Midnight Mass is difficult, disturbing, and beautiful. Here's what we can learn from it.
If you know me, you know I love horror. There are a few horror filmmakers that I trust entirely to surprise and scare me, and Mike Flanagan is one of them. So it's safe to say his new show, Midnight Mass, was one of my most anticipated watches of the year. I stayed up late the night it hit Netflix and binged the entire series over a weekend.
Was I crying and shaking alone in my living room at 1 a.m. the night I finished it? Yeah, okay, I was.
The limited series is set on a small fishing island where the local Catholic parish looms large over the community. After a fatal car accident and jail time, Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returns to serve his parole and stay with his family. There's a charismatic new priest in the church, and soon strange, miraculous things begin happening on the island.
Midnight Mass does a number of things extremely well, and I'd like to talk through some of these elements and how we can apply them in our own writing. Also I just wanna talk about how much I loved the show.
Be warned—there are enormous spoilers for Midnight Mass below. Watch the series if you haven't already, then come back to discuss!
Use writing to face your demons
Anyone familiar with Flanagan's work, from Oculus to The Haunting of Bly Manor, will start to see some central themes running through almost all of them. Family. Addiction. A struggle with religion, the afterlife, death, and grieving. These aren't new to the horror genre, by any means. Stephen King made alcoholism central to his classic, The Shining, which Flanagan then got to explore in his adaptation of Doctor Sleep.
But these are very clearly things that disturb Flanagan enough that they remain deep wells from which he draws in his storytelling. He chooses to bring them into the plot as artistic choices, even in adaptations. In The Haunting of Hill House, Luke Crain is a heroin addict, for instance.
Flanagan himself struggles with alcoholism. In Midnight Mass, the inciting incident is a drunk driving collision that results in an innocent girl's death. Riley walks away without a scratch. Flanagan told the New York Times that this is something that terrifies him.
“But my biggest fear wasn’t that I would die in a drunken car accident,” he said. “It was that I would kill someone else and live. That is the beating heart of Midnight Mass.”
Flanagan also uses Midnight Mass to explore his relationship with religion. A former altar boy, he later sought knowledge from other religions and found spirituality elsewhere. But viewers can see that difficult relationship with the church, theology, religion running all through the show.
You don't have to be Catholic to be terrified about some of the things explored here, like the forced "conversions" in the final episode, or the "us vs. them" mindset that leaves those outside the church to fend for themselves throughout. As Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) comments, it's monstrous.
I'm sure you've been told at some point to "write what you know." In the case of horror, write about what scares you. Write about things that you're trying to work through. This will result in deeply personal stories that will resonate even with those outside your experiences.
Create an amazing villain
I found myself saying repeatedly of church assistant Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), "This performance is so good, but I hate her." Which is what Flanagan intended, I'm sure.
She is a stunning villain that you understand perfectly as a religious zealot, a busybody, someone who views herself literally as "God's chosen." You can't debate her, because she has a Bible verse for everything. She casts herself as pious even after poisoning a beloved pet and spewing microaggressions at a community meeting.
I want to pull my hair out just thinking about her, and that is pretty amazing.
It's this understanding of the character that makes her so realistic and relatable. Whether you've been in the church or not, you probably know someone exactly like Bev Keane. In Midnight Mass, you love to hate her.
And it's totally believable that she would throw herself entirely into supporting Father Paul, even when he commits murder, and later resort to murder herself, just because the fervor of her belief in a holy plan allows her to bypass morality.
Is she exaggerated slightly? Yes, but that's what you do in writing. Create someone larger than life.
Is there a person in your life that you could cast as a villain? Can you try to understand their motivations enough to flesh them out, then blow up their characteristics to make them a big, living, breathing person in your script? Can you push them even farther, and have them make choices and commit actions that stun the viewer, in ways that make sense?
Try it as a writing exercise, and see what you end up with.
Find new ways to handle exposition
You probably notice that a lot goes unexplained in Midnight Mass. That's because Flanagan trusts his audience to know enough horror conventions to not need explanations. And when there is backstory, it's presented so artfully, you take it in without thinking.
Like, where did the show's creature come from? What is it, really? It doesn't matter—much like the demon in The Exorcist, this monster was just waiting to be unearthed, and now it's terrorizing these characters. What matters is Father Paul's experience with the creature, which he calls an "angel." The entire backstory is delivered in a confessional and flashbacks throughout a single episode.
