Scrublands: Is the Show Inspired by True Events?

‘Scrublands’ is a crime thriller mystery series that transports us to rural Australia, where a small town is rocked by a mass shooting committed by a priest. The priest, a charming young man seemingly dedicated to the word of God, opened fire on his gathered congregation, killing five people before being shot down by a cop. A year later, journalist Martin Scarsden is sent to the town to write a puff piece commemorating the anniversary of the tragic event. Scarsden is a former war journalist who struggles with a dark past involving the death of a close friend. When he begins asking the locals about the incident, Scarsden soon realizes that the official narrative they presented is conflicting and doesn’t add up.

Additionally, the townsfolk are wary of journalists, and when Scarsden meets an attractive single mother, Mandy Bond, she closes up as soon as he mentions his profession. After coming across a brooding priest and various clues guiding him toward the truth of the small town, Scarsden begins a riveting investigation that unravels an elaborate conspiracy. Directed by Greg McLean, the Stan show and its startling mystery raises questions about real-life inspirations and familiarities surrounding the story.

Scrublands is Based on a Best Selling Australian Novel

‘Scrublands’ is adapted for television from Australian author Chris Hammer’s novel of the same name by writers Felicity Packard and Jock Serong. Compared to the book, the series is quite different in the way it presents its mystery. While the events of the book are fictional, they do find some grounding in the real world, with the shocking story of a priest’s shooting that shares elements of the show’s premise. When Chris Hammer first got into writing, he wrote two non-fiction books and discovered that there wasn’t a big market for books in Australia.

He soon went back to his job as a journalist. It was during his time working as an experienced journalist that Hammer began writing ‘Scrublands,’ pouring some of his own experiences as a journalist into the character of Martin Scarsden. “So I started writing ‘Scrublands’ hoping it would get published; I thought it would sell a few copies, and that would be it,” revealed Hammer. “So in writing it I wasn’t trying to write a bestseller, I was only doing it for my own satisfaction. I enjoyed it, I made a point of enjoying it, and that probably comes through.”

The spontaneous approach taken by Chris Hammer in crafting the narrative of ‘Scrublands’ imbues it with genuine and authentic quality that draws us into its mysterious small-town setting. Another factor contributing to the show’s realistic feel is the noteworthy performances of the cast members and their affinity to their roles. Luke Arnold, who essays Martin Scarsden, took great interest in the production and was excited to work alongside Greg McLean. He was also reflective of the character he brought to life, noticing the nuance and peculiarities associated with him.

“Dealing with the different kinds of empathy that journalists have, and sometimes using people short-term in pursuit of the greater good – that was a hard one to get around,” said Arnold in an interview. “There was a little bit of a challenge getting to that part of my mind and going scene by scene; not just dealing with other characters on a fully empathetic level.” On the other hand, Bella Heathcote found a profound similarity between herself and her character Mandy Bond. Just like the character she portrays on the show, her mother also passed away due to cancer.

In conveying the emotional side of Mandy, Heathcote found herself tapping into her own experiences. “Some people say, ‘Oh you should use your own experience in your acting,’ I find that stuff difficult,” she explained in the aforementioned interview. “I find my own grief has gotten in the way of the performance, so for me the challenge was thinking about how I build this character from the ground up without thinking about my own story and letting it interfere.” There is a real-life incident that matches the intrigue of the show to such a level that it seems to have sprung from fiction itself.

In the small town of Hudson in St. Croix County, Wisconsin, a gunman entered a funeral home on February 5, 2002. He shot the owner, 39-year-old Daniel O’Connell, and his intern, 22-year-old James Ellison, with 9mm rounds. The double homicide shook the small community of just over 6,000 people, and when police arrived to search the crime scene, they found that nothing had been stolen. At a loss for motive, the investigation seemed to hit a dead end. Years later, the police received a report of Father Ryan Erickson, a catholic priest, who sexually abused a juvenile boy while he was at the church in Hudson three years ago.

Following up the report with an interview, the police discovered that Erickson was a weapons collector and possessed several 9mm handguns. Aside from the circumstantial evidence, he knew unreleased details of the crime scene at the funeral home, and his alibi didn’t add up. Erickson was one of the speakers at O’Connell’s funeral. The authorities also found multiple images featuring male pornography in a folder of Erikson’s computer when they scoured through his quarters. However, before the police could follow up with further investigation, Ryan Erickson took his life and died by hanging himself in the hallway of the church on December 19, 2004.

Image Credit:

Following his death, a proceeding without jury was held and multiple testimonies presented evidence that pointed to his guilt. It was alleged that Daniel O’Connell had called Erickson to talk to him about the sexual abuse revealed to him by the teenager. It has been claimed that Erickson was very uncomfortable with his sexual identity and shot O’Connell to prevent him from revealing the truth. At the end of the hearing, then-Judge Eric Lundell stated “I find that and conclude that Ryan Erickson probably committed these crimes in question. On a scale of one to ten as far as strength of evidence I would consider this ten. It is a very strong case for circumstantial evidence.”

Image Credit: O’Connell Funeral Homes

Then-District Attorney Eric Johnson added that due to the defendant being dead, the corroboration of the evidence couldn’t take place and the hearing transpired without a jury, but the judge’s verdict “can be construed as a finding of guilt.” ‘Scrublands’ presents a compelling mystery that bears some resemblance to a real-life case of a priest’s shooting in relation to accusations of pedophilia. The narrative itself benefits from being an uninhibited expression by the author. Its adaptation to TV is further heightened by the involvement of a dedicated cast and crew, breathing life into the tale with cinematic splendor.

Read More: Scrublands: Exploring All Filming Locations of the Show