Midnight Mass: what Netflix’s religious horror gets right – and wrong – about Catholicism

Full of secrets: Father Paul, played by Hamish Linklater - Netflix
Full of secrets: Father Paul, played by Hamish Linklater - Netflix

Warning: contains spoilers

With religion – as much as horror – Midnight Mass creator Mike Flanagan knows his stuff. “It is literally impossible to overstate how well Mike knows the Bible,” said Flanagan’s regular producing partner, Trevor Macy. “The quotations he can pull just out of the air are pretty remarkable and uniformly accurate.”

Following his acclaimed Hauntings of Hill House and Bly Manor, Flanagan’s Midnight Mass – on Netflix now – is his most personal work, a horror story that he’s been circling for more than a decade (turned down by various TV execs, Netflix included) and which channels his real-life battles with both faith and alcoholism.

The seven-part series sees Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) return to Crockett Island – home to a small Catholic fishing community – after four years in prison for killing someone while drink driving. At the same time, an enigmatic, ever-so-off-kilter priest, Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) arrives on the island and begins a miraculous religious revival. Miraculous in the purest, most literal sense of the word.

Flanagan combines religion and alcoholism – temptation, guilt, and forgiveness hang heavy over Crockett – and the show goes to obvious pains to accurately depict Catholic rituals and life. Flanagan was raised a Catholic himself – a long-serving, dutiful altar boy.

“Mike Flanagan’s Catholic upbringing and his consultation with priests as technical consultants to get the details right is quickly evident,” said the Catholic website, Our Sunday Visitor. “Unlike other horror genre projects that simply use sacramentals as set pieces, Midnight Mass feels thoroughly Catholic until the story’s arc takes us far, far afield.”

Indeed, there’s impressive attention to detail. But what do Catholics think about Midnight Mass turning religion into a horror story? Has it divided viewers of faith?

“Horror is inherently divisive, especially among people with different scruples and sensitivities,” says Steven D. Greydanus, a New Jersey deacon and film critic for the National Catholic Register. “From what I’ve seen, many Catholic viewers deeply appreciate just seeing sincere, decent Catholic believers on the screen […] so often on the screen Catholicism is equated with creepiness. There’s certainly creepiness here, but it isn’t equated with Catholicism.”

“I found the depiction of ordinary Catholic life fairly accurate, and I thought many of the characters articulated aspects of faith with authenticity,” explains Amy Welborn, a Catholic author and blogger. “It was refreshing to see faith and philosophical issues debated fairly intelligently onscreen.”

Amy scored the series just 5/10 (for “plot holes, loose ends, and a basic metaphysical vacuum”) but praised its faithful depiction of Mass – the ritual which Flanagan tends to most carefully.

Amy noted small details: the altar boys sit in the correct posture during the service – back straight, hands on knees (“the fruit of clearly ‘correct’ training,” she wrote) and Fr. Paul adopts an old school technique when he consecrates the wine – bowing down to speak the words into the chalice. The technique is now also adopted by younger, modern priests.

Dr Jacob Phillips, director of theology and liberal arts at St Mary’s University, also commented on Flanagan’s accuracy. “I was surprised at how inextricable it is from the mechanics of the Catholic religion – at how factually correct it is,” he says. “Little things that only a real cognoscente would notice – like the translation of Mass is the old translation. I thought it was a massive gaffe until a member of the congregation commented on it.”

The Netflix horror series is from the makers of The Haunting of Hill House - Netflix
The Netflix horror series is from the makers of The Haunting of Hill House - Netflix

A new translation of Mass was authorised in 2011 – one closer to the original Latin, replacing a translation used since the Sixties. The new translation, deemed more conservative and retrograde, caused some controversy among some priests and liberal Catholics.

In the show, Riley’s father (Henry Thomas) thanks Fr. Paul for using the previous translation. “Thanking a priest for the pleasure of hearing the old translation is potentially controversial, showing how sad some people were about the change of 2011,” says Phillips.

Catholic viewers have pointed out errors, such as Fr. Paul preparing communion wine on Good Friday – when Mass of the Presanctified takes place, which uses bread already consecrated at a previous Mass – and the good folk of Crockett Island eating hotdogs on Ash Wednesday. “Famously one of the only two days a year that both fasting most of the day and abstaining from meat are obligatory for Catholics!” wrote one reviewer.

