Illustration by Ben Beechener
Depictions of religion are no stranger to the horror genre. It has long been a trope that demons, ghouls, vampires and the like are enemies of Christianity, as they cower away from the symbol of the cross. Equally, religion is sometimes presented as the true evil behind some horror films; one only has to think of Edward Woodward’s cries of agony during the climax of The Wicker Man, in which a cult of Pagans watch as he is burnt to death in the titular statue, regardless of his pleas to the Christian God. As much as I love The Wicker Man, it is understandable that many religious believers may take issue with its depiction of religion. Even though the protagonist is Christian himself, the film asks us to question his abrasive and judgmental treatment of those who fail to conform to his own set of values. Similarly, even when the cross is used as a symbol of hope and goodness against evil spirits, as in James Wan’s Conjuring films, it may seem difficult to overlook the way religion is seemingly trivialised to the point of being a MacGuffin that helps to save the day.
After watching Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass, out just in time for Halloween, I wanted to take the time to explain how exactly this series manages to avoid the tropes I have just mentioned, in favour of a thought-provoking storyline which manages to critique faith without ever disrespecting or patronising those by whom it is practised. This discussion necessarily entails the inclusion of spoilers, so I encourage you to go and watch the show before reading this. It’s worth it.
Midnight Mass follows the lives of the inhabitants of Crockett Island, following the arrival of a new priest, Father Paul Hill. Everyone on the island is Catholic, bar Sheriff Hassan and his son, two Muslims, as well as Riley Flynn, who has converted to atheism after killing a young woman in a drunk-driving collision. Soon after Father Paul embeds himself in the community, miracles begin to occur, the most notable of which is a paralysed girl regaining the ability to walk. It is ultimately revealed that these miracles have been caused by an ‘angel’ brought to the island by Father Paul, after he discovered it in the deserts near Jerusalem. He has been spiking the communion wine, from which the members of the Church each drink, with the blood of this ‘angel’, which he believes will help the members of Crockett Island attain salvation. What becomes obvious to the viewer is that this ‘angel’ is actually a vampire, which feeds on human blood and replaces it with its own to convert the human characters and it is this plot point which will likely be the cause of the most controversy in the Catholic community.
Before that, I want to tackle a criticism I have seen levelled at the series fairly often, which is that the characters failing to recognise that the ‘angel’ is a vampire strains believability, much in the same way horror fans are often frustrated when the characters in a zombie movie seem to have no awareness of what zombies are. This argument strikes me as one that likely comes from genre fans, who are either atheist or not strongly religious, as it misunderstands the extent to which some individuals can be devoted to their religion. Over the course of the series, Father Paul becomes a figure who the majority of the characters trust implicitly. He is kind to the islanders, regardless of their beliefs and even as an atheist viewer I found his sermons to be powerful and moving. Therefore, when miracles begin within his services, they are grateful, not sceptical. During the revelation of the vampiric ‘angel’ in the penultimate episode, he tells them of his own fear when he first encountered it, to counterbalance their initial shock, but reassures them that it is the source of the miraculous events that have occurred. Given how his arrival prompted the start of the Biblical miracles and their growing respect for Father Paul, it would strain believability more if the congregation suddenly stopped believing and labelled him as a heretic.
On the other hand, this risks presenting the Catholic characters as lapdogs who believe everything Father Paul tells them without question. Certainly, that is the impression the character of Bev Keene makes on the viewer, as she transforms into the true villain of the piece over the seven episodes. Bev feels like she has converted to Catholicism from the aforementioned Pagan cult in The Wicker Man, as she obsessively quotes the Bible to justify her increasingly horrific actions. By the final episode, when the majority of the islanders have become vampires, she becomes their leader – as Father Paul has realised the error of his ways – commanding them to kill anyone who refuses to change, as in her mind they have not been chosen by God. However, whilst this sort of religious zealotry has become a staple of the horror genre, Flanagan cleverly contrasts it with the actions of Riley’s parents. Annie Flynn, Riley’s mother, is shown to attend Church everyday throughout the series, just as often as Bev. Yet, when the vampiric conversions begin and Bev takes control, Annie recognises that this is not the work of her God, as it begets cruelty, not kindness. In one of the most powerful scenes of the series, she tells Bev that ‘God doesn’t love you more than anybody else’, a line which Flanagan uses to clarify that people like Bev are not truly representative of Christianity, no matter how much they claim to be. While he does highlight how certain people manipulate religion into an excuse for committing evil, Annie Flynn acts as the proof that Flanagan does not believe faith is rotten at its core.
This idea is also reflected in the presence of Riley as an atheist throughout the series. The danger of using a character as the voice of atheism is that they can sometimes seem to talk down to those who are religious. By having Riley be so close to Annie, however, this never becomes an issue. He may no longer be a Catholic, but he still agrees to accompany his family to Church every Sunday, at his mother’s request, continuing to support their beliefs, even when they greatly diverge from his own. Further still, when he debates the morality of religion with Father Paul, he never attempts to belittle the priest’s views, choosing to hear out an alternative perspective and understanding why it is many people hold faith. Again Flanagan balances his criticism of religion with respect for it, by creating an atheist character who is critical of faith without becoming condescending.
A final couple of characters I want to focus on are Sheriff Hassan and his son, Ali. As the only Muslims on the island, they spend the first half of the series struggling with being outsiders in a very close-knit community. Ali finds this particularly hard, as all of his friends from the school begin to talk of the miracles at Church, causing him to want to attend Catholic Mass. Any lesser writer may have used this plot point to present Sheriff Hassan as an overbearing father who is appalled by his son’s interest in another religion. Instead, Flanagan creates a believable father-figure, who supports his son’s decision to attend Mass, whilst also feeling saddened that the two are no longer able to pray together now Ali has turned to Catholicism. The only resistance he does show, is directed at Bev Keene’s attempts to indoctrinate the children at the island’s school where she works, by reading the Bible to them in lessons and giving them copies of it to take home. As it is a public school (the American equivalent of a state school), he is quite right that no form of religious ideology should be being forced on the children who go there. Erin Greene, the other Catholic teacher at the school, agrees with the point he makes, once more illustrating the difference between ordinary Catholics and Bev’s fanaticism. By having a Muslim character act as the voice of reason who is willing to risk being ostracized even further from the community and speak out against Bev, Flanagan makes clear that he is supportive of all religions, rather than simply advocating for atheism. He is never afraid to explore the problems religious beliefs can cause, but always clarifies that these are typically the work of individuals twisting said beliefs, rather than being the result of faith itself.
There are many more aspects of Midnight Mass relating to the theme of religion that I couldn’t fit into this article, which is a testament to how deftly and comprehensively Flanagan covers the subject. By making religion the core focus of the narrative, rather than a tool within it, he is able to avoid falling back on uninteresting horror tropes and craft a story that is truly unique. This series easily tops what I have seen from Flanagan before and I really hope it gets the attention it deserves.