The Two Historical Mysteries That Inspired ‘True Detective: Night Country’

‘True Detective’ is back with an all new season—which took its inspiration from real-life mysteries.
Kali Reis and Jodie Foster star in ‘True Detective: Night Country.’
Kali Reis and Jodie Foster star in ‘True Detective: Night Country.’ / Michele K. Short/HBO

There have always been occult elements to True Detective, the HBO crime anthology now in its fourth season. But the newest season, which premiered on January 14, 2024, seems to be going all-in on the supernatural.

True Detective: Night Country centers around a town in Alaska where it’s dark for 30 days. The town, Ennis, is fictional, but there are places in Alaska near the Arctic Circle that experience what’s called “polar night,” where residents don’t see the sun for weeks at a time. It’s a fertile setting for horror and suspense stories, including the comic book series and ensuing movie 30 Days of Night.

The season begins with law enforcement, including Chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Trooper Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reiss), investigating the disappearance of eight men from the Tsalal Arctic Research Station. The name Tsalal is itself a literary reference. In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the only completed novel by Edgar Allan Poe (himself no stranger to horror and the supernatural), the title character ends up near the South Pole, on an island called Tsalal where the natives, initially friendly, turn hostile. The book is framed as Pym’s diary, and ends with a postscript detailing Pym’s death. The island appears again 60 years later in An Antarctic Mystery, a novel written by Jules Verne—an admirer of Poe’s—as a sequel.

But it’s not just fiction that inspired this season of True Detective, says showrunner Issa López, who enjoyed reading about scary true stories as a pre-teen.

“Some mysteries that obsessed me as a child were the Dyatlov Pass incident and the Mary Celeste,” López told Den of Geek.

Resurrecting the Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste remains one of the world’s great maritime mysteries. The 282-foot ship set sail from New York for Genoa, Italy, on November 7, 1872, captained by Benjamin Briggs with a crew of eight. Briggs also brought along his wife Sarah and their 2-year-old daughter, Sophia. (Their 7-year-old son Arthur stayed behind.) 

Mary Celeste
The Mary Celeste / Keystone/GettyImages

Less than a month later, on December 5, an English ship, the Dei Gratia, saw the Mary Celeste in full sail drifting 400 miles from the Azores. The Dei Gratia, which had left New York five days after the Mary Celeste, sent a boarding party. The cargo, 1700 barrels of raw alcohol, was undisturbed. There was enough food and water for six more months. The lone lifeboat was gone. And there wasn’t a single person on board.

The Mary Celeste inspired another noted writer, even if he wasn’t world-famous yet. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle imagined a fictionalized version of the story for Cornhill Magazine, in which he wrote about the Marie (not Mary) Celeste. He said a former enslaved person took over the ship and killed the crew. The story became so popular that Conan Doyle, a physician at the time, gave up his medical practice and started writing full time. His first Sherlock Holmes story came out three years later.

The Mary Celeste was salvaged and sailed for another dozen years, even if it was regarded as a hexed ship. It eventually was sunk off the coast Haiti in 1885 in an attempt at insurance fraud.

Revisiting the Dyatlov Pass

The Dyatlov Pass incident was named for Igor Dyatlov, a student at Ural Polytechnic Institute who planned a hiking trip through the Ural Mountains in early 1959. On February 2, he and eight others—all experienced skiers and campers—set out into the mountains. Ten days later, an expected telegram never arrived; one week after that, a search party that included classmates and teachers from UPI as well as the military, was sent out.

A view of the Dyatlov Pass hikers' as the rescuers found it on February 26, 1959. The tent had been cut open from inside, and most of the skiers had fled in socks or barefoot.
A view of the Dyatlov Pass hikers' as the rescuers found it on February 26, 1959. The tent had been cut open from inside, and most of the skiers had fled in socks or barefoot. / Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

On February 25, 1959, the hikers’ empty tent was found on what the Indigenous Mansi people called “Dead Mountain.” Like the empty Mary Celeste, the tent was found with full provisions, but it had been slashed open—from the inside.

The next day, the bodies of two members of the party were found next to a fire that had gone out in a nearby forest; they were wearing only their underwear. Shortly thereafter, two more bodies, including Dyatlov’s, were discovered. They were trying to get back to the tent. A fifth body was discovered a few days later, and the remaining four were found in the spring.

All of the bodies appeared to have sustained serious trauma, with bruises, broken bones, and—in at least one case—a heart hemorrhage. A medical examiner likened the injuries to people who had been in high-speed car crashes. Some of the bodies were irradiated.

A homicide investigation was started, but ended just as quickly. Prosecutor Lev Ivanov said, “It should be concluded that the cause of the hikers’ demise was an overwhelming force, which they were not able to overcome.”

Aliens and Other Explanations

It was a broad explanation, and theories abounded for years. Ivanov himself later suggested it was aliens. It was the height of the Cold War, and another popular theory supposed that the hikers stumbled upon some kind of weapons test and were killed by it—or by people trying to keep it secret. Some people even believed that the hikers were killed by the Yeti.

A scene from 'True Detective: Night Country' (2024).
A scene from 'True Detective: Night Country' (2024). / Michele K. Short/HBO

But new evidence points to the most likely explanation of a slab avalanche, where a large piece of heavily packed snow effectively fell on the tent, spurring its occupants to leave in a hurry—and forcing them into a blizzard. 

As for the Mary Celeste, there have been plenty of theories about what happened to the ship’s passengers. In 2006 Dr. Andrea Sella, a University College London chemistry professor, created a “pressure-wave type of explosion” that she believed could have occurred onboard.

“The explosion would have been enough to blow open the hatches and would have been completely terrifying for everyone on board,” said Sella—calling it “the most compelling explanation. Of all those suggested, it fits the facts best and explains why they were so keen to get off the ship.” But fellow scientists have since dismissed the idea.

While there have been no concrete answers in either instance, it’s the ambiguity of these mysteries that intrigues Lopez—and informs her creativity.

“I think there is a fascination with puzzles that are still missing a couple of pieces, and that obsess us, and make us angry, and make us not stop thinking about them,” she said. How these two real-life events will inform the conclusion to True Detective: Night Country has yet to be revealed.

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