Most who know me know that I am averse to haunted houses and anything with jump scares. It might come as a surprise that I got into the Netflix series Midnight Mass, a limited, seven-episode series by Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Bly Manor, The Haunting of Hill House) that is billed as both drama and supernatural horror. The script, in my opinion, is excellent, although I can certainly understand if it is not everyone’s cup of tea. For the record, though, I believe that the bulk of its horror is psychological, and when blood is shed, it is typically in very low lighting, making the gore minimal. It reminded me by turns of The Crucible by Arthur Miller, the magic realism of Gabriel García Marquez, the play/film Doubt, a smidge of Perelandra by C.S. Lewis, and a Hitchcockian thriller. But above all, I found the series to be a deeply philosophical, elegant meditation on the nature of faith, certainty, and how we meet our earthly end. Some excellent reviews (which contain spoilers) have already been written of the show, but I am going to do my very best to keep this spoiler-free.
Generally, the series concerns an isolated island community off the coast of New England. The island is predominantly Catholic with the exception of its sheriff, who is Muslim. That alone sets up some tension and human interest in the inner workings of this society. The central plot concerns a new priest who comes to take over the island’s only church after its former priest takes a trip to the Holy Land and mysteriously does not return.
Strange things begin happening on the island which manifest as miracles for some and tragedies for others. Faith is an integral way that people respond to these anomalies. It also becomes clear how different residents of the community interpret their faith under duress. For some, it is a rigid, black and white code, which inevitably leads to a lack of empathy. For others, it is flexible and open to adaptation. We watch residents of the community make terrible mistakes with the best of intentions, and this is part of why the show is labeled as horror.
There is one character in the show named Bev who is of particular interest to me. Bev is reminiscent of the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable. She has spent her life in service to her church, and she struggles with the idea that all people in her community could be worthy of God’s love, especially when they are so obviously imperfect. There are alcoholics, people ambivalent about their faith, people who have made serious mistakes in their lives, and some who are not Christians at all. Bev’s character is so interesting to me because she is constantly quoting Scripture, but her use of it is inconsistent. She knows the Good Book forward and backward, and like many fundamentalists, she judges others for being less committed to the letter of the law while simultaneously considering herself to be above it as the arbiter of holiness. If you will indulge me, as someone who works in a library, Bev strikes me as the sort of person who would spearhead an effort to ban books in a school while also insisting that her perspective be the only one taught. Despite being the most devout, holier-than-thou character in the community, her own intentions are less than holy.
Both Orthodox and Catholic viewers, I think, will recognize this brand of fundamentalism. It can create seriously toxic dynamics in congregations, and broader harm when it bleeds into politics. Fundamentalism turns neighbors against each other and creates enemies of anyone who does not fit a particular mold. Part of faith, it is so often said, is doubt, and it takes real humility to admit that we might be wrong—wrong about our interpretations of faith, about our neighbors, about ourselves. In my own experience, the word humility is sometimes wielded as a weapon in church communities to silence inconvenient questions (and in the worst cases to maintain power). But true humility, I think, is simply the openness to truth being bigger than ourselves. We may need our own worldviews to be challenged in order to see things as they really are.
I encourage anyone who is interested in a philosophical reflection about faith and certainty to watch this show. One of the most moving monologues, in my opinion, occurs in the very last episode, and I found it reminiscent of the Akathist “Glory to God for All Things.” It is a joyful reflection about both our smallness and our connectedness to a vast creation. For me, it was humbling in the best sense.
I hope this show and others like it will help us combat the real-life horror that is religious fundamentalism.
Lydia Bringerud holds a PhD in folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s and an MA in folklore from Indiana University in Bloomington. Her doctoral research focused primarily on American converts to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, as well as attitudes toward authority, obedience, cultural conflict, and the position of women. Her dissertation is entitled Whose Tradition? Adapting Orthodox Christianity in North America. She has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue and co-moderates Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s Facebook group. She currently works at a public library in San Diego CA, and has recently enrolled in a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program at San Jose State University.