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Netflix’s horror series Midnight Mass turns personal obsessions into gory nightmares

It’s the most complicated and gory series yet from Haunting of Hill House creator Mike Flanagan

Hamish Linklater holds forth from the pulpit in church in Netflix’s Midnight Mass Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s horror series Midnight Mass begins with an act of immense cruelty. A drunk driver, Riley (Zach Gilford), crashes into another car. The young woman he hit is thrown through her window, and lies dying on the rain-slicked pavement while he sits on the curb with barely a scratch. As he realizes she won’t survive, he turns to God and begins to pray, but gets no answer. These dueling cruelties — both human, in Riley’s fatal lack of care for others, and cosmic, in the abjectly random nature of his victim’s death — are a bleakly perfect tone-setter for the newest horror series from Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep director Mike Flanagan. While the show is filled to the brim with supernatural scares, it’s more concerned with the terrible things people do to each other, and the ways acceptance and accountability can bring about change.

Flanagan has established himself as a horror storyteller who consistently uses the genre as a vehicle for deep emotional exploration. His personal touch and willingness to dig into abuse, addiction, and loss made his shows The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor into massive hits for Netflix. His new series continues those threads, albeit with a completely different setup. How effective viewers find it will surely be influenced by their own experiences with addiction, recovery, and most importantly, religion. But even viewers with no personal connections to the things that so clearly shaped Flanagan’s newest series can lose themselves in the dark fairy tale it weaves.

The show’s supernatural elements are hard to talk about without spoiling its secrets, but the story begins when Riley returns to Crockett Island, the tiny Maine fishing village where he grew up. Like most of Flanagan’s work, this is a tale about redemption and forgiveness. Since we know what Riley’s done, it’s clear he’s our anchor for that idea. But the isolated community of Crockett Island holds plenty of secrets, along with an ever-shrinking group of inhabitants who each have a journey to go on to find their own form of self-acceptance. As the season moves forward, it’s at its most powerful when examining who carves out that space with kindness and accountability, and who embraces and wields the violence within themselves. Something terrible is coming to Crockett Island, and it lives or dies off the ways others are willing to wound.

A group of people walking on a dark nighttime path gape upward together in Midnight Mass Photo: Eike Schroter/Netflix

The spectrum of human cruelty and the impact of choosing to think of others is at the center of Midnight Mass. Crockett Island is a pressure cooker fueled by a dying fishing industry, which has broken the island and its people. Riley’s arrival is mirrored by that of a new priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater). These two seemingly unconnected new inhabitants set off a series of events that pit neighbor against neighbor, and father against son. Before that, though, Riley is welcomed by his mother Annie (Kristin Lehman), and more reluctantly by his father Ed (Henry Thomas). He’s the prodigal son returned, which is both fitting, and a completely intentional setup for the religiously charged horror that follows.

Crockett Island is kept safe by the thoughtful, kind, and consistent Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli), a practicing Muslim. That wouldn’t usually be something to note, but his recent transfer to the island has shaken up the small Catholic community. While it appears friendly on the surface, the island pulses with thinly veiled racism and regular microaggressions. Those are led and encouraged by the terrifying Bev (Samantha Sloyan). Sloyan crafts a legitimately despicable villain, hiding her virulent hatred behind a self-righteousness fueled by her closeness to Crockett Island’s church and former Monsignor.

Between those brewing tragedies are people just trying to live their lives on the island, or trying to escape it. School teacher Erin (Kate Siegel) is a rare voice of calm who also gets some of the series’ most vital and moving moments. The young, pious wheelchair user Leeza (Annarah Cymone) finds comfort in the crumbling church that most villagers ignore, at least until the arrival of Father Paul, who introduces a fervent new kind of faith to Crockett.

Midnight Mass vibrates with a very specific kind of religious dread. Flanagan presents the Church as both a safe space and an absolute threat. Using Catholic ritual and tradition as a way to unsettle viewers is wickedly effective and subversive. Some viewers may find comfort in the familiar religious trappings, until things are no longer familiar at all.

A heavily bearded man lights a cigarette in the dark, lighting up his face dramatically, in Midnight Mass Photo: Eike Schroter/Netflix

When Father Paul offers Riley a personal AA meeting on the island, it seems like an example of that healing. But it quickly turns into something far more insidious. During one staggering sequence, Paul talks to Riley about how alcohol is neutral, and only gets a bad or good connotation from the people who use it. It’s a smug speech delivered with a haunting disconnect from any human emotion. Riley quickly and correctly contradicts him, but the gauntlet has been laid. On Crockett Island, Riley — and everyone else — become the sole architects of their own fate and future, context be damned.

That could be a mission statement for the whole show: religion can be a source of support and nurturing, or can be used to encourage prejudice and violence. Leaders can be both inspiring and divisive. Love can be used to encourage people, or control them. In the case of Crockett Island, though, Flanagan and his co-writers quickly suggest that the people who are most willing to be vicious are the ones most likely to rise to the top. Bev rules the island’s small community with an iron fist and sharp tongue. She’s channeled her faith into a bat to beat her neighbors with, but then when they, led by Father Paul, embrace the religion she claims to love, her animosity means she has to find a way to undermine and harm both him and them. And Father Paul only convinces the faithful with an act of pointed savagery that preys on one of his most loyal followers.

When Midnight Mass reveals its hand, it’s a revelation. It also completely upends the show for anyone who was engrossed by the dread-filled atmosphere of anticipation. The curtains are flung back so quickly that it’s jarring. This is Flanagan’s most ambitious project yet, but it also ends up as one of his most ambiguous. The opening episodes draw viewers in by introducing the town and its inhabitants in a way that feels organic, with each scene drenched in repressed emotion and unresolved trauma. The quick flip to a more traditional horror story doesn’t lessen that tension, but the final episode is likely to be divisive.

Midnight Mass feels like Flanagan’s most challenging work so far, both for him and for his audience. The show has been in the works for a decade, and it’s an intensely personal story for Flanagan. That’s hardly new for him — Hill House and Doctor Sleep deftly explored addiction and recovery through the lens of horror. And Flanagan has spoken about his journey with sobriety and how it shaped Midnight Mass extensively. That vibrantly personal exploration — Flanagan worked on the scripts for all seven episodes, including the four co-written with his brother James — is what makes the show so feel so potent and alive, but also what presents some of its hardest-to-parse moments.

An older man and a teenager back against a wall, looking alarmed, in Midnight Mass Photo: Eike Schroter/Netflix

In exploring things as subjective as religion, faith, substance abuse, and guilt, Midnight Mass makes some strong statements. There’s a lot of good stuff to take away here, including the stunning final line, which contradicts what most horror or fiction says about disability, in a frankly radical way. At it’s best, the series is a terrifying genre offering that also works as an often-overwhelming but effective meditation on faith, death, life, hope, and acceptance. But at times, navigating Flanagan’s deeply personal musings on these topics may leave viewers feeling disconnected, or even insulted by how starkly the series presents those who wield religion and its trappings as a weapon.

But the overarching message, about how personal accountability and acceptance can change your fate and the lives of others for the better, is powerful. Fans who are looking for the visceral horror chills that Flanagan is known for will certainly get their fix, especially in one gore-soaked episode, which is a career highlight for Flanagan. But Midnight Mass goes further than tension or thrills, presenting a dense and somehow hopeful epic that leans into the existential terror of being alive.

Midnight Mass is streaming on Netflix now.