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Why I felt betrayed by Netflix’s Midnight Mass

Horror is a natural refuge for atheists and sinners. But Netflix’s Midnight Mass made me feel erased.

A priest wearing robes and lifting his arms inside a church.
Hamish Linklater as a very unusual priest in Netflix’s new limited series Midnight Mass.
Courtesy of Netflix
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on why Midnight Mass, Netflix’s new seven-part series from the creator of The Haunting of Hill House, feels so pernicious — and not in the way its creator intended.

Critics frequently describe Mike Flanagan, the feted writer-director of The Haunting of Hill House and its follow-up The Haunting of Bly Manor, who also directed Doctor Sleep, Hush, and a bevy of other admired horror movies, as a “horror auteur.” His lofty reputation seems to be tied to his tendency to sidestep the darker elements of horror; as the New York Times noted in a recent profile, “Flanagan has earned a reputation for what might be called humanistic horror ... while never skimping on the nightmare fuel, [he] believes that horror can offer something deeper.”

The typical Flanagan fare wraps poignant stories of family, community, and unremitting optimism around horror-filled centers. This combo has made him a perfect collaborator with Netflix, the home of most of Flanagan’s recent work. In all of the films and series he’s written for the network so far, Flanagan has created tales whose horror plots draw broad audiences and whose rosy themes appeal directly to middle America. Flanagan’s Netflix partnership has also given him an enormous audience; The Haunting of Hill House, arguably his most successful project, was one of the most-binged series of 2018.

Yet despite their aesthetic loveliness, tonal tenderness, and popularity, Flanagan’s stories often seem to trade narrative precision and craft for emotionality. There are glaring unanswered questions, incoherent finales, and plots that frequently become muddled by what appears to be Flanagan’s determination to make horror that feels literary and optimistic rather than tropey and dark. His focus on the brighter parts of humanity often creates a sharp, sometimes confusing dissonance between the genuinely scary stories he weaves and the worldview underpinning them.

In the case of allegorical explorations of love and grief, like Hill House, this dissonance can pay off wonderfully, because the sharper the horror, the stronger the healing catharsis can be. But in Midnight Mass, the precarious balance between horror and hope that characterizes all of Flanagan’s work finally tilted in the wrong direction, at least for me.

Flanagan told the New York Times that Midnight Mass is his most personal story yet, based on his own years of religious exploration and “a healthy Catholic upbringing” that was challenged by his personal study of the darker aspects of the Bible, until he ultimately found more affinity with atheism and science. Despite these self-professed doubts, however, there’s very little doubt in Midnight Mass. The show’s overtures toward critiquing America’s Christian majority fall by the wayside. Instead, Flanagan and his Midnight Mass co-writer, his sibling Jamie Flanagan, wrap a tale of religious zeal around a barely veiled allegory for the Covid-19 pandemic. Though Midnight Mass was conceived before the pandemic, it was produced during the pandemic, and inevitably reads as a pandemic-era cautionary tale — one that’s bolstered by an emphasis on individualized faith. There’s so much effusive Christianity here, so many rapt displays of faith, sermons, monologuing through Bible verses, and preaching to the lost, that the horror elements almost feel like window-dressing.

Even though Midnight Mass does still contain plenty of overt horror elements, I think the series actually pushes Flanagan quite far outside the horror genre. If anything, 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. Many critics have found that to be a good thing, praising the series’ emphasis on the less sordid aspects of horror. Yet while Flanagan has every right to keep writing relentlessly hopeful stories, for horror fans like me, the effect of his optimism is frustration over feeling shunned as a non-believer — by the very genre that usually protects non-believers from feeling shunned.

This story is so religious it’s almost insulting

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.”

Horror at its best teaches us how to live within, and how to find ourselves within, society’s morally gray areas. In a post-9/11 world, horror as a genre has grown blacker, bleaker, sharper, but also perhaps more comforting in its bleakness. Horror validates our fears of climate crisis, social meltdown, existential collapse. It reminds us we’re not alone in being afraid — and crucially, it doesn’t bother with false comfort. This is why the combination of horror and religion has so often made for such terrifically powerful drama throughout the history of cinema, from Haxan to The Exorcist to The Witch: Religion is all about offering people comfort, and horror is all about stripping it away.

Flanagan tries to favor the horror counter-narrative in Midnight Mass. His heroes are a gang of misfits, including frequent Flanagan collaborator Kate Siegel and Friday Night Lights’ always soulful Zach Gilford. They’re both playing rebel runaways, Erin and Riley, who each returned to their remote fishing village, Crockett Island, after their lives were derailed — hers by an unplanned pregnancy and his by a drunk driving incident that left an innocent girl dead. Along with Hassan (Rahul Kohli), the local town sheriff who most people call “Sharif” — one of the many Islamophobic microaggressions he endures — they form a trio of outcasts struggling to assimilate in the conservative small town.

Their primary nemesis is local zealot Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), who never met a wandering soul she couldn’t belittle through a mix of passive-aggressive insults and straightforward superiority. Though she comes off like a walking Karen meme, she’s primed and ready to sign up as God’s commander when apocalyptic events start to befall the island. First, the local priest goes missing, only to be replaced by a younger model, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) — who starts healing the sick and raising the dead, quickly amassing a cult following of believers.

Paul’s evangelical energy gives Bev renewed purpose and justification for her lifelong superiority complex, along with an excuse to act out her revulsion for anyone she deems unworthy of God’s love. She’s not fazed at all when she learns the dark supernatural reason for his strange ability to perform miracles; instead, she’s eager to bring on the apocalypse. She and the priest begin organizing their band of believers to make it happen.

