Mike Flanagan’s “Midnight Mass” is a new horror television series that aired on September 2021. The film community highly praises Mike Flanagan for his horror films, such as “The Haunting of Hil House” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor”. With the release of “Midnight Mass”, the filmmaker once again receives praise for his creativity and unique approach to the horror genre. “Midnight Mass” became a popular piece of discussion for film enthusiasts due to its themes of religious fanaticism along with its compelling monologues and overall story. Unlike Mike Flanagan’s other films, “Midnight Mass” did not contain horrific jump scares and chase scenes. The show focused on scaring the audience through the realistic depiction of fanaticism while still including a supernatural theme in the story. “Midnight Mass” thoughtfully covered fanaticism as religion through its complex and diverse characters, meaningful monologues, and a narrative that compels the audience to think existence.
“Midnight Mass” began with a car crash scene involving Riley, one of the key characters in the story. Riley accidentally killed a young woman in the crash and spent four years in prison for his crimes. He later returned to Crockett island, the main setting for “Midnight Mass”, after his sentence. Not long after Riley’s return, a charismatic priest came into the island and became the local religious leader. After a few days, the people of Crockett island began to experience miracles. The people’s illnesses began to disappear and their overall health suddenly improved. Leeza, another key character, regained her ability to walk while the old people on the island began to appear younger. The show later revealed that Father Paul, the charismatic priest, was the island’s previous old priest and has returned to Crockett with a winged creature. Father Paul called the creature an angel and believed that its blood will save the inhabitants of the island. Father Paul was mixing the angel’s blood with the sacramental wine which resulted in the miracles on the island.
Eventually, Father Paul and his followers decided to turn the island inhabitants into blood-thirsty creatures and provide them with eternal life. These blood-thirsty creatures burn when they go out in the sun and Father Paul was also one of them. The priest and his follower were successful in turning most of the church attendees except for some key characters. The survivors ended up burning the church and the recreation center which the blood-thirsty creatures planned to use to avoid the sunlight. All the houses and structures on Crockett island burned which left the inhabitants vulnerable to the sunlight. The show ends with all of the inhabitants dying in the sunlight except for two survivors that watched the island burn as they sit on a boat in the middle of the ocean.
Difference Between Religion and Fanaticism
While the story of “Midnight Mass” highlighted the dangers of fanaticism, it also aimed to differentiate the idea from religion. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, religion is a state of life under religious vows and an action that indicates a belief in a god or gods. The Christian religion dominated the show’s themes but characters like Sheriff Hassan and Riley represented different beliefs which were Islam and atheism. These characters had scenes that explained their beliefs and acted as anti-fanatical characters. In the middle part of the show, most of the island inhabitants turned to Christianity including the Sheriff’s son, Ali. The inhabitants began to develop fanatical characteristics while Sheriff Hassan and a few other characters cling to their belief in religion instead of blindly following a church leader.
The characters of Sheriff Hassan, Mildred Gunning, Sarah Gunning, and Erin Greene depicted authentic religious beliefs while Father Paul and his followers were religious fanatics. The former were the individuals that refused to consume the poison and turn into blood-thirsty creatures while the latter caused the tragedy that befell Crockett island. Religion understands that an individual cannot know God completely (Sharma). So when Father Paul and Bev Keane began to rationalize their unethical actions through quoting scriptures, they were not practicing authentic religion but fanaticism. During the last episode, Bev Keane decided to burn all the houses on Crocket island except for the church and the recreation center. She claimed that the flamed will act as the flood while the church and the recreation center will be the ark that saves the chosen. Bev claimed to clearly understand God’s plan and instruct Sturge to burn the houses. Father Paul even later argued with Bev when she asked him to lead the blood-thirsty inhabitants of Crocket. Father Paul stated that priesthood was supposed to be about God and not him. Here, he understood the meaning of religion and became aware of the fanatical actions that he has created.