The story of Riley's conversion also happens in flashbacks as he tells Erin Greene (Kate Siegel) what happened to him. (Show, don't tell, remember!) And after Erin sees Riley die in front of her, she retells that story off-screen. We don't see characters rehash their experiences to new characters, because we've already been there with them.
A lot of writers make this mistake and have characters explain what's happened to them so far in the story. But don't neglect the rule of "arrive late, leave early" when you're writing your scenes. If it's going to be repetitive for the viewers, you can start in the middle of a conversation.
Another thing I'll point out is that once the monster is established as an "angel," the term is used for the rest of the show. No one ever says "vampire," and it would have probably been heavyhanded and awkward to hear characters in this world tell each other, "I was bitten in the neck and now I crave blood. Also, there's a vampire here. This is the skin of a killer, Bella."
Instead, characters attempt to discuss vampirism from a scientific perspective through Dr. Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), as well as in a religious context through Father Paul. Both ways are fresher and more interesting.
Of course, Flanagan likes to rely on his monologues, and at some points, that's all we get, like when Erin is talking about her childhood trauma. But that's because flashbacks aren't established as a narrative device for every single character, and sometimes they are talking about complex topics like death and faith, which can't always be "shown." Many viewers might complain about the monologues. But try taking a step back. They are so well written, and the actors so masterfully deliver them. Enjoy them for the performance, if nothing else.
With exposition, it's a matter of finding that balance. Don't rely on a single way to convey information to your audience! Which leads us to...
Plant and payoff
Midnight Mass is seven episodes, and I can't wait to go back and rewatch to find clues to the finale that were planted in the very first episode.
But why does this matter? As a viewer, it's a really amazing feeling to go, "Oh my gosh. This moment is calling back to that thing that a character said earlier." It's fun and satisfying to see thematic elements come full circle, to realize that a character's actions or feelings at an earlier point are now informing their actions or feelings in another.
As a writer, you really have to put some forethought into your scripts to pull this off, but it shows your storytelling prowess when you do.
The biggest one in Midnight Mass is of course the poison Bev Keane uses to kill a dog. The entire show, I was wondering how that was going to come back. Who was she going to kill next? Or would someone be poisoned, and Bev framed?
Flanagan managed to subvert my expectations in a big way by bringing the poison back at the finale and staging what I think is one of the most disturbing scenes I've ever seen in the horror genre, when Father Paul's congregation willingly drinks the poison to "convert" to vampirism.
Could the poison have come out of nowhere, and would the scene still work? Probably. But the fact that it was planted so early as a weapon Bev used, only to return later to lead to the demise of so many characters—there's something poetic about that.
But one of the most beautiful moments of plant and payoff has to be when Erin tells Riley about her abusive mother forcing her to clip the wings of a bird. As a child, Erin decided to free the bird. At the end of her life, Erin uses the last of her strength to cut the wings of the "angel" and hopefully save others from the island's fate. It makes her death and her choice that much more impactful.
These are just a couple of examples we can learn from here. I'm sure there are many more. But definitely try it in your scripts where you can. Give viewers that "Aha!" feeling.
Horror isn't always about jumpscares
Flanagan makes scary stuff. Those hidden ghosts in The Haunting of Hill House disturb me to this day. And there are a few jumpscares in Midnight Mass, but I wouldn't say that the show is "scary." The vampire is just a monster, not even fully active in the story, largely absent. A traditional creature feature might have him arrive and start to pick off islanders one by one while everyone tries to figure out what's happening.
Midnight Mass is more than that.
Because of everything we've discussed above, the show resonates on a much deeper, primal level. This is a story about the potential horrors of humanity, what people will do to each other in the service of religion, and how doctrines can be twisted to serve any evil purpose you like.
How could an entire community be swayed to commit unspeakable acts against people they've lived beside for decades? What happens when characters have to reckon with those choices—and Flanagan makes it clear here that these are choices—and the devastation left behind?
I think that's what makes Midnight Mass so tragic in the end. The horror all happens because characters choose it, and Flanagan makes sure there is a reckoning for the evilest characters. But there is collateral damage—people who trusted, people converted against their will, people misled and seeking hope. And that might hit a little too close to reality for some viewers, but it's what has kept me thinking about this show for several days straight.
How can you explore horror in new ways? Can you rely on more than the easiest idea or a simple jumpscare? What about humanity scares you? Those will be the things that terrify your audience in new, deep ways.
What did you think of Midnight Mass? Let's discuss in the comments!