True Detective’s Carcosa: The Creepiest Set Design In TV History?

The finale of HBO’s True Detective featured a bone-chilling serial killer lair that puts all serial killer lairs before it to shame.

Those of you who missed last night’s finale of True Detectivethanks a lot, HBO Go!–should actually feel thankful; you were spared nightmares about perhaps the creepiest set design in television history. The serial killer’s lair, dubbed “Carcosa,” makes The Blair Witch Project’s witch house look like a page in a Pottery Barn catalog.


In the short stories that inspired True Detective, Carcosa is a cursed city in an alien world. Until the finale, Carcosa is a mysterious part of the show’s elaborate mythology, a place mentioned reverently by various doomed and deranged characters. In the finale, Carcosa is finally revealed: an overgrown chamber of horrors used for all sorts of violent devil worship.

To build Carcosa, New Orleans-based artist Joshua Walsh created a satanic altar from human skulls, antlers, oyster shells, burnt driftwood, and, for an extra sinister touch, cutesy children’s toys. He rubbed the skulls with yellow turmeric and carved them with what’s essentially the killer’s logo–an angular spiral that will forever haunt our dreams. What Walsh calls “spirit bundles” hang from the altar like evil cocoons. “To distort the figure with a beast quality, I incorporated the spine of a cow,” Walsh writes on HBO Go’s site. He also noted that the oyster shells mixed with turmeric helped create a “spicy death smell.”

The serial killer at the heart of the show is a particularly artistic one–he leaves visual clues like eerie twig sculptures called “Devil’s Nests” and chilling graffiti on the walls of his decrepit haunts. Instead of using an in-house production team to create the show’s art, as is standard in Hollywood, the producers decided to cast an individual artist as the unseen killer’s hand in order to make the aesthetic consistent and authentic. They’d asked several artists to provide samples of their vision of the killer’s work, but none fit the bill.

It wasn’t until the producers noticed a sculpture of a hummingbird made from sinew and twigs on the desk of set decorator Cynthia Slagter, a gift from her friend Walsh, that they pinpointed him for the job. Walsh, an avid hunter and taxidermist and the son of a family who ran a funeral home, had to channel a killer’s mindset and imagine what sort of artistic slug trail he would leave in his wake. He worked full-time for nine months to create a collection of about 100 murals, paintings, and sculptures. It will take weeks of watching nothing but cute cat videos to get Carcosa out of our heads.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.