Otherworld Thresholds in Popular Media: True Detective





True-detective-1x02-7Rust sees The Sign in the flight of birds. The viewer is never sure whether he is experiencing hallucinations or seeing beyond the borders to the world behind our own.

I’ve been trying to think about how to frame this thinking because it’s a bit outside the box but I thinks really relevant to the themes and ideas I’ve been exploring. It’s interesting to me how the layers of meaning and the handling of otherworldly thresholds is dealt with in True Detective. Being a ‘mainstream’ TV series it is working with some fairly dark and unusual subject matter that can be experienced on several different layers. Despite the popularity of ‘the supernatural’ in mainstream media – numerous vampires, zombies etc – these monsters can be approached by the viewer in relative safety because they have become so familiar and have a web of pop culture tropes around them that ‘de-fangs’ (pun!) them to some extent. Viewers are unlikely to feel excluded by the characters and stories because they are so cliched.

True Detective functions on another level with themes that are less familiar, more transgressive and potentially more exclusionary. On the one hand it is a pulp noir detective story dealing with strange ritual occurrences in the Deep South, on the other it is a look into the fragile mind of a man crossing the threshold between this reality and another. The character of Rust sees between the worlds and is something of a watcher on the threshold – never quite in one reality, never in the other, but allowing access to the Otherworldly for both his partner Hart and for the viewer. His role is not that of the trickster or magician, as he is an unwilling participant and appears to be damaged and traumatised by his experiences rather than in control of the situation, manipulating the outcomes as the trickster figure would be.

The storyline is saturated with references to early supernatural ‘weird tales’, in particular the 1895 short story collection The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. Because I ┬áhad read these stories I was immediately aware of the references to ‘Carcosa’, ‘The King’ and ‘The Yellow Sign’. This gave me early insight into the nature of the occurrences in the series and acted as a code available only to initiates allowing access to information and understanding that those who had not read this formally obscure set of stories would not have possessed. The fact that most viewers would not have read these stories was actually irrelevant and would not have excluded them from enjoyment of the show or made them walk away feeling they were being left out or made fun of at the expense of the ‘initiated’. Rust acts as the ‘guide’ and conduit of this otherworldly knowledge and his partner Hart takes the position of the viewer with little to no understand on the meaning behind the symbols, words and happenings that leave clues to the nature of the other world lurking just beyond the borders of our own.


A disturbing ritual murder; the naked body of the dead woman is crowned with antlers, her skin is daubed with The Sign and constructed ritual artefacts of unknown significance surround her. The scene dwells uncomfortably on the threshold of our reality.


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