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Horror and Catholicism: Hounds of Hell Show Up for “Midnight Mass”

October 15, 2021


Midnight Mass is a seven-part, supernatural horror series for Netflix about a predominantly Catholic island, long in decline, that is suddenly and miraculously reinvigorated.

Creator and director Mike Flanagan’s previous offerings for streaming include The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), along with feature films including Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. Flanagan was raised in the Catholic Church, and he recently told an interviewer that sometime between his first communion and Confirmation, he began asking his parents, “If we’re drinking blood and eating flesh to stay alive forever, aren’t we vampires?” Midnight Mass explores weird but apt questions like this one. But the show also goes beyond weird into the realm of the gruesome and terrifying, landing in the apocalyptic territory of religious nightmares.

Although I am generally a fan of horror and certainly interested in shows that engage with the Church, I found Midnight Mass slow going at first. As is the case too often with streaming services, the story Flanagan tells could have been a compact two-hour feature, rather than a seven-hour marathon. But I stuck with it, and surprisingly, the payoff was just about worth the investment. The aesthetic was mostly the homogenous Netflix drama feel, but with a welcome hat-tip to classic small-screen spooky fare, signaled by the appearance in the cast of Annabeth Gish, who played Agent Monica Reyes on the X-Files. If you can handle horror, Midnight Mass provides a lot for all Christians, and particularly Catholic evangelists, to think about. 

Midnight Mass is set on Crockett Island, a small fishing community of just over one hundred people, most of whose lives are intertwined with St. Patrick’s Church and their longtime pastor, Monsignor Pruitt. We enter Crockett Island with Riley Flynn, played by Zach Gilford, a young man who grew up on the island and is forced to return after his successful business career in a big city goes off the rails with alcoholism and prison time. Riley’s old flame, Erin Greene, has recently returned as well, pregnant with the child of her estranged husband. An oil spill has ruined the local industry, and a mysterious new priest, Fr. Paul Hill, shows up with a large trunk and cagey explanations about why Monsignor Pruitt is gone. A new Muslim sheriff and his Christ-curious son represent classic outsiders. The church administrator and town busybody, Bev Keane, tries to hold everything together through blunt moralizing.

Bizarre things start happening on Crockett Island, including the appearance of hundreds of dead cats on the beach after a storm. But then people begin experiencing miraculous growth and healing, and Fr. Paul, along with Bev, cast a vision for the island as a place of God’s mysterious favor. But will Mayberry become Jonestown? Will heaven’s gate become the hellmouth?

One spoiler-free note before getting into the weeds: 

Catholics who can handle horror of the middling-scary range might enjoy watching Midnight Mass simply for the way the Church is depicted. One atheist reviewer of the show claimed to feel “erased” because of the normalized depiction of Christians and their everyday worship life, especially in a genre that sometimes tries to obliterate the faux brightness of faith to reveal the dark underbelly of reality. Indeed, to the reviewer’s dismay, the thing that may ultimately “haunt” someone who sticks with the show for all seven hours is the fact that life in the Church matters so much. And as far as feeling “erased,” it is weekly churchgoersstill a sizable percentage of the American populationwho are woefully underrepresented in contemporary media. Flanagan’s depiction of the priest at the altar and the prayer life of Catholic families feels authentic. Even what seems at first like typical Hollywood mistakes (the wrong color chasuble in one scene and the fact that the people always take the chalice at Holy Communion) get explained. And my single favorite thing about the show is the use of traditional hymnsfull-blown congregational singing with organ. How often do you get to see a crowd belt out multiple verses of “Holy, Holy, Holy” on television?

Now five important takeaways from the show, with a few spoilers.

  1. Midnight Mass features an array of good conversations about God and faith. These discussions sometimes land in unorthodox territory, but they provide a good entrée for engaging with non-Christians, as well as those “deconstructing” their faith. For example, in the fourth episode, “Lamentations,” Erin’s pregnancy has mysteriously vanished, and Riley continues to be haunted by the vision of the young woman he killed while driving drunk. They ask each other what happens when we die, and Erin attempts to answer from the perspective of her unborn child “who died today,” a subtly pro-life pronouncement. Erin’s description is full of various popular clichés of a disembodied eternitythe floating soul in a dream state.  Later, that answer changes subtly, but in between Erin’s two wrong answers, Christians find space to articulate orthodox theology of the Resurrectionwe are not destined to be wispy dreams or the most highly exalted matter, but rather, perfected souls reunited with imperishable bodies on a new earth and in perfect harmony with a new heaven.  
  2. Midnight Mass affirms that evil is real, but it is only parasitic, as exemplified by the “angel” character. If Crockett Island is the tip of the spear of an apocalyptic invasionas Fr. Paul and Bev believea real warrior messenger is to be expected. The Catechism tells us that angels “will be present at Christ’s return, which they will announce, to serve at his judgment” (CCC 333). But Fr. Paul finally realizes he has badly misinterpreted the signs, mistaking demonic activity for divine favor. Erin slices up the creature’s wings, ensuring that he will not be able to fly to safety, and the light will burn him up along with his spawn (including her) when the sun rises upon them. Evil fails. The darkness loses. Check out John 1.
  3. Midnight Mass is a critique of clerical abuse. Bev Keane, followed by a small inner band, cover up vicious lies, failures, and crimes of their new pastor because they believe he serves a greater purpose that must not be thwarted. When we learn later that Pruitt has led a secret double life, having an affair and fathering a child on the island, we imagine a system of enabling by people who chose to appreciate his care for them instead of asking questions. As Catholics watching Midnight Mass, we give thanks for the gift of faithful leaders, but we accept no substitutes. If your priest ever says to you, as Fr. Paul says to his flock, “God will ask horrible things of you,” run.
  4. Midnight Mass reminds us that miracles are real, but they can be manipulated for dark purposes. Fr. Paul laces the communion wine with vampire blood, resulting in healings and rejuvenations among everyone who thinks they are receiving the Blessed Sacrament. The wheelchair bound Leeza Scarborough stands up and walks, fisherman Ed Flynn suddenly recovers from back pain, and a dementia patient, Mildred Gunning, reverts to a youthful look and state of mind. Fr. Paul is a vampire at the altar, not a priest enabled to confect Christ in persona Christi. God is glorified in the great signs and wonders done through his saints, but as we see in the Book of Exodus, Pharaoh’s magicians can do many of the same deeds as Moses and Aaron. In the Book of Acts, Simon Magus amazes people with his magic, but Paul rebukes him, saying, “You are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness” (Acts 8:23). God alone saves us from sin and death. His power is so much greater than the small-time tricks of the powers of darkness.
  5. Midnight Mass shows us that we can choose the good, no matter what. When Riley’s devout parents, Ed and Annie, are killed and turned into vampires despite not drinking the poison, they choose not to take blood from anyone else, accepting the natural death that will result. Ed says, “Whatever this is, don’t change who you are.” Even if the hounds of hell are bearing down on you, you can still choose Christ. As one of the other islanders concludes, “It isn’t about us anymore. It’s about everyone else in the world. Dying for people we haven’t even met.”

Crockett Island is subsumed in a bloodbath and finally destroyed by fire, but there is the faintest glimmer of light for the future. We can only hope that young Warren and Leeza, the sole survivors, grow up to get married and have a large Catholic family, to whom they can tell the tale of the victory of Christ. If you can manage all seven hours of Midnight Mass, you may end up slightly better at telling that tale too.

And to answer Mike Flanagan’s childhood question: No, Catholics, you’re not vampires.