The true, convoluted story behind True Detective’s ‘inspiration’
In episode 7 of True Detective, Marty reveals that he left the police force when he witnessed a baby that had been microwaved to death by a meth addict. Of course drug addiction is real, and infants have been abused and killed in microwaves, but the specific story of a meth addict microwaving a child by mistake is fiction, an urban legend – put simply, things never happened that way. Urban legends are moral stories that seek to teach the listener a lesson through horror: in this case, don’t do drugs, kids.
The central mystery of True Detective is based on another, much larger and more harmful urban myth, the idea of Satanic Ritual Abuse. Rust and Marty gradually uncover respectable Christian organisations acting as a smokescreen for a ring of powerful men who drug young children to abuse and murder in Satanic rituals (with the mysterious, insanity-inducing Yellow King standing in for Satan).
Writer Nic Pizzolatto has mentioned that his fictional Carcosa abuse ring is inspired by actual sexual abuse in Louisiana pre-schools, by which he may be referring to an alleged sex ring at Hosanna Church in the tiny town of Ponchatoula, Louisiana in the county of Tangipahoa.
Jezebel breathlessly reported the commonly heard story. In 2005 the church pastor, Louis Lamonica, walked into the local sheriff’s office and calmly recounted a shopping-list of abuse that he and other men had supposedly perpetrated against 24 children of the church, including his own sons.
Mr. Lamonica, 45, matter-of-factly told them of having sex with at least two boys, from the time they were 4 until they were 12 or 13, as well as having sex with a dog, Mr. Carpenter said, adding that Mr. Lamonica did not act as though he was confessing to crimes. He was just trying to be helpful.
He also had a diary which documented the unbelievable abuse. Six church members who he implicated were charged with horrific crimes. During the investigation most of the abuse was shown to be false and the victims were whittled down to three children – Lamonica’s two sons and Bernard’s infant daughter. Lamonica and another church member, Austin Bernard III, were convicted of abusing their own children and given multiple life sentences.
Unfortunately the commonly reported story is not the whole story. Following the standard pattern of Satanic Ritual Abuse allegations, there was no physical evidence of any abuse taking place: no pentagons drawn in blood on the church floor, no physical injuries found after a baby was supposedly raped repeatedly.
Louis Lamonica’s sons both recanted their story of being raped and talk of being brainwashed by their mother, who had left Lamonica before his confession and pushed him to document sinful thoughts in a diary as if they were real events.
The Hosanna church, once popular, had a declining congregation and was gradually becoming a toxic place where strange, fringe ideas abounded. With just a dozen members remaining, a woman named Lois Mowbray became the spiritual head of the church.
For a while, Lamonica said, he had to wear a dress and two rubber snakes representing his mother and aunt because they were “pharaohs,” Lamonica testified. Church members once shaved his head and called him “pharaoh” as well, he said.
“She convinced herself she was like Moses and Tangipahoa was coming out of Egypt,” Lamonica said, referring to the biblical story of Moses leading the Jews people out of slavery in Egypt. “Pharaoh was blocking the way.”
The wives of Lamonica and Bernard, in this toxic ideological environment, eventually realised a sure way to end their marriages, take custody of their children and free the way for Mowbray to lead Tangipahoa to spiritual fulfilment in one fell swoop: by making up a story of Satanic Ritual Abuse perpetuated by their husbands. With the fictional diary of abuse written down, Lamonica was bullied into confessing at the police station, told that this would lead to forgiveness of his sinful thoughts.
Although the SRA fever had largely passed and was widely regarded as a damaging moral panic, highly religious Louisiana was still ready to believe that such evil could be real.
When a child looks under their bed, the monster of their nightmares is never there. The terror vanishes if you shine a light on it. So how did a whole courtroom, a whole town, a whole society, convince themselves that this case was real, despite the evidence? Easy – they just refused to look under the bed. The judge disallowed expert witnesses who were to testify about the nature of Satanic Abuse as a moral panic, including essential details such as coaching of child witnesses and the psychology behind false confessions.
True Detective is a ‘what if’ story of a universe where urban legends and scary campfire stories can come true. And that makes sense – you can’t experience true cosmic horror in a world where our worst fears turn out to be hysterical illusions. Perhaps we collectively have a psychological need for at least some monsters to be real, but our weakness for narratives of evil can end up hurting people and destroying families.
Fiction aside, Lamonica and Bernard are still serving seven life sentences between them. In a just world, the popularity of True Detective would be an opportunity for their supporters to gather momentum for an appeal.
I hope that the Hosanna Church case is truly the last gasp of the moral panic of Satanic Ritual Abuse, and that we learn its lesson: one of the true horrors we face is humanity’s endless capacity for group-think, self-deception and misdirected aggression.