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Midnight Mass: Mike Flanagan's Stairway To Heaven

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

I’ve seen some comments on social media recently claiming that Mike Flanagan “can’t do horror properly” or can’t do "proper horror", whatever the hell that really is anyway. A preposterously ignorant statement that makes zero sense to those who have seen any of his earlier work like ‘Hush’, ‘Gerald’s Game’ and ‘The Haunting of Hill House’. Flanagan’s amazing 2019 adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘Doctor Sleep’ is not only haunting and at times brutal (see the baseball boy scene) but it’s also crafted to be a seamless cinematic sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 big screen adaptation of ‘The Shining’, which King himself famously hated.

While ‘Midnight Mass’ certainly is a dread-inducing slow burn, the horror is alive and well right from the opening scene and continues at a gradual pace throughout the entire show, which leads me to believe that it’s Flanagan’s most accomplished work so far.

The following article contains spoilers for ‘Midnight Mass’ so please be warned before reading any further.

Set almost entirely on Crockett Island, a small, reclusive fictional island off the mainland US coast with a total population of 127, ‘Midnight Mass’ tells the story of how a close knit community is changed dramatically by the arrival of a young charismatic parish priest. Father Paul has replaced the elderly Monsignor Pruitt, who he explains has become too sick to return to his duties. After some settling in, Father Paul slowly becomes a popular figure in the community who seems to genuinely want to help each and every one of his parishioners, young and old, devout and lapsed. He wants to make the island a better place to live and his stock rises immeasurably when he apparently performs a miracle on young cripple Leeza by enticing her out of her wheelchair during a service. The entire island becomes engrossed by Father Paul.

Once a budding fishing village, most of Crockett Island's inhabitants have all moved on in the wake of a crushing oil spill that has now spoiled the surrounding ocean waters. Catches have dried up and business is staying alive by the thinnest of threads. “This isn’t a community anymore honey, it’s a ghost.” admits Annie Flynn to her freshly returning ex-convict son Riley. This was actually a plot point added in because of Covid-19 as a clever way to explain why the island was so unpopulated. A necessary change that actually added gravitas to the story. All that is left on the island is the deeply loyal residents who are either too afraid or too stupid or perhaps too damn stubborn to recognize the reality of their situation. Could it be that they are addicted to life here on Crockett Island whether it makes sense or not?

‘Midnight Mass’ feels like a different type of horror story from Flanagan although it does share many of the family drama elements that he likes to explore. When it boiled down to brass tacks people were claiming, albeit generally with a positive outlook, that ‘Midnight Mass’ was yet another take on vampirism. A disconcerting and shallow response to a series that is measurably more complex that “just vampires”. It was like questioning the finale of ABC’s hugely successful series ‘Lost’ by aimlessly saying “they were all dead this whole time?”

It’s not about vampires (granted there is a Nosferatu-like bloodsucker with huge bat-like wings) but the word vampire is never uttered or even the notion of vampire lore is never talked about on the show. The character in question is described by Father Paul as an Angel (wink wink). The Angel’s blood gives life and fulfillment and enriches the body to a better state. People get healthier. The old slowly become younger and the maimed become healed. It’s seen as a miracle. Their blind faith has turned into a palpable reality and they want more. It’s not about vampirism, it’s about addiction.

This is a highly personal piece of art. Flanagan himself is a recovering alcoholic who recently celebrated 3 years of sobriety and it’s not only alcohol addiction that he shares with his onscreen characters. Flanagan is also a former altar boy and somewhat of a retired practicing Catholic. In ‘Midnight Mass’ Flanagan mirrors the character of Riley and uses the plight of addiction, and specifically recovery, as a parallel to religion or to be more precise, blind faith. To begin the journey of recovery, often a slow, languid process, you must give yourself over to a higher power much like someone of faith does when they take the scripture literally and commandments as a way of life. Flanagan admitted that Riley is him experiencing his “worst, most ingrained anxiety”. Like his real life, the character of Riley also had another version of himself who emerged during sessions of binge drinking to sabotage his own existence. Our first introduction to Riley is Flanagan vicariously living his so-called “nightmare scenario”. It is a deeply personal story of what his life could’ve turned out to be like. The location of the series also plays a pivotal part in the intimately revealed storytelling.

His father was a Gloucesterman who eventually joined the Coast Guard. This led to the Flanagan’s moving around a lot, often living in relative recluse. Mike would continue his childhood duties as an altar boy when he resided in Maryland, where he spent much of his youth, serving at various Catholic Churches. For all intents and purposes Mike admittedly enjoyed his time as an altar boy, something that might confuse a lot of people and myself particularly as many of my friends who were altar boys growing up felt pressured into doing so by their righteous parents. Although he was devoted he never considered himself especially religious and it wasn’t until he went to college that he picked up a Bible and decided to “find” God.

