True Detective Season 3: A History of the Occult in the Ozarks

Will Ozark magic turn hillbillies into hell’s belles in True Detective season 3?

True Detective season 3 is set in “the heart of the Ozarks” in Arkansas where the plainclothes cops will explore a “macabre crime.”

Nic Pizzolatto, who has written all the episodes since the series began, will make his directorial debut this season. At least one episode will be directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who made 2015 hostage thriller Green Room. While this is nowhere near a guarantee the series will return to its dark spiritual roots, True Detective’s newly announced locale opens possibilities. The show can mine the Ozark mountains for secrets that have been so compulsively hidden, only one book, Vance Randolph’s Ozark Mountain Magic and Folklore, is really recognized as authoritative on the subject. The author lived in the community for 20 years before anyone trusted him enough to share stories.

Besides interesting ghost stories, the Ozarks protect an old tradition, a nightmarish occult custom hidden in the hills and practiced by an insular community in a covenant with Satan itself. On TV, the dark side of Appalachian magic goes back as far as Granny Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies.

In the 1962 “Pygmalion and Elly” episode, Granny Clampett makes a potion out of angel’s hair, wild gander foot, turkey bones, and moccasin flower. We learn to burn them on an open fire in “The Courtship of Elly” episode from 1965. If love burns too hot, Granny suggests blowing a little “Letting Go Powder” in the enchanted one’s face. Granny also has the patent pending “Anti-Love Potion X4.”

The granny witch is the “oldest female member of the community,” Vanita Karma, who comes from a long line of country magicians and herbalists, explains to Den of Geek. “They were the midwives and emergency physicians. They kept the supply of useful ingredients, such as spider webs for stopping blood.” Granny was the person you would consult for a love amulet, or “something to help your man stay home and not wander.”

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“They were the people that you would consult about when was the proper time to eat poke salad,” Vanita adds, and launches into a verse of the song “Poke Salad Annie.” And not the Elvis version, either, the Tony Joe White Polk original.

Granny came from southwestern Missouri, not too far from Branson, where the word “hillbilly” is considered an insult. Not so to the granny women, which is what Ozark magicians call conjure women, who take the term as an affirmation. The communities in the Appalachian mountains are a tight knit, self-contained, insular group of dependent thinkers who would not be embarrassed by Cousin Roy peddling “Big Momma’s Magic Mixture.”

Ozark Mountain and Appalachian magic included the usual love spells, predictions, charms, and potions, but some might be surprised by the dark forces that fuel it. The magic of them hills is much more diabolical than might be expected.

“In the Ozarks, they say you have to renounce the church in a graveyard at midnight and have intercourse with the devil,” says Jake Richards, an Appalachian yarb doctor, which is someone who uses herbs, minerals, and animal curios to cure people. “The one that sticks out is that the person has to go to the graveyard and stand on the oldest grave and renounce Jesus and the church. Then apparently they’re gifted by the devil when he appears and they have intercourse.”

According to Randolph’s book, the graveyard renunciations are done at a family cemetery. This way the fledgling witches are “not only renouncing the Christian faith but their ancestors,” Richards explains.

Richards also recalled a myth “about calling up devils and saying the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ backwards. There’s also one where the wannabe witch curses God while gazing at the moon, and one where a woman can become a witch by saying certain parts of the Bible backwards and shooting a silver bullet at the moon.”

Some things folks call superstitions are just as true as God’s own gospel, and these devilish pacts are confirmed in Randolph’s book, which adds that the initiate’s clothing must be hung “on an infidel’s tombstone” while she and “the Devil’s representative” repeat “terrible words which assemble devils, and the spirits of the evil dead.” The book also adds that the ceremony is supposed to be “witnessed by at least two initiates, also nude.” After the third pledge, “the woman is a witch and must serve her new master through all eternity.”

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The chapter “Ozarks Witchcraft,” includes ritual verses and sayings. Randolph’s book details the magical hierarchy of power doctors, witch masters, white witches, faith doctors, goomer doctors, conjure folks, doodlebuggers, dummy suppers, and nude holy rollers. The book explains witch wigglers and water witches used dowsing tools to locating ley lines.

In the world of esoteric knowledge, a ley line is more than just a water source, they “compose a grid of energy encompassing the Earth’s surface,” according to celebrity psychic Marie Bargas. “In 1921 amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins put the attention of these ‘energy paths’ on the radar while these ‘lines’ were already acknowledged as ‘Dragon Lines,’ at least to the Chinese.”

The Hollywood Witch put it into movie terms so this writer could understand.

“In John Boorman’s film Excalibur, when Merlin refers to the Dragon, the Dragon’s Breath and he recoils when Excalibur is plunged into the Earth and ‘into the spine of the Dragon’,” she says, rolling her eyes.

