‘Midnight Mass’ and the Humanity within Mike Flanagan’s Horror

Mike Flanagan’s body of work has quickly become one of the most impressive in horror cinema, every piece of work imbued with its own sense of care and humanity. Effortlessly mixing conventional scares with the more existential horrors of grief, trauma, guilt, and loss, Flanagan’s trio of Netflix shows — The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and now Midnight Mass — manage to assault the viewer with plenty of ghosts and monsters whilst still delivering some of the most impactful, emotional, and genuine stories on screen. 

Of course this isn’t to discount Flanagan’s big-screen outings either. In Gerald’s Game, he delivered a pitch-perfect, squirm-inducing Stephen King adaptation, and he caught lightning in a bottle the second time with Doctor Sleep, somehow managing the impossible task of reconciling King and Stanley Kubrick’s famously conflicting takes on the world of The Shining. Plus, even before Midnight Mass, Flanagan proved that he is more than just an adapter of horror classics, as Hush and Oculus were both terrific original forays into the genre. 

With such a rich horror catalogue behind him already, nobody should have been surprised that The Haunting of Hill House struck a chord with audiences when it hit Netflix in late 2018. Flanagan reached new heights, using the longer episodic format to give his characters so much more time to grow and breathe, without sacrificing any of the scares or urgency of his theatrical releases. A story about familial tragedy, childhood trauma, and the marks it leaves on us, Hill House is just as resonant in its character work as it is frightening. While it’s almost unfair on the rest of the series to single any part out in particular, the “Two Storms” episode remains one of the most impressive feats of filmmaking ever to grace the genre, effortlessly blending past and present in an outstanding one-shot sequence that’s as remarkable for its technique as it is in its effectiveness in terrifying the audience. 

A large abandoned house in the darkness with lights on in each of its rooms seen from the outside. Pieces of wood lay on the ground in front of it, and the pale blue lighting creates an eerie atmosphere around the house.
Image courtesy of Netflix

It might have been surprising to some that Flanagan’s 2020 follow-up series The Haunting of Bly Manor does away with much of the more overt frights and infamous background ghosts littering every scene in Hill House, focusing instead on a tragic Gothic romance. It’s a moodier story and far less urgent, Flanagan clearly more concerned with slowly unravelling a mystery and fleshing out his characters than unsettling the audience. For some, it might have been too far of a departure from the scares he made his name with, but it was nice to see Flanagan flex his drama writing with a horror twist — it shows his versatility as a filmmaker, and it culminates in a series finale that delivers a gut punch every bit as powerful as Hill House

Both entries in Flanagan’s The Haunting anthology are masterclasses not only in horror filmmaking, but also in adapting classic horror literature. Hill House effortlessly transplants Shirley Jackson’s 1959 classic to the modern day whilst laying out an entirely different vision of its characters and themes, choosing to retain the core premise and terror of the original novel. Bly Manor is more ambitious still, delivering a period piece set almost a hundred years after Henry James’s original novella and short stories were published, and somehow combining them into a coherent and respectful narrative. The two series share themes of trauma, lost innocence and addiction, as well as a handful of core cast members, including Victoria Pedretti, Carla Gugino, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Henry Thomas, and one can only hope another series will expand on the anthology even further.

A young blonde woman standing between two men. She has a worried expression, looking away from the camera, and wears a white shirt and denim jacket. The man on her left has scruff and a tan jacket, while the man on her right wears a suit and tie. Both men are looking at the camera and the misty wood background creates an eerie vibe.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Then, there’s Midnight Mass. Flanagan says the series has always been a passion project of his; he first pitched it all the way back in 2014, and even snuck references to it into Hush in 2016 (which coincidentally or not, also stars two of Midnight Mass’s main players). Flanagan stepped out from behind the safety of adapting seminal works of literature from masters of horror like King, James, and Jackson, committing to his first fully original series. The result is his best work yet, and by far the most resonant exploration of all the themes that have defined his writing.

