After a busy year, I wanted to take the time to examine a show that really caught my attention.
Midnight Mass may be one of my favorite shows in recent years, which is no surprise considering it came from Mike Flanagan. The show that first brought this creator to my attention was the 2018 Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. Flanagan has had a consistent run of excellent projects that are full of deep characters, genuine scares, and very deliberate pacing. While this particular style may not be for everyone, I’ve really found myself enthralled by his specific brand of storytelling. If you haven't yet seen the show, proceed with caution as there are spoilers ahead.
Loneliness of Death
The story of Midnight Mass starts on a deeply personal note, when we see the main character Riley Flynn in the aftermath of a drunk driving accident that takes the life of a young girl, while he survived with nothing but scratches. Sentenced to four years in prison, we watch Riley’s nightly struggle with his personal demons that take the form of seeing the young girl staring at him while he tries to sleep. When he eventually does fall asleep, he dreams of being alone in a row boat in an endless sea awaiting a sunrise that never comes. The deeply metaphorical imagery is haunting in ways that are rooted in such human emotions that they scared me worse than any cheap jump scare ever could have. The fear of being alienated by the mistakes you’ve made is deeply harrowing in a way a loud noise just can’t compete with. Not only is Riley alienated by his peers, but he feels such a profound emptiness in life after his time in prison. No longer does he find comfort in religion, nor any purpose in life itself. Losing his status on the mainland and dragging his parents into debt to repay his restitution to the family of the young girl he killed, Riley simply can’t escape his past yet also sees no future for himself.
Loneliness becomes the main driving force of the story as every character in some way struggles with their own form of isolation. Death brings more than the fear of physical loss, but instead the disappearance of identity itself. Who are we as people after experiencing death in its many forms? The shows many character's, in one way or another, struggle with this deeply human experience.
One of my favorite characters was Rahul Kahli’s Sherriff Hassan. Out of all the strong characters, his story is the most captivating to me. Being an outsider who is not a traditional Christian in a post 9/11 world on a predominantly white Christian island community, he never feels accepted properly by all members of the faith. Especially Beverly Keene, who barely even tries to hide her bitter racism behind her faith. Being a single father to a teenager, who is himself looking for acceptance from his peers while trying to also maintain his own faith and instilling those beliefs in his son, sheriff Hassan grows to be a very rich character in a cast of characters who all feel great in their own ways. His son, feeling as though no choices in life have been his own, craves to make his own identity in life.
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The creature itself is a very loving nod to the H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King style of horror, relying very little on concrete explanations and allowing the viewers to come to their own conclusions about what it could be. Seemingly it is a vampire, but all we’re told is that father Pruitt accidentally found it while walking the path of God in Jerusalem. It was found by accident during a sandstorm that just so happened to uncover the ruins where the creature resided. How it got there, how long it’s been there, or even how it survived, are never answered because they aren’t answers we need. Allowing the mystery to remain unanswered made for a far more interesting story. You don’t spend time explaining away the horror, you experience it. The lack of understanding gave the story a sense of cosmic horror that respects the audience enough to allow them to come to their own conclusions.
The dread was accompanied by the stories profound sense of loneliness, and the town's slow descent into madness as they unknowingly become a cult. Father Paul comes to the island under the ruse that his attendance is only temporary, and that Pruitt will be returning after a hospital stay in the main land. The façade begins to fade as his own ego starts to inflate, and he slowly changes the people of Crockett Island into vampire-like creatures without their knowledge. Like any cult leader, he is a well-spoken, smart, and driven man, preying on the weakness of those around him for his own gain. He believes that God would want him to spread this blessing, so he chooses to do so slowly. At first the young wheelchair-bound girl can suddenly begin to walk again at Father Paul’s behest, and slowly everyone in town seems to heal from any ailments, injuries, and escape the unforgiving hands of time. While the town believes it to be miracles bestowed upon them from God, in reality we learn that Paul had been using the blood of the creature to quietly infect the townsfolk.
The blood heals the body, but it changes the host into a vampire as well. It's hard to know how the creature got to look how it does, because when it infects someone, their body reverts back to its prime state of being as they grow younger and healthier. Yet it appears that if they die, they come back to life with a hunger for blood they can not control. The exact process is never explained, yet Paul is willfully ignorant of this fact because of his reverence for the creature and the changes it bestowed upon his flock. To him the creature is an Angel sent from God, and it is his job to spread to gospel as far as possible. For Paul, the blood lust and aversion to sunlight are just small burdens for their immortality.
Religion plays a very integral part of the story. While it is never portrayed as evil, it is perverted by the villains to fit their own sense of purpose and personal vision of Christianity. Pruitt and Beverly Keene see the creature as a means to their own ends, while at first being of a similar mindset, Beverly becomes far more insidious than Pruitt. Pruitt, in his own twisted way, believed he was helping bring his flock closer to god, while Beverly slowly incites the madness that causes the islands downfall simply to do so. The first truly evil act we see is when Beverly poisons Joe Collie's dog out of a hatred for Joe and her fear of the dog. This single evil action gives Beverly a twisted sense of righteousness and begins her descent into villainy. The dog was something of a trial for Beverly, as if she could kill a being she perceived as "lesser" or "below" herself, why couldn't she turn that anger towards other human beings. Starting by poisoning the island rats, then the dog, and eventually Father Paul and the entire town.
After seeing how influential and welcomed Father Paul is in the community, Beverly becomes jealous. How could someone so new to the community garner so much more respect than a faithful member of the community who's always been there? To Beverly this is unacceptable, and she wants to be the only voice of Father Pruitt and god on the island. It's not until after she poisons Father Paul that she learns he and Pruitt are one in the same. After his rebirth at the hands of Beverly, Pruitt reveals the truth to small group of trusted acolytes, starting the change into a cult. By the end we see the entire town willingly poison themselves at the behest of Pruitt and Beverly. Where Pruitt realizes the error of his ways, and chooses to attempt to stop the violence and separation, Beverly chooses to further incite it by burning all other buildings except the church and the rec center. For Beverly, religion is about power over the masses, yet in his own distorted way, Pruitt sees religion as empowering to the masses. Pruitt had nothing but good intentions, while the outright evil acts were either influenced by or perpetrated by Beverly. What Pruitt did was wrong by all accounts, but he never acted out of malice as Beverly so often does in the show.
While I didn't intend to make this article the most thorough look at the show, I still wanted to highlight the aspects that really grabbed me in the end. In the past few years, Mike Flannagan has created a body of work that connects horror to strong emotions in order to make deeply moving fiction. I hope this show allows Flannagan to create more original stories in the future, and I look forward to what else may come from the creator. The show's examination of existential dread through the lens of the flawed humans at the heart of the story creates a work of fiction that is so heavily rooted in real emotions while balancing a supernatural horror story.