Illustration by Ben Beechener

Midnight Mass is Netflix’s latest series directed by Mike Flanagan. He originally pitched it in 2014 only for it to be rejected. It’s hard to see why it took so long to get the green light.

After Mike Flanagan’s last two series for Netflix, The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Midnight Mass is going to be about ghosts. In fact, although Flanagan couldn’t resist including one ghost, Midnight Mass strays determinedly away from that theme. 

The series has minimal jumping back and forth through time when compared to some of Flanagan’s other work, such as Oculus and the Hill House and Bly Manor series, which makes it easy to stay oriented. It has an extended flashback like Bly Manor, but it doesn’t take up a whole episode. That said, this flashback reveals a lot of character backstory and plot points that could have come to light more gradually.

Midnight Mass is set in the modern day on Crockett Island, a remote island off the US coast. To anyone like me, who is from an isolated place with no diversity, it’ll ring a lot of bells. That’s not to say that the setting and its characters are treated derogatorily. Instead, it’s believable and relatable, and a perfect study of how such communities can be both positive and negative places to be.  

We are introduced to Crockett Island and its people through Riley, who has recently been released from prison and returned home to get back on his feet. He arrives at the same time as the spectacularly misguided priest who causes this series’ supernatural problems. At first, Father Paul Hill seems to be miraculously helping his congregation, but his good work comes at a hefty price.

The fact that a priest is responsible for the series’ conflict gives away the heavy inclusion of the theme of faith. Midnight Mass also tackles racism, addiction, illness, and death. All of these are dealt with organically through the believable actions and dialogue of the characters. Crockett Island forms an effective microcosm of the 21st-Century Western world with great characters and performances by the cast.

The cast includes some alumni from Hill House and Bly Manor, and some new faces. One alum is Kate Siegel, Mike Flanagan’s wife. She plays Erin, a foil and love interest for Riley. They both left the island to seek bigger and better things before returning in unfortunate circumstances, although they have developed different opinions on faith. The theme of death is most explored through them. I found that this theme affected me the most, perhaps because by the time I was a teenager I’d experienced an above average amount of bereavement. I don’t pretend to be religious, but ghosts make death and what may come afterwards more bearable. Riley and Erin’s discussion and experiences of death, and the tragedy and grief of it, is especially interesting and challenging because ghosts aren’t there to soften the blow. 

Henry Thomas also returns after starring in both Hill House and Bly Manor, and Rahul Kohli after being the sympathetic cook Owen in Bly Manor. This time, Rahul Kohli is the island’s sheriff and, apart from his son, its only Muslim. Sheriff Hassan and young Ali will be identifiable to anyone who’s ever struggled to fit in, or anyone who’s ever found themselves at the mercy of a community that’s painfully set in its ways. I felt that they’re a testament to the complexity of Flanagan’s characters because they’re not defined solely by their faith but instead are three-dimensional. Hamish Linklater portrays the troublesome priest with just the right amount of fervour. Samantha Sloyan is the increasingly manic, overzealous reader Bev Keane who inspires more and more loathing as the series progresses. She’s another example of Flanagan’s great character writing. I loved to hate her more and more as the extent of her narrow-mindedness and hunger for power grew and grew. And Alex Essoe is marvellous as Mildred Gunning, a character tragically afflicted with dementia before miraculously recovering.

The action itself isn’t too gory, despite some pretty gruesome stuff being central to the plot. This means that when the blood flows, it’s effective, especially as its significance becomes clearer. But, while there is a supernatural threat, the real horror comes from the human characters. This may be made more impactful by current fears about terror and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, but Flanagan could have set the series in any time period and the things that the characters are willing to do for their faith would still be appalling. I’m a big fan of the supernatural, but I don’t think that the evil of a spirit or a creature can ever be more shocking than the evil that people can do to each other, because we can’t suspend our disbelief at human evil when we see it in the world every day.

Given the importance of the supernatural to the plot, its lack of screen-time will be disappointing to anyone expecting jump-scares. The horror is more of a psychological, slow-burn up until the finale. My only qualm is that, somehow, the characters manage to never assign any terminology to the supernatural goings-on. Presumably, this is for the sake of the mystery, but as the series is set in the present day it makes the characters look poorly informed about popular culture from the last few centuries. My DPhil thesis focuses on Christian literature, and let’s just say that Father Paul and I have very different understandings of angels.

Like much of Flanagan’s work, the ending to Midnight Mass can’t be considered ‘happy’. But it can be considered right for the story and tone. It is very final, except for the sequel bait, as one character in particular has an ambiguous fate and so could rear their head again in the future. Nevertheless, Flanagan’s departure from haunted houses is welcome, and showcases his creative versatility to those who may not be familiar with his work in film.