The Ozark Mountains straddle Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, but you don't have to travel to the Ozarks to see the Ozarks. All you have to do is turn on the TV. The third season of True Detective, set and filmed in Northwest Arkansas, is the latest of many works of prestige pop culture set in this isolated Southern region.
The trend is so undeniable it was given a name by the Kansas City Star last January: "Ozark Noir." By most accounts, the locus of the subgenre is the Missouri Ozarks-based author Daniel Woodrell, whose novel Winer's Bone which was later turned into the 2010 movie that launched Jennifer Lawrence's career (Woodrell himself coined the term "country noir" to describe his 1996 short story collection). After that story of a teenage girl slicing her way through Missouri's underground crime dens came Gillian Flynn's record-breaking thriller Gone Girl (2012). While waiting for her nefarious plan to unfold, Amy Dunne of Gone Girl runs away to the Hide-a-Way Cabins of rural Missouri and rebrands herself Ozark Amy. Like Winter's Bone, Gone Girl brought the Ozarks to the big screen in 2014 — and in doing so, furthered the association between the mountainous region and shady crimes.
Lately, the examples of Ozark Noir have come in even closer succession. In 2017 alone, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) contended with violent local politics in Netflix's show Ozark, and Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) raged after losing her daughter to rape and murder in the award show darling Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Come the January 13, True Detective will give 2019 its own Ozark Noir, this time with an Arkansas twist. In the show, Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) ruminates over the disappearance of two young children for decades.
These works don't just share a location — they share a commitment to uncovering the grimness that lurks within close-knit, impoverished, tiny towns right on the edge of the wilderness. According to award-winning crime novelist and former Missouri Ozarks resident Laura McHugh, the Ozarks' inherent qualities make it conducive for telling darker stories.
“Part of it is those really tight knit communities where everyone has known each other all of their lives. Part of it is the landscape. It has this rugged beauty, with dramatic cliffs and caves and vast forests. But it also has all these isolated places where things could happen in secret and no one would ever find out,” McHugh said.
When McHugh was seven years old, her family relocated from Iowa to the tiny Ozark town of Tecumseh, Missouri. She's been fascinated by the region ever since. McHugh's first novel, The Weight of Blood, is partially based on a gruesome crime that occurred in Lebanon, MO, where she went to high school. Between the years 2002 and 2009, a man named Edward Bagley kept a a young, mentally deficient girl as his sex slave in his trailer home. His wife, Marilyn, was aware of the situation. Other people would visit the trailer and barter things like steaks and cigarettes to partake in the abuse.
"A handful of people knew the situation, and no one tried to help her. I thought it was so scary — that it was happening right in our midst," McHugh recalled. "It's about as Ozark Noir as you can get."
While McHugh is excited by the uptick in pop culture focusing on her home state, not all of the residents share her sentiment. Some are offended by a certain picture of Ozark resident espoused in pop culture: "Backwards, no education, doing drugs," McHugh summarizes. McHugh recalled a particularly contentious meeting book club visit after the publication of her first book. “A woman said I was ruining the state’s reputation. I had to remind her that it was inspired by a real crime," she said. But for McHugh, these depictions reflect reality — an exaggerated version, perhaps, but reality nonetheless. "I see some stereotypes, but a lot of it is coming from truth or real things.”
As True Detective shows, the nascent Ozark Noir genre is continuing to evolve. Whereas the other works listed above focus on white characters, True Detective centers on a Black detective (Mahershala Ali) and his Black wife (Carmen Ejogo), both of whom are the minority in Fayetteville, Arkansas. As a Black man in law enforcement, Hays is isolated from both the region's Black community, who ostracize him, and the town's white residents, who were historically hostile to Black individuals.
It's no accident that the Arkansas Ozarks are now majority white. “Some white towns have deliberately destroyed reminders of the blacks who lived there years ago,” wrote sociologist Gordon Morgan in 1973. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, much of the Black population was expelled from the Arkansas Ozarks via mobs and riots. Other towns took a more gradual approach to expelling their Black population by banning further Black people from moving in. Eventually, these Ozark towns used their racial composition to entice new white residents, even going so far as to create slogans that pointed to their all-white population.
Northwestern Arkansas was also home to multiple sundown towns, where Black people were not welcome after sunset, for years — including throughout True Detective's three-decade span. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the town of Harrison, whose Black population was devastated in a 1905 race riot, remained a sundown town until 2002.
While Fayetteville, where True Detective was filmed, wasn't a sundown town, Black residents certainly experienced racism from the white community. In an interview with Northwest Arkansas News, 72-year-old Jimmye Whitfield recalled hearing slurs while studying at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. "[The students] would call you...all kinds of names," Whitfield said.
True Detective grapples with the region's racial dynamics far more than any other work so far. Compare season 3 of True Detective and its nuanced handling of race to Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, a movie that sent an unapologetically racist police officer (Sam Rockwell) on a redemptive journey. As True Detective shows, there are more stories to be told about this region — and more inclusive ways to tell them.