Netflix’s latest horror series conveys a certain kind of Catholicism perfectly.
Hamish Linklater as Father Paul in episode 3 of Midnight Mass. (Courtesy of Netflix © 2021)
A few years ago I was delighted to see that Netflix was releasing a miniseries adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, a fine work of horror by one of New England’s great late Gothic writers. Until that point, I had been aware only of a laughable film version starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Owen Wilson that had come out the year I was born (there is, I later learned, a classic ’63 version that puts both later attempts to shame). As it turned out, Netflix’s adaptation shared virtually nothing with Shirley Jackson’s novel save the title. It was an okay show, scary enough and visually compelling; but it was not The Haunting of Hill House.
Just last year, the creator of the Netflix miniseries teamed up with much of the Hill House team to craft another classic horror adaptation: The Haunting of Bly Manor, based loosely on Henry James’s 1898 masterpiece The Turn of the Screw. Again, it was fine, but even less adequate than Hill House. Much less scary, and the lesbian subplot here was even more heavy-handed.
This fall, Mike Flanagan and co. got one last shot at getting in my good graces with Midnight Mass, a seven-part original story of miracles and massacres in a small, Catholic fishing village on fictional Crockett Island.
Three strikes, Mike.
Midnight Mass is the worst-crafted of Flanagan’s Netflix trio by a long shot. Part of the show’s central conceit is that elderly characters eventually become young again (spoiler alert: they’re turning into vampires). One of the main characters begins as an elderly woman with dementia and ends as a plucky heroine. Rather than hiring multiple actors, the showrunners inexplicably cast a single 29-year-old and slapped on half-assed makeup to convince us she was half a century older than she is. (This is done with at least one other character, too, but not nearly as poorly.)
Mostly, though, the problems are with the writing, which is almost exclusively stilted and artificial. Take, as my favorite example, Canadian actress Kristin Lehman swinging and missing at a folksy American accent while waving a coffee cup around like a lunatic in the middle of episode one:
I mean, I thought the environmentalists were on our side. These limits, these retention limits, going on about population decline, and suddenly there’s a limit—not for the oil company, for us, for the boats. We can only catch as much as they say? But they’ve never been watermen—never worked these waters. I mean, you want to talk population decline, let’s talk about the people—the people on this island. We used to be hundreds. Now we’re just dozens. This isn’t a community anymore, honey. It’s a ghost.
Nobody talks like this. Nobody. Flanagan’s faux-sympathetic fisherman populism sits on the exact same level as Billy Joel’s “Downeaster ‘Alexa.’”
More important than the fumbled execution, though, is the substance of the show. Much has been made in the media coverage of Flanagan’s Catholic upbringing. He was an altar boy before becoming an atheist, and his modest familiarity with Catholic life and ritual is clear. There are some major gaffes—a Mass on Good Friday, when no Mass is to be celebrated; a public feast of hotdogs and suchlike on Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and abstinence from meat; the bizarre presence of a monsignor at a tiny island parish—that make it fairly obvious that nobody involved in the making of the show has practiced Catholicism in the last few decades. Nonetheless, Midnight Mass at least tries to revolve around the One True Faith, with some degree of success.
Aja Romano, reviewing the show for Vox, is thoroughly unimpressed: “I felt baited by this story, which plays within the modern horror sandbox while undercutting much of the ethos of modern horror via its embrace of Christianity as a source of hope and nourishment for lost souls facing an incomprehensible crisis.” I can only imagine how she felt when that guy with the funny collar showed up in The Exorcist.
This is no clumsy throwaway line, either; it’s her thesis. Later in the review, Romano leans in. Hard:
As a queer, genderqueer atheist who was raised as an evangelical, I’m drawn to horror in part because horror stories fundamentally offer a counter-narrative to mainstream Christianity’s most toxic ideas. Through tropes that tend to celebrate villainy, sinfulness, deviance, queerness, and defiance, horror embraces and empowers all that conservative religion rejects as immoral and unholy. Think, for example, of the many queer horror icons that have helped shape queer identity into a reclamation of villainy. Or of The Witch’s Black Phillip famously inviting Anya Taylor-Joy’s colonial Final Girl to “live deliciously.”
Um. She does know the demons are the bad guys, right?
I am reminded of the late, great Arthur Machen, an under-appreciated genius of written horror whose first masterpiece, The Great God Pan, was published the year H.P. Lovecraft was born. For a Penguin anthology of Machen’s stories put out a decade ago, a foreword was written by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, who ended the brief essay with the declaration that
fear can be recognized as an eminently spiritual sensation. Here is the darker side of faith, if you will, for what is faith but the belief in that which cannot be proven or rationalized?
Machen knew that to accept our cosmic insignificance is to achieve a spiritual perspective and ultimately realize that, yes, all is permitted. And that no matter how wicked or how perverse we can be, somewhere in a long forgotten realm a mad God awaits, leering—and ready to embrace us all.
From these lines I can only conclude that Señor Del Toro is a moron. Machen, of course—though fascinated by the occult—was a devout Anglo-Catholic, son of an Anglican priest, a hard-right reactionary who could hardly have fit in with the heathens and forward-thinkers who overtook the genre as his early stardom faded. My favorite line he ever wrote, a single-sentence response to The Left Review in 1937: “Mr. Arthur Machen presents his compliments and begs to inform that he is, and always has been, entirely for General Franco.” Somebody ought to tell Guillermo Del Toro.
