Occult Television: True Detective, Constantine, and Believe

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 12, 2014 — 12 Comments

I don’t have cable, and I don’t have a subscription to HBO, so I haven’t seen the runaway phenomenon that has been the first season of “True Detective.” I will just have to wait for it to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray.  That said, I’ve been reading enough pieces about it to know that it mixed elements of Santeria and Vodou, the work of Robert W. Chambers, H.P. Lovecraft, and other literary references in that vein. While opinion has been decidedly mixed on the finale of this first season, that it was a hit has been undeniable. Thus, a second season has been approved, and it will be diving even deeper into occult themes.

True-Detective4

“This is really early, but I’ll tell you (it’s about) hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.”

If 2013 was the year witchcraft broke big in pop-culture, what with shows like American Horror Story: Coven, Witches of East End, The Originals, and Sleepy Hollow, all giving us powerful witchcraft-using characters (and with more on they way in shows like SalemThe Good Witch, and a possible Charmed reboot), then 2014 might see the return of another (slightly newer) archetype: the occult detective. This genre has most famously included Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The X-Filesand in addition to True Detective’s upcoming occult-themed series, we will be getting a small-screen treatment of one of the most famous occult detectives from comic books: John Constantine.

“Work on NBC’s Constantine pilot is well under way, and according to writer/executive producer David S. Goyer, the television series will have much more in common with its comic-book roots than the Keanu Reeves film did. In an interview with I Am Rogue, Goyer discussed the work on the pilot — which, by this point, will have begun filming — and teased a bit of what fans of the character can expect.”

So far, show-runners seem keen to avoid the mistakes of the flawed (though eminently watchable when divorced from the source material) 2005 film of the same name. If it succeeds, and lately, our culture seems increasingly hungry for this sort of material, could we see more work in this vein? A third series, which just premiered, while not an occult detective drama, is certainly a paranormal procedural: Believe.

“Created by Mark Friedman and Alfonso Cuaron — the latter of whom directed the pilot — Believe begins by introducing us to young Bo (Johnny Sequoyah), a sweet little girl with abilities beyond her control, who’s being pursued by dangerous people – the kind of people who are willing to kill if it means getting their hands on her. Enter Jake McLaughlin’s Tate, a wrongly-convicted death row inmate whose time is up, or so he thinks. A prison break gives Tate a second chance and in exchange he’s tasked with the duty of protecting Bo, which he reluctantly accepts. And so begins what could be a great duo of characters, as this former prisoner accepts his new responsibilities and comes to understand what’s so extraordinary about this little girl.”

From a broader view, this new slate of shows seem like a no-brainer. Ghost-hunting/paranormal reality shows have been popular for years now on reality television, and blockbuster horror film “The Conjuring” focused on a pair of Christian occult experts. Moving these themes into procedural territory is what television likes to do (and what a lot of people like to watch). It will also mean that occult and supernatural themes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon in pop-culture. We can be sure to see increasing references to modern Paganism, paganism in antiquity, African Traditional Religions, occult practices, ritual magic, rootwork, and other related themes as these shows look for material.

As these trends continue to grow and evolve, it behooves us to be mindful of what pop-culture is saying about our practices, and to be savvy in discussing them. Advocates for our traditions and practices need to be well-versed in these shows, as interviews from the mainstream media will no doubt start bringing them up (if they aren’t already). We have to have a complex and informed understanding of what these shows mean, and why they are popular. This doesn’t mean we have to watch everything, but it isn’t hard to sample what’s out there so we can be ready to talk about the distortions (or what shows got right) moving forward.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Mojavi

    I could have sworn A&E was in production of Rosario Dawson’s “O.C.T.: Occult Crimes Taskforce” comic book turned drama series

    • Jason Hatter

      Per Wikipedia, it was in development as of March 2012…

  • Obsidia

    It’d be great if some Media-savvy person would establish a Website where these programs could be reviewed. Something like the “Media Matters” website would work well. For instance, today on Dr. Phil, there is supposed to be a discussion with a woman who thinks her son’s ex-girlfriend (who is identified in commercials as a “Wiccan”) poisoned him! In another show (less than a year ago), somebody mentioned that they thought somebody was a “Wiccan Priestess.” Dr. Phil retorted, “What the heck is a Wiccan Priestess?” in a disparaging way. Many Wiccans wrote to him about this, in an effort to educate him about Wicca. So I will watch today’s program to see if he has learned anything if he talks about Wicca.

    • Faoladh

      There is, of course, the PNC blog “The Juggler”, which is supposed to be exactly what you are looking for here.

      • Obsidia

        Thanks, Faoladh! That blog looks like it’s right up my alley! A tip of the hat to ya!

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/confessionsofapagansoccermom/ krisbradley

    As someone who watched every episode of True Detective, the occult symbolism in the show had almost nothing to do with either Santeria or Vodou/Hoodoo. It’s almost completely based on the 19th century weird fiction genre, specifically Robert W. Chambers “The King in Yellow” and HP Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.”

    I admit I was expecting it to get bad when I first saw the spiral symbol and a set of antlers on the first victim we see, but it didn’t really go into much past that, and it all refers back to the books in one way or another.

    A great reference for those who aren’t familiar with weird fiction can be found here (with extreme spoilers for those who haven’t seen the show yet): http://www.vocativ.com/culture/religion/ultimate-occult-companion-hbos-true-detective/

    • Wendy Griffin

      I started watching this, largely because of the great acting. I like “action” movies, but True Detective just got too ugly for me. I don’t mean dark – I appreciate dark. I mean ugly.

    • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

      I remember the show mentioning Santeria, Vodou and Hoodoo a few times, but always from characters with imperfect perspectives and not in the sense that the show was itself was making it out like it was about any of those things. As you say, the Chambers and Lovecraft references were a lot more significant. I think it’s overreaching for any Pagans to pick on the show as in any way being about them.
      On a side note: I loved that brief moment in the finale where Cohle sees that vortex; it was truly awesome–in the literal sense of that word. I’m not sure why so many people were disappointed in the finale. What did they expect? Cthulhu to pop out at the end?

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    Hopefully people watching these will actually be motivated to look beyond them and research the source materials.

    Unlike the bloody Marveltru.

  • https://twitter.com/Belisama17 Kim “Belisama” B

    I kept looking into TD for traces of a particular path, but unfortunately it’s the acts of a mentally insane serial killer. The last episode attempted to thread past lives, the veil between the worlds and light vs. dark into the last 15 minutes.

    I’m anxious to see “Salem”, and I wish someone would do (in a non-campy way, the first iteration was hard to watch) “Dresden Files”. Talk about ultimate detective witch. Or, Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series.

    Who else is excited about “Outlander” coming out this Summer?

  • Ashley Yakeley
  • Wolfsbane

    If this means that the popularity of vamposer shows has run their course and will shortly toddling off to oblivion, then everyone wins.