Between The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, I have come to the conclusion that Mike Flanagan’s series are my comfort shows. I know a comfort show is supposed to be a “feel-good series that brings you to escape in a stressful time,” so choosing a series that plays into the darker sides of family dynamics and human emotions is kind of a strange pick. The reason I enjoy his miniseries is that Mike Flanagan has this ability to underlay major overarching themes that tie back into human nature. His newest project, Midnight Mass, is no different. By the time of writing this, I’m well into my third rewatch of the new Netflix series—it may be more by the time you are reading because there is just so much to unearth about this series that one viewing won’t be enough.
Warning, the following will have massive spoilers for Netflix’s Midnight Mass. I highly recommend going and experiencing this series yourself before continuing to read.
When the trailer dropped, I compared Midnight Mass to Stephen King’s Storm of the Century but I got it very wrong. Having watched it, I would say it’s more of a cross between The Exorcist 3 and Salem’s Lot. It’s a series that dives deep into the Catholic religion while providing a vampire story that is fresh to the genre.
I had been counting down the days till Mike Flanagan delivered his rendition of vampires, and when I finished Midnight Mass I was left with so much satisfaction with what he created. Nothing is ever straightforward with Flanagan. In The Haunting of Hill House, the real ghosts were the childhood traumas the adults had to process. Of course, his vampiric tale wouldn’t be a run-of-the-mill bloodsucking story. Instead, Mike Flanagan tells a slow-burning, cautionary tale on how humanity’s need to believe in a higher power can dangerously cloud their judgments.
Midnight Mass takes place in the small town of Crockett Island where Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returns home after being incarcerated for four years due to a drunk driving accident ending with the death of a young woman. While he is settling back into the isolated life of the island, a new priest has arrived by the name of Father Paul (Hamish Linklater). Soon the town, still struggling to come back from an onslaught of tragedies including an economic collapse after an oil spill and a tragic shooting accident that lands young Leeza Scarborough (Annarah Cymone) in a wheelchair, begins to exhibit “miracles.”
Leeza finds that she is able to walk again, inhabitants who once needed glasses or had back problems suddenly find that they are gone, and the elderly Mildred Gunning (Alex Essoe) is aging backward. Father Paul, with the help of the town’s evangelist, Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), pushes that these are blessings from God. Even when a sudden side effect for the good Father is craving for blood.
Faith is a powerful force that remains a mystery to humanity and yet it is ingrained into us from an early age. Not just religious faith. It could be the symbolism of flying a flag to show belief in your country or receiving a milestone chip for breaking an addiction. It’s the act of sending someone good vibes when something traumatic has happened. The wonderful thing about society is that there is so much out there that people believe in, and it should be okay too, so long as you don’t force others to say your faith is the superior one. With Midnight Mass we are shown how faith can be twisted, turning something that should be thought of as evil into something godly.
As with most small communities, the people of Crockett Island are centered mainly around their religious beliefs. The Catholic church, Saint Patrick’s, runs a mass every day (even though most people only attend on Sundays). It’s in charge of putting on the big gatherings, such as the Crock-Pot Luck festival on Ash Wednesday, and is the sanctuary during any disasters that may occur on the island. It also overshadows every decision made and easily influences its patrons.
Have you had that moment when your parent goes, “If Cindy (or whoever) jumped off the cliff, would you jump off?” and you would jokingly answer “yes” when you really know the answer would be “no”? Well, the trust that the townspeople of Crockett Island have in Saint Patrick’s would end with them saying “yes” and meaning it. This is exactly what happens when a majority of the churchgoers blindingly allow themselves to commit mass suicide in order to be resurrected as blood-thirsty creatures. The reason they are so susceptible to their faith is because of extremists like Bev Keane working high in the church and influencing others.
Bev gives The Mist’s Mrs. Carmody and possibly any of Stephen King’s religious fanatics a run for their money. She is that person who will shout obscure Bible verses at you because in her mind she is a saint that can do no wrong. The problem with having someone like Bev Keane around is that she is so toxic in her beliefs that it taints everything that happens in town. To her, Father Paul had been selected by God to be resurrected. She becomes so enthralled in worshiping him that when Father Paul yells at her that it was never about him but about God, she suddenly thinks of him as being a false apostle.
People like Bev Keane would usually think the things happening on Crockett Island were the work of witchcraft or the Devil. Instead, because it is happening to a priest, she doesn’t even question when she discovers a blood-covered Father Paul with the body of Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet), who he drank dry, lying on the floor of his home. She justifies it by saying Joe was a sinner and someone who had tainted the town with his sins, so basically Father Paul was doing pest control. She is so delusional in her own beliefs and interpretations of the Bible that she justifies all the carnage around her as being part of the events leading to Revelation’s.
She’s toxic to Crockett Island because she makes sure that people like Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) are kept at a certain distance, and can easily manipulate the higher-ups at church by twisting the meanings of passages.
Meanwhile Midnight Mass uses Sheriff Hassan, who is a practicing Muslim raising his son Ali (Rahul Abburi) to be the same, as social commentary to show how one’s faith can create bigotry towards others in a small community.
