Netflix Midnight Mass: freedom and sacrifice in the dark night of evil

by | Oct 3, 2021 | Latest, Movie Reviews

Spoiler warning ahead for the Netflix horror series. I’ve only seen this series once, and while I don’t love it, I think it is grounded in a message that is deep, and relevant, to humans everywhere.

(Check out my take on Catholics and the horror genre, and why horror can bring great value.)

Netflix Midnight Mass: freedom and sacrifice in the dark night of evil

In the early episodes of Midnight Mass, I remember feeling bursts of pride at how much reverence went into understanding Catholicism. I can’t remember many, if any, other shows that treated Catholicism is so much sensitivity and care.

Great attention went into the celebration of the Holy Mass. Fr Paul, the priest at the heart of the show, embodies a deep kindness and connection to his parish. We see him hosting daily Mass, constantly open and friendly, bringing the Eucharist to sickbeds, walking with the disabled child, and reaching out to the margins.

In the first few minutes of the show, we meet Riley, dazed and drunk from falling asleep at the wheel and killing a girl. He’s consumed with guilt, and refuses to accept that a loving God would allow him to survive. We also meet Erin, the ‘town saint,’ a girl who left the town to experience the world, and came back pregnant.

Crockett island, the scene of the show, is itself like a character. It functions like a walled-off stage, a place where the story happens. It’s also been beaten and punished by the sins of another. An oil spill killed off the fishing, the community shrank to bare numbers. Today, they all struggle to survive, while their homes rust out and clatter in the storms. Some parts of it are ordered, most are falling apart, and some of it is completely feral – like a human psyche.

Atheism vs Fanaticism

It seems pretty usual in supernatural stories to draw the tribe lines between smart atheists and fanatical religious. Atheists often tell stories about Christians as bigots and idiots. We often reverse the roles and prove them right.

Midnight Mass starts differently. The two main characters,  Riley and Erin, decide that atheism is the only acceptable answer to all the evil in the world. It’s a very natural response. But they don’t have the answers. They’re simple, working-class people, stuck in the absolute end of the world.

The religious characters – Fr Paul, and the snobby, self-righteous Beverly Keane – have answers to everything. They are deeply versed in Sacred Scripture, and can quote endless chains of verses to make their point. But unlike Fr Paul, Beverly is a narcissist. She is adamant about maintaining her influence and popularity as the rector’s right-hand.

The rest of the community, mostly Catholic fishermen, are caught in the middle. They feel the tension between hopeful faith and suffering reality. As long as they see clear order and leadership, they can be patient and listen to the sermons of hope. But in the 2nd half of the season, we see that a spark will light off a firestorm of anger and mob violence. It was simmering under the surface the whole time.

Netflix Midnight Mass: freedom and sacrifice in the dark night of evil

Guilt vs faith

Guilt is a constant pressure and presence. It itches at Riley, who doesn’t understand his place in the community, in life. It’s a regular joke that Catholics hyper focus on guilt. There’s a reason for that. Guilt can be redeemed. Humans can change.

Marvel’s Daredevil series gave one of the best answers to Catholic guilt; “guilt means you’re not done yet.” Riley suffers from survivor’s guilt. Fr Paul grapples that he feels no guilt at all. Erin feels like she lost her freedom. Beverly has no guilt at any point, even after accidentally killing the beloved dog of the local drunk.

Suddenly, things start going well. Elderly folk regain health. The town cripple walks again. More miracles are promised. The community rush together to celebrate the hope. Faith is renewed. The pews are packed.

But episodes 3 and 4 reveal two problems. And the real horror of the show begins.

Fr Paul turns out to be the former, aged pastor. But on a trip to the Holy Land, he unearthed a vampire demon, and was turned into a vampire. He can now get younger, and healthier. He calls this demon being the ‘Angel.’ And it convinces him to re-interpret the entire Christian narrative of sacrifice and resurrection in earthly terms. He smuggles this ancient being onto the island, and reveals that he has been feeding this demons’ blood to the community.

