In three of the last four years, horror writer and director Mike Flanagan has produced a TV limited series that fronts as a story about things that go bump in the night, while drawing true existential terror from the things unfolding in broad daylight. His latest effort, “Midnight Mass,” is no exception.
When Flanagan released his first Netflix horror project in 2018, an eponymous new adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” it told the tale of a family haunted by paranormal activity, but in reality, boiled down to the family haunting (and hurting) each other in very real, normal-normal activity. Ghosts are scary, yes, but family is scarier.
The artists’s 2020 effort, “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” was a loose adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” and told a tale of a lonely au pair and the two children she oversees at a sprawling estate in the English countryside. It’s a tale of love, both lost and found, and the sacrifices we make in its service, while also serving as one of the finest representations of life during the pandemic, as souls suffered, stranded and afraid, in a home they could never truly escape.
“Midnight Mass,” released on Netflix late last month, centers on Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) who returns to his hometown, Crockett Island, in shame, after a precipitous fall from grace. When he arrives, he finds a community on its last legs, with independent fisherman pulling up empty nets and longtime residents pulling up stakes and fleeing to more fertile futures. But a mysterious stranger, Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), has also newly arrived in town, stepping in for a missing elderly monsignor at St. Patrick’s Church, who brings with him a Pentecostal fervor the likes of which the island has never seen.
But what’s it really about?
[Editor’s Note: No, really. We’re going to talk about spoilers for “Midnight Mass,” which include references to its ending and what fuels the fervor that ignites Crockett Island.]
But that’s not really the answer, in part because that word is never uttered in the limited series. As realizations grow and people piece information together, including that Father Hill is, in reality, Monsignor Pruitt made young again, the coin might drop, but the machines never pay out, because naming the trespass would make it real and so much more difficult to deny to yourself.
Perhaps that sounds familiar to you. It sure did to me. While not Catholic (like IndieWire’s TV critic Ben Travers, who delivered his own homily on “Midnight Mass”), I did grow up in an excruciatingly small town made up of presumptive Protestantism, hard line Catholics, and a growing band of Evangelicals cum Fundamentalists, who sowed indoctrination wherever they could. I have seen religious blinders in action and watching “Midnight Mass” brought it all rushing back.
Flanagan himself grew up as an active member of the Catholic Church. It was only upon reading the Bible itself that he found himself re-examining the doctrines he grew up with.
“I was shocked, for the first time comprehending what a really strange book it is,” he told the New York Times. “There were so many ideas I’d never heard before in church, and the violence of the Old Testament God is terrifying! Slaughtering babies and drowning the earth! It really struck me that I didn’t know my faith at that point.”
“I’m fascinated by how our beliefs shape how we treat each other,” he said. “Looking at politics and the world today, so many of us are behaving based on the belief that God is on our side, and that God dislikes the same people we do.”
Eike Schroter / Netflix
In “Midnight Mass” this point of view is best encapsulated in Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), a zealot committed to her interpretation of the Bible. Bev is so familiar with the good book, in fact, that she has a Bible verse to justify every horrifying action she or the monsignor take to advance his mission spreading the new gospel of his angel (vampire). Sacred verses manipulated into monstrous misrepresentations of their intentions, used to excuse monstrous behavior by those claiming to act in the name of a man whose whole deal was about love, acceptance, forgiveness, and mercy.
On paper, Bev could come across as a ridiculous character and in the series, there’s a certain level of eye-rolling that takes place behind her back, even by other active church-goers, but there are plenty of individuals in town who aren’t as confident in their faith, who are looking for certainty in an uncertain world, that are drawn in by her single-minded advocacy, no matter what she’s spouting.
It’s an extreme representation of a familiar dynamic that plays out in faith so often and, as Flanagan said, bleeds into so much of human existence in this moment. Religion as turf war. Politics as turf war. Consequences as a turf war. Social media as a turf war. Too often, people of faith weaponize their beliefs to bludgeon others into submission or, at the very least, silence. And even if those individuals might make up a tiny subsection of their community, their voices can often be so loud and so persistent, that people acquiesce, too tired to keep fighting. They drown out more reasonable actors and twist their faith to match their beliefs, rather than adjusting their beliefs to genuinely reflect their faith.
And it’s scary. It’s downright terrifying. It is, in fact, so much more frightening than any damage a vampire could do. As is so often the case with Flanagan’s work, it’s not the monsters you need to be afraid of. It’s the people.