*This article contains SPOILERS for the entirety of Midnight Mass*
Midnight Mass isn’t just a new horror flick - this miniseries is piercing through the Christian issue of faith, community, and religious extremism like a stake to the heart. What happens when the blood of Christ becomes tainted with someone else?
“17 Then [Jesus] took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” [Luke 22:17-20 (NRSV)]
As a genre, horror gets a bad wrap. Some people just don’t enjoy the sensation of being scared. Others see the themes and mythology of the genre as downright demonic. For this reason, the church rarely, if ever, associates with horror or pays it any mind. The feeling is clearly mutual, as horror movies typically choose the religious as the main antagonists within their storytelling.
As a pastor, I’d be lying if I said that the animosity between the two didn’t cause tension. I don’t want to be in the occupation of the bad guy every single time.
The Horror of Midnight Mass
When I sat down to watch the wildly popular new Netflix horror miniseries Midnight Mass, I was almost immediately worried about it bleeding into this common trope.
The show is set on Crockett Island, a small fishing village off the U.S. coast. Much of the story centers on the lives of the devout members of the local Catholic parish. When the aging Monsignor Pruitt goes on a tour of the holy land, he stumbles into a cavernous area and is mauled by a terrifying winged vampire-like being. The vampire returns the man to his youth (trading his humanity in turn) and Pruitt interprets this miraculous healing as the work of an angel. He returns to Crockett Island, stowing the vampire-angel in his luggage, with the intention to slowly but surely turn the members of his flock into eternally living vampires, as well.
How will the right Reverend do this act, you ask? Oh, nothing too heretical or anything.
His plan is simply to sneak droplets of the vampire's blood into the communion wine over the course of the Lenten season. On Easter, he plans to hold a ‘midnight mass’ (get it?) in which he will feed the congregation rat poison, so that they might first die ‘to themselves’ and be reborn as eternally-living vampires.
It shouldn’t take even a base-level theology course to understand that this is an unethical and immoral act… right? We have a muddy past with the Eucharist to say the least. From the members of the early church being accused of cannibalism to the scandal of using Welch’s grape juice, Christians love to divide and disagree over the sacramental mystery of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the bread and cup.
The truth of this series and it’s biting commentary on the religious institution is that writer, director, and creator Mike Flanagan isn’t making an argument for or against the mystery of the sacrament. There’s no doubt that Flanagan has thoughts and opinions on these things - but his storytelling only cares about one thing: the people behind the thing.
One of the hallmarks of Flanagan’s body of work is that he cares much more about the lived reality of his characters than the supernatural mystery of the story. For instance, The Haunting of Hill House isn’t about a haunted house at all - it’s about the stages of grief present in the kids that grew up within the walls. (Seriously - go watch it, it’s so good.)
Is Monsignor Pruitt wrong? As a theologian, I disagree with his actions. Mixing any other blood with Jesus’ blood in the sacrament is pretty atrocious. But he has discovered the gift of eternal life. As a shepherd to his congregation, he then brings that gift back to his people that he loves. Does this action have consequences? Of course. Does his plan work? Spoiler alert, it does not. But did he do this thing with good intentions? Subjectively, I think he truly did have the best interests of his congregation at heart.
That’s what makes this story so excellent - the horror isn’t found in the jump scares, or the gore, or even the mystery. The true horror of Midnight Mass is that we can somehow relate to the humanity presented by the characters.
What could be more horrifying than someone turning his congregation into vampires by poisoning the Eucharist? Well, maybe empathizing with that person.
I disagree with Pruitt on a professional level, but I’m capable of understanding why he did what he did - and that’s terrifying. I want my villains to be black-and-white evil, but Pruitt is far from that. To be honest, he isn’t evil in the slightest. And that’s true horror.
Body, blood and Eucharist
The horror of the Eucharist is that it’s entrusted to our broken, imperfect, and all-too-human hands. The blood of Jesus is far from gore - it’s redeeming. The only way for the sacrament to be disturbed is by our own actions as human beings. Like Flanagan’s storytelling, the mystery of the sacrament is static - it’s the humans behind the thing that muck it up.
As a defense for the horror genre, this is why I see value in Flanagan’s commentary. Monsignor Pruitt is just the tip of the iceberg. For the Christian, Midnight Mass is a must-watch. From the hymns that they sing to ‘that member of the church,’ this story will convict anyone of the humanity behind the church. Then it will fill you with faith all over again with a tearful ending.
The reminder that we are broken, that we are imperfect, and that we are in need of a Savior - isn’t it ironic that these things can come out of the darkness of a story like this? Thank God for horror!