Scare maestro Mike Flanagan – previously best known for Haunting of Hill House – finds horror in humanity, shirking the usual tropes in favor of mining the mundane. This year, his Netflix series Midnight Mass showed us just how terrifying religion can be when weaponized, offering a wholly unique show that chills you to the core and breaks you down before building you back up again, stronger than you ever were. The result is Flanagan’s scariest story yet and Total Film’s best TV show of 2021, an honor we’re happy to give.
The real Sunday scaries
If you, like me, grew up going to a Roman Catholic church, you probably felt uneasy whenever your priest or Catholic school teachers covered certain stories from the Bible. The Old Testament can be particularly draconian, with the “Judgment of Solomon” telling of a God who demands a man split his children in two, or the destruction of “Sodom and Gomorrah” regaling us with the tale of a Lord who rains fire and brimstone upon villages. Perhaps the imagery in your local church gave you the heebie-jeebies, with so many depictions of a crucified Jesus lining the walls and hanging over the priest's head. Maybe the seriousness of it all made you uncomfortable: the confession, the kneeling, the solemnity.
Flanagan taps into that fear and expands upon it, forcing viewers to ponder their own faith, to question the way we treat marginalized peoples, to think about the validity of religion when used for fear-mongering or hate. Midnight Mass often makes you uncomfortable, forcing you to watch both an older and a younger man struggle with ostracization and alcohol abuse, or lingering on terse moments between a Muslim and a bigoted Catholic – it’s horrifying well before the "true" horror of the series reveals itself.
The character archetypes include the pious, the born-again, and the wretched, represented by Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), and Riley Flynn (Zack Gilford). Father Paul is the long-standing Monsignor on the small and bizarrely insular Crockett Island; Erin is the woman who escaped its confines only to return years later, pregnant and without her husband but seeking the church for salvation; and Riley is the former altar boy who reluctantly returns, now a wholehearted skeptic and a recovering alcoholic.
They are the story’s three main pillars and how Flanagan shows different people folding Catholicism into their everyday lives – yet they are far from the only representations of religion in Midnight Mass. Flanagan gives us the zealot (the frustratingly evil Beverly Keane, played to perfection by Samantha Sloyan) and the outsider, the Muslim Sheriff Hassan (brilliantly portrayed by Rahul Kohli), who is constantly misnamed and misunderstood, often with blatant disregard and disdain for his religion and identity. There is horror in religion and Flanagan takes it a step further, offering us an allegory that might have even the most faithful questioning their faith.
Take this, all of you, and drink from it
Warning: Spoilers for Midnight Mass’ episode 3 twist below.
Technically, Midnight Mass is a story about vampires. Monsignor Pruitt, an elderly man well into senility, encounters a vampire while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Believing him to be an angel, he offers his body to him and is drained of his blood – but before he can die, the 'angel' lets him drink his blood, and his youth is restored. Pruitt returns to Crockett Island and calls himself Father Paul, adopting the guise of a temporary replacement for the Monsignor. Naturally, he brings the 'angel' with him, believing its power can bring miracles to the struggling island.
And for a while, it does. The blood of the 'angel' has restorative properties: it allows a paralyzed young woman to walk again, it ameliorates one fisherman's aching back, it slowly de-ages almost the entire island. But it also has consequences: it kills Erin's baby in utero, and it will turn anyone who drinks it into a vampire if they die after having ingested it. Once this happens to Father Paul, he has a revelation, believing the entire island must die and be reborn again in the image of this 'angel'.
To grab at the low-hanging (and potentially forbidden) fruit, Midnight Mass is quite simply a story about the dangers of drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid. Faith can provide hope to the hopeless and a path for the pathless, but organized religion can weaponize faith and religious zealotry can kill dozens. Flanagan has spoken openly about how Midnight Mass explores two of his biggest fears: religion and addiction. In Midnight Mass, the Catholic religion and addiction are interchangeable – Riley and Joe Collie may be the island's recovering alcoholics whose addictions caused them to seriously harm people, but it's the twisted machinations of a religious zealot that kills an entire town.
Midnight Mass is horrifying and tragic. It is uncomfortable and frustrating to watch. But it is, ultimately, a beautiful show, painting a breathtaking tableau of faith outside of religion and the power that faith can wield, especially in the face of death. Erin Greene's final monologue (there are a lot of monologues) suggests that death is simply a return to energy, to the atoms and electrons that exist within us and without us. We are one with everything around us, and we will exist after this version of us no longer exists. We are all a part of the same thing, we are all members of the same cosmos, united together: "Every plant, every animal, every atom, every star, every galaxy, all of it."