'Midnight Mass' is a masterpiece of cerebral entertainment, pondering the big questions of existence. And death.
Horror, very often, is not its own means to an end but a vehicle to deliver themes and underlying messages. We might look here to George Romero’s 1978 seminal classic Dawn of the Dead in the understanding that it was an attack on American consumerism possessing the population like a viral disease.
In fact, this pandemic dystopia setting was the choice I made as a vehicle to deliver my own philosophizing about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and other delights, in my fiction book series Survival of the Fittest. Sci-fi and horror, with the invention or breakdown of societies, allow creators to play around with big ideas with the most elbow room.
Mike Flanagan is a writer and director who has garnered a big following over recent years, with three series on Netflix being met with critical acclaim: the limited series Midnight Mass, and the first two in what looks to be a trilogy of haunted house series (The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor). Having just finished watching Midnight Mass, I felt compelled to write it up because, if you enjoy topics existence of God and miracles, the dangers of organized religion, biblical exegesis, morality, and suchlike—this series has an awful lot to offer.
What follows will contain spoilers, so take yourself off to watch the series and then come back to see if you agree. Or, if you have seen the show, please, do, carry on.
Done well, horror is not so much about the gore and visual effects as about foreboding and the insidious creeping sense of terror. Often, this is achieved with ideas. We know that Mike Flanagan is going to deliver the latter from the outset. The title sequence to the opening episode finishes with a silver Christian fish sign (ichthus) on black morphing into a Jesus fish car badge on the back of an expensive-looking convertible. This is going to get theological. Indeed, this series is laden with ideas.
The opening scene is one of a car crash where one of our main protagonists has crashed and killed a young woman in a drink-drive accident. A bruised and bloody Riley Flynn (played by Zach Gilford, and whom Flanagan sees as an avatar of himself), as he watches other paramedics lose the young woman into whom he has crashed, starts reciting the Lord’s prayer. Another paramedic attending to Riley interrupts him: “While you’re at it, ask him why he always takes the kids,” he says dabbing his brow, “and the drunk fucks walk away with scratches.”
And Neil Diamond plays on.
This excites me (while I like the inclusion of a decent soundtrack, I mean the God-talk). It’s what I write about and think about and record about day in, day out. The problem is, when we do see such arguments represented on our screens, it is so often lacking in nuance or written in ways that make you wonder really how much the writer knows about these ideas.
Flanagan clearly knows his oats. The series is not dripping with theological commentary and philosophical rumination, but rather, it is built on foundations of such; structured theologically, with each episode of seven named after books in the Bible, and with the epicenter of the story being the small, local Catholic church.
Flanagan grew up an altar boy in a small Catholic community, living for a time in Salem (which left its mark on him), and this is his opportunity to explore his journey and his experiences with religion. Horror plays second fiddle to philosophy.
The setting for Midnight Mass is a small fishing community of Crockett Island of 197 people, 30 miles from the coast, providing for a suitably isolated place (Flanagan’s father was in the Coast Guard and they lived on Governors Island in New York Harbor for some time). After Riley serves four years for his crime, he returns to the island home of his family. At the same time, a stand-in priest arrives to temporarily replace the elderly and mentally deteriorating Monsignor Pruitt, who had taken a trip to Jerusalem, paid for by the community. He was supposedly too ill to return to the job.
Already, hints of impending horror are given and the viewer recognizes that all is not right with this new priest. The viewer guesses the priest to be the villain of the story. Here, the viewer is as manipulated as the priest himself is—by his own desires, theology, religion, and religious community.
We later find out that while in the Jerusalem area, Pruitt had got lost in a sandstorm and happened upon a previously covered-over tomb-like cave. Inside, there was a winged demon (effectively an impressively creepy large naked vampire of sorts). The dementia-ridden priest interpreted this as an angel, and this was confirmed by him being attacked and the whole process leading to Monsignor Pruitt becoming rejuvenated to a younger version of himself. There is a kind of healing process involved in taking on the blood of this beast, which the beast knowingly feeds Pruitt to heal him of his degenerated state.
The now-young Pruitt returns to the island as Father Paul, with no one at first recognizing him, bringing the winged beast in a trunk.
And so we have the horror part of the series: a half-turned priest comes back to his island homeland full of the glory of God, with designs to bring his whole flock to this new level of union with God in eternal life. Oh, and he has a massive winged beast with him in tow.
But while some people might be turned off by the idea of same-old, same-old vampires and whatnot, when you watch this, this is not at all evidenced until halfway through the series, and it doesn’t feel like that at all. In fact, just using the word vampire isn’t quite right, or certainly doesn’t feel right.
