Midnight Mass: When religion becomes a horror  

Midnight Mass: When religion becomes a horror  


Mike Flanagan’s passion project, Midnight Mass, attempts to inquire into, if not entirely critique, religion and faith. By putting a Stephen King-esque spin on the  Bible, it illustrates how the holy word, since centuries, has been systematically instrumentalized by religious institutions to justify even acts of violence.

“Now make no mistake. It is a war, and there will be casualties. And we must be soldiers. God will ask horrible things of you. Horrible. Just look at what He asked of His own son. What is otherwise horrible is good because of where it’s headed… Welcome to God’s army.”

– Father Paul

Father Paul calls for a ‘just’ war just as the Pope called for the Crusades. And instead of being frightened or questioning his intentions, the inhabitants of  Crockett Island nod their heads in agreement, believing they are acting as soldiers of God. The line between evil and ethical soon gets blurred, as morality comes to be seen as a fluid concept that ‘changes’ according to the will of God. The evangelical horrors unleashed by the priest are viewed as an indispensable exercise in restoring the Christian faith, in complying with God’s plan.  By citing the holy scriptures, he reiterates his belief that the ends justify the means;  that the mission of spreading the gospel, though a bloody affair, will bring them salvation. Ironically, it is this very promise of being saved from the damnation that leads to their doom.

It is interesting to note that there is no actual presence of God throughout the show, which calls into question the legitimacy of Father Paul’s rather  Shakespearean-style sermons. This physical absence of a higher power, though not meant to be the central question in the show, is indeed a subtle reminder of the atrocities committed in the name of God. Even though God takes a backseat in  Flanagan’s fictional island just as in reality, the idea of God, promulgated by the  Catholic Church, is still very much present. Christianity looms over their public and private lives— it is as much a guest at the dining table as it is a prayer at the church.

Riley’s atheistic beliefs are met with contempt by his Catholic father, Sheriff Hassan is a victim of Islamophobia, and Sarah Gunning’s homosexuality and rationality are scorned upon. God, even in his absence, permeates the everyday.  The abrupt arrival of Father Paul only exposes this mass hysteria and facilitates the rise of a fanatic catholic mob. By the end of the show, Crockett Island turns into a town from The Walking Dead as a majority of the people choose, by will or by force, immortality over morality.

While some express an unwavering belief in theological fatalism and thus embrace vampirism, others fall victim to Bev’s propaganda and fear-mongering tactics. (She once quotes Deuteronomy. “The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord, your God, that man shall die.”) Indeed, it is as much a choice as it is a compulsion. In any case, it is evident that their religious beliefs are determined more by their fear of death than by pure faith.  After all, even the ferociously devout Bev, in her final moments, is shown to be afraid of the inevitability of death.

Contrary to their claims, their devotion towards God is conditional and layered with corrupt desires (Father Paul brings back the ‘angel’ with him only to save, and reunite with his lover, while Bev wishes to establish a social hierarchy and cheat death). It is almost a carefully structured response to existential threats, to the psychological warfare instigated by the Church. Religion in the hands of the oppressor becomes a weapon and a curse disguised as a miracle for the oppressed.

Flanagan’s approach to religion demonstrates the long-standing debate about the efficacy of free will against God’s presumed omniscience. Though the heroic characters of Riley, Annie, Erin, Hassan, Mildred, Sarah, and Leeza all share different ideas of faith, they are united by their ability to exercise free will and resist the temptation of an eternal ‘sinless’ life. They are the only ones to understand that the endless cycle of sin, grief, and repentance operates not due to some holy intervention but due to their own individual choices.


Riley’s critique of organized religion in Book II: Psalms actually reminded me of  Bhagat Singh’s renowned essay ‘Why I am an Atheist. Bhagat Singh argues that the prevalence of suffering and the regular occurrence of crimes contradicts the claim that God is omnipresent. In fact, he goes as far as addressing God as the sadistic ‘Nero’ who takes pleasure in inflicting pain and in creating a living hell of tragedies. Religion, according to him, appears as a ‘useful myth’ to those in distress, ultimately rendering them powerless. These ideas are reflected in Riley’s monologue, which also questions the theists on the authority of God and exhibits his sense of self-awareness. By rejecting theodicy, he not only holds himself accountable for his actions but also emphasizes that we are our own higher power,  that we are capable of choosing our own paths.

“I had killed someone. I am to blame there. And God? He just kinda let it happen,  didn’t he? There’s so much suffering in the world. And then there’s this higher power who could erase all that pain, just waves his hand and make it all go away,  but doesn’t? No. No, thank you. We can watch so many people just slip into these bottomless pits of.. awful and we can stand it. We can tolerate it because we can  say things like, “God works in mysterious ways.” Like there’s a plan? Like something good’s gonna come out of it? Nothing good came out of my drinking.  Nothing good came out of me killing that poor girl. And the only thing, the only  fucking thing that lets people stand by, watching all this suffering, doing nothing,  doing fucking nothing, is the idea that suffering can be a gift from God. What a  monstrous idea, Father.”

– Riley

Even Leeza, Annie, and Mildred, who were perhaps some of the strongest believers of God, are able to see the horrific implications of Father Paul’s ‘miracles’. Their faith in humanity turns out to be greater than their faith in any divine power.



Interestingly, some of the most important critiques of Father Paul and Bev’s evangelic propaganda come from a man of another faith, Sheriff Hassan. Being a Muslim, he is the obvious ‘outsider’ in a community of bigots, a victim of the growing catholic fervor. Though he believes in God and is a religious man, his faith is grounded in reality. While others, including his own son, celebrate the  ‘miracles’ happening on the island, he remains skeptical of the Church’s motives and questions the rationality of such an other-worldly phenomenon. (“That is not how God works.”)

For him, God doesn’t judge anyone as less or more worthy of suffering.

“You are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” This seems to be the basis of the idea of God held by Erin Greene, perhaps the most powerful character of the show. For her, religion is not about scriptures and God is not a superior being who controls everything. Her God, instead, stems from a more cosmological understanding of the world; God is the profound connection between people and nature and it transcends time and space.



This coming together of various ideologies is what defines both the central conflict and the resolution in the show. While others are quite literally blinded by faith (the angel’s blood gives them a ‘godly’ vision), these are the people who prove to be the real messiahs.

Midnight Mass, like most Flanagan projects, relies on heavy symbolism to convey the frequently overlooked unsettling elements of the Bible. As he brings to life The  Stations of the Cross, religion takes the form of a demonic entity (the word  ‘vampire’ isn’t uttered even once). But the show is not concerned with unraveling its origins or understanding the meaning of its existence. Its area of interest lies,  instead, in the response of the community to the entity. After all, it is the people who welcome it as an angel of God. It is the people who use it as a weapon, as a  means of acquiring unbridled power. What had come to ‘save’ humanity ends up killing it. And by the end, it becomes clear (at least to the viewers) that people like  Bev are the real demons.


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