Hungry for knowledge, he expanded his biblical curriculum by exploring other realms of religion and found a calling in Buddhism, which eventually just left him largely angry at the apparent deception of his childhood teachings. This was when he became aware that all religion was essentially fanaticism. His studious work, reading and learning everything he could about religion, helped him to understand that almost every aspect of life was built on a kind of fundamentalism. How beliefs of any sort can be basically weaponized to adhere to a certain agenda.

Someone else, other than the fundamentalist, who learns to weaponize words and actions to twist and turn reality to fit into their own agenda… is the addict.

Once again, ‘Midnight Mass’ isn’t about vampirism, it’s about addiction.

The original concept for the Netflix series was germinated years ago sometime around 2010 and was initially intended to be a novel written by Flanagan. During this time Flanagan worked as an editor on a reality TV show and was attempting to finish up a project with the intention of gaining funding to produce it himself. It was around this time that he started adapting his idea for ‘Midnight Mass’ into a feature film, fleshing out characters and ideas and reworking them for a visual audience. Flanagan himself has recently admitted that he was a very different person back then and his writing was also on a seismically different level. After various drafts he knew that this idea would never work as a feature film because the story he wanted to tell, the story he needed to tell, was just too big for this particular format.

After co-writing and directing a number of feature films, Flanagan and his writing partner Jeff Howard began the first steps of pitching ideas for a network television show and ‘Midnight Mass’ was the obvious choice. This was in 2014 and Flanagan has since confessed, “It was the project I clung to the hardest, a story so personal to me that I was reluctant to share it at first, even with my most trusted and frequent collaborators.” Everyone passed including Netflix but unbeknownst to him at the time, Flanagan had begun building the foundation of a strong relationship with the streaming service and in particular a young executive by the name of Blair Fetter, who would go on to option ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ a few years later and really kick start Mike Flanagan’s career.

Despite Flanagan’s failure at getting ‘Midnight Mass’ off and running as a television show, the idea never left his mind and he subtly shoehorned it into two future films.

One of Flanagan’s overlooked projects is ‘Hush’, his take on a home invasion/slasher with a unique twist. It also happens to star Kate Siegel (his then girlfriend and now wife) who has appeared in various of his works since. Siegel plays Maddie Young, a deaf mute author whose recent novel just happens to be called… you’ve guessed it, ‘Midnight Mass’. There’s a fun little scene featuring Maddie’s neighbour (played by Samantha Sloyan who would go on to steal the show as the maniacally pious Bev Keane, the real villain of ‘Midnight Mass’) confronts Maddie about her novel asking her about the characters of Riley and Erin and admitting that she “tried to guess the ending” but was way off.

The book would later pop in ‘Gerald’s Game’ when Carla Gugino’s character Jessie, who is handcuffed to the bed frame, grabs the novel from a shelf above the bed and launches it towards the starving dog who is about to munch on her husband’s fresh corpse. The hardback fictional novel was also intended to appear in ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ as a simple background easter egg but Flanagan revealed that the book wasn’t available during filming citing a mysterious disappearance after shipping them to the supposed location.

Interestingly enough, much of Flanagan’s work is inspired by the human need to be addicted to something, anything, and the trauma experienced during and after. This can be seen throughout most of his films but especially his work with Netflix.

When I mention addiction I’m not simply referring to the obvious substance abuse (or the tragic aftermath of said abuse) that is clearly witnessed at the beginning of the show and subsequently referenced throughout. Addiction comes in many guises in this show and one of the overt forms of it is in the abject abuse of power. Many abusers don’t know, or at the very least decide not to acknowledge, that they have a problem because it takes away their will, their freedom and their power. But it’s an illusion. Addiction is fundamentally linked to fanaticism. The two can traverse different paths but often they are intertwined with untimely negative consequences. Bev Keane is a fanatically religious person who blindly opens up herself to her faith. In her case, and for the rest of the inhabitants of Crockett Island, it’s not the ending she was hoping for and her faith, despite her desperate attempts to escape it, conclusively leads to her tragic demise.

The show is immensely clever in how it analogizes Catholicism with the myth of vampirism. A vampire must drink blood in order to sustain it’s life and retain immortality. In Catholicism (and some other religions) we are taught that receiving the body and blood of Christ at Mass during transubstantiation and following the teachings of Jesus will eventually lead us to eternal life. Flanagan and Howard litter the show with their own takes on morality, humanism, empathy and the idea of faith vs science. After all, it's the character of Dr. Sarah Gunning (Annabelle Gish) who is one of the first to begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together and she does it from a scientific standpoint.

