When I first heard about Midnight Mass, a new seven-part series on Netflix that had theological depth and a charismatic priest as a central character, I was intrigued. However, my interest collapsed when I learned that the show was classified as “horror” and came with a content warning for gore. Still, the buzz about the show within my network of clergy and other churchy folk kept growing. Again and again, I heard that the show was creative, thought-provoking, and even beautiful—a cinematic exemplar that transcended genre. I also learned that some true horror fans find director Mike Flanagan’s projects too hopeful—too redemptive. That seemed like a good sign.
When it comes to scary stories and horror films, I am not a fan. At all. I’m still afraid of the steps leading to the basement in my parents’ home because of a movie trailer I watched when I was eleven years old; thirty years later I am still irrationally convinced there are people under the stairs. I reluctantly tagged along to a cineplex showing of Scream in high school, only to run out in hysterics after the first scene. I sneaked into the adjacent theater, where Whitney Houston’s remake of The Preacher’s Wife was a balm to my terrorized soul.
I also learned that some true horror fans find director Mike Flanagan’s projects too hopeful—too redemptive.
This time, because of the hype by people I trust, I decided to put on my big girl pajamas and try the first episode, titled “Genesis.” It was creepy in places, with the classic set-up of a group of people living on a dilapidated island and the arrival of a charismatic stranger, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), who is covering for the beloved, elderly Monseigneur. Monseigneur Pruitt went on a trip to the Holy Land and fell ill, and was recovering on the mainland. There is another “new” arrival, Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a Prodigal Son figure, a young man who left the island, made his fortune, then lost it all when he killed a young woman in a drunk driving accident. He has served his four years in prison and returned home to serve out his parole.
I was immediately hooked. I cannot remember being so invested in a story since I first read the Harry Potter series. Midnight Mass really is one of the most compelling television shows I’ve ever watched. It is well-written, exquisitely photographed, artfully acted, and creepy as all hell. Having watched to the end of the last episode—appropriately titled “Revelation”—I can say without qualification that what is most frightening about this horror series is not the supernatural monstrosities it imagines but the human monstrosities it exposes.
It’s difficult to say much about the plot—or even the large and complex cast of characters—without ruining revelations that are key to experiencing the full effect of the series. It’s harmless, however, to disclose that Midnight Mass is a meditation on the evils of fanaticism and the corruptibility of faith. Flanagan masterfully subverts familiar scriptures and liturgical practices, demonstrating how readily such things can be exploited for ill purpose (and, of course, maximum creepiness). A hymn becomes haunting, a sacrament shocking.
Midnight Mass is a meditation on the evils of fanaticism and the corruptibility of faith.
Despite his willingness to twist and pull at organized religion—in this case, Roman Catholicism—Flanagan’s lens is not inherently anti-faith or even anti-religion. Most characters are afforded moral complexity; one might get to be a hero, but one with considerable flaws. And despite the horrific defilement of faith on display, Flanagan weaves in a subtle counter-narrative that affirms the basic goodness of faith. Which is to say, not every hymn recorded for the lush and lovely soundtrack lands with irony. The “too hopeful for horror” critique may be true. Flanagan does indeed have a stubborn commitment to the capacity for human goodness even in the face of evil. He praises the power of grace and forgiveness and celebrates the beauty of sacrificial love. Many of the characters make good choices, ones that offer an even deeper reflection on religious concepts like forgiveness and sacrifice.
That being said, there is a lot of blood. So much blood.
Recently I’ve been pondering the work of philosopher Charles Taylor, who claims that we live in a “secular age” in which belief in God is often elusive. It can be difficult—even impossible— for modern minds to surrender their skepticism and trust that God is active and present in the world. But this is not just germane to the infamous “rise of the nones”—persons unaffiliated with any religious tradition. The secularism of our time affects people of faith as well, as even confessing Christians find themselves unintentionally harboring a sort of functional atheism. Just as our culture collectively struggles to believe in the existence of a transcendent good, our belief in a metaphysical evil is also tenuous at best. In Midnight Mass, the lives of the residents of Crockett Island are upended when they are suddenly forced to reckon with supernatural forces. You expect a horror movie to remind you that monsters are scary, but Flanagan reminds us that miracles, for instance, are profoundly disruptive. As it turns out, most of us don’t really believe that God can circumvent the laws of nature. (Then again, is it God, or something else entirely? I promised no spoilers.)
It’s not that Christians, and Christian churches, are merely going through the motions, faking our way through rite and ritual. Even as Christians live in a secular age, we still live and move and have our being within God. Still, Doubting Thomas is the patron saint of our era, leading us in a litany of “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” These words find an echo in character Riley Flynn’s wistful response to his friend Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), as they swap monologues about their beliefs on what happens when we die. (Flanagan is known for letting his actors linger over conversations, and they often open up new theological concepts for consideration.) Flynn shares a purely scientific theory, but Greene embraces a belief in something far more heavenly. “I hope you’re right,” Flynn says in response, with complete earnestness. This may be the only confession of faith accessible to a fictional atheist—or even a secular-era theist.
I hope Mike Flanagan is wrong about a lot of things he dreamed up for the people of Crockett Island. But if you take the risk of letting this uniquely disturbing show affect you, you might find yourself hoping he’s right about a few things, too. I certainly do.