The Moral Panic behind True Detective

Posted by Luke H on April 2nd, 2014

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.

‘it was impossible to bury them Meir’

Posted by Luke H on July 24th, 2012

There is something oddly delightful about this strangely-worded blog post about deserted islands.  It’s interesting, informative and impeccably illustrated, but the text of the article gradually becomes quite surreal.

“People on this beautiful island godforsaken lives a little bit”

“Geographically, it belongs to the Hawaiian Islands, an administrative – not: The United States annexed it to yourself on the Law of guano”

“Since the export treasures from the island without attracting attention, it was impossible to bury them Meir, but return to a treasure and could not – in the 1881 death of his beaten with batons natives on the island of Espiritu Santo”

This inadvertent ’outsider art’ could only happen as a result of paying English-second-language people $1 per article to paraphrase Wikipedia and dredge up some images from GIS.

The Ripple Effect

Posted by Luke H on July 13th, 2011

I’ve been involved in a very worthwhile project called The Ripple Effect, check it out!

Fukushima: What Happened?

Posted by Luke H on March 26th, 2011

A speech I gave at Toastmasters recently.  This was Speech 7, ‘Research your speech’, and my goal was to explain the basics of how nuclear power plants work to a lay audience, using the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant as the prime example.  Also the word of the day was’perturbed’.  :-)

Note: My aim here was not to accurately describe nuclear power or detail the complex events that occurred at multiple reactors over two weeks – more to give a simplified overview of how the plant works and the kind of challenges the engineers faced.

Chair, fellow toastmasters and guests.

Two weeks ago we were perturbed to hear of the terrible earthquake and tsunami which devastated Japan. In the aftermath, one of the main problems was the breakdown of cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, which threatened to release radioactive material, making the disaster even worse.

What happened at Fukushima?

To explain this question we first need to understand how a nuclear power plant works. Then we will look at what happened during the earthquake, and why the problems at the plant occurred.

Fukushima Dai-Ichi, which means Fukushima Number One, is one of the biggest nuclear power plants in the world with 6 reactors producing 4.7 GW of electricity.  It was built in the early 1970s using a design called the Boiling Water Reactor.

How does the power plant work?

Basically, Fukushima is pretty similar to other kinds of power plants, like our Huntly coal power station. There is a heat source which is used to boil water into steam. The expansion of the steam powers turbines to produce the electricity.

After the turbine, you’ve got all this steam which needs to be turned back into water. This happens in the condenser, which is basically like a giant radiator. It is usually cooled by another water source; at the Fukushima power plant, it was cooled by seawater.

After being cooled by the condenser, the water can be run through the boiler again. You can see that this is a closed loop, so it doesn’t waste huge quantities of water.

The main difference between the Huntly coal power station and a nuclear power plant is that instead of coal, the nuclear power plant uses nuclear fission as the heat source. Each of the six reactors contains around 50 tons of enriched uranium.

Uranium nuclear fission starts with a stray neutron, which is a tiny particle. If the neutron gets absorbed by a uranium atom, that atom becomes unstable and splits to produce two smaller atoms. This splitting releases a lot of energy. It also releases more neutrons, which can cause the same thing to happen to neighbouring uranium atoms.

In a nuclear explosion, there is a cascading chain reaction which splits all of the atoms in a few milliseconds, causing a nuclear explosion.

In a nuclear reactor you want these reactions to occur at a steady rate, producing an even amount of heat over time. The way you do this is by having the uranium spread out inside the reactor, and by controlling the neutrons.

So you can see this is the inside of the nuclear reactor. The uranium is in fuel rods, which are several metres long. They are separated into a grid, and between the fuel rods there are control rods, made of graphite, which absorbs neutrons. You can slide the control rods in or out of the reactor to control the fission of the U-235.

If you want to shut it down, you slide in the control rods, the neutrons will be absorbed, and the fission will slow down, and ultimately come to a halt.

So that’s an overview of how a nuclear reactor works.  But what happens when disaster strikes?

Japan, like New Zealand, is a geologically active country, and the plant was designed to resist both earthquakes and tsunamis.

Unfortunately, the 9.0 earthquake which occurred on March 11 was an extremely powerful event. It exceeded the earthquake design strength by 100%. Despite this, the plant wasn’t particularly damaged by the earthquake itself.

Within minutes, the reactors were shut down, with the control rods being fully inserted.

About ten minutes after the earthquake a 12 metre tsunami struck the plant. The plant is surrounded by sea walls designed to resist a tsunami – but the walls were designed with a 6 metre tsunami in mind.

When the tsunami struck, it did not damage the reactor buildings directly.

What it did damage was almost all of the associated infrastructure surrounding the reactor building.

