Earlier this year, hidden in the heart of Ponchatoula, Louisiana, stood a church sign that read: “WHEN SATAN KNOCKS SAY JESUS WOULD U GET THAT?” Ten years ago, according to some in that town, Satan knocked. Journalists have speculated that this is the town from which Nic Pizzolatto culled inspiration for True Detective’s first season. In 2005, scandal embroiled a church in the small, quaint town in the form of a child sex-abuse case colored with tinges of occult madness. Now, a new docuseries from Vice, titled The Real, is unearthing some of the truth behind nebulous Hollywood-real-life links. You can watch the biweekly series’ True Detective episode, which premiered this morning, below. Vulture also talked to The Real’s host Gianna Toboni about satanism, the show’s mechanics, and forthcoming stories rolling out later this fall.
How did the idea for this docuseries develop?
Last year, I was probably the only person in the universe that was not watching Breaking Bad [live]. I watched all four seasons so I could get up to speed for the season-five finale and became totally obsessed with the show and with the character Walter White. So I just went searching — and I come from a news background — so I’m searching for this meth dealer, like, There’s gotta be a guy who was running some meth empire who also has his typical American family on the side. Leading this double life. I found the guy: The Tuscaloosa News wrote an article about a guy named Walter White who was a meth dealer, built this meth empire, and had this family on the side. I tracked down his son and ended up visiting them and spending a week with them, and that ended up being the pilot for this series.
This first episode has a kind of In Cold Blood feel to it. What was it like visiting the town?
It was actually very creepy. Everybody was so, so, so kind, but there was just this feeling that you couldn’t escape that something was still haunting this town. This case completely dominated for months. It’s a small town, so everybody knew the church, the pastor, and the pastor’s family. There’s no way someone in that town didn’t know about that case. But still we would visit small businesses, talk to people on the street, people in front of the church, and I would ask them, “Do you remember the Hosanna Church case that happened in 2005?” And some people would say, “Yes, but I don’t want to talk about it.” A huge amount of people also said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Completely denied having any memory of it. I would continue talking to them, and I’d say, “Well, you know I was talking to the chief of police, and they were telling me about the Lamonica family and how they’re still in town.” And then they’d admit to it: “Okay, fine, I’m close with the Lamonica family, so I don’t want to talk about the case.” The idea that people are still so haunted by it that they don’t even want to admit that they remember the case is very spooky.
Had the townspeople seen True Detective? What were their reactions?
Surprisingly, a lot of them had not, and they had no idea why we were down there. They didn’t understand the concept of the documentary we were trying to do. People had no idea there was a connection. Even the detectives had no idea. They did not know about the show, and they had no idea that that show was on television, except for one person who was the court stenographer for that case. And she said when she watched the first episode, she was shaking. She said, “There’s absolutely no way the show is not based on that case.” After the episode, she said all of her memories resurfaced.
What was it like learning about the potential inspiration for the Hollywood story firsthand?
There were no prostitutes or deer antlers or biker gangs. There were some things, when we started to peel back the layers of this real case, that were pretty shocking: the religious element — remember Detective Cohle going through the school and finding the pentagrams and the black stars on the walls and the drawings? That’s all very present in this story. I tried to be subtle with the connections between the documentary and the show. I figured people who had seen the show would pick up on them.
In the show, one of the victims, Kelly, she’s completely traumatized, and Detective Cohle goes to visit her, and he’s asking her very direct questions about the man with the scars on his face, and she has this physical reaction, but she’s not able to articulate it. In the real story, the prosecutor talks about the victims who he had called in for questioning, and he would ask them very specific questions about abuse, and they would sit there and shake their heads no, but they had tears rolling down their face. Another thing I thought was interesting was that Hollywood chose this widespread case, and two detectives solve the whole thing. In reality, 30 to 40 detectives worked on this case. In reality, a lot more work goes into these types of cases than Hollywood says.
The satanic elements in the case seem larger than life. How, as a journalist, do you immerse yourself in those details and remain objective?
When I talked to people about this case, before they even mentioned what the crimes were, they talked about the satanic elements and how, when you turned off the lights in this church youth room and put on the black light, there were all these drawings and scriptures and things on the wall. But when you talk to the detectives, they say the same thing but they also say that this was so non-central to the case. It’s not a crime, praising Satan. And so the prosecution couldn’t use any of those satanic elements in court, nor did they want to.
Something about it just made everything a little more disturbing. It’s horrifying. But you talk to the detectives and read the transcripts and you have to consider all angles. There were people in this story who said that these people were insane and that none of these crimes ever happened, and that was a perspective I had to consider when telling this story. But at the end of the day: The prosecution was able to successfully prosecute these people, and they received life sentences. Take fact and report it as it is, and take the most important elements in the case and report those as they were presented in court.
Was there anything interesting you left on the cutting-room floor?
One thing we decided not to include: There were a lot of suspects in the case. There were these two main guys, they were the only ones who got life sentences, and they were the two leaders of this sick molestation ring. But there was another man who was a suspect at the start and was a witness, apparently, to the crimes that had happened. His last name, Fontenot, was the same last name as Marie Fontenot, who was the little girl who disappeared in episode one of True Detective and who played a role throughout.
What’s in store for future installments?
Each of these episodes is going to be so different. We have the real True Detective, the real Nancy Botwin, the real Kenny Powers, and the real Wolf of Wall Street. And then we have Mad Men, and a sixth episode, which I can’t reveal right now. But this series is dramatic, it’s funny, it’s sometimes hard to watch, it’s compelling, and it has a lot of surprises.