Secondly, Erin and Riley find solace in each other’s pain, and share their understanding of the afterlife. Riley can’t imagine anything good can come. He can’t forgive himself, and can’t imagine he would be forgiven. Erin has been shocked to find that her pregnancy has disappeared, and is shattered by it. For her baby’s sake, she wishes that Heaven was real, happy, and loving.

But this is the tension of the series. The young atheists have separated themselves from the community to preserve their freedom. As more miracles excite more people, they struggle to see how it all comes together. On the other side, Fr Pruitt is wracked with doubt and terror at what’s come over him, and his vampire nature has taken over.

Netflix Midnight Mass: freedom and sacrifice in the dark night of evil

Doubt and Fanaticism

With the demon’s blood in his veins, he continues to re-interpret every  line in Scripture. And his right-hand, Bev, is ecstatic that she get to support him and enforce his will. She doesn’t skip a beat or blink an eye when the bloody truth is smeared all over the rectory. She is such a fanatic, that on a dime, she can justify everything.

The final few episodes devolve into the horror fest we were promised. The island breaks down, is isolated from the mainland, and ends up completely burning. At the Easter Vigil, the Midnight Mass, everyone is locked in and officially turned into vampires, under the watchful glare of the demon.

The only few who escape are the children, an ‘Adam and Eve’ escape, who learn the lesson, and watch as everything they know and love is consumed by evil and fire. As the sun rises, the townsfolk realize there is no escaping the punishment they’ve earned, and they stand to meet the rising sun in song.

No one is perfect

The idea that the line between good and evil runs right through every human heart is part of the Christian message. It’s refreshing, and important, that the ‘best’ characters in this show aren’t presented as morally virtuous. No one is held up as good. Everyone is human, flawed, real.

The compassion and kindness in Fr Paul, leftovers from his past life as the island’s pastor, are beautiful models of ministering in a field hospital. And even when his sermonizing runs on long, we sense that he’s working through his own doubt. He’s externalizing his own fears and questions.

Evil is an ancient reality. It has agents that precede us, and live to harm us. The vampire demon from old Damascus is the symbol for this. It haunts the village, staring in at windows, attacking easy prey. It worms itself into everything, even into the holiest of places – the church, the rituals, the human heart.

The main characters are stunned to turn around and realize that under their noses, the town has already been turned into vampires. I see this as a serious and valuable lesson about the infectiousness of evil. And in our need to believe ourselves ‘good people,’ we will rationalize.

Rationalizing is a terrible thing. It always means justifying something we’re uncomfortable with, or something wrong, and finding a way to calm our consciences.

While this whole thing is a drama, and meant to shock us with things like liturgical blasphemy, it’s not that unbelievable.

Where is God in all this?

God is found in the strangest of places. When the center of civilization calcifies and hardens its heart, becomes self-referential and rigid, God withdraws into the hearts of those porous to goodness.

We find him working through the rejects. We see him prompting the main characters to obsess about forgiveness and goodness, self sacrifice and safety. When everyone equates faith with fanaticism, we find God working with the cool heads and hot hearts of those who are awake to life.

It’s said that Catholic stories aren’t always pleasant to Catholics. It’s very likely that this series is intended to get us to think about the danger of fanaticism, on any front. Fanaticism is repressed doubt, as Carl Jung said. The stultified, unquestioning mind is easy to prey on, and play with.

The whole point of horror is to remind us that we are perfectly capable of truly terrible evil. But there are also supernatural realities of evil – such as demons – who are hard at work too.

The single act to fight for freedom, freedom from everything evil and repressive, is the prompting of God.

As Catholicism has reflected and matured in this past century, we’ve realized that we attributed too many things to God. We expected to find him neatly categorized and boxed into manageable ideas. He has re-wilded himself.

The very presence and reality of this demon means that a good and positive reality is also present. But where is it? It isn’t immediately visible.

And that’s where we need to look. Between the lines. Because that’s where we find God. He doesn’t always appear in blinding visions, or great miracles. That time is done.

We find God prompting, inviting, and influencing good choices. Choices where we could look back and know that we were completely free to make them.

Evil does not respect freedom. It is subversive, demanding, violent, abortive. Human nature revolts against that. Rejects it.

