In Bierce’s story, the ancient and mysterious city is barely described, and is viewed only in hindsight (after its destruction) by a character who once lived there.  Carcosa was also used extensively in Robert W. Chambers’ book of horror short stories published in 1895 entitled The King in Yellow.  In Chambers’ stories, and within the apocryphal play (also titled The King in Yellow) which is mentioned several times within them, the city is a mysterious, ancient, and possibly cursed place. The descriptions given of it make it clear that it must be located on another planet, or possibly even in another universe.

The mainstream media has made serious note of True Detective’s recurring occult references and termed the entire plot a strange and “crazy mythology.”  Other reporters have noted the show’s explicit references to Voudoun, Santeria and HP Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu.

After numerous plot twists and turns, the two detectives each retire and grow apart for nearly a decade and reunite to continue to investigate the strange ritual murders.  The two now-private detectives come to the inescapable conclusion that an incredibly powerful and well-connected Satanic-pagan cult has been ritualistically abducting children for decades, and covering up the crimes by using powerful political influences.  Worse yet, they may have even attempted to pit the two men against one another after the investigation, by suggesting that Cohle was the culprit, leading Hart to even doubt his partner’s bona fides.  Some viewers have  wondered if Hart’s wife was connected to their daughters’ ritual abuse and the cult through her influential and wealthy father.

When one of the cult’s ringleaders (a powerful Bible belt Church Pastor) is tied to a sitting U.S. Senator by familial relationship, and a videotape is discovered depicting a grisly ritual rape and murder of a missing child, the Pastor is murdered by fellow cult members in a further cover-up.  It seems that this cult is connected to Sheriffs, the State Police, and even the United States Federal Government.

The series’ surreal ultimate finale ends with the two former detectives discovering a vast underground maze of tunnels where dozens of children’s skeletal remains are displayed, as a sacrificial offering to some form of otherworldly demon.  The “Yellow King” is apparently the cult’s sacrificial totem, located deep in the maze where the cult conducted its homicidal rituals.


A psychotic cult member named Errol Childress attacks the men, saying “Come die with me.  Witness my journey, little priest.”  Facing a near death experience after being stabbed by the cult member, Cohle views a vision of a dark vortex spiraling in the cavern.


Cohle and Hart survive the attack and Childress is shot dead by Cohle.  Later, Cohle and Hart stare at the starry night sky, musing on the vastness and darkness of the void, and how light and good in the universe seem so rare, but nonetheless are still winning against the wider forces of darkness which seem to pervade the universe.

True Detective’s success as a first season has led HBO to order a second season, which will apparently center around “the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.”

In addition to great acting and directing, True Detective’s success was at least in part attributable to the fact that it was filled with occult symbols and compelling esoteric references.  For example, a cult member is named “Reginald LeDoux,” which is a French reference of “The Second King.”  A book referenced is titled the Letters of Telios de Lorca, supposedly written by an obscure 12th Century Franciscan mystic, but in True Detective contained a folder of photographs containing naked children abducted by the cult.   It is unclear whether these  references were intended to hide further meaning relevant to the plot, but there were sufficient occult references that have captured viewers’ imaginations – and undoubtedly huge ratings.  In fact, the season finale apparently crashed HBO GO’s servers.

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