Fanaticism in “Midnight Mass”
“Midnight Mass” depicted fanaticism through the actions of Father Paul, Bev, Sturge, and the Scarborough couple. The Cambridge Dictionary defined fanaticism as an extreme belief that leads to unreasonable behaviors. The belief can be about religion, political ideas, and other subjects of devotion. Oftentimes, loyalty to an idea can turn into fanaticism when an individual begins to act unreasonably in conviction towards the belief (Britannica). Marimaa (2012) provided five characteristics of fanaticism. The five are the extreme conviction to one’s beliefs, aggressive imposition of beliefs to others, dualistic worldview, unhealthy self-sacrifice for devotion, and putting the act of devotion over the subject of belief. These characteristics are highly present in “Midnight Mass” as the fanatical characters exhibit them in multiple ways. It is also important to note that the angel in the show symbolizes the idea of fanaticism and its blood, which provided immortality to the people, symbolizes the spread of fanatical ideas.
The characteristic of extreme conviction to one’s belief means that fanatics strongly believe that their religious, political, or personal understanding is the correct one. This characteristic leads them to blindly defend their ideals despite opposing evidence. In “Midnight Mass”, Father Paul and Bev have the habit of quoting scripture to rationalize their actions. They pick specific passages from the Bible and utilize them to fit the situation and their belief. When Father Paul first encountered the angel, it attacked and almost killed him. However, Father Paul saw a light that appeared to be a halo over the head of the creature which led him to believe that it was an angel. The audience can notice that the creature was not an angel but a type of vampire. It drinks blood, can turn humans into blood-thirsty creatures, and burn when in contact with the sunlight. The show and the characters never mentioned the word “vampire” but referred to it as an angel. This is a clear depiction of an extreme conviction towards a belief that “Midnight Mass” perfectly conveyed.
Fanatics tend to impose their beliefs on others through various methods. They form groups or cults to establish a network and have members to further spread their convictions. In “Midnight Mass”, Bev showcases the characteristic when she required the island students to own and read the Bible. Sheriff Hassan was against this because it was an act of forcing a specific religion on children. Despite his argument and Erin’s support, Bev ignored his opinion. Another example is Father Paul’s action of mixing the angel’s blood with the sacramental wine. As mentioned earlier, the angel’s blood symbolizes the spread of fanatical ideas. His action of feeding angel blood to the people without their consent is a depiction of forceful indoctrination. Father Paul became a blood-thirsty creature and believed that he achieved eternal life. He sought to impose the experience to the inhabitants which is a fanatical characteristic.
A dualistic worldview is another characteristic of fanatics that leads them to perceive the world in two divisions. Fanatics tend to associate themselves with groups and see other individuals as outsiders. Marimaa (2012) indicated in her paper that Christianity divides reality into “Christians and the world” and Muslims divide it into the “House of Islam” and the “House of War”. Similar to this, “Midnight Mass” divided the inhabitants of Crockett island as the blood-thirsty people and the unturned or the survivors. Bev showed this characteristic early on when she looks down on Riley, Erin, and Sheriff Hassan. These individuals have different beliefs and experiences that Bev found to be sinful to the eyes of the Lord. The dualistic worldview coincides with extreme conviction and imposition of belief as fanatics act upon these two characteristics due to their duality. Father Paul initially believed that the angel can grant eternal life and save those who drink it while those who refuse may suffer. This leads him to subtlety feed angel blood to the inhabitants as he wanted them to be a part of his flock.
The fanaticism characteristic of unhealthy self-sacrifice is the most common characteristic of fanatics. This trait leads fanatics to perform unreasonable behavior that can harm others and themselves. They commit self-sacrifice to spread their ideologies and show their unwavering devotion. In “Midnight Mass”, the inhabitants of Crocket island depicted this characteristic when they willingly drank the poison that Bev served them. During this part of the show, the inhabitants have begun to develop blind devotion to Father Paul due to the miracles that have happened during his stay on the island. The inhabitants became fanatics and willingly committed self-intoxication to show their faith. An early example of unhealthy self-sacrifice was when Sturge fed Riley some of his blood. When Sturge raised his sleeves, it revealed bandages signifying that Sturge may have been feeding Father Paul his blood. This was a clear sign of unhealthy self-sacrifice as he was harming himself to provide sustenance to creatures that he does not fully understand but believes are part of God’s will.
