Truly chilling! True Detective: Night Country

By Gen Terblanche22 April 2024

Truly chilling! True Detective: Night Country

True Detective Season 1 gave us a Southern Gothic nightmare in the Louisiana bayou. And the series is back in form in Season 4 as it combines tales of local folklore, violence, isolation and sinister conspiracies haunting a community. But this time, instead of making you sweat-sticky and crawling with horror, it’s going to chill you to the bone. 

The season centres on Detective Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Detective Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) and their investigation into the deaths of eight researchers at the remote Tsalal Research Station in Ennis, Alaska, along with the murder of Inupiat environmental protester Annie Kowtok. Three factors freeze them in their tracks: One: Annie’s tongue is found at the crime scene looking as fresh as when it was cut out of her six years back. Two: The bodies of all the researchers at the Tsalal station are found naked, frozen together in a pile beside a lake, with their clothes neatly folded beside them and strange injuries on their bodies. Three: it’s winter in the Arctic Circle and the sun won’t rise again for over two months. Whatever deeds were done in the dark will have to be solved there, too. 

True Detective: Night Country on Showmax

Binge True Detective: Night Country Season 4 on Showmax now.

What happened to the Tsalal scientists?

True Detective: Night Country’s showrunner, writer and director Issa López has name-checked some fascinating lore as inspiration for the season, including the real-life Dyatlov Pass incident and the discovery of the Mary Celeste, along with fictional sources like John Carpenter’s shapeshifting alien horror film The Thing, the first Alien film, and director Stanley Kubrik’s creation of the eerily atmospheric and snowbound Overlook Hotel in The Shining. We did some footwork to find out more. 

The Dyatlov Pass incident 

Something unsettling happened in the Ural Mountains’ Dyatlov Pass in February 1959. Nine experienced Soviet hikers were found dead around their campsite. One victim had suffered major head trauma, and of the four bodies found lying in a stream, two had missing eyes, and one’s tongue was torn out. Two were found in just their underwear. Their bizarre injuries led to years of speculation, with some even claiming that the indigenous Mansi people had attacked the hikers. But in 2019, Russian authorities reopened the investigation. The event was eventually attributed to a slab avalanche, which woke the hikers from sleep and drove them to flee into the night. Six of the hikers had died of hypothermia, while three suffered internal injuries caused by great force and pressure consistent with being crushed by avalanche snow pack that left no outside damage. As for the missing organs, investigators pointed a finger at local wildlife taking advantage of a rare winter treat. Naked bodies, screaming corpses, burned eyes, and ruptured eardrums? Could the weather be to blame for the Tsalal incident?

The Mary Celeste 

On 4 December 1872, “ghost ship” the Mary Celeste was found adrift off the Azores. One lifeboat was missing but the vessel was seaworthy, despite damage to the sails and rigging. All the captain and crew’s valuable possessions were still onboard, along with ample provisions. The final entry in the captain’s log was dated nine days before the ship’s discovery, and there was water damage in the cabins, while most of the ship’s papers were missing, along with the captain’s navigational tools. But the incident became maritime legend after the governor of Gibraltar became convinced that a crime had taken place, suggesting that the crew had murdered the captain, his wife and his infant daughter in a drunken frenzy before fleeing (in contrast one contemporary newspaper claimed that the ship was found in perfect condition, with a fire still lit in the galley and food laid on the table). While all the wild speculation was undermined by evidence, nobody aboard the Mary Celeste was ever seen or heard from again. How does it fit in? There’s no sign of violence at the Tsalal station. No gunshots fired. It’s just as if the scientists got up, walked out onto the ice, took their clothes off and died in horror. 

The Thing x Alien x The Shining

Both The Thing (1982), which is set on a research base in Antarctica, and Alien, which is set aboard a mining vessel in deep space, centre on scientists being hunted by alien predators while cut off from outside help. The Thing’s alien is a shapeshifter, while the Alien has an almost supernatural ability to hide and survive in hostile, freezing conditions. Meanwhile, The Shining centres on the caretaker’s descent into insanity and paranoia in a remote, snowbound hotel. It’s creepy. It’s cold. And you are, unfortunately, not alone. 

The Tsalal scientists seem to have been frozen as they died screaming (the sight of their bodies all clumped and in a deformed pile in the ice will bring The Thing’s monster to mind for anyone who’s seen the film). Whispers among the local community hint that supernatural forces are at work, in particular, the sea goddess Sedna who rules over the Inuit underworld beneath the land and the sea. In many of the stories around Sedna, her fingers are chopped off or fall off and become sea creatures – as seen in a child’s drawing in the first episode of the season (a great callback to the child’s drawing of the “green-eared” monster in Season 1). So look out for anyone who’s not giving you a full high five. 

PS: Wondering if there’s a link between Season 1’s mythical Yellow King and the Blue King crab processing plant in Season 4, and between the symbol of the crooked spiral in both seasons? Keep watching True Detective: Night Country Season 4 on Showmax now, and watch True Detective S1-3 if you haven’t already.