The first steps in recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous include turning your life over to a power greater than yourself: a power AA members define as “God as we understand him.” Midnight Mass’s Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a former altar boy and recovering alcoholic who has embraced atheism while serving time for the accidental death of a young woman, rejects all this. Though he’s obliged to attend meetings as a condition of his parole, Riley believes he can and must manage his addiction himself, through reason and psychology.
“It’s not that I want to drink,” Riley tells Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), a new arrival on Crockett Island, an isolated community so small that their recovery meetings are mostly one-on-ones. “It’s that the addictive voice wants to.” The recognition of the “addictive voice” is a key component of Rational Recovery, which removes God, however he is understood, from the process entirely. “Being your own higher power” is Father Paul’s somewhat scoffing take on Riley’s secular approach to recovery. But when Riley unexpectedly finds himself in the throes of a horrific and overwhelming new compulsion to drink human blood, Father Paul — who knows this compulsion all too well — effectively becomes a prophetic advocate for the addictive voice. Or, in his vocabulary, “the voice of God’s angel.”
It may seem counterintuitive that the priest sees a literal messenger of the divine in the bloodsucking, bat-winged, Nosferatu-esque predator that he has smuggled onto Crockett Island, but then its own blood, when drunk by humans, has the power to rejuvenate and give life without end — at a price, of course. (Handsome Father Paul, we learn halfway through the series, is actually elderly Monsignor Pruitt, returned to Crockett Island from pilgrimage in Israel, where a chance encounter with the “angel” transformed him into an unrecognizably younger man: a “miracle” he now wants to share with others.) More dubious, in a paranormal horror series drenched in Catholicism, is the glaring absence of religious language like “demon,” “devil,” or even “evil.” Father Paul highlights the resonances between Catholicism and vampirism (death and rebirth, eternal life, drinking blood) to the point of identifying the one with the other, but when it comes to resisting or opposing the paranormal, ostensibly iconic evil of the vampire, neither creator Mike Flanagan nor his believing characters ever seem to think in religious terms — an odd truncation of vampire lore as well as of religion.
Midnight Mass isn’t antagonistic toward faith or the faithful. Believing characters like Riley’s parents, Annie and Ed (Kristin Lehman and Henry Thomas), and the island’s anomalous Muslim sheriff, Omar Hassan (Rahul Kohli), are treated as thoughtfully as Riley the unbeliever. Decency, not skepticism, is what Flanagan appears to value most, and there are decent characters of all sorts on Crockett Island. Flanagan has empathy, in fact, for nearly all his characters — even Father Paul — with one glaring exception: Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), a vicious, officious church lady with a weaponized scripture verse for every occasion. But when the time comes to put Bev in her place, it isn’t Riley who does it, but his mother Annie, and the smackdown is delivered in ringingly religious terms. At the very end, Sheriff Hassan taunts the undead Bev with last of the series’ many scriptural quotations, a line from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good.”
Yet that parting shot is the only time in the series that the word “evil” is used in connection with the vampire scourge, or that God is invoked in connection with the defeat of that evil. And, really, it’s not being undead that makes Bev evil. In her own mundane, sanctimonious way, Bev has always been “evil,” devouring her neighbors metaphorically rather than literally. Vampirism has made her more dangerous, but not demonic. This strain of vampirism doesn’t turn its victims into amoral monsters — though it comes with a ferocious, nearly uncontrollable thirst, along with all the potential for rationalization, self-deception, and denialism that mark any compulsive appetite.
Midnight Mass isn’t the first vampire story to blend vampirism as a metaphor for addiction with literal substance abuse. (See, among other things, The Addiction, from another lapsed Catholic, Abel Ferrara.) It is, however, probably the only paranormal horror story to focus so intently on the role of religion in recovery — perhaps not surprising given that Flanagan is himself a former altar boy whose journey of addiction and recovery mirrors Riley’s. From the Serenity Prayer repeated at each of Father Paul and Riley’s meetings to the centrality of trust in a higher power, the religious dimension of 12-step culture is a focal point for Midnight Mass. At one point Flanagan cuts from Father Paul elevating the Eucharistic host during the consecration at daily Mass to an AA leader holding up a bronze 4-year sobriety coin, a token of fidelity in the communion of the recovering, both scored to a choral rendition of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
Yet there’s no hint of religion as a force pitted against, and perhaps validated by, iconic or paranormal evil. For all the diversity of vampire lore, this feels like a pointed choice on Flanagan’s part, especially in so intensely Catholic a story. The familiar vampiric aversion to crucifixes and other holy things — established by Bram Stoker, weaponized by Hammer Films director Terence Fisher in his Dracula and other productions, and retained in even the agnostic mythology of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — is far from a universal device in vampire fiction, so it’s no surprise that Flanagan dispenses with it. Yet even the undead in, for example, John Carpenter’s Vampires, which weren’t vulnerable to the sacred, were still demonic creatures, and thus presumed enemies of God and the Church. Beyond vampire fiction specifically, in paranormal films from F.W. Murnau’s 1926 Faust to the likes of The Exorcist, The Omen, the Conjuring series, and so on, the reality of iconic, eldritch evil has often implied the existence of the divine. If there is a hell, the thinking goes, that suggests a heaven; if the devil exists, there must be a God.
