Midnight Mass & The Power of One’s Personal Hell
Spoilers for Netflix’s Midnight Mass
Director Willaim Friedkin and Willaim Peter Blatty back during the early 1970s adapted Blatty’s best-selling horror novel The Exorcist, which upon adaptation became one of the most notable pieces of horror at the time, even garnering attention from journalists such as Roger Ebert and Stanley Kauffman. With such attention on The Exorcist, there was bound to be a spark in the Horror genre, and a spark did occur. Catholic Horror has become a common staple in the genre for as long as many can remember. There have been a multitude of horror films that have been inspired by The Exorcist and more to come.
There is a deep morally conflicting mindset created within Catholic horror, either the storytellers express the idea that the Catholic Church is evil or they create a concept that the Church is a god-like force sent to help others in times of evil, there has been no further exploration of the common trope up until Midnight Mass (not to be confused with 2003s vampire story Midnight Mass), a Netflix horror mini-series released early in October by Mike Flanagan and starring his wife Kate Siegel, Rahul Kohli, Zach Gilford, Hamish Linklater, and many other talented actors. Flanagan has been known for exploring humanity inside of his stories more often than naught, the natural evolution to touching Catholic horror was something to be expected especially due to the deep personal connections inside of Midnight Mass.
The story and characters of Midnight Mass hold things very dear to the creator himself but also the audience and the personal story of characters such as Riley Flynn (played by Zach Gilford) is something saddening to watch unfold yet beautiful all at once, the series begins with Riley sobering up as he prays over the body of a teenage girl he hit with his car during a drunk driving incident.
During a guest piece for Bloody Disgusting, Flanagan expressed how much the character of Riley Flynn is to himself. A self-insert that struggled with alcoholism, beliefs, and a battle with his overall self that can be seen throughout Midnight Mass. Through these characters and narrative, we’re witness to a haunting tale that has followed Flanagan. The levels of comforting and uncomfortable bouts of relatability infect viewers who have grown up in or around catholic circles of America, the fictitious denizens of Crockett Island that Flanagan has created could very well be someone you know or used to know.
With the deep emotional writing and the powerful execution, it’s easy to tell how much this story means to Flanagan and why it’s such a turning point in Catholic Horror. Flanagan’s emotional and personal writing helps this type of horror narrative grow up and break up from its shackles in an attempt to explore other ideas within this specific subgenre. Without emotion, Horror is essentially lost within itself. Characters such as Bev Keane or Joe Collie would not have room to fit in a traditional Catholic Horror story as they do in Midnight Mass.
Speaking of Joe Collie and Bev Keane, they are the other principal pieces of the puzzle in Flanagan’s storytelling, Joe Collie is a man who accidentally paralyzed town favorite Leeza during a hunting trip. Joe is ashamed of what he’s done and resorts to drinking as a way to cope while individuals such as Bev Keane judge him and mock him for something he visibly regrets. The things these characters do to each other feel uncomfortably real despite the vampiric nature ever haunting the newly arrived Father Paul (Linklater’s character) and Crockett Island. We begin to see that even if we didn’t have the major horror iconography of vampires, there’s an absolute vision of horror in how the town and the people who live within it hurt one another.
Many of the deepest and most personal pieces of the story come from Hamish Linklater’s charming character Father Paul Hill. His storyline showcases the deep personal connection within the story as he is Flanagan’s recreation of his former priests. In episode three of the mini-series, we learn that Father Paul is the original priest of Crockett Island: Monsieur Pruitt. He lied to the island saying that “he had fallen ill” when he had met an ‘Angel’ who had restored his youth to him. In some ways, even if Pruitt’s actions were destructive they fit into the accidental chaos unfolding as in The Bible, Cherubs and Angels are depicted as strange and unusual creatures. Biblical Cherubs even share the amalgamated appearance of birds, lions, humans, and other creatures. To see a creature as horrifying as the ‘Angel’ would be a gift from God to a devoted priest.
In terms of realizing that the vampiric beast we see in Midnight Mass was never an Angel isn’t because of the ghoulish and downright haunting design, it’s because it never speaks. In biblical stories, an Angel is so strange in appearance that the holy figure says “Fear not, for I am an Angel of the lord.” The general silence from the ‘Angel’ in the series is still one of the scariest aspects of that creature and, ultimately, crafts it as something to be feared.
Silence is something preferably avoidable within Catholic settings, singing hymns as loud as you could is a way you show your devotion to god either as a part of the choir or a part of the many pews. In some aspects there would be no way you could truly make the idea of singing hymns terrifying, the only reason it became terrifying in Midnight Mass is due to the massive dread pouring into each verse as Pruitt, Keane, and the Angel take more and more of the island.
Midnight Mass is a personal hell. It exists as one for the creator and becomes one for the viewers, the story tackles things the creator and the audience wonders all the time whether it be if God is real or what happens after death, there is no way to escape the true fate of the world when you find out the real answer to it.
Due to this, Flanagan’s relatability, biblical references, and his horrifying characters are the reason why Religious horror is bound for a strong change sometime in the future. Without the ability to experience religious horror and horror in general in this sea of emotional drive, then the genre would not survive. Horror is a creative piece that takes your emotions and life experiences only to show to you what you’re truly scared of in life. The monster in your story could be a vampire, a recreation of your trauma, or simply a haunting doll, but in the end, it is part of you, that monster is your personal hell to conquer.
If you’d like to read more of Piper’s work, you can find it here!