Now and then a television series comes along that seems to define its own, unique genre: think of Twin Peaks, The X Files, The Singing Detective. Now think of True Detective, which might be described as the first Cult Ritual Serial Killer Southern Gothic Weird Procedural. Which is not to say it is without precedents: since its debut the series has spawned a plethora of online discussions and commentaries tracing the show’s connections with, and references to, a host of texts, from pulp fiction to true crime, nihilist philosophy to urban myth. Especially fascinating in these discussions is the way in which a background of seemingly unrelated stories and images magically click into place, as if they had been waiting for a narrative that would connect them.
One of the more distinctive and grimly fascinating elements of True Detective is its preoccupation with weird folk art, or what could be called outsider art. Odd and intricate wooden sculptures are found carefully arranged around the dead body of the series’ first victim, Dora Lange. The body itself is decked with antlers and arranged against a tree in an elaborate display of sacrificial obeisance, the victim’s back tattooed with a mysterious spiral symbol. When Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) returns to the scene years later, this spiral seems to have taken wooden form, in an elaborately sculptured circle, reminiscent of Andy Goldsworthy’s environmental art. When clues lead to an abandoned religious academy, Cohle finds a veritable forest of wooden sculptures inside the derelict building. The walls are also decked with drawings of sinister angels, in a primitive style resembling a painting discovered earlier in a burnt-out church depicting a horned being that looks like Dora Lange’s dead body. Whatever might be said of the killer responsible for Lange’s death, he certainly is prolific. Had he found the right art dealer, he might have become the next Henry Darger or Judith Scott.
The association of horror and folk art in True Detective, like its many other thematic strands, has a rich and peculiar history, most notably in film. Much has been written about folk elements in British horror, as seen in such classics as Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, and Blood on Satan’s Claw, and more recently in a new wave of low-budget British horror films, including The Fallow Field, Overhill, and A Field in England. But relatively little has been said about the parallel tradition in American horror, one that is every bit as rich, and which True Detective helps us to see anew.
Folk art shouldn’t necessarily be equated with what is called, alternately, outsider, visionary, or naïve art, but they do share a quality that might be described as obsessiveness. In folk art this is generally a healthy, robust quality, reflecting as it does extreme care in the application of time-honored traditions, while in outsider art this obessiveness imparts a certain strangeness, perhaps from the fact that the artist is usually working in isolation, outside of an enabling tradition. The similarity between the obsessiveness of artists and serial killers may be an arbitrary one, but it is one that many filmmakers have exploited. Cohle explains why: when his partner, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), compares their suspect to one in an earlier case, Cohle replies, “That's just drug insanity. That's not this, this has scope.” A drugged-up killer is frightening; one with scope is terrifying. This killer, says Cohle, “articulated a personal vision. Vision is meaning. Meaning is historical.” The same might be said of folk art.
One of the most terrifying instances of folk art in American horror is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which a family of demented slaughterhouse workers make grotesque sculptures out of bones and skin. When one of their victims enters their house, she discovers a veritable art gallery of gore: rib-cages and broken turtle shells hanging like mobiles; human and animal bones intricately connected to form elaborate standing sculptures; teeth, feathers, and other parts festooning a primitive gas generator; a perverse chaise longue built of bones and skulls.
Such images clearly derive from the loathsome objects d’art fashioned by notorious serial killer Ted Gein from his victims’ remains, but director Tobe Hooper brings to these objects a demented element of pure form that distinguishes this sculptor as a kind of twisted visionary. Remembered largely for its gore and violence, Hooper’s film is as remarkable for its almost mythic evocation of sadism joined to creativity. If the meat sculptures of Texas Chainsaw Massacre convey a particular zeitgeist, it is one best captured by Rust Cohle’s pessimistic view of Homo sapiens: “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself – we are creatures that should not exist by natural law.”
While Hooper took murder as folk art to a new extreme, his imagery has precedents, most notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Norman Bates was, of course, a talented taxidermist, and his revivified birds loom over the fateful conversation with the aptly named Marion Crane that precedes her murder. His sculptural talents are shown in their fullest expression later, when Marion’s sister, Lila, discovers the preserved body of Norman’s mother sitting in the cellar. Such perverse craftsmanship suggests the kind of concentrated attention Bates brings to all of his work, including murder.
In contrast, the sculptures of Texas Chainsaw Massacre derive much of their horror from their association with folk art, an association seen in a film like Deliverance that plays upon the cultural prejudice that connects backwoods folk culture with the sinister or malevolent. The brilliance of John Boorman’s film (as with the James Dickey novel on which it was based) is that it places much of this associated horror in the eye of the beholders, those Atlanta businessmen who use the remote Georgia wilderness as their playground. In the famous “dueling banjos” scene, the character of Drew is barely able to keep up with his accompanist, despite the latter's obvious disabilities, and the scene culminates with Drew prophetically shouting “I’m lost” as he accepts defeat. Though the backwoods banjo player’s birth defects mark him—and by extension his music—as grotesque in the visitors' eyes, the inability of the urbanite to master his arcane art serves as a measure of folk music’s richness and complexity.
The association of rural culture and the macabre is further
explored in The Blair Witch Project,
where the hapless team of documentary filmmakers stumbles on a backwoods site
filled with primitive cairns and elaborate hanging stick sculptures, the clear
precedent for those that appear repeatedly in True Detective. When Cohle
shows his drawings of these sculptures to a pastor, he says they look “like
something my old auntie taught us to make when I was a tyke . . . some folks call
them ‘bird traps.’ Old Auntie told us that they were ‘devil nets.’ You put them
around the bed, catch the devil before he gets too close.” In such moments, the line between madness and
tradition becomes blurred, in a manner that reflects on True Detective’s compelling sense of place. While the Gen-Xers in Blair Witch are horrified at what these sculptures portend, since
“No redneck is this creative,” True
Detective is more intent on exploring the connection between rural culture
and the sinister in the popular imagination.
Cohle’s fascination with the weird folk art he uncovers turns this
association back on the increasingly obsessive investigator himself, and, by
extension, the perversely fascinated viewer who follows his investigation, episode after episode.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.