Asked by the Los Angeles Times, “What do you think it is about religion and the Catholic church in particular that makes it fodder for so many genre stories?”, Hamish Linklater (who stars in Midnight Mass as Father Paul) reveals that he, too, is a moron. The connection, as Linklater sees it, is
this terrible peril that I think a lot of people [feel] going into church on Sunday like, “Oh, my God, am I going to stay awake?” The way that Christian churches keep you awake is hell. You get a lot of hell. And you also get a lot of devils and demons in horror. So there’s crossover there for sure.
Ah, yes. “Hell” has all been a ploy to keep the plebes from nodding off in the pews. What a relief! And the fact that demons exist in both the Church’s explication of the world and the artist’s reflection of it is purely coincidence—crossover. That makes sense to me.
Of course, there might be a more sensible answer to the Times‘ question. Maybe (just maybe) Hell and damnation and evil are real, and the teaching of the Church concerning all of them is true, and art that attempts to show us evil—as long as it does so well—is necessarily expressing an integral facet of the Catholic view of reality.
Arthur Machen certainly understood this. His first great success was a tale of demonic evil and his last (The Secret Glory, published in 1922) was a grail quest. The two are not in tension; they are merely two elements of a comprehensive, profoundly Christian vision. The project of the great horror master’s career can be summed up in a single word: re-enchantment—a desperate attempt to restore the West’s sense of the supernatural as modernity finished its conquest of Christendom.
Something similar can be found in all the genre’s respectable installments—those that are not consumed by porn and gore; those that do not fetishize villainy, but rather warn against it. What is supernatural horror but an urgent and visceral reminder of the devil and other evil spirits prowling about the world seeking the ruin of souls? What teacher served Aja Romano so poorly that she fails, so spectacularly, to grasp this?
Nick Ripatrazone, writing for the far-left Catholic journal America, swings to the other extreme: “Netflix’s ‘Midnight Mass’ is Catholic horror at its best.” Ripatrazone posits, convincingly enough, that “Catholic horror that works…leaves us open to the mysterious and the miraculous.” This is essentially akin to what I’ve said above. But in arguing that Midnight Mass actually accomplishes this, America‘s review falls rather short.
Contra Vox, the trouble with Flanagan’s latest is not that it’s too Catholic; contra America, it’s that it’s not nearly Catholic enough.
Catholicism allows little ambiguity as to what is right and what is wrong. The Exorcist, for all its flaws, is pretty clear: demon bad, priest good. Contrary to Romano’s ludicrous assertion that “horror at its best teaches us how to live within, and how to find ourselves within, society’s morally gray areas,” the problem with Midnight Mass is that it does exactly that.
The hero of Flanagan’s series is a recovering alcoholic apostate who, despite never returning to acceptance of the Truth that undergirds moral order and duty, manages to sacrifice himself for those he loves. Others include a scientistic lesbian doctor and her strong-willed but observant mother, the protagonist’s blue-collar boomer parents, and Crockett Island’s defiant Muslim sheriff. (This last, admittedly, is one of the only decent people on the screen.)
The antihero is a de-aged boomer priest who kills at least one person on his own and covertly turns his whole parish into a brood of murderous vampires. He is given redemption by talking things through with the woman he committed adultery with decades before, as the town burns after the massacre. One of the great revelations of Midnight Mass is that he keeps staring at the show’s token lesbian (Flanagan, it seems, has some kind of fixation) not because he is judging her but because he is secretly her biological father.
The main villain is Bev Keane, a vicious middle-aged spinster who occupies some unstated administrative position in the parish. She spends as much time at the lectern as she can manage, and wears—for some unstated and incomprehensible reason—an alb every time she’s in the church, and sometimes outside too. She sings happily along to all the classic hymns of the 1970s, and inserts herself into every aspect of parish and communal life she can. Nonetheless, Romano casts her as some kind of ultraconservative zealot just because she’s mean.
She is, in fact, an on-screen depiction of a fixture of the post-conciliar church turned into a meme online: shrill, self-important, deeply “spiritual,” barely (if at all) willing to subject herself to the Tradition and authority of the Church, weirdly familiar with the pastor. The only inaccuracy is that she knows her Scripture so well (but, more believably, interprets it all wrong). The pastor is familiar too: preaching like some kind of Pentecostal revivalist, beating the hell out of the “Jesus spent all his time with prostitutes” dead horse, wearing blue-jeans with his Roman collar. It is an accidentally hilarious touch—an illustration of the BoomerCath ethos—that we learn, midway through the show, that he is in fact a very old man merely pretending to be young and hip.
Like the vampirism that drives the show’s plot, the problem is infectious. At least one parishioner is giddy that the new, young priest uses the old English translation of the Mass, which is less adherent to the ancient Latin than the 2011 revision. Believers and non-believers alike share a confusion like our own concerning the conditions required for taking Holy Communion. When faced with the demonic horror underlying Midnight Mass, not a single member of the Crockett Island flock seems to have the moral or spiritual preparation to meet the crisis properly.
In a pivotal scene of dialogue, our atheistic hero explains that nothing happens when we die while his love interest offers a touchy-feely foretaste of the afterlife in reply. In the last episode, facing her own death, she reimagines herself answering instead with what one commentator, a Catholic deacon, describes as “science-inflected pantheistic mysticism.” In all this, I have trouble finding the same regressive religiosity Romano thinks she has discerned.
Maybe this is the real grotesqueness of Midnight Mass: that it is, perhaps, not far from the truth in much of the American Church today. Maybe there is no better Catholic horror in 2021 than Susan from the Parish Council and her denim-clad pastor dragging an entire parish to perdition.
When we understand that, we might understand why Romano and Flanagan have fallen so far away, and why the saga of Midnight Mass ends in an all-consuming conflagration.