At the heart of the mystery in True Detective: Night Country is a grisly centerpiece: a cluster of perished scientists, found frozen together in the Alaskan barrens in a pastiche of human misery—advanced frostbite, ruptured ear drums, burnt corneas, and self-inflicted bites. Finding who, or what, is responsible for the research team’s demise at the shadowy Tsalal Arctic Research Station falls to the fictional Ennis Police Department, led by Jodie Foster as chief Liz Danvers, who dubs the mass—found mostly covered by snow at the end of the series’ first episode—“a giant block of flesh” and a “corpsicle.”
Far from being swiftly deposited in a morgue or shipped off to the bigwigs in Anchorage, the structure has loomed larger narratively with each passing episode. It’s a focal point that is monumental, both in its significance to the story and in the effort to build it.
“This is from the mind of [True Detective: Night Country writer and director] Issa López,” says Dave Elsey, who, with his wife, Lou, created the series’ prosthetics, including the iceberg full of doomed men; “corpsicle” was López’s term for the formation from the very beginning. “She has a very dark mind. She also has a dark sense of humor. And we knew that from the moment they said ‘corpsicle’—we were like, ‘Oh, we’re on board.’”
We first see the corpsicle in all its sinister glory as it’s towed to the Ennis ice rink by a tractor to thaw—with “Little Saint Nick” playing in the background, in what is unlikely to be topped as 2024’s bleakest Santa analogy. At the rink, we get the full reveal: a cluster of corpses fused together in a block of ice, some standing and some reclining. The men are naked, huddled together, and facing the same direction, as though reeling back in terror. Together, they form something like a sculpture, perhaps 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide. “This guy scratched his own eyes out,” one responding officer notes.
In reality, the series was filmed almost entirely in Iceland, principally in Keflavik and Dalvik; the Elseys joke that the bodies were shipped there from the U.K., where the Elseys themselves are based and where the corpsicle components were first assembled in coffins. The ice rink—Reykjavik’s Skautahöllin í Laugardal, whose website showcases cherubic Icelandic children sailing happily across the ice—was decked out with American flags and signage, with the corpsicle (which weighed more than a ton) wheeled in and set at center ice. “We had a very short window of when we could use the ice rink because the schools were coming back, and they were going to be training,” says production designer Daniel Taylor; the team had the run of the place for just five days in between school terms. “We couldn’t have the kids whizzing around ice skating or practicing ice hockey with the corpsicle in the middle.”
The corpsicle was far from the Elseys’ first time delving into the creepy and otherworldly in their work: The pair has a particular panache for the supernatural and menacing, from Dracula to X-Men: First Class to Ghost Rider. Dave even won an Oscar for his makeup work on 2010’s The Wolfman. For True Detective: Night Country, the Elseys began with a set of miniature models that mimic the joints of the human body, then gradually settled with López and Taylor on poses for each man that placed them snugly together. With the general configuration in place, the Elseys created a digital sketch that gave the team 360-degree views of the cadavers.
What followed bore an extra level of difficulty from the Elseys’ usual prosthetic work. “Often when you’re doing dead bodies, you can hide things with blood, and you can hide things with clothing and stuff like that,” says Dave. Not so here: “We knew from the outset that these are just naked people found in the ice. These are look-alikes—we’re not just doing heads that look like the actors, we’re doing entire bodies that look like the actors.”
Which meant that they needed the actors—the seven (more on unlucky number seven in a moment) frozen scientists—to give the Elseys an extremely intimate view of their bodies. The Elseys met the actors at Pinewood Studios outside London, where one by one they stripped down to their underwear and acted out their particular pose of frosty agony in Pinewood’s scanning facility. “It was fun because Issa was actually on the phone,” says Lou. “We had her on FaceTime video calls so that we were like, ‘This is loosely based on what we had in the blueprint. What do you think?’ And then if there were any little adjustments we would make them to make it work.”
For some of the actors, it was the first time they learned the specifics of the gruesome fates their characters were destined for. “They were all finding out what their story was at the same time,” says Dave. “So when we did say, ‘Have your hand up like this and pull your face down and then have your fingers buried in your eyes,’ he’s like, ‘Oh, so that’s what happens?’”
To create the final models, the actors returned—this time to the Elseys’ London studio to have casts made of their heads, hands, feet, and teeth. Again, they were asked to mime their painful demises—but this time with the added challenge of holding the pose while multiple layers of a silicone compound and a final plaster bandage to preserve the shape were applied. “It’s one thing to pull a face, and it’s another thing to hold that expression for 15, 20 minutes at a time,” says Dave. “They looked like a mummy halfway through this.”