‘Midnight Mass’ struck a profound chord with me from the opening episode. There was something about the way the story began to unfold that just sent a chill up my spine and had me glued to the screen. I went in blind (ironic I know) but was cognitively aware that there was a mystery afoot, something that would slowly reveal itself to me and the fact that almost the entire show takes place on an island with a small(ish) cast excited the hell out of me. A contained story is usually always a better, more personable story.

I’m not an alcoholic or have never had a problem with drinking. In fact I stopped drinking alcohol before I turned nineteen, having tested the water for a couple of years. That being said I have experienced first hand how the disease affects a family, to an almost fatal outcome. In many ways some of the lingering trauma from that experience still exists for me and my family today. It wasn’t necessarily this portion of the story that grabbed me by the throat though. Having grown up in a moderately strict Catholic home and being made to attend weekly Mass (and on Holy days too) I could certainly relate to the religious aspect of the storytelling. Hardly a revelation is it? Going to Mass on a weekly basis. However as I watched I was gradually reminded of how the relationship between the Church and the community works. Flanagan purposefully shows extended scenes of the Mass and in particular Father Paul’s homilies, of which all are recited with boundless passion. Hamish Linklater never holds an ounce of himself back but he also never becomes a parody either. It could have been so easy for him to fall into the evangelical preacher role which would have felt ruthlessly unauthentic.

On any other show Linklater would be a stand out but the entire cast give him a real run for his money here. It took me a few episodes to warm to Zach Gilford who plays Riley but he eventually wore me down and his performance alongside Siegel and Linklater during his final episode is astounding. Shout out to Kristin Lehman and Henry Thomas who play Riley’s parents respectively. They’re sort of background characters for the most part with Thomas especially giving a muted performance however by the last episode I just wanted to hug them both intensely and never let go. Rahul Kohli is solid and subtle as Sheriff Hassan and Samantha Sloyan is outstanding as Bev Keane who becomes increasingly inciting as the show progresses, stealing nearly every scene she appears in.

The show naturally isn’t without its flaws. Some of the “monologues” felt a tad overwritten and perhaps would’ve worked better if positioned in a less than expostionary way. But it’s hard to be too nitpicky when you care so much about the characters and their journey.

Having led himself down a deep and dangerous path and having come through it to the other side, Mike Flanagan ends ‘Midnight Mass’ by culling the entire population of Crockett Island, save for the few fortunate teenagers who manage to escape. The show’s title works sort of as a double entendre which only begins to reveal itself right at the climax of the final episode. There is a “mass” killing spree which actually concludes in a “mass” suicide of sorts as the Islanders all come to accept (well most of them anyway) that their blind faith has been their undoing and that when the sun rises they will just simply… die. They were so addicted to the hopeful idea of a better life that it killed them.

For the final time, ‘Midnight Mass’ isn’t about vampirism, it’s about addiction. And redemption.

The final scenes are heartbreaking, an emotional crescendo as we see popular characters burn away as they sing and dance together, embracing who they were before the fanaticism took over. Before their addiction kicked in. It’s poignant to think that an alcoholic who murdered an innocent girl (Riley), a domestic abuse survivor (Erin), a gay woman of science (Sarah) and a Muslim outsider who feels banished (Sheriff Hassan) are the core heroes of the story who stand their ground against this new found island cult.

The conclusion of the series is a swan song to Flanagan’s own addiction and a celebration of how much he had to overcome in his personal life. He’s very obviously trying to highlight that there actually is an integrity in faith, it’s just that we have to find the right thing to have faith in. Despite the unthinkable tragedy that befalls the island there is hope at the end. There is a light.

“All of that is in this show. All of that turmoil, regret and shame… the beauty of forgiveness and faith set against the corruption of fanaticism. That feeling that we are alone in the cosmos, at war with the wish that we aren’t. The danger of moral certainty, the frailty of good intentions and the defiant endurance of faith itself, even in the face of annihilation.”

I’m always a little hesitant to use the word masterpiece when describing a piece of art because this show isn’t flawless. Is ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Led Zeppelin’s best song? Maybe, maybe not but it’s the song that they'll be most remembered for, that will always define them. It’s their most accomplished work. It's their “masterpiece”. ‘Midnight Mass’ feels very much like that. This feels like the work that will define Flanagan. You could make the metaphorical comparison that the process of getting this show made was like climbing an endless staircase, from the genesis of the idea in 2010 during Mike's darker days as an alcoholic to when the show finally aired a few years into his sobriety. It really was his "Stairway to Heaven". Flanagan has poured every bit of his soul into the concept, the writing and the character development and it will take something extra special to ever overthrow it.

- Gavin Logan

Quotes pulled from Mike Flanagan’s guest essay from Bloody Disgusting

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