That very rejection, that response of horror? That is the life of God. Fully, radically, respecting our freedom. And no matter what we get up to, still holding us all in existence.

Where was God when all these terrible things happened? That is Riley’s question.

He finds the answer when he sacrifices his life. He refuses to blindly shatter someone else’s any more. To further a system of evil. Right up until the last moment of his life, we can see that he’s tempted to drain Erin dry and preserve his life.

Instead, he shows her that he has found a way to do his best.

He finds God in the evening breeze, the breath of the Spirit in his heart.

No one is immune from evil

The books of the prophets in the Old Testament preach shocking and harsh messages about the nature of reality. Hell is self-inflicted, and bad choices merit punishment like an eternal law.

This isn’t just religious revelation. This is the law of nature. That’s how gravity works. That’s how human interactions work. Violate the laws of gravity or trust, and we instantly find ourselves in a world of pain.

Catholics today are going through a lot of soul searching. A lot of re-examination of our role in the world, and the responsibility we have for how badly our children have been catechized.

It’s sad that after a lifetime of Sunday school in an intense Catholic community, the two main characters found their own sanity in atheism. And even in the face of a clear and present demon, they couldn’t find a way to a Eucharistic faith. They instead found the reality of God in a good choice. In the sacred self-offering of Calvary, where everything is savaged and bleeding and dead.

Erin’s final acts to buy seconds of extra time show an inner strength that is unbelievable. She is dying, the beast is feasting on her, and she she doesn’t scream and flail. She holds true, like a lamb led to the slaughter, and offers it her own neck.

‘Midnight Mass’ is not really about the demonic inversion of the sacred mysteries of the Holy Mass. It’s not about the mingling of the ritual bloods, sacred and foul, divine and demonic.

It’s about the dark night of the soul, when all other lights have gone out. When no hope is possible, and we can only feel the pressure and anger of demons. This was something that many of the most powerful Christian saints endured. St Teresa of Avila, Teresa of Calcutta, Therese of Lisieux.

It is a time of trial, meant to help us expand our capacity for responsibility, self-sacrifice, and love. It’s the trek into Mordor, to the crest of Mount Doom. Until you have been tested to the utmost, you don’t know the capacity you have for greatness.

But more than that, I see this question as the true heart of the series:

Who are you, and what choices do you make, when everything you used to hold as holy seems evil in your sight?

This is not a strange question. Many today have been traumatized, such as victims of pederast priests, or terrible scandals, or abusive relationships. The victims in these moments face a truly terrible problem.

Everything that was good and whole and true has become a vampire to them. If you’re a traumatized Catholic, where do you turn? Christ himself dims away, obscured in a welter of feelings and pains and traumas.

What do you pray to? Where do you turn? Who now should you be?

Christopher Nolan’s Batman has Joker assume that everyone is a coward in their last moments. But ‘Midnight Mass’ is part of the response. The ragged hope that we can choose a good, true, and beautiful choice when all the stars have gone out. When nothing flies above us but a vampire.

Erin’s dying words are not the best answer in the Catechism. But is that remotely reasonable for her?

Her last thoughts are to hope that there’s a God, a greater something, greater than the hell around her. Something clean and beautiful and in sublime communion. To hope against all hope.

God will meet her there, in that narrowest of places.

Hope and grace

CS Lewis has Screwtape say that nothing is more dangerous than a human who holds to hope, even when he’s lost all cause for it.

Riley, Erin, and Riley’s mother go through their own ‘midnight mass’, where they offer themselves in darkness as sacrifices to save others.

This is the essence of good horror. That grace is not a happy, easy, and understandable thing. It’s gritty. It’s bloody. And the search for goodness must push you to the uttermost limits of your being.

In their final moments, these three characters grow into adults. They move past their fears, their simpering simplicity. They realize that there’s a part of them that evil can never touch.

A part that only they are responsible for. That is purely and completely theirs.

The center of their being. Christ told his followers not to fear the ones who could harm the body, but to fear the ones who could harm body and soul and drag you to hell.

‘Midnight Mass’ is just that. Everyone and everything may go to hell around you. It happens a lot. But will you?