They moved to Crockett Island when Sheriff Hassan was demoted from an NYPD Detective after realizing he was being used to turn people on one another in Muslim neighborhoods. It’s a harsh reality for many Muslim Americans after the events of September 11, 2001. Media has created such a stigma for their culture, and one that I have seen play out. Having worked in two fast food places where there are a number of my coworkers who are from Pakistan and are practicing Muslims, I’ve seen how our customers treat them differently from myself. There are some who come in and refuse to think that these coworkers are higher up than I am in the chain of command. No matter who they are, they get treated like second-class citizens because of this stigma that’s been put on them and their culture. Sheriff Hassan makes multiple attempts to explain that his holy book, the Koran, is more peaceful than those who are arrogant choose to believe.
He fights the battle to gain trust and acceptance every moment of every day because he openly practices a religion that is usually followed shortly by the word “terrorist.” He shows respect for the Catholic community which surrounds him yet he constantly faces people attempting to convert him and his son. Having small-minded people like Bev make passive-aggressive comments about how he would probably have to be locked in a shelter with his Catholic neighbors (oh, the horror!) also doesn’t help in the equality department. It’s a dark reflection on modern society how Midnight Mass chooses to show people of color such as Leeza and her mother Mrs. Scarborough (Crystal Balint) being treated as equals among their community but because this man and his son believe differently they are less than.
None of what happens on Crockett Island would have come about if it hadn’t been for the elderly Monsignor Pruitt mistaking a monstrous creature as an angel because he gifted him with youth. His motives weren’t demonic when he decided to bring The Angel back to Crockett Island and pass himself off as Father Paul. He had watched as Mildred Gunning, the love of his life, was deteriorating from old age and wanted to give her the same gift he had received. When he saw the suffering from others in town he decided to play God and bless them as well by sneaking The Angel’s blood into the sacrament. That way their little flaws could be fixed.
Yet, because of Bev’s twisted words coaxing him, Father Paul fell darker and deeper into a place where he lost the fact that he wanted to help and instead wanted to create a holy uprising. He’s lost by the time Riley is accidentally turned after stumbling onto The Angel and finds himself telling Riley how he shows no remorse for the lives that he has taken.
Father Paul’s beacon of hope becomes a death shroud, which even Mildred realizes. She warns her daughter Sarah (Annabeth Gish), “That’s not the man I knew.” By the time of Easter Mass, his bloodthirst has twisted his faith into something so dark that the only thing eventually pulling him back was seeing Mildred shooting him in the head because she saw the monster he had become.
Although I’m not religious myself, I grew up with grandparents who were and I often found myself attending Sunday Mass with them to see what it was about. I also had to go to a free Bible camp offered by a local church every summer because according to my mother it “got us out of her hair for a few hours.” I’ve read and know a lot of the stories in the Bible and have found it interesting how different people interpret them. I’ve also read things involving other religions such as Buddhism, Wicca, and Judaism because it’s interesting to see the connections between them. I understand taking comfort in organized religion because it becomes a safe place, but I also can see how that environment can become toxic.
Riley began his life on Crockett Island and as a man of God. He was even an altar boy before he left. Yet, in the opening moments of Midnight Mass we are quick to discover how much Riley had become a “lost soul.” He goes from reciting the Lord’s Prayer on the side of the road while being patched up by the EMTs after he drunkenly crashes his car into a young woman, to having lost faith in the world around him and in himself. It might have started from the EMTs’ response of, “Ask him why he always takes the kids while the drunk f*cks walk away with scratches.”
Part of Riley’s journey to recovery is rediscovering a little faith in himself. Near the end of the first episode, Riley talks with Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), who had run away from her abusive mother and found her way back after leaving an abusive husband, about how his life has no purpose. She tells him to make it through one storm to see what comes next, and honestly, that is the best advice to give anyone who seems lost. Take it one moment at a time. Sometimes we need that reminder that it’s best to take it one moment at a time and opportunities will present themselves.
For Riley and Joe, the island drunk, it takes Father Paul conducting an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for them to reawaken a little faith in one another. Joe explains how Leeza had come and forgiven him, and Father Paul had forgiven him but he still couldn’t find the strength to forgive himself.
Father Paul coaxes Riley to open up to Joe because he’s really the only other person who understands the struggle he’s going through, which finds advice that Riley takes into himself: the act of showing up to a meeting is the beginning of forgiving oneself. That makes it harder to watch Riley when Joe goes missing and Riley believes he might have fallen off the wagon. It’s a crush to his new faith in overcoming his own addictions since he tells Father Paul that he wanted Joe of all people to make it. If Joe, a stubborn man who spends most of his life in the bottle to drink away all his troubles and guilt (he’s the one who put Leeza in a wheelchair) made it, then there might be hope for himself yet.
Like I’ve said, Mike Flanagan never gives us a straight story involving the horror genre. He’s able to craft a personal tale that weaves through many raw human emotions which draw you in and then intensify them with horror. It’s smart writing and crafting that I feel resonates with you more than your average slasher flick. I would spend hours after finishing one of his series just letting it sink in and evolve my way of looking at things. This is why I appreciate his work so much and always end up finding myself stumbling right back into the halls of Hill House or Bly Manor, and will probably come back for another stroll through Crockett Island in Midnight Mass, as I hope you do the same.