The core plot mechanism is that Father Paul/Pruitt is feeding the beast’s blood in the communion wine to the congregation who then start experiencing miracles. This then brings more and more islanders back to the normally bare church as God is working through the priest to change the lives of the congregants. People don’t question, they just want to believe what they want to believe.
Some critics of Mike Flanagan’s work find his writing and directing ponderous. There isn’t enough action, not enough horror, and too much dialogue in stretched scenes.
Ponderous is exactly what it is, except in a good way. Flanagan ponders on ideas. He thinks about these difficult questions—these debates we have with others or ourselves—and plays them out between characters.
One scene I absolutely loved. Having just written an article here at OnlySky called “The argument against God from sporadic miracles,” I was truly excited to see it argued through the dialog of the Muslim police chief (the only policeman in the small community) who is angry with his son for wanting to jump on the miracle-working church bandwagon, to give up his Muslim faith and see what the fuss is about. The Sherriff’s son, Ali, is in awe at the “miracle” of a paraplegic classmate (Leeza) who can suddenly walk (as a result of the communion wine).
After mentioning misdiagnoses and potential explanations, the father brings into the conversation his late wife, Ali’s mother, who had recently died horribly from pancreatic cancer.
“If God really worked that way,” a tormented, anguished Hassan explains, “if he decided that he was gonna heal some people and not others, if he chose to spare some and not others, if he handed Leeza Scarborough a miracle but let a child die of a brain tumor across the way on the mainland… No, that’s not how it works, Ali. That’s not how God works. No matter how exciting the stories are at St Patrick’s, or the Buddhists, or Scientologists, it’s not magic. It’s not.”
The delivery of this not from an atheist but from a Muslim allows the point to find more purchase (this reminds me of Aaron Sorkin’s use of Jeff Daniels’s character in The Newsroom as being something of a Republican, allowing the criticisms of the right-wing politics to be seen more objectively rather than being merely partisan).
These are big ideas (please read my aforementioned piece to show what a strong argument it is that Hassan, or Flanagan, is tapping into) and I relished the opportunity to watch them being woven into a fictional horror-drama.
I also enjoyed the fact that some of the characters (the nonreligious doctor, in particular—being gay precludes her from true local church acceptance) explain how the beast’s blood might well work naturalistically. And very plausibly, too, meaning that the whole enterprise isn’t just a supernatural yarn. The beast and how the vampirism works can dovetail perfectly well with a naturalistic worldview. Perhaps it’s vamempiricism…
Throughout the series, Flanagan plays with so many philosophical ideas, sometimes as just an aside—a hat-tip—as in the moment when Sheriff Hassan is speaking in the same miracle discussion scene:
“I wanted to go to St Patrick’s this Sunday, just to check it out…,” says his son. “There’s no good reason not to.”
“There’s an excellent reason,” his father replies. “You’re not a Christian.”
“Well that wasn’t up to me, was it. None of this has been up to me. You didn’t ask me if I wanted to be a Muslim.”
This exchange invites thought about the whole idea of whether someone believes out of choice or just family obligation, whether minors or adolescents can really be described as “Christian” or “Muslim” or anything without full understanding, or without proper agency in their belief scenario.
Other notable themes that Flanagan deals with are forgiveness (woven throughout the episodes), addiction and the will, in-group and out-group identity and persecution (both in terms of the island, and Hassan’s experience as a Muslim police officer post-9/11), exegesis and interpretation, subjectivism and creating your own “truths” and narratives, church-state separation, and organized religion, as well as many others.
The true “bad guy” in the series is Bev Keane, played superbly by Samantha Sloyan—the ultra-conservative Catholic who is the church deacon and who helps at the island school. She is constantly justifying her insane actions, and those of the deluded rejuvenated Monsignor Pruitt (there is an interesting journey for the views in terms of how this character is seen), with reference to the Bible. She is the one driving through the terrible plan, more so than Pruitt.
What we learn is that a vampiric beast being an Angel of the Lord, doing prima facie horrible things, can be justified by Scripture. Quite easily. This is a neat little trick that Flanagan plays. The whole series, of what the beast and Pruitt and Keane end up doing plotwise, can be seen through exegetical lenses and a bizarre aspect of Catholic catechism. There are plenty of biblical quotes to back up Keane and Pruitt’s gross misunderstanding (or correct understanding!). The general resurrection of all the island is the intention of Pruitt and Keane as they infect everyone they can, making almost all of them drink the poison (harkening neatly back to the Jonestown Massacre Kool-Aid drinking that killed 909 cult members) so that they die to come back to eternal life, as Jesus did. But, instead, as vampire-like humans with an allergy to sunlight.
Religion can be used to justify terrible atrocities, this much is obvious from the actions of many characters. What might seem initially horrible can be understood as necessary for the greater good, according to those pushing their own religious agendas.
