The scariest thing our society can imagine is the Church with power and no love. Jonty Langley finds this expressed in new horror show Midnight Mass – and thinks this should scare us too
It’s always frustrating for Christian horror fans to hear other believers denouncing the entire genre – an entire aesthetic – as evil. There are plenty of Christian horror movies. There’s a long tradition of followers of Jesus making movies about the reality and danger of dark forces, so anti-horror prejudice always feels like distrusting dancing or the sinful beat in Jazz.
That said, Horror isn’t everyone’s thing. Tastes differ. And believing in the reality of evil doesn’t mean you want to watch it while eating popcorn.
Well, Midnight Mass is different. The new Netflix series will not tell you anything you didn’t already know about the devil. It’s not about him, really. It’s about us. Because we can be really scary.
We imagine monsters that represent the things we fear collectively. Our fear of foreigners, premature burial and vagrants gave us vampires and werewolves. Our anxiety over nuclear weapons gave us giant B-movie mutants, and our growing understanding of the depths of our subconscious minds gave rise to a fear of psychopathy made celluloid flesh in a thousand mad murderers. Recognition of racism and consumerism fuelled the fear behind zombie films. Social change (and the resistance to it) has made us nervous about science and its hubris (see The Exorcist), while a deep distrust of rural ways and beliefs has manifested in everything from The Wicker Man to modern Folk Horror.
Midnight Mass contains some of the fairest treatments of Christian characters I’ve seen on screen
Despite what it does on the surface, Midnight Mass turns a wary eye not on the usual, but on us. Yes, there is an element of supernatural monsters playing a part. But the traditional monster in Midnight Mass gets precious little screen time. The real monster is Christians. And while your natural reaction may be to want to avoid another Christian-bashing movie, I’d counsel peace and patience. Midnight Mass contains some of the fairest treatments of Christian characters I’ve seen on screen. But it also has a prophetic message to the Church.
Midnight Mass takes place in a remote island community separated from the US mainland. The community is very religious – very Catholic Christian – devout, decent and good. Sure, there are comically prim curtain-twitchers and self-important church members lording it over others in a slightly insensitive way, but every church has these people. And they are harmless. Aren’t they?
The action kicks off slowly, as the beloved old priest of the island is replaced by a younger man who brings a devout and yet accessible energy to the staid routines of the faithful. But he isn’t just bringing a breath of fresh air in his preaching and pastoral ministry. He brings miracles. He preaches extreme faith and is unafraid of saying things that the unchurched might find strange. Yet in all of this he is a beacon of grace and generosity in dealing with the weak, the sinful and those far away from God. Only the occasional phrase he says hints at heresy. And many reviews of the series have suggested that the message here is that we must be careful of what we worship, because it isn’t always God, even if we find it in the Church.
That’s a message for the ages, frankly, but the beauty of Midnight Mass is that it follows a good and godly community as it veers off into the darkness, led by some good people, and some who turn out not to be harmless at all. And all the way, they quote scripture. It is a metaphor for American evangelicalism over the last few years, but it is more than that. It is a prophetic message to Christians of good will, showing us ourselves through the lenses of our Muslim neighbours, our addicted neighbours, our LGBTQ neighbours – and any other neighbours we have failed to love.
If we take our faith seriously, we must be ever vigilant, for the rot of idolatry and prophecy often comes from the margins
That would be reason enough to watch it. If we take our faith seriously, we must be ever vigilant, for the rot of idolatry and prophecy often comes from the margins. But Midnight Mass goes, towards its end, from rebuking us to teaching us about grace, repentance and forgiveness. Some of the most powerful depictions of true regret for truly awful sin – and of God’s grace working through the Church – that I have ever seen on screen take place in Midnight Mass’s closing minutes. It’s honestly more of a shock than the big monster reveal. And it’s beautiful. Profound. Reverent.
Be warned: there’s much creepiness and some gore, but it’s worth watching. Midnight Mass shows the best and the worst of us – an excellent discussion of theodicy, a growing meditation on spiritual discernment and a lesson in remembering who and what our faith is in, even in the face of tragedies and miracles.
Anyone could get a lot out of it, but Christians will get more.