A version of this article appeared first on the author’s website. TGC reviews media that are not suitable for everyone. To help readers make wise viewing decisions, we recommend reading “Should I Watch This?” and checking out a content guide (such as this one for TV-MA-rated Midnight Mass).
This review contains major spoilers.
Even the best of sermons miss their mark when too long-winded. Make no mistake, Midnight Mass, the latest horror series from director Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House), is both a sermon and long-winded. However, the punch line to this cinematic polemic is more about gauzy postmodern logic than anything with theological bite.
Some have described the new Netflix miniseries—centered on St. Patrick’s Church, a small Catholic church on sparsely populated Crockett Island—as “Catholic horror at its best.” Although the captivating story is infused with Christian imagery, hymns, liturgy, and vestments, the gospel that comes through is decidedly secular—and ultimately hopeless. Capturing the mood of deconstruction and “spiritual but not religious” anti-institutionalism, Midnight Mass turns the accoutrements of religion into props in a horror show—suggesting (rather unsubtly) that the Christian church has been a contagion of evil and death far more than an agent of healing and a herald of good news.
Certainly horrors have been perpetuated in Christ’s name throughout Christian history and still today. Christians should own this and repent. But the most horrifying takeaway from Midnight Mass is not that the church is often full of villains, charlatans, and abusers. No, the true horror is that a worldview without God means such evildoers have no ultimate comeuppance.
The arrival of Fr. Paul (Hamish Linklater) as St. Patrick’s new priest sets the story in motion. Linklater gives a compelling performance as a charismatic but darkly duplicitous figure. Running cover for Fr. Paul is Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), an incarnation of Mrs. Carmody, the rabid fundamentalist of Stephen King’s The Mist. Such caricatures are common in film and Bev Keane fills the “religious zealot villain” stereotype admirably, protecting Fr. Paul’s sinister ministrations, framing Muslims as terrorists, and quoting Bible verses to suit her apocalyptic paranoia. But when miracles follow Fr. Paul’s arrival (healings and recoveries), the entire town is prompted to give heed to his (and Keane’s) zealotry.
The revelation of these miracles’ source (episodes 3–4) is not that God, Fr. Paul, or Bev Keane are actually behind this “revival.” You see, the good priest was previously a senile, dementia-addled cleric who encountered a gaunt, leathery, blood-sucking angel in the Holy Land. Revitalized from drinking the wraith’s blood, Fr. Paul brings the winged creature back to Crockett Island in hopes of baptizing a flock of revenants like himself and creating an “army of the Lord.” St. Patrick’s becomes the vehicle to spread this new “gospel,” while the defiled Eucharist, spiked now with the blood of the “infected,” is the contagion.
As troublesome as the imagery of the profaned sacraments is, it’s the series’ religious implications that I found most problematic.
Flanagan has been up front about his unsettled Catholic childhood and subsequent religious quest. His philosophical conclusions permeate Midnight Mass. In this essay, the director describes his journey away from religion:
I read the Bible. And then I kept reading. If I was going to look for God, I was going to look everywhere. I devoted myself to studying Judaism. Hinduism. Islam. I connected pretty intensely with Buddhism for a few years in there, even seeking out temples in Los Angeles as I tried to further explore it, but ultimately the book that impacted me the most was God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. That led to Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. But I found more spiritual resonance reading Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan than I found in two decades of Bible study.
The perspectives of atheists Hitchens, Harris, and Sagan—all hostile to historic Christianity—led Flanagan to a new conclusion on religion:
My feelings about religion were very complicated. I was fascinated, but angry. Looking at various religions, I was moved and amazed by their propensity for forgiveness and faith, but horrified by their exclusionism, tribalism, and tendency toward fanaticism and fundamentalism. I found a lot of these various religions’ ideas to be inspiring and beautiful, but I also found their corruptions to be grotesque and unforgivable. I wasn’t going to support those kinds of institutions any longer. I was only interested in humanism, rationalism, science . . . and empathy.
This disconnect between the “inspiring and beautiful” elements of religion and its “tendency toward fanaticism and fundamentalism” is the thematic heart of Midnight Mass.
To Flanagan’s credit, many of the congregants of St. Patrick’s are portrayed as good people simply being led astray by corrupt shepherds. Yet some reviewers rightly recognize that “Midnight Mass can be read as a pretty sharp commentary on organized religion, Christianity in particular.” Both the “dark angel” and the “thirst” it imparts are fictional springboards to embody the perverse machinations of religious charlatans and the dangerous zealotry they can inspire. One writer described the series as using horror “to explore the dark role religion can play in the lives of working-class people.” Another reviewer notes that Midnight Mass mines “the idea that the Bible truly is a horror story.”