Separating its seven episodes as ‘books’ within a religious text, Midnight Mass’s focus on faith and religion extends much deeper than the surface level. It’s a deeply profound, personal, and vulnerable work, one that criticizes religious extremity while going well beyond the superficial two-dimensional depictions of fanaticism depicted in most horror. It’s a believable and sympathetic depiction of a community of faith, and an exploration of what would happen to such an isolated town upon the arrival of a higher power.

Horror’s relationship with religion is complex, and Flanagan draws from this rich history while perhaps going deeper than any of his inspirations. It’s impossible to escape the specters of religion-based horror classics like The Exorcist, and Flanagan very much toys with the baggage and expectations that such a comparison comes with. Despite how it might seem at first, the church is neither hero nor villain in Midnight Mass; the series walks a delicate, respectful line in depicting genuine, unwavering faith on-screen whilst also questioning the figures and hierarchies that can manipulate and exploit that belief. 

Filled to the brim with philosophical musings, lengthy monologues, and some of the sharpest dialogue on television in recent memory, Midnight Mass’s first few episodes might lose some of the audiences looking for a quick fix of scares like Hill House, but it’s all in service of creating a larger, deeper portrait of a community in crisis. It’s a story that’s difficult to discuss in depth without spoiling the mysteries at its core, and while its twists might catch some off guard, it culminates in a finale that’s as tender and heartbreaking as it is horrifying. 

A large group of people outside in the dark. They are walking down a road holding candles. Some of them are singing, while others look on with a serious expression.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Hamish Linklater is absolutely electric as Father Paul, the island’s newly-arrived priest who brings ill tidings both literal and figurative, and it’s hard not to be so enraptured by him that you’d gladly join his congregation. Rahul Kohli’s Sheriff Hassan is another anchor-point for the show’s depiction of religion, delivering a nuanced portrayal of a Muslim outsider trying to raise his son on an increasingly fanatical Christian island. Samantha Sloyan’s Bev is a contemptible but very real villain, and Zach Gilford and Kate Siegel’s dynamic as star-crossed childhood lovers Riley and Erin is as charming as it is engrossing in the philosophical debates they present in their search for redemption and acceptance. Each episode is so dialogue-heavy and laden with existentialism that it’s a credit to the cast’s remarkably distinct performances that the monologues don’t blend together into one long stream of consciousness. 

The cast, of course, is an incredibly big part of the success of all three of these series, and the fact that so many cast members return to Flanagan’s projects time and time again is a testament to his talent as an actor’s director. Just like the shared cast members of The Haunting series, there’s a delightful continuity of familiar faces through all of Flanagan’s projects. No man is an island, and every member of Flanagan’s troupe — from returning composers The Newton Brothers to his own wife Siegel (who has appeared in all of his projects with the exception of Doctor Sleep) — is partially responsible for his triumphs. With both another original series on the way and possibly their most ambitious adaptation yet in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Flanagan and his crew aren’t looking to slow down anytime soon either.

Maybe these actors keep returning to Flanagan’s roster with each new project because his vision of horror is one of the most compassionate, character-driven, and human of any working director. Some might prefer their horror to be cynical and nihilistic, but Flanagan’s is a unique kind of optimism, one that leaves tragedy and trauma in its wake but still engenders hope and empathy. There might be one too many monologues for some, but Flanagan’s work speaks with such honesty and earnestness that it’s almost impossible not to be won over. 

These series have been deeply personal for Flanagan, imbued with his own struggles and flaws; he’s talked candidly about his addiction, which is represented heartbreakingly well across all three, and in Midnight Mass, he presents his own experiences of living on an isolated island and amongst a community of faith. It’s this personal touch that sets Flanagan’s work apart in today’s horror landscape — in a sea of pessimism, anger, and carnage, his are some of the only projects that can thrill you and break your heart, but still leave you feeling a sense of warmth, faith, and humanity.