From there, the Elseys set about putting the finishing touches on the models: Lou specializes in the fabrication side of prosthetics, while Dave typically runs point on makeup effects. “We had to take very detailed photos of all of their hair, their hair direction, eyebrows, eyelashes, eyeballs, teeth color, the whole thing,” says Lou.
Hairs had to be stitched into each prosthetic individually, down to beard hairs that were then shaved to create visible stubble. “Some of them had hairy bodies and some of them old bodies,” Dave says, laughing. “We were very pleased with the guys who turned up without much hair. Some of them just had these great big hairy bodies, and we had to match that exactly.”
A particularly horrifying moment in the series comes early in the second episode, when an officer attempting to excavate the corpses inadvertently snaps off the right arm of one dead man just below the elbow—only for the man, Tsalal founder and director Anders Lund (Þorsteinn Bachmann), to reveal that he is very much not dead as he, the group of seven’s sole and very frostbitten survivor, begins to scream.
To accomplish the effect, the Elseys built Bachmann’s prosthetic with a detachable arm, complete with dangling breakaway bones that could be slotted back in place for additional takes. Then came the tricky part: squeezing the real Bachmann into the cluster of cadaver prosthetics for the screaming sequence, which required the actor to get on his knees and awkwardly suspend his arms in the air for the duration. Ultimately, while Lund’s fallen colleagues head to the ice rink still entombed in ice—actually a combination of real compounded snow, plastic ice pieces, and polystyrene that the Elseys designed to mimic various stages of the melting process—he is taken to the hospital. “We had little dentures made where he had got frostbite and his gums all turned black and receded,” says Dave. “He was so into it—anything we wanted to do to make him look like the model, he allowed us to do.”
Indeed, frostbite research became a theme for the Elseys during the project. They took to scouring medical papers and the internet at large for clues about the kind of horrific damage that a nude sojourn into an Alaskan winter might wreak on the human body; showrunner López’s initial description of the corpsicle in the script was “a knot of limbs and frozen flesh screaming into the night with blind eyes.” That thoroughness was a throughline throughout the show—this, after all, is a series that employed a glaciologist with expertise in ice core drilling.
“We did enormous amounts of research into some of the most horrible pictures that we’ve ever seen,” Dave says.
“Oh, God,” Lou says, remembering with a shudder.
“We had files of these, and we would show them to the crew, and the crew would go ‘Ack!’ And we would go, ‘That’s what we’re doing,’” Dave says. That research was top of mind when the corpsicle was loaded into place on an Icelandic mountainside at night to film its initial discovery. “We’d all had warnings that if we started to lose the feeling in any of our limbs that we would have to go inside. And in our minds, all we can see is all the work we’ve done with limbs turning black and we’re thinking, ‘Yeah, we’ll take your advice.’”
True Detective: Night Country is, by design, not a program with a lot of laugh lines. As the police begin to unearth the bodies in the second episode, Danvers snaps at an officer who seizes the opportunity to take a selfie, waggling his tongue behind one of the wayward scientists’ mangled faces. “Stop fucking around!” Danvers shouts. “This is a crime scene!”
Some goofiness, however, was inevitable on set. To prepare for that scene, the crew needed to wait for a major snowfall into which they could submerge the full corpsicle. “And then eventually there was a break in the weather, and everybody is wrapped up in the freezing cold, and there’s a JCB [crane] picking up six or seven dead bodies,” Taylor says. “And we’re like, ‘Did [López] want them facing that way, or does she want them facing this way?’ You kind of spin the bodies a bit, and then you’re like, no, it’s definitely that way. Then you spin them back around the other way. There’s kind of a moment where you’re like, ‘What the fuck are we doing? What is this all about?’”
“I’m forever involving myself in a situation that you would never normally do,” Taylor says. “And this probably was the cherry on the cake.”
The selfie prohibition, for one, did not apply off camera. “We took selfies with it, and some of the actors did as well,” Dave says.
In the series premiere, the first indication Danvers gets that things are about to take a dark turn comes soon after entering the abandoned Tsalal, where she finds a severed tongue—one whose telltale markings seem to indicate it belonged to Annie Masu Kowtok, whose years-ago murder in Ennis was never solved.
The tongue, too, was the Elseys’ work—and they made an extra. “The very first thing we did when we got to Iceland was we had one of them put into a little glass case on a little velvet cushion and we gave a little present to Issa,” Dave says, grinning. “That was on our first day on set. She was so thrilled with this poor tongue.”
Neither the Elseys nor Taylor are certain where the corpsicle is now: Their best guess is a storage unit somewhere in Iceland. When asked if they think the unit might be opened someday in the future and scare the living daylights out of someone, all the Elseys can do is laugh.