The Midnight Mass composers – The Newton Brothers, Taylor Newton and Andy Grush – have commented on how Mike Flanagan wanted the show to also sound authentic. Hymns (mostly chosen by Flanagan) include Abide with Me, Were you There, and Come, Darkness – used to both haunting and rousing effect. Andy Grush also grew up Catholic and played in church; in Midnight Mass he plays the organist.

Amy Welborn identified the background character as being faithful to real life. “My 16-year-old son is an organist in a small parish,” she says, “and for some reason I found this never-speaking pony-tailed character – always at the ready, working away at the keyboard, turning to listen to the rest of the service – to be a knowing, realistic, and weirdly charming element.”

Correct posture: Midnight Mass - Netflix
Correct posture: Midnight Mass - Netflix

Some errors – such as Fr. Paul wearing the gold vestment during “ordinary time” (this vestment should be worn on days of celebration) and him using the old translation of Mass – are deliberate and referenced in the story. Both a testament to Flanagan’s Catholic knowhow and him setting up the horror to come.

Nick Ripatrazone, a Catholic author and journalist, points out a similar play with tradition. “St. Patrick’s, the parish in the series, feels much more like a Protestant than a Catholic space, including the architecture and atmosphere of the church itself,” he says. “Mike Flanagan’s a former altar boy, so this isn’t a ‘mistake’ as much as it might be a deliberate way to render this parish as surreally Catholic, or just a bit ‘off’ – which is the opening needed to radically change the Catholic vision of the world needed for horror.”

Jacob Phillips cites the depiction of Fr. Paul himself as authentic. After coming to Crockett Island, Fr. Paul sets about setting up an AA chapter for Riley, and offers Mass to a dementia-stricken, bedridden woman. “There is something very priestly about him,” says Phillips. “He’s someone who does what he can for the community. Not about moral instruction, but standing alongside people – being at their service. It was a really nice understanding of priests.”

Mike Flanagan made the connection between Catholicism and horror as a child. He troubled Sunday Schoolers with questions such as: “So, if we're drinking blood and eating flesh to stay alive forever, aren't we vampires?” Midnight Mass draws those parallels: Holy Communion and feasting on blood; the resurrection and the undead; the divine and the monstrous.

Fr. Paul’s secret, so we learn, is that he’s transforming into a vampire (though “vampire” is never said; Fr. Paul believes it’s a divine happening) and the sudden miracles on Crockett Island, from a cured achy back to a paralysed girl arising from her wheelchair to walk again, are the result of Fr. Paul spiking the Sacrament with blood from what he thinks is an angel: a winged, Nosferatu-like creature.

The overlapping of horror and Catholicism: Midnight Mass - Netflix
The overlapping of horror and Catholicism: Midnight Mass - Netflix

Even more far-fetched than hotdogs on Ash Wednesday is the parish’s reaction to the “angel”. As Steven Greydanus explains, the parishioners fail to make a simple assumption – one that would be obvious to anyone of faith. Not that the creature is a vampire, but that it’s a demon. It does look rather devilish.

“No one even calls the creature ‘evil’,” says Greydanus. “Can you imagine being in the church at the Easter Vigil and Father Paul telling you this bat-winged horror is an ‘angel’, and not immediately going ‘Uh, demon?’ The typical logic in paranormal horror films with Catholic or religious elements, from Terence Fisher’s Hammer films to The Exorcist, The Omen, the Conjuring films, and such, is that the existence of the devil implies the existence of God. But no one here is thinking of the devil – not even the believers.”

It could be partly due to the show leaning into science. For all the religion and supernatural events, vampirism is explained as a virus by Crockett’s resident doctor (Annabeth Gish), who fights the disease like a modern-day, science-backed Van Helsing.

The angel also, however, comes from Flanagan's Bible knowledge. “What is an angel in the Bible?” Flanagan said in an interview with The Wrap. “It’s an inhuman creature that is described as striking terror into the hearts of everyone who encounters it and is dispatched to do these horrible things.”

Ezekiel described a cherub as positively horrifying: having four faces – human, ox, lion, bird – with four wings, human hands, and hooves.

Netflix’s new horror series comes from the makers of The Haunting of Hill House - Netflix
Netflix’s new horror series comes from the makers of The Haunting of Hill House - Netflix

Flanagan references a theme from the 1995 film, The Prophecy, in which Christopher Walken plays Archangel Gabriel: “Whenever God needs to do something really awful, he sends an angel. Would you ever really want to meet one?”