The rough terrains of the Appalachian Mountains are quite a hike from Camelot. The book traces ancestors of the original hillfolk settlers to England and Scotland.

“Due to the graveyard scene, renouncing Jesus, and saying the verses backwards, it’s apparent this tale originates in Europe, most likely the British isles, as these are common concepts found when it comes to the lay person’s belief in witches,” Richards says.

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Richards can’t place the specific origin of the graveyard renunciation, but says, “It’s most definitely from Europe somewhere. It acts somewhat like the tales of encountering the Little Folk: the person gets knowledge of different things, power to heal and curse, and to see the dead.”

“It is said that people in the Ozarks in Missouri and Arkansas actually descended from pioneers in the South Appalachian region,” Vanita says.

“If you study plants there is something known as a doctrine of signatures, where each plant will actually tell you what it is for,” Vanita explains.

The mountain settlers were forced into impossible on-the-job training to put the animals, insects, plants and herbs of the area to their best use. That included any that could be used in the folk magic they brought with them. We asked if the settlers adapted their old ways with knowledge they learned from the native residents of the remote area.

“I’m sure that some of these traditions were passed down from the Native Americans, as my great-great-grandfather was half Cherokee,” Vanita says. “If you research the history of the Trail of Tears, you realize people tended to disassociate themselves from the Native Americans. There was much prejudice present.”

Richards can’t confirm Native American influence, “but the Ozarks do include a bit of Oklahoma, I think the upper eastern part near what is now the Cherokee and Choctaw reservations so it’s likely things were shared between neighbors.”

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The rough cover of the mountain area ensured that there was more than mere acreage separating the hillfolk from outside interference.

“It is always important to remember that there is a great deal of isolation in these types of communities,” Vanita says. “Some communities were less than 10 families. Different regions had their own little superstitions.”

Even though the hillfolk are renowned for being “yellers,” which they had to do to keep track of each other in the muffling terrain, until the publication of Randolph’s book in the 1940s, the myths and teachings of the hillfolk magicians were only whispered. Paper burns fast in the wilderness and their wisdom was never collected in educational texts.

“Most of the traditions are oral. Some of their prayers are related to certain passages in the Bible,” Vanita says. “There are many superstitions that the traditions had to be passed to someone of the opposite sex. This is almost the same thing as the Cajun tradition of being a traiteur.”

While the mountain folk counted themselves as Christians, “most of the superstitions they follow have no foundation in the Bible at all,” Richards says. “For example, ‘whistling in the home invites the devil in.’ It seems the superstitions go under the Christian fabric. And the same holds true for Appalachia.”

Vanita’s paternal grandfather practiced the laying of hands to heal wounds. “In his method a particular passage in the Bible is recited that is supposed to stop blood immediately,” Vanita says.

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Wise words were only whispered to a select few. Most practitioners did it alone.

“In most tales it seems to be a solo thing, but other tales say there has to be two other people there to witness it,” Richards says.

Because of myths of “marking” babies and the graveyard rituals, Ozark Mountain magic is considered evil, but it is mainly used to fight off the harmful magic of evil witches.

“There have always been folktales of evil witches making pacts with the devil, however no such person is ever recorded,” Richards says. “The only ‘witches’ to be found are the faith healers, yarb doctors, or power doctors, all of whom claim power from god. The Ozarks were very careful of witchcraft being thrown at them, so they had many precautions and protections against enchantment and the devil’s work.”

Biases as old as any found in any bible parceled out good and evil along gender divides, regardless of the intent. Power Doctors use charms, spells, prayers, amulets, exorcisms, and magic, just like witches, who the Ozark people tag as a woman who has had dealings with the Devil and uses supernatural powers to bring evil upon her neighbors.

“The doctor was seen as having power from god and the witch as working with the devil,” Richards says. “Not to separate them as black and white, but the doctor and witch’s duty often crossed over. A doctor could brew up something for revenge for a client, but because the community believed he was doing the work of God, it was good and okay. Likewise there were some that were outcast by the community and named a witch, and that person would mostly do healings and charm work. That’s the odd thing about folk magic. It’s not in the least bit organized, it’s just the way things are done.”

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So, is there magic in them thar hills?

“Most of these things and traditions are very successful. My dad had the gift of being able to find water with a forked willow stick,” Vanita says. “Herbal cures are currently being used in modern medicine. Aspirin is actually made from a derivative of the willow tree.

“I personally like many of the old ways better,” Vanita concludes.

We may never know if the mystical mountain magicians were yanking Randolph’s chain with fears like sneezing on a Sunday makes you a devil’s pawn all week, but Sunday nights will have a little more mystery when the true detectives of True Detective start asking questions.

True Detective will work the mountain mojo through HBO sometime in 2018.