04/11/2014 10:21 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2014

True Detective and the Satanic Panic

I took my time finishing the final episodes of True Detective. The twists and turns demand contemplative viewing, at least until the end. The detectives have spent eight episodes piecing together the identity of a serial killer whose devil-worshipping, ritualistic activities seemed to implicate major Louisiana politicians and a wide network of people and institutions. But it comes down, as these things always do, to a thrilling fight scene. Detective Rust Cohle has spent eight hours of television using his head to follow the murderer's trail and wax philosophical. In the end, he uses his head more literally, thrusting it repeatedly to knock the bad guy off his feet.

In a recent interview, the show's creator Nic Pizzolatto hinted that the story might have a real-life inspiration. Numerous articles followed, quoting reports from 2005 on the case of a Louisiana pastor named Louis Lamonica Jr. who was convicted of raping his two sons and accused of weird and wild Satanic activities.

Lamonica is still in prison. Maybe he's guilty, but his case has a lot of red flags.

I spent much of the last year reporting a story for the Texas Observer on the case of the San Antonio Four, a group of women who were accused of bizarre and brutal sexual crimes against the 7- and 9-year-old nieces of Elizabeth Ramirez in the early 1990s . Ramirez was considered the ringleader in rituals of rape and torture (the women are lesbians, which only added to the suspicion that they were capable of such things). The doctor who examined the victims wrote in her notes, "This looks Satanic."

The San Antonio Four were vilified and locked away in Texas prisons until this past November, when years of work by activists, journalists and lawyers culminated in a judge's decision to free the women. Their case, it was widely noted, was one of the last of a massive wave of cases throughout the 1980s and 1990s throughout the country in which doctors, prosecutors, police and social workers became convinced that a wave of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA, as it was known) was sweeping the country, particularly in day care centers. All of the True Detective material was there: animal masks, sacrifices, sex with children, sex with animals, incantations with candles in the woods, etc.

"When dealing with home-run records and financial opportunities, a reliable rule to follow is this: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Michael Hall wrote for Texas Monthly when the San Antonio Four were released. "When dealing with child-sex-abuse allegations, a reliable rule to follow is this: if it sounds too bad to be true, be very, very skeptical."

In all of these cases, no physical evidence was ever found. Many of the kid victims grew up to retract their accusations. Skeptical journalists like Debbie Nathan, co-author of the book Satan's Silence, found that bad interviewing techniques had been used on highly suggestible children.

Most of the men and women accused of those crimes have been freed. The New York Times recently ran a short film that makes this "hysteria" look like a shameful relic on the order of the Salem witch trials.

A shameful relic, that is, of the 1980s and the 1990s. Lamonica's conviction was in 2005.

Satanic ritual abuse cases were mostly discredited by the time Lamonica's conviction came along. At the very least, his case deserves an ample amount of skepticism.

Sadly, it's hard to find. Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel copy-pastes a description of the case and simply writes "Holy. Fucking. Shit." before comparing the details to True Detective's plot. She doesn't profess to be a reporter, but checking your skepticism at the door of shock value is never good. Then there's Steven Ward at The Daily Beast, who years earlier was a newspaper reporter sent to Lamonica's town. He spends one tiny paragraph on Lamonica's defense, mostly reprinting the moral outrage of prosecutors. The case, he writes, "is a story that proves once again that the monsters we should be scared of most are the ones that live right next door." It's a cheap shot at evoking the character Rust Cohle's philosophical musings, covering up a shocking lack of the kind of skepticism we should expect from reporters.

We may have for the most part moved past the Satanic abuse panic, but the popularity of True Detective suggests why we may have been so primed for the Satanic abuse hysteria in the first place. We all love a good story.