Indeed, the overlapping of horror and Catholicism goes back much further than The Exorcist. As Mike Flanagan has said, there’s plenty of horror in the Good Book: angels slaughtering Egypt’s firstborn; rivers of blood; plagues of locusts; a pillar of fire; the world drowned. “The Bible is a blood-soaked text,” Flanagan told Daily Dead. But also pointed out it's not unique to the Bible. “In a lot of the older religions, the further back in history you go, the bloodier it is, and the more horrific,” he said.

In Midnight Mass, Bible scripture is twisted by Crockett’s real villain: Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), an infuriatingly conservative parishioner whose prim, proper, passive aggression transcends to a holier-than-thou massacre. Midnight Mass does some interesting reworking of vampire lore – but also mixes in a Kool-Aid of real-world horrors.

Bev is a stereotype – on the same self-righteous spectrum as Carrie’s fanatical mother and the preachy supermarket harridan from The Mist – but she’s the dark heart of Midnight Mass: a warning of corruption.

“I would say that Midnight Mass captures the problems of zealotry writ large, which transcends Catholicism specifically," says Nick Ripatrazone. (Mike Flanagan said that while exploring different faiths he was struck by “how easily a religion supposedly built on love could be made to breed hate”).

The real villain: Bev Keane - Netflix
The real villain: Bev Keane - Netflix

Bev uses scripture to justify murder and the quite obviously evil business of vampirism. After Fr. Paul kills one of the locals and laps up his blood, Bev quotes Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew – now a rationale for grisly violence. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace,” Bev says. “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”

Is this use of scripture problematic for Catholic viewers?

“No, it's not problematic from a spiritual standpoint,” says Amy Welborn. “As we note from, for example, the stories of the Temptation of Jesus in the Desert from the Gospels, evil forces are traditionally depicted as easily conversant on the Word of God. It points to a deeper truth of how darkness is able to tempt us because it can use what is good for its own purposes.”

Steven Greydanus agrees: “Bev is the kind of person who has a weaponised scripture verse for every occasion. They always say exactly what she wants them to. God’s word is holy, and it’s a dreadful thing to put our words in God’s mouth and make the creator of all things our sock puppet, but it’s certainly a thing people do all the time.”

“Part of the Catholic understanding of the Bible,” says Jacob Phillips, “is that it’s actually quite dangerous if untethered from unauthorised structure and interpretation – which the church provides. There might be fringe people who’d say this is offensive and you must not watch, but they’d be in a minority.”

Steven Greydanus compliments the show for having its final bit of Bible scripture coming from the island’s wholesome Muslim sheriff. “He makes the sun rise on the evil… and the good,” says Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli), quoting Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount – minutes before the sun does indeed rise and scorch the vampires into oblivion.

It is, perhaps, a message about the right kind of faith. Which could make the conclusion even more problematic for religious viewers.

Midway through the series, Riley and Erin (Kate Siegel) debate what happens after we die. Riley – a religion-critical atheist – describes a science-based view. (“The electricity disperses from my brain ‘til it’s just dead tissue”). Erin, however, offers a rather beautiful interpretation of heaven. But later, in the final minutes, Erin reimagines the scene – now positing that we’re all just particles in the cosmos.

Crockett Island goes up in flames - Netflix
Crockett Island goes up in flames - Netflix

The original debate was well received. “Which only meant a lot of people, including me, were upset and disappointed when the series effectively takes back Erin’s monologue in the revisionistic sequence at the end," says Steven Greydanus. “Erin imagines the discussion differently as she’s dying, and winds up affirming science-inflected pantheistic mysticism. I think that monologue is the series’ worst misstep.”

“If Flanagan is telling us that there is no actual meaning in our lives or actions, if it's all just momentary arrangements of material particles,” says Amy Welborn, “then why did we just spend seven hours watching a purported conflict between ‘good’ and ‘evil?’ If none of that matters or even really exists? What's at stake? Nothing, as it turns out.”

Phillips’ overall impression is that Midnight Mass is “anti-Catholic” and has a reductive portrayal of parishioners.

“It’s this typical Netflix worldview,” he says about the show’s liberal stance. “Catholicism is dangerous – full of petty, prejudiced opinions – and these small-town people are easily manipulated into a religious fervour. It would have been refreshing to not go into that same territory.”

Nick Ripatrazone is more positive about the show’s message of faith. “We need to believe in order to live,” he says. “Belief offers us meaning, but belief is not certainty. In the end, belief is hope – and no matter the subgenre, horror is all about hope. Hope that the characters can survive evil; hope that the audience would never encounter true evil in their own lives. However terrifying, Midnight Mass does end with a profound sense of hope.”

Midnight Mass is streaming on Netflix now