And these ideas aren’t handled with kid gloves. I genuinely believe that Flanagan has a great depth of knowledge of what he is discussing here, and what he is illuminating with his project. There is nuance, and some of these ancillary (though impactful) points aren’t labored or dwelt upon overly long, not rammed down your throat. They are highlighted, and the dwelling-upon is for you to do in your own time.
I could wax lyrical about many other philosophical nuggets (or perhaps “Easter Eggs” is a better term, given the Easter them of the entire show). But I want to talk about death.
One of the other most important scenes is the discussion about death between the two main characters in Episode 4. Riley Flynn recounts his atheistic version of what happens at death is touching and beautiful, and chimes entirely with my own views (paraphrased):
“When I die, my body stops functioning. Five minutes later, my brain cells start dying. But in the meantime, in between, maybe my brain releases a flood of DMT – the psychedelic drug released when we dream – so I dream. I dream bigger than I have ever dreamed before because it’s all of it. Just the last dump of DMT all at once, and my neurons are firing and I’m seeing this firework display of memories and imagination. My mind’s rifling through the memories, long and short term, and the dreams mix with the memories. And it’s a curtain call. One last great dream as my mind empties the fuckin’ missile silos, and then I stop. My brain activity ceases and there is nothing left of me. No pain, no memory, no awareness that I ever was. That I ever hurt someone. That I ever killed someone. Everything is as it was before me. All of the other little things that make me up – the microbes and bacterium and the billion other little things that live on my eyelashes and in my hair and in my mouth and on my skin and in my gut and everywhere else, they just keep on living and eating. And I’m serving a purpose. I’m feeding life and I’m broken apart and all the littlest pieces of me are just recycled and I’m billions of other places. And my atoms are in plants and bugs and animals, and I am like the stars that are in the sky. There one moment and then just scattered across the goddamn cosmos.”
Flynn’s account is countered by Kate Siegel’s character Erin Greene, who, with some communion “wine” in her, has just lost her pregnancy. She claims that death for the baby (“She only ever dreamed, she didn’t even have a name”) means the fetus is being taken to heaven, called back, past all the souls and the atmosphere, and into a bright light. Her lost soul wakes up for the first time, home, with family, alive now, “perfect” in her “body as it would have been on her best day on Earth, her perfect age, the peak of her self.” Erin explains how her daughter would be happy, in joy, loved, not alone, for all eternity.
“And that’s what we mean when we say heaven. No mansions, no rivers of diamonds, or fluffy clouds, or angel wings. You are loved and you aren’t alone. That is God. That is heaven. That is why we endure all that we endure on this big, blue, sad rock. I’ll be there soon enough when I’ll see my father, and my grandmother, and I’ll see my little girl where she’ll be happy and safe and I’ll be so glad to meet her.”
“I really hope you’re right,” Riley replies.
This scene is beautifully constructed, with touching music. And it really plays on the idea of the reality of naturalistic death and a lack of afterlife against the desires for what we want to be true. It is about how so many people construct an idea of heaven to be as this perfect ideal, as perfect as they could imagine, but perhaps just a result of wishful thinking. The believers watching that scene would have nodded their heads in agreement, taking from it what they wanted.
But this comes full circle. In the very last substantive scene, Erin Greene lies dying, accepting the fate that has befallen almost the entire island, soon to burn in the rising sun. And she recounts quite possibly the most moving and beautiful rendition of death I have seen on any screen. Actress Kate Siegel knew of this “bait-and-switch” twist scene early on due to her being Mike Flanagan’s wife. Perks of the job, I guess. But I meant she had time to prepare for the scene, the last to be filmed. But before we get to the final monologue, it is worth looking into the Erin-Riley relationship.
Back in an earlier episode, we are shocked when Riley Flynn, who looked to be the main protagonist and would potentially hook back up with Erin Greene, his childhood sweetheart, is attacked by the beast. This is all the more pertinent because, as an atheist not attending the masses, we expect him to be the non-communion-wine-drinking rationalist hero, escaping the mark of the beast. Here is a man who went to prison a Christian, but had a road to penitentiary moment, deconverting to rationalism after reading all of the holy books he could get his hands on.
But no. Flanagan plays merry havoc with our expectations.
Erin Greene had started as a childhood heathen when Flynn was an altar boy but had experienced abuse and a tough life, to return pregnant to the island and receive solace and comfort in the church. God gave her community and certainty where she had known trauma and uncertainty.
