Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass is a slow burn of zealotry, religious trauma, genuine faith, and the monsters we might become. The Netflix show is beautifully shot with shadowed nighttime sequences and haloed backlighting. The crux of the show, however, is its display of genuine and accurate Catholicism.
Roman Catholicism is the predominant faith used in religious horror. The universality of Catholic symbolism—such as rosaries, crucifixes, holy water, communion, and many others—make the juxtaposition of faith and fear very identifiable. There are countless tropes to play with in this genre. These horror films are inherently problematic, however, as they offer a sensationalized view of Catholicism that isn’t representative of the Catholic experience. It is unsurprising, considering the medium of film, but often disappointing.
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As a Catholic, I’m often annoyed by the representation of Catholicism and Catholic characters. Not because of their sins—perfect and holy characters have no room to grow—but because of the easily avoidable missteps and painfully twisted theology. The inverted cross, slowly turned by so many movie demons, is actually St. Peter’s Cross.
The dramatic and violent exorcisms in reality are quiet, deeply prayerful experiences that require months a of medical, psychological, and psychiatric testing before bringing in a priest. The Catholic Church investigates cases of alleged possession carefully. Real exorcists will tell you there is no head spinning, no climbing up the walls, no pea soup projectile vomit. Some iconography and sacramentals as a way to enforce their jump scares with little thought to the reverence attributed to these things by Catholics.
However, I was not disappointed by Midnight Mass. As an altar-boy-turned-atheist, Mike Flanagan leans into his Catholic roots and treats religion with thoughtfulness and respect.
If you haven’t watched Midnight Mass, go watch and come back. There are light spoilers ahead!
The inhabitants of Crocket Island, population 127, long to return to a simpler time when their fishing community thrived. Steeped in poverty and deep faith, they’ve sent their beloved Monsignor Pruitt on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Father Paul, a young, passionate priest with an intimate knowledge of the community, returns in his place. The episodes move slowly, building the characters and setting and mood. Then the miracles start happening. And they come with a steep price.
The trouble with Father Paul is that he seeks to end the suffering of his parishioners, which is contrary to Catholic theology. Catholics see the value in redemptive suffering. In Luke 22:42, Christ says “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.”
And that is the exact problem with Father Paul. The cup he accepts does not embrace suffering but removes it and inserts his will—and the will of his angel—above all else. Father Paul leads his flock astray and removes their agency, secretly dosing them with the so-called angel blood in the communion chalice. Though his intention is altruistic, his methodology is problematic and catastrophic.
However, Father Paul is offered a chance to redeem himself and atone for his sins. This felt very authentic, as Catholics put so much value in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and believe there is no sin too big for the love of God.
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Likewise, Flanagan’s depiction of sanctimonious and antagonistic Bev Keane strikes a chord. We’ve all known a Bev. Her faith is a weapon used to justify her own whims while condescending to everyone around her. Her casual cruelty is chilling in its honesty. She escalates the destruction of Crocket Island and relishes in the deaths of her congregation.
In the end, she meets judgment alone and with fear, despite her battle cry to “Let God sort them out.” This is contrary to Catholic theology, as we are called to fear sin, not death. Bev has a lot to fear.
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The truly virtuous—like the Flynns—are able to resist the call to blood and destruction. Though tempted, they reject sin as their friends and neighbors tear each other apart. The easy, instant gratification associated with the sins of the “blessed” inhabitants of Crocket settles and they each realize what they have done.
The sacrifices of the atheist Riley, domestic abuse survivor Erin, ex-Catholic lesbian Sarah, and Muslim Sheriff Hassan are not in vain. By preventing escape from the island, they save the whole world, at the cost of their own lives. The nature of their sacrificial love is aligned with Catholic teaching, made more beautiful by the diversity of their faith and complexity of their journeys. Catholicism does not guarantee goodness—thank you, Bev Keane—and a lack of Catholicism does not condemn. A person can be just as good—or bad—with or without religion or faith.
One of the most poignant parts of the series is its focus on the afterlife. Both Riley and Erin offer opposing viewpoints of what they believe comes next. Riley’s is atheistic and scientific—he is broken down piece by piece until he is one with the universe. Erin’s is a very Catholic heaven—a place of love and peace and warmth.
In their ends, they experience each other’s heavens. Riley is faced with forgiveness and love from the girl he killed and taken into the light. Erin experiences an expansion into the cosmos as her consciousness is taken into the universe. The juxtaposition and reversal of expectation is done so beautifully with a tenderness and gentleness toward the opposing beliefs which aren’t all that opposing, in the end.
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Midnight Mass is not made of jump scares and easy frights. It’s a horror of troubling intrigue that lingers long after the sun has come up and the final hymn has ended. It asks questions we don’t want the answers to and gives us endless possibilities to ponder. The dread settles in deep, and with it, a hope. Despite that intense and devastating ending, that last line delivers an aching blow of hope for the future. This is Mike Flanagan at his best.