Unsurprisingly, the non-Christian characters in Midnight Mass are some of the most spiritually lucid and heroic. Both atheist Riley (Zach Gilford) and the Muslim town sheriff (Rahul Kohli) have lengthy monologues about religion, philosophy, human suffering, addiction, xenophobia, and the afterlife. Drawn-out, didactic soliloquies are par for the course in this series. While it does give characters an opportunity for depth, it also instrumentalizes them as channeling the director’s existential explorations. This is something Flanagan corroborates:
Religion, I believe, is one of the ways we attempt to answer the two Great Questions that ache within us all: “how shall we live,” and “what happens when we die.” I don’t know the answer to the second question (although my thoughts, wishes, and even my best guess are articulated in this show), but Midnight Mass has, over the years, helped me at least begin to answer that first question.
While Flanagan takes clear aim at the ills of Christianity, belief systems like atheism and Islam get a pass. One reviewer even notes how Sheriff Hassan “is one of the few people [in the series] who is lifted as model for how religious devotion can be positive.”
Meanwhile, nonsensical pantheistic orations are offered as the show’s final word on spiritual truth. Consider the final speech of heroine Erin (Kate Siegel), who by the show’s end appears to give up her Christian faith and instead embrace a sort of hallowed naturalism. Here’s where she lands on the question of what happens at the moment of death:
Every atom in my body was forged in a star. This matter, this body, is mostly just empty space. After all, solid matter is just energy vibrating very slowly, and there is no me. There never was. The electrons of my body mingle and dance with the electrons of the ground below me and the air. I’m no longer breathing. And I remember, there is no point to where any of that ends and I begin. I remember that I am energy, not memory. My name, my personality, my choices, all came after me. I was before them and I will be after. Everything else is pictures picked up along the way. Fleeting little dreamlets imprinted upon the tissue of my dying brain. And I am the lightning that jumps between, the energy-firing neurons. And I am returning. Just by remembering I am returning home. It’s like a drop of water falling back into the ocean. Of which I’ve always been a part. All of us, a part. You, me, my mother and my father, every one who’s ever been. Every plant, every animal, every atom. Every star. Every galaxy. All of it. We’re galaxies in the universe, grains of sand on the beach. And that’s what we’re talking about when we say God . . . We are that cosmos that dreams of itself. It’s a simple dream that I think is my life every time . . . It’s all one. I am everything. I am the ground beneath me. I am my little girl. I am my mother. I am Fr. Paul and this miracle. We are all of the same thing.
Erin concludes this meandering reverie with a blasphemous phrase: “I am that I am.” Those familiar with Scripture will recognize this as a phrase used by Christ about himself (John 8:58) and Yahweh (Exod. 3:14). The fact that Erin uses this biblical phrase to describe her infinite self is indicative of Flanagan’s reckless application of Scripture and the postmodern mashup of beliefs that form the scaffold of this rickety worldview.
By the end of the seven-episode series, Flanagan’s post-Christian cocktail of incoherent beliefs reaches an inevitably incoherent climax. For as much as the show develops the concept of evil and portrays wicked characters truly deserving of judgment (namely Bev Keane), the “we are all of the same thing” worldview leads to a deeply unsatisfying ending in which salvation is extended to all and the exact same end befalls the virtuous and the wicked.
For as much as the show develops the concept of evil and portrays wicked characters truly deserving of judgment, the ‘we are all of the same thing’ worldview leads to a deeply unsatisfying ending.
As the sun rises upon the island, the infected inhabitants march forward singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” while turning to ash in the glorious dawn light. They are now one with the cosmos, returning to pure energy; all their memories but “fleeting little dreamlets imprinted upon the tissue of [a] dying brain.”
Flanagan summarizes his “greatest commandment” this way:
For most of this project, there was a preoccupation that I had with what happens after we die. What is the correct answer? How do we answer that question in life?” he explains. “I think it took me until very recently, until the last real swing at this [script] to realize that doesn’t matter, so much as the question about what we do when we’re alive. . . . The only thing that matters is how that belief changes our behavior toward each other while we’re alive (italics mine).
In the end, be good to each other. Whether atheist or Muslim or Catholic, whether vampire or human, “The only thing that matters is . . . our behavior toward each other while we’re alive.”
In this, the salvation Flanagan offers is toothless. “Be good to each other” sounds nice as a mantra for life, but it’s an empty platitude if the ultimate end for all humans—whether “good people” or monsters—is the same: evaporating into the great cosmic void. Unlike Jesus, who made sharp religious claims and warned of consequences for those who did not believe, the message of Midnight Mass is simply, “Don’t be a monster.” But why not? In Flanagan’s view, no matter what you choose to believe—or what good or evil actions you take in life—we all end exactly where we began, as stardust, “like a drop of water falling back into the ocean.”
That, my friends, is the real horror.