Midnight Mass is a limited horror series on Netflix that had me so obsessed that I had to write about it to stay sane. I found the show when seeking recommendations for something reminiscent of Stephen King, and this masterful story feels straight out of the man’s early work. It’s written by lifelong King reader Mike Flanagan, who has directed two King adaptations, but this show is Flanagan’s most personal creation. Midnight Mass is a mysterious and emotionally powerful story, which terrifies through its horror elements but also through its starkly honest portrayal of Christian faith and folly.

The show takes place in the sleepy community of Crockett Island, population 127. Crockett is a dying town, reeling from a recent oil spill that decimated the livelihoods of the local fishermen. Residents have been moving away without even listing their homes for sale. “This isn’t a community anymore,” one character laments. “It’s a ghost.”

But the show begins with a few rare arrivals to the island. Riley Flynn returns to his hometown on parole after a drunk driving conviction. Facing tension with his devout parents after admitting his newfound atheism, Riley struggles with having purpose in this new stage of life. He reconnects with Erin Greene, an old friend who has also arrived after a long absence.

At the center of the story is St. Peter’s, the local parish. A young new priest, Father Paul, has brought an energy and vigor to a community desperate for hope. Riley’s parents bring him along to mass, where they’re joined by Erin and half of the sleepy yet faithful town.

“Even out of blackness, love rises again,” Father Paul promises the congregation on Ash Wednesday. “Even out of sin. And this island, it will rise again. Even out of disaster: rebirth, restoration. Eternal life.” At the same time, strange things start happening both inside and outside the parish walls. There is something dark afoot on Crockett Island, even in the midst of a seeming revival.

Regardless of genre, the first few episodes of Midnight Mass are an honest and lovely portrait of a faith community. It lingers on the rituals and beliefs of its Christian characters—hymn singing, prayer, communion—with a curiosity I rarely see from modern media.

But the show doesn’t shy away from depicting the darker sides of the church. We see the self-righteous spinster casting judgment on all she believes fall short; the stubbornly positive believers, like Riley’s parents, unwilling to face the hard truths around them; the Muslim sheriff enduring the suspicious stares of the townspeople.

The setting and characters of Midnight Mass are so colorfully painted, so similar to my own small-town Christian upbringing, that I became more invested in the show than in any I’ve watched in years. And I forgot, at first, that this is a horror story.

Still, Flanagan shows his horror expertise as he subtly builds up the feeling of unease through long takes and camerawork that’s ever-so-slightly unsteady. Award-winning sound design, which contrasts choral performances of beloved hymns like “Nearer my God to Thee” with creepy string beats, add to the unsettling tone. Crockett’s location in time and place is alluded to only vaguely, adding to the sense of isolation and a strangely universal feeling of the story’s events.

Giving more detail about what genre of horror the show is would be giving too much away. It’s best not to read up on the story, lest later reveals be spoiled. I will say that the horror is of a deeply religious sort—though not satanism or demons, which are topics I tend to avoid. Midnight Mass is dark, but I believe its message is important.

Whether good can emerge out of darkness is one of the central questions raised by the show in its exploration of suffering and God, death and resurrection. Not since True Detective or Fargo have I seen a series give such serious treatment to characters discussing their philosophies and beliefs. Two characters of differing faiths describe at length what they imagine will happen when they die. An extended scene depicts Riley and Father Paul debating whether suffering can be redeemed.

“God can take that pain and turn it into something good, something with purpose,” Father Paul asserts gently. “What’s more empowering than that?”

Riley disagrees. “There’s this higher power who could erase all that pain, make it all go away, but doesn’t? No thank you,” he insists. “The only fucking thing that lets people stand by and watch all this suffering, doing nothing…is the idea that suffering can be a gift from God.”

This crucial discussion and a few others set up the themes for the show. A congregant and the priest consider the period on the liturgical calendar called “ordinary time.” A recovering alcoholic states that in the road to recovery, he is his own higher power. The show hinges on the questions raised by these conversations: is our suffering and our sin ordinary or ordained? Do we look to God’s grace to help us face responsibility for our sins or to avoid it?

This show is not for the faint of faith or delicate of heart. There are plenty of disturbing moments—both horror-wise and faith-wise, as sacred elements of Christian faith become perverted by an encroaching evil. Many Christians I know would be deeply bothered watching Midnight Mass. But the show is a necessary skewering of how easy it can be for an earnest Christian community to be infiltrated by something monstrous.

This twisting of Christian faith is something I see a lot in the news, and I’ve even written about it in the context of horror stories before. The congregants on Crockett Island go to frightening lengths to manifest signs of their own faith, but how different are they from the modern-day “prophets” predicting political upheaval with increasing desperation? The show’s Christians use Scripture to justify evil, much like modern-day politicians do, and they hide abuse, just as we see happening in the wider American and global church.

Midnight Mass is a cautionary tale about the dangers of believing you are listening to God when really it is your own guidance you’re taking—when you are, unknowingly, your own higher power.

Skeptics might see this show as a takedown of religion as a whole, but I think it’s more complex than that. Director Mike Flanagan was an altar boy for twelve years, and though he admits to having had anger towards the faith he no longer practices, he insists he needed to move past that anger in order to make this show. Too many of the Midnight Mass’s believing characters see past the evil for truth, too many demonstrate a humble and uncorrupted faith, for this show to be a simple anti-Christian treatise. Flanagan paints with a careful brush, showing the good and the bad of a faith he’s both resented and loved.

This show came out in 2021, so I’m a little late to the party. It’s been nominated for and won several awards, and I wish I could give every trophy under the sun to Hamish Linklatter for his stunning performance as the gentle yet charismatic priest. If you’re brave enough to watch a series that pushes Christians to consider the sacrifices we are willing to make to bring God nearer, then I encourage you to be challenged by Midnight Mass.

1 Comment

  1. Geneva Langeland

    I was haunted (in the best way) by this show last winter. Incredible acting, story, twists, and deeper philosophies to ponder.

    Reply

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