Bev’s complete readiness to usher in the book of Revelations might sound over the top, but it really isn’t. As I watched Midnight Madness, I was frequently reminded of Mississippi governor Tate Reeves, who recently defended his leadership of the state with the worst pandemic death toll in the US by claiming that people who believe in the afterlife “don’t have to be so scared of things.” Even relatively mainstream Christian voices have questioned whether the pandemic is God’s judgment.

Flanagan uses the plot of Midnight Mass as an allegorical stand-in for a broad range of extreme conservative reactions to the pandemic. On that theme, the series’ scathing reproach of Christianity’s enablement of hysteria, apocalypse mania, and survivalist extremism couldn’t be clearer. But if Flanagan wanted to condemn religious zeal more generally, he failed.

Midnight Mass makes several attempts to critique organized religion, yet the impression it leaves is that faith in God, and explicitly Christian faith in particular, is the ultimate pandemic comfort. The series almost entirely erases atheists, agnostics, and people of other religions by emphasizing its Christian worldview. “I choose God,” Hassan’s rebellious teen son, Ali, declares when he joins Paul and Bev’s new cult, as if he had not grown up worshipping God as part of his Muslim upbringing. The narrative wants to portray his choice as entirely wrong-headed, and he is quickly shown to regret his decision, but when most of the series’ other “good” characters are also making choices based on their proud faith in the Christian version of God, the implied falseness of Ali’s choice doesn’t sink in.

There’s plenty of room here for homages to movies about religious doubt such as Winter Light and First Reformed, but apart from Riley being a lapsed Catholic, dragged back to church at his parents’ insistence, Flanagan barely touches on religious doubt at all. Instead, he repeatedly places such an excruciating emphasis on faith in the divine as a form of ultimate reassurance — explicitly a Christian faith above all else — that Midnight Mass becomes a homily. Multiple long sequences where the whole town gets together to sing Christian hymns seem to serve no narrative purpose except to remind us how comforting God’s presence is and that worship is beautiful. While there’s a climactic effort to enfold atheism and agnosticism into a revised definition of “god,” similar in spirit to Angels in America’s famous ozone monologue, it comes far too late to shake the series’ Christian-centered worldview.

Is all this really horror? Midnight Mass was certainly marketed as horror. And Flanagan loves to slowly weave tonal qualities like atmospheric dread into a soft cocoon of meditations on life, love, and the human experience. He typically seems more concerned with the latter than the former, however, and his work nearly always rejects the fundamental core of most modern horror: the paradoxically comforting assertion that all hope is lost.

Is a Mike Flanagan horror film ever really a horror film? I think no.

My personal imagined backstory of Mike Flanagan (my headcanon Flanagan, as it were) is that, like many indie filmmakers, he found that horror offered him a low-budget route to a career. His debut film, 2011’s Absentia, was a modest Kickstarter hit that received lots of critical love, in large part because it was so atypically philosophical for a horror film — an ongoing characteristic of Flanagan’s work. That success allowed him to keep building out his portfolio, drawing in audiences with the lure of horror, and then serving them a broad range of stories whose primary appeal lay in their sense of hope, family, love, and now faith.

Ultimately, this approach is what has made Flanagan such a popular director and writer. I’m not sure I’d call it horror, though. I believe that whatever continues to call Flanagan back to the genre is powerful and real, entangled with his personal perspective on philosophy and human connection. Yet I also think Flanagan would rather rely on long silences and jump scares — and, to give him credit, no one is better at a well-timed jump scare — to stand in for a deeper exploration of what horror is.

Midnight Mass is a piece of gorgeous filmmaking; Flanagan has a thing for backlighting and shadowy nighttime sequences that contrast beautifully with the scenic coastal setting. But the best horror should ideally confront its audience. Midnight Mass instead offers up a convenient villain while sidestepping most of the difficult questions about the consequences of religion unchecked by rationality, or the way organized religion can become a system of abuse or a tool of control.

Horror is the genre that many look to when they want to see society stripped of its false narratives. The myth that technology is only benevolent. The myth that civilization can protect us. The myth that any long-term earthly consequences for humanity’s short-term greed don’t matter because God has a mysterious plan and will reward us in the afterlife.

Flanagan does express skepticism over the human-created idea of “God’s plan” early on in Midnight Mass. If he’d leaned harder into that skepticism, perhaps the series’ premise would have more heft. But it seems he would rather pay less attention to what scares and disillusions us (even though in 2021 there’s so much to scare and disillusion us) and spend more time on what connects and unites us. I can see where others might find comfort in that.

In Midnight Mass, though, what connects and unites the community is the false hope that God is working miracles on Crockett Island. Rather than allow that horror to fully sink in, however, Midnight Mass avoids the question of long-term consequences. In an insulting twist, it presents the priest whose murderous deception jump-started its entire plot — and who’s been intentionally secretly poisoning his congregation for weeks! — as a well-meaning man motivated purely by faith and love, a good guy in the end.

And Flanagan, despite indicating to the Times that he leaned toward rationalism and humanism rather than belief in the divine, apparently needs hopeful endings so much that he even chooses to sidestep revealing whether there will be long-term consequences to Paul and Bev’s botched plot to bring on the apocalypse. Rather than allow the perpetrators, or any of the townspeople who’ve joined in the hysteria, to face earthly justice for their crimes, the show ends, instead, with a sweet montage in which they all sing hymns and comfort each other. The sheer horror of this moment — that the townspeople are so consumed with religion that it has destroyed them — gets subsumed in a wash of rosy cinematography and the moving strains of “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

Is that a beautiful, moving ending for most of the series’ viewers? Most likely. It’s just that to so many horror fans, a belief in God isn’t a comfort: It’s the ultimate false hope. For me, Midnight Mass’s conclusion feels less like a soothing balm in a moment of crisis, and more like an outright lie.

Update: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect Hassan’s religious background and to include details about the series’ production timeline.

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