The following contains spoilers for the series Midnight Mass.
Not long after his first Communion, horror auteur Mike Flanagan began questioning the sheer weirdness of the Eucharist. “So, if we're drinking blood and eating flesh to stay alive forever,” he often asked his parents and Sunday School teachers, “aren't we vampires?” Their answers never satisfied him and, though he discarded his Catholic faith as a teenager, the enigma stalked him into adulthood, eventually providing the thematic heart of his most personal project to date, the Netflix limited series Midnight Mass. It is the best entry in the vampire genre in recent memory, not least because Flanagan intuits what makes the myth so enduringly seductive and horrifying: The vampire is an antichrist figure that subverts the gospel message by co-opting its tropes.
Released last fall, Midnight Mass is Flanagan’s third limited series with Netflix, following his adaptations of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (2020’s The Haunting of Bly Manor). Flanagan’s “humanistic horror” typically eschews gore and other excesses and uses the genre’s tropes to plumb the depths of his characters, to push them past the point of breaking toward that of revelation. Among the revelations of Midnight Mass is Flanagan’s own: He uses the series to interrogate his own battle with alcoholism. “[M]y biggest fear wasn’t that I would die in a drunken car accident,” Flanagan told the New York Times. “It was that I would kill someone else and live. That is the beating heart of Midnight Mass.”
That fear is realized in the character Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), whose story opens the first episode. Riley is returning home to Crockett Island, a tiny, struggling New England fishing community of 120 or so souls. He is on parole from a prison sentence for drunken vehicular manslaughter. Also newly arrived at the island is Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a young priest who claims the diocese has sent him to fill in for Monsignor Pruitt, the long-serving parish pastor, who is convalescing elsewhere after falling ill while touring the Holy Land.
Father Paul is charismatic and possesses almost preternatural pastoral instincts. The whole parish is quickly taken with him. He even forms a connection with Riley, who, despite having apostatized in prison, must attend Mass as a condition for staying in the home of his devout Catholic parents. The two men begin meeting regularly, and Riley interrogates Father Paul about matters of faith. The priest’s responses are honest and insightful, and he readily embraces aporia—in fact, he seems to relish mystery that unsettles.
Flanagan eschews Hollywood’s typical allergy to direct talk of Christ—though Catholics will note a curious, almost Protestant, de-emphasis of Mary—and Father Paul’s homilies are compelling. His first, delivered on Ash Wednesday, does not flinch at the reality of sin. “That darkness, we wear it on our forehead today, just a smudge of it. A smudge of death, of ash, of sin, for repentance, because of where all this is heading, which is Easter. Rebirth. Resurrection. Eternal life.”
That rebirth begins at the following Mass, when Father Paul beckons Leeza (Annarah Cymone), a teenager who had been crippled a few years earlier, to rise from her wheelchair and walk to the altar to receive the Host. Her parents are furious at his arrogance—until their daughter stands and comes forward, healed.
Leeza’s healing is only the first of many. Whatever ails the parishioners, from the back pain of Riley’s father to the dementia of the town doctor’s mother, is steadily overcome. “If you want to know how or why God’s will shapes the world, brothers and sisters, so do I,” Father Paul tells them in his next homily, “I don’t have all the answers. . . . What I do have though, and what God gives us plentifully, are mysteries.”
Father Paul experiences a dizzy spell during the homily and eventually collapses, unconscious. Later, he has a seizure in the parsonage and dies in front of a handful of parishioners, blood foaming from his mouth. A flashback follows that confirms our growing suspicion: Father Paul is really Monsignor Pruitt, miraculously restored to youth by an “angel” he encountered in a cave in the Judaean wilderness. The angel is, of course, an ancient vampire. The creature feeds on Pruitt's blood, and then feeds him its own, piercing its wrist with a fingernail in a perverse echo of the stigmata. “Take this, all of you, and drink from it,” the old priest, his mind addled by dementia, heard again and again in his head. “This is my blood. The blood of the new and everlasting covenant shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.” When Pruitt wakes in the cave the following morning, he is young again. He sets off for Crockett Island intent on harnessing the angel’s power and using its blood to heal his parishioners and restore them to youth as well.
Back in the present, Father Paul, to the astonishment of the parishioners weeping over his corpse, returns to life. It’s the grandest miracle yet, confirming in their eyes the priest’s special anointing. Another of our suspicions is confirmed in short order: Father Paul has been spiking the Communion wine with the vampire’s blood, slowly turning the members of the parish into vampires and thus giving them a perverse kind of “eternal life.” The miracles, though they are real, are not of God. As the series concludes, this becomes clear, as Father Paul makes a fiery hell of Crockett Island.
Though Flanagan himself may no longer be religious, he successfully depicts in Midnight Mass how the antichrist subverts the gospel message. Father Paul comes to believe that he and his congregation can—by spreading the angel’s message to the mainland—usher in the Kingdom of God by their own hands. But just as his spiking of the wine rejects the miracle of transubstantiation and the strangeness of the Eucharist in favor of blood that offers merely physical healing, so too the resurrection granted by his “angel” is wholly material. Christ promises a new body, a new creation. Father Paul's antichrist offers only the old body of death, reanimated—for a time.
The angels of Scripture are terrifying to behold—fiery chimeras, destroyers of cities and armies. Moreover, God himself is strange. His presence at Sinai was so fearsome that the Hebrews begged Moses to stand as intermediary, to spare them the terror of direct encounter. Isn’t it plausible that the ancient slayer of Egypt’s firstborn might use Father Paul’s “angel” to bring about the end of days? That, at least, is Father Paul’s rationalization for surrendering his will—and his reason—to the vampire. Thus his affection for God’s “mysteries.” His congregation seemed only dimly aware of mystery’s true place in their faith and, once prompted, eagerly appealed to it as to a cipher, a solvent for the many troubling contradictions of Father Paul’s “angel.”
But Christian mystery concerns not contradiction but paradox. Contradictions fit neatly within the limits of human reason; paradoxes do not. Contradictions are dead ends. They signal that one has made an error and must backtrack to discover the correct path. Christian paradoxes, however, invite one further up and further in. The Eucharist is a paradox. The Incarnation, the perfect union of the infinite and finite, is a paradox. The Trinity, the peaceful existence of difference within the oneness of being, is a paradox. These mysteries surpass the limits of our reason and yet are recognizable as invitations to contemplation, and as promises that that contemplation will bear fruit.
To embrace God’s mysteries, his strangeness, is to live in anticipation of the day “when the perfect comes,” when we know fully, even as we have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). The embrace of mystery is necessarily an eschatological discipline. The lovely threads of paradox we’re permitted to tug on are anchored in another world. Contemplation of those otherworldly threads safeguards us from the temptation—which overcame Father Paul—to settle for an immanent kingdom built by human effort.
A message implicit in Midnight Mass is that the de-emphasis or outright avoidance of the strangeness of Christ in many branches of American Christianity weakens the church’s faith and makes her vulnerable to other forms of strangeness that offer to reenchant our lives—whether vampires or the more common culprits of astrology, sage smudging, past-life channeling, tantra, spiritualized BDSM, or even the Enneagram. Many of these emerging syncretisms often come yoked to progressive activism of one kind or another, as Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites demonstrates. For many Christians, the perennial temptation to immanentize the eschaton has become so familiar it is often invisible. In Midnight Mass, the trope of vampirism splashes that invisible temptation with vivid blood, and we are reminded that chiliastic labor only builds kingdoms of hell.
Justin Lee teaches undergraduate writing at the University of California, Irvine.
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