Faith Healing and Faith Harming: Faith as a Translator of Experience in Midnight Mass

by thethreepennyguignol

Spoilers for the whole season ahead.

Midnight Mass is about religion. Which is an interesting place to start from, as a horror show, given the depiction that religion, and especially Catholic Christianity, has been getting in the horror genre in the last decade or so; James Wan’s wildly successful Conjuring series is a distinctly Catholic take on horror, and so many of the movies and shows it’s influenced and laid the groundwork for (like the Exorcist reboot, Saint Maud, The Unholy, to name a few of the more recent ones) have reflected that. Horror has always grappled with issues of faith, religion, hell, heaven, and everything in between, but the 2010s have seen a major uptick in religion as the basis for horror stories.

And I knew that Mike Flanagan was going to have a take on it I liked. The same way he had a take on the trauma-horror genre in Haunting of Hill House, the same way he pulled off a brilliant ghostly love story in Bly Manor; in my house, we simp relentlessly for Mike Flanagan and his near-perfect additions to the world’s best genre, and Midnight Mass is no exception to that rule at all.

Because it’s a fucking great show. End of. I could close out this article here and be happy that I’d gotten the most important point across. The direction is gorgeous, character work excellent, themes heavy yet approached with that human touch, acting astonishing – Hamish Linklater, in particular, stands out as one of the most impressive performances of the last ten years or so, and Samantha Sloyan as his disciple Bev makes for a deliciously restrained villainy that I can’t get enough of. I know that some fans of Flanagan’s work have found Midnight Mass a little rambling and over-written, and I’m not even sure that they’re wrong – I just know that I am happy to ramble around this small town for as long as I can, happy to let these characters monologue at me for fun. I think it’s an outstanding show, sublimely realized and fantastically executed.

But I’d like to delve a little more into the religious aspect of Midnight Mass, because that’s the part that I found most interesting as an aspect of the wider landscape of the horror genre. Midnight Mass is, at it’s heart, a vampire story: a vampire story that goes to great lengths to draw comparison between the vampire legend and various parts of Christian folklore, with central figure Father Pruitt (Linklater) serving as the conduit for both, as he believes his apparent vampirism is a gift from God delivered by an angel who just happens to occasionally drink people’s blood.

So it makes sense that the story would be about him, but it’s not. Quite, anyway. No, Midnight Mass opens with Riley (Zach Gilsom) reciting the Lord’s Prayer on the side of the road after he drunkenly cause an accident which led to the death of a young girl. That’s the prologue – the show really begins with Riley returning to the small island he grew up on after serving several years in prison, and moving away from religion – and I think it’s really the set-up for what the show has to say about religion and faith as a whole.

And faith, in horror, especially Catholic and Christian faith in Western media, is generally depicted as the safe haven from the monstrosities that the villain in question has to offer. You’re safe in a church from a demon; a priest can exorcise a monster possessing you. Vampires can’t be in the presence of a cross, or come into contact with holy water. Midnight Mass flips this entirely on its head, with the vampire entering this small community through the guise of a representation of that faith; it’s the vampire’s blood that makes up the communion wine, quite literally entering people in the form of the sacrament. The priest, the one who normally chases out the demons, invites them in. It’s a brilliant subversion of religious tropes in horror in general – but also has a lot to say about faith as a translator of experience.

If there’s an enduring image that runs through Midnight Mass, it’s that of expressions of religious faith in the face of absolute horror. From the biblical angelic interpretation of the vampire, to the reading of a miscarriage as God’s reclamation of a beloved child, to Sheriff Omar Shabazz (Rahul Kohli) describing the horrible death of his wife from cancer through the lens of his Islamic faith, that first scene of Riley trying to find sense in the insensible through prayer is reflected through the entirety of the series.

Characters in this show consistently navigate the world they’re presented with through their various faiths, and I think what really makes Midnight Mass sing is the deftness with which it handles this. So many horror stories tend to come down on one side or the other when it comes to religion and faith, either as a rescuer and saviour or as a dark motivation behind humanity’s cruellest impulses. But Midnight Mass doesn’t; even though the central plot revolves around what appears to be a misinterpretation of evil as something good thanks to Christian doctrine, many others who view their negative experiences through faith are given peace because of it; Erin Greene (Katie Siegel) is able to find some comfort after the loss of her child via prayer, and Leeza (Annarah Symone) offers forgiveness to a man who accidentally shot her using the Christian teachings as a basis.

But just as much as the show allows for a positive depiction of those with faith, it doesn’t assume that those with faith are all positive influences – nor that those without it aren’t, either. Bev Keane (again, just a soaring performance from Sloyan, too many good things to say about it) presents herself as perhaps the most devoutly religious person on the island, and her faith has been a consistent stick with which to beat the people who don’t agree with her; ultimately, her faith is a selfish thing, boiling down to this raw, bloody part of her that wants to be right in everything, even when it hurts the people around her.

And Riley, despite his lack of faith, is a character towards whom the show is consistently sympathetic – in religion, he fell into addiction and killed someone, albeit accidentally, but out of it he worked on his sobriety and serving out his time as amends. In his faith, he tried to find a reason for what he did, a translation that made sense, and when he can’t, he cuts ties with it. Despite that, though, his compassion, his kindness, are frequently central to the plot and his character as a whole; he loses his religion, not his humanity.

Faith, in Midnight Mass, is a lens through which to view the world, and the way that it can distort or discolour both the good and the bad. And it’s this spread of interpretations and experiences with faith that make Midnight Mass such a fascinating show for me. It takes the central horror tenet of religion as a place of protection, redemption, and rescue, and explores the ways that it can be subverted to harm – as well as the ways that it can be embraced to help. The subversion of the vampire myth is a genius way to ask questions about the Christian faith, but more than that, Midnight Mass wants to offer more than just “religion bad” pr “religion good”. It’s that in-depth look at faith as a translator for the experiences we have, the lives we live, for better, and for worse. Faith-healing, faith-harming, and everything in between.

If you enjoyed this post and want to see more stuff like it, please consider checking out my other recapping projects – JerichoLostSex and the CityDoctor Who, and Carrie are good places to start! Please also have a look at my fiction work, such as my short story collection, Misandry. And you can always support me on Patreon for access to exclusive blog posts!

(header image via Vox)