Kate Siegel explains the incredibly powerful scene (with The Wrap) where Flynn effectively commits suicide in front of Greene, on a rowing boat out to see as the sun rises:
Still, Siegel said that she had spent the weeks before production preparing for the scene with Gilford, Flanagan, executive producer Trevor Macy and cinematographer Michael Fimognari. “We all discussed how long it would take to burn a human body, which, you know, shout-out to my profession for great dinner conversation,” she said. “But it takes the human body a very long time to burn. And without getting too graphic, like, the smell of it, and the fact that it’s on her, she’s breathing it in. It’s a very, almost medieval, religious ceremony. Like, she is receiving the smoke of his essence. And I wanted that to be horrific, almost in a biblical sense, horrific. Because it took forever. And Mike, in his genius as the editor, he kind of let that play by letting the screaming go over the credits and by letting you know how long it’s taking.”
Her final monologue is a riff on the Jewish “I Am that I Am” phrase. We are left sometime before the end realizing that this isn’t going to be Father Paul versus Riley Flynn battle, that the heroes or survivors (there are only two) are those whom we were not expecting. Siegel continues:
What I love about that—and we all knew this, because when the project started, everyone had all seven scripts, as well—is we knew this show starts with white man versus white man. It’s Zach versus Hamish. It’s Father Paul versus Riley. And everyone thinks they know where the story is going. We know these two guys and good will triumph over evil. And then all of a sudden, one of them self-immolates and the other one gets shot in the head and you are left with your heroes being older women and the Muslim sheriff and the mixed-race daughter of the mayor.
As Erin Greene lies there dying, having “clipped the wings” of the beast (a great callback to a childhood experience of hers), she comes to her final realization about God, faith, and existence. Her words (together with the music, the story, and all the other dimensions playing with my senses and emotions) give an almightily moving moment becoming, for me at any rate, one of my favorite final scenes. And it all plays out initially to the hauntingly soft tinkering on the piano of “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord).” Greene recalls her conversation (or imagines a new one) with Riley about death, and replies to his question “And what do you think happens when we die?”:
Speaking for myself? Myself. Myself. That’s the problem. That’s the whole problem with the whole thing, that word, “self.” That’s not the word, that’s not right. How did I forget that?
I thought I’d despair or feel afraid, but I don’t feel any of that. Because I’m too busy in this moment remembering. Of course, I remember that every atom in my body was forged in a star. This matter, this body is mostly just empty space after all and solid matter? It’s just energy vibrating very slowly. And there is no me. There never was.
The electrons of my body mingle and dance with the elctrons of the ground below me and the air and I’m no longer breathing and I remember: There is no point where any of that ends and I begin. I remember I am energy, not memory, not self. My name, my personality, my choices, all came after me. I was before them and I will be after. And everything else is pictures picked up along the way. Fleeting little dreamlets printed on the tissue of my dying brain. And I am the lightning that jumps between. I am the energy firing the neurons. And I am returning. Just by remembering, I am returning home.
It’s like a drop of water falling back into the ocean, of which it’s always been a part. All things, a part: all of us, a part. You, me, and my little girl, and my mother, and my father, everyone who’s ever been, every plant, every animal, every atom, every star, every galaxy, all of it. More galaxies in the universe than grains of sand on the beach. That’s what we’re talking about when we say “God,” “The One”: The cosmos, and its infinite dreams. We are the cosmos dreaming of itself. It’s simply a dream that I think is my life every time. But I’ll forget this. I always do. I always forget my dreams.
But now, in this moment, I remember. The instant I remember, I comprehend everything at once. There is no time, there is no death, life is a dream. It’s a wish, made again and again and again and again and again and again and on into eternity.
And I am all of it. I am everything. I am all. I am that I am.
It’s a scene that demands to be watched again. And again. And again. Shed a tear. I did.
The very final scene is actually the so-far surviving, infected islanders, surrounded by flames of burning buildings preventing them from hiding from the rising sun, holding each other and singing a hymn as they embrace their oncoming fate of the bright morning light.
To me, this speaks of the comfort of belief, of religion, for those who wish to take it. Ultimately, it is meaningless—divorced from reality—but for those people, at that time, it is their reality that serves its purpose of comforting them, managing their terror of death.
There is much more I could say about the direction, the sets, the music, the island feel, the great acting from the whole cast (a special nod to Hamish Linklater as Father Paul/Monsignor Pruitt who is brilliant)… I could even gripe: There are initial issues with some character interactions and dialogue being overt opportunities for exposition, something that plagues many shows, and particularly movies (that aren’t allowed the time to develop stories but have to cram exposition into early scenes).
But, if you don’t mind a show that often entails long scenes of really meaningful dialogue, and yet can offer creepy scares as well, and if you like your viewing entertainment to be highly cerebral, then this is the show for you. And a number of those scenes really are truly memorable.
Midnight Mass comes highly recommended as a piece of work that deals with some of my favorite topic areas in a truly thoughtful and interesting way.
And it’s probably another really good reason to stay away from that communion wine.