The last characteristic of fanaticism is putting the act of devotion over the subject of the belief. This characteristic means that fanatics tend to give importance to showing their devotion through self-sacrifice and imposing their beliefs rather than having loyalty to the subject. Fanatics tend to create rationalizations for their actions using holy scriptures, testimonies, and other texts that they associate with their beliefs. In “Midnight Mass”, the inhabitants began to blindly follow the teachings of Father Paul instead of worshipping God. When the priest asked them to drink the poison to show their devotion, it showcased that the inhabitants value the act of loyalty over their relationship with God. Ali, for example, was a Muslim that converted to Christianity and he tried to show his faith by drinking the poison. His action is a perfect representation of putting the act of devotion over the subject since he followed Father Paul’s instructions rather than develop a relationship with God.
Thoughtful Consideration for Religion
While “Midnight Mass” overtly depicted fanaticism in the form of religious beliefs, it was careful in differentiating authentic religion with fanatical ideas. Riley Flynn, Erin Greene, Mildred and Sarah Gunning, Riley’s family, and Sheriff Hassan were individuals that showcased the meaning of religion. These individuals have different beliefs that they developed through experience which may have allowed them to avoid becoming fanatics. Most of these individuals have monologues during the show that explained their beliefs and their personal relationship with their god.
Riley and Erin are individuals with seemingly opposing beliefs that by the end of the show became partially synonymous. Riley became an atheist as a result of his pursuit of the truth about God while Erin frequently goes to church to build a relationship with God and start a new life on the island. These two characters had a scene where they both described their ideas on the events during and after death. The scene was an important part of the show as it not only allowed Riley and Erin to express their ideas but also tell the viewers that the show is not just about religious fanaticism but about the overall topic of life. Riley’s dialogue expressed a death experience that is separate from God or religion while Erin’s idea carried the same context but with a unique depiction of a God. These dialogues were a representation of different beliefs and religions that is separate from fanaticism.
Sheriff Hassan delivered another monologue that described his experience as a Muslim in a Christian-dominated setting. He stated that people saw him as a terrorist due to the fanatic actions of certain terrorist groups and individuals. He revealed that he chose to move to Crockett island to escape the prejudice of civilization, however, he still found himself judged and ostracized due to his beliefs. Sheriff Hassan’s monologue carried a meaningful message that fanaticism is omnipresent and it is up to an individual to protect themselves from it. Aside from the monologue, “Midnight Mass” included a scene in the ending where Sheriff Hassan and his son prayed to Allah as the sun began to rise over the island. This was the last prayer that the father and son held as both of them died. The scene highlighted that religion is separate from fanaticism as the former motivates humility in not understanding God wholly while the latter invokes unquestioning conviction to a particular truth.
Riley’s family along with Mildred and Sarah Gunning symbolized authentic religious belief similar to Erin. Riley’s mother and father turned to blood-thirsty creatures not because they drank poison but due to sacrifice for others. When the two turned, they were able to resist the temptation of attacking others to obtain blood. Mildred Gunning also turned after the angel attacked her but resisted the temptation similar to the Flynn couple. This showed their close relationship with God as they did not blindly follow Father Paul and put God over him. Their resistance symbolizes that a true relationship with God is personal and one does not need to show their devotion through extreme methods. When Sturge shot Sarah Gunning, Father Paul tried to turn her but she refused to drink the angel’s blood. This is another depiction of refusing fanatical ideas despite the benefits they can provide.
“Midnight Mass” approached religious fanaticism through its diverse characters such as Riley, Erin, Father Paul, Bev, Sheriff Hassan, and others. The show’s characters possessed different beliefs and perspectives that allowed the viewers an insight into fanaticism and religion. Characters like Father Paul, Bev, and the angel embodied fanaticism and its different characteristics. Erin, the Flynn family, and Mildred symbolized authentic religious beliefs that greatly differ from fanaticism. “Midnight Mass” characters delivered dialogues that compelled the viewers to think about life and their beliefs. The show highlighted the difference between religion and fanaticism through its stories and characters. It included scenes that showed the dangers of fanaticism as well as the beauty of religious beliefs. “Midnight Mass” carefully covered fanaticism through supernatural themes as well as dialogues that purposefully explained authentic religious beliefs.
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Sharma, Arvind. “The Difference Between Faith and Fanaticism.” The Daily Guardian. 20, April 2021. https://thedailyguardian.com/the-difference-between-faith-and-fanaticism/. Accessed October 20, 2021.