On the other hand, Murnau’s unauthorized Dracula adaptation Nosferatu (which pioneered the lethality of sunlight to vampires) essentially ignored the religious dimension of its source material. Where Stoker’s Van Helsing used crucifixes to deter Dracula and pressed fragments of a Eucharistic host into putty to create a barrier uncrossable to the vampire, his counterpart in Nosferatu was a naturalist with no interest in religious categories or symbols. Flanagan’s debt to Nosferatu goes well beyond his vampire’s cadaverous appearance, from the gothic-arched rectory door to the sacrificial act leading to the vampire’s apparent undoing. His Van Helsing figure, Dr. Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), is a woman of science who brings a naturalistic perspective both to the island’s seemingly miraculous healings and to the volatile effects of sunlight on vampiric tissue. She frames the spread of vampirism among the island’s residents, not in terms of the eternal struggle between good and evil, but as a question of viral load. And, indeed, other than its connection to the Holy Land, nothing actually links this predator to an Abrahamic religious context.
Yet even Nosferatu recognized that the vampire would be associated, at least in popular imagination, with the devil, magic, and sin. When Riley finds himself violently snatched up and pinned down by a bat-winged monster that drinks his blood while the parish priest watches with diabolical calmness, mightn’t the former altar boy’s level-headed rationalism reasonably be expected to waver a bit? When the predator is finally revealed to Crockett Island’s alarmed believers during the Easter Vigil Mass, does Father Paul’s impassioned introduction of his hideous “angel” inspire no one present to utter the obvious alternative religious designation? Not pious Annie Flynn? Not Sheriff Hassan, who has warily come to St. Patrick’s to try to protect his son Ali (Rahul Abburi) from whatever is happening at the church, whether it be Christian proselytism or something worse? Father Paul actually quotes the passage from Isaiah that inspired the well-known hymn “On Eagle’s Wings,” as if inviting someone to scream that that thing has bat wings.
In Midnight Mass, it’s substance abuse, more than vampirism, that occasions strong moral judgments, especially when others are harmed. “The version of me that would come out when I had enough to drink — he was bad,” Riley declares. Crockett Island’s resident drunk Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet) is wracked with guilt over a shooting accident that left the mayor’s young daughter, Leeza Scarborough (Annarah Cymone), in a wheelchair. Over the course of the series, both men are forced to face their guilt by the young women whose bodies they shattered while intoxicated. Joe is confronted by Leeza in his trailer after the seeming miracle (engineered by Father Paul, who has been spiking the communion wine with vampire blood) that restores the use of her legs. For Riley, the confrontation happens in his head, where he sees the mangled corpse of the woman he killed every time he lies down.
Guilt is real, but, movingly, so is forgiveness, at least of a human sort. Leeza, a daily communicant and perhaps Crocket Island’s most authentically Christian character, comes to Joe’s trailer to vent her rage, to excoriate him with the harm beyond reckoning that he has done to her — but also, more importantly, to tell him that if God can forgive him, so can she. Flanagan even offers a daring image of transcendent forgiveness for Riley at the moment of his sacrificial death: The young woman he killed appears to him, no longer mangled but smiling, taking his hand to usher him into the great beyond.
This isn’t necessarily literal, any more than Riley’s earlier visions of her corpse. Riley himself has cautioned us, in a memorable exchange with his childhood sweetheart, Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), that what one may experience at the moment of death is not necessarily reality. Still, it’s still a hopeful, generous image, leaning less into Riley’s materialism than Erin’s hope of a life to come, one in which we are “loved and not alone.” Even Riley says he hopes Erin is right. Alas, Flanagan ultimately subverts Erin’s half of that exchange by revisiting it and giving her a mystical, pantheistic monologue at the point of her own sacrificial death: There is no self and we are all God, which is to say, the cosmos dreaming of itself. (In which case, unless this too is an unreal dying experience, the vampire is also God. Does the cosmos prefer the Erin-dream to the vampire-dream? For me, this climactic monologue is the series’ biggest misstep.)
In the end, notwithstanding the climactic bloodbath, Flanagan’s vision is paradoxically hopeful. The worst horrors are ascribed not to addiction or malice, but to weakness and ignorance. Some, perhaps nearly all, who participate in the night of mayhem are later shaken and full of regret, and at least two who are turned — Riley’s parents, Annie and Ed — resist the hunger altogether. At first, Ed reflects, it might have seemed that the vampiric compulsion was uncontrollable, “like something impossible not to do. But it isn’t, Annie. Whatever this is, it don’t change who you are.” The addictive voice can be resisted. Perhaps, too, there is help from a higher power.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.