Whole buildings were washed away or inundated with saltwater and debris. The electricity lines which bring power to the plant from outside were destroyed. The diesel generators which operate the pumps were washed away. And the pumps themselves were affected too.

As I said, the reactor cores have been shut down.  Unfortunately, shutting down a nuclear reactor isn’t like turning off a light switch. The reactor still produces around 6% of peak heat. This called decay heat and it will gradually stop over time.

Now 6% doesn’t sound like much. But these are massive, industrial power plants. The decay heat was 140 MW, and it takes a lot of cooling water to remove this heat from the reactor.  The reactor is designed to operate with water running through it all the time, taking away the heat.  Usually, pumps take care of this with no problem, even in an emergency when plant power is lost.

Without any water running through it, this heat is going to build up inside the reactor.

The engineers at the plant were able to get some pumps running to push water through the reactor, but that water wasn’t being cooled by the ocean water.  So the water in the primary loop became very hot, 100 degrees. At that point, its not doing actually any useful cooling. So the reactor core continues to build up heat.

Like anything else, the fuel rods have a melting point. The reactor got so hot that the fuel rods started to melt. This can change the distribution of the uranium within the reactor, making the situation worse.

As the heat continued to rise, the pressure inside the reactor was increasing. The reactor normally operates like a pressure cooker, at about 75 times normal atmospheric pressure. Its built pretty strong to contain that pressure, but at some point it can’t take any more. To avoid a blowout which would damage the reactor vessel, the workers started to vent the steam, to relieve the pressure. Along with the steam and some mildly radioactive material, hydrogen was released – one of the byproducts of fission. Hydrogen gas is explosive, and at some point the hydrogen gas ignited and blew the roof off the reactor building. The reactor itself wasn’t damaged, but the loss of the roof means that the vented steam was carrying the radioactive material directly into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the engineers were working to restore a power connection to the plant and get more water flowing through the reactor. They were eventually able to get power connected to the plant by rebuilding 1 km of power lines. They then started pumping seawater directly through the reactor to cool it down.

They were able to prevent a meltdown, which would cause damage to the reactor and possibly release a greater amount of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Now keep in mind that these reactors were built in the 1970s, before modern computers. Compared to modern reactor designs, the reactors are ancient, creaking hulks.

With almost all of their cooling infrastructure destroyed, plant workers were able to ensure that the reactors did not melt down and prevented a major radioactive disaster.  In the face of this remarkably powerful and destructive event, they did a remarkable job.

Thank you.

Wellington Earthquake-Prone Buildings

Posted by Luke H on March 4th, 2011

Wellington City Council has released a list of Wellington buildings considered to be at risk in a major earthquake.

I’ve made a simple webpage which uses the data in that list to build a map of the earthquake-prone buildings in Wellington.

Check it out at

Matiu/Somes Island Panoramas

Posted by Luke H on February 21st, 2011

A while ago we (Phil, Leanne, Jess and I) went on a great trip to Matiu/Somes Island with our sister, making it a four-Howison outing!

I took a few panoramas.  What can I say, it’s just kind of my thing I guess!  :-)

View over Wellington overlooking the lighthouse

View of Petone from the WWII anti-aircraft emplacements

View of the various buildings in the middle of the island

Chromium OS Speed Test

Posted by Luke H on February 19th, 2011

I don’t post much technical stuff here, but I’ve been into Linux (specifically Ubuntu) for a long time.

I’ve been geeking it up tonight installing Chromium OS on my netbook, and decided a head-to-head boot-up speed test was in order.

I measured how long it took for each OS from pressing the ‘on’ button to when the browser screen rendered.

  • Chromium OS: 27 seconds
  • Ubuntu: 89 seconds
  • Windows XP: 97 seconds

So Chromium OS is a pretty damn fast way to bring up a browser!

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Congratulations Luke and Jess!

Posted by Phil on December 19th, 2010

As of yesterday, Luke and Jess are now Mr. and Mrs. Howison :-)


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Sunny Beach Panorama

Posted by Luke H on December 5th, 2010

Panorama of the day:  Balaena Bay, Roseneath, Wellington on December 5, 2010.  Taken from the footpath after a swim.

Panorama of Balaena Bay, Roseneath, Wellington on December 5, 2010

There was a yacht race going on in the bay.

Camborne Panorama

Posted by Luke H on November 27th, 2010

A quick little panorama (stitched together from 3 photos using Hugin) taken today on my way down Pope St to the Plimmerton train station.

Porirua Harbour from Pope St, Camborne

We’ve had beautiful weather for several days in a row … it’s getting dangerously hot and sunny, time to start wearing sunscreen and silly hats I think.