Will you find your strength when all other lights go out?

The real monster is not the demon

The real monstrosity is not the vampire vested in Easter robes.

It is the blandness of beige Catholicism. 50% of the show is people sermonizing people. Bible references. On the one hand, it feels naiive, self righteous, and unreal.

One person really stood out as the psychopath. The one person who has no inner freedom and ability to respond to the good.

The self-righteous Beverly Keane.

But there’s also the dip into the dark self-righteousness of Fr Paul, desperately rationalizing every evil with a Scripture verse. The pewsitters (like Riley’s mom) with their pat answers to life’s problems that show an unwillingness, or an inability, to be truly present.

Netflix Midnight Mass: freedom and sacrifice in the dark night of evil

Bev stands as a symbol for the busy body who’s convinced they know better than everyone else. She’s a consummate narcissist, constantly using her position and intelligence to increase their power. She is a flattened fanatic who knows nothing more than the surface reading of Scripture. The Fury who’s narcissism keeps everything beige and controlled and normal.

The real demon of the show, is Acedia – meaning spiritual or mental apathy.

She sucks the blood and life out of everyone, so that the community shuffles around like spiritual zombies with fake smiles and endless Bible verses over Sunday decaf.

No one is truly alive. Wildly alive and free. Everyone is trying to be a ‘good little Christian,’ regularly repressing their questions, and nodding.

Even though the demon is imported all the way from Damascus, we find that this isolated garden, this Eden, had already been bled dry. Everyone was already secretly wishing they could vent their darkest impulses. Decades of superficial Sunday School did nothing to form consciences. Christianity was a whitewashing presence, putting bandaids on serious depression.

It’s a symbol for the Catholic problem at large.

Beige Catholicism is the greatest monster. It dampens fire and energy, keeps you nice and good, and steers you clear of conflict. It has no strength, no energy, no life. It’s a husk. The best it does is scrupulous attention to the liturgy, ensures everyone shows up on time, fixates on self-referential topics.

And when hell cracks open and a demon is unleashed among them, no one has any ability to respond.  We don’t know how.

I’m not saying that atheists and non-Catholics have an edge in this modern world. They are playing with fewer cards in their deck. But Catholics who are convinced we are good people, good enough to get by, are possibly/probably worse off.

What’s wrong with the world? It’s us. it’s me. The ready-to-settle Catholics who don’t have time for someone else’s pain, or someone else’s questions. Who aren’t modelling a vibrant witness to the joy of the Gospel. Who, deep down, see our religion as something vampiric, instead of Christ-like.

The church today needs energetic, constructive thinkers. People who truly see what’s wrong, and have integrated their anger properly. People with a lust for living, for Christ alive in them, ready and willing to take action without turning people away.

This is why we lose youth to a vague ‘spirituality,’ and why they don’t want to associate with religious structures. They don’t see life in them.

Netflix Midnight Mass: freedom and sacrifice in the dark night of evil

Midnight Mass shows us that the real threat to the world is the Bland Catholic.

Midnight Mass shows us the monster of modern, beige Catholicism. No Catholic in this series models the fire we see in the saints, the life and energy of Christians who truly live the Gospel.

The opening scene is the key, and sets the tone. The bland, blind life risks smashing to death the hopes and lives of others, and leaves everyone unable to live at all. The unreflective life turns us into playthings of ideologies, other pressures, and demons.

But the abundant life, free, full, open to life and the stranger and the building up of community, willing to find Christ in the pain and the joy of others… that’s the beginning of the answer.

Where was God in this show? Everywhere. Prompting the resolution, the conversions, the overcoming of the evil. But there’s no false promises. We don’t face our darkest fears and walk away unscathed.

God is not neat and easy. As soon as you think he is, you’re not thinking about God. He’s not a tame lion.

‘Midnight Mass’ is a symbol of the furthest fringe of human society coming up against the very fringes of good-evil itself. But this fringe island is a symbol for our world, and who we are in it.

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Dominic de Souza

Dominic de Souza
Cradle-Catholic passionate about the frontier between Faith, history, and science in the modern world. 

Dominic de Souza

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