The best place to find engrossing religious stories on television right now is in horror. It might be easy or even fashionable to suggest that’s because organized religion is a horror show itself, preying upon vulnerable people and enacting atrocities for centuries. But that’s not what’s going on here—at least, not entirely. Series like Midnight Mass (Netflix) and Evil (Paramount+) are more interested in investigating the quandary of what it really looks like, practically, when the mundane meets the divine; those thin places in which the supernatural might really exist. And if so, what that means for each of us personally in an increasingly secular world.
Like the first season of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, these series depict the regular rhythms of religious observance—even when they are a technical subversion. As I’ve written about Sabrina in the past, the series was initially unique in the way it presented faith practices as a common part of daily life. Prayer is key, but it’s also how that general system of belief serves as a bedrock for all decisions about how to live and interact with the world. Granted, the family in Sabrina was praying to Satan, but bizarrely it was still one of the most honest and familiar understandings of religious life on television at the time.
Midnight Mass, meanwhile, is explicitly dealing with Christianity—and Catholicism—from the start. But it’s also completely earnest in showing the way the believers in this small community of Crockett Island worship (or don’t), and ultimately what that means for their lives.
It’s impossible to talk about the finer points of what Midnight Mass is doing without diving into spoilers, so you have been warned! (If you’re worried the series might be too scary, here is my horror guide for chickens.)
Like Sabrina, or to a lesser extent Evil, Midnight Mass wraps its story up in an old horror trope; in this case, vampires. Even those who don’t have much of a background in Christian traditions will understand the connections drawn here between “the body and blood of Christ” being sacrificially consumed and the practices of blood-sucking, eternal vampires (it frankly could have gone either way between vampires or zombies). If Midnight Mass had been content to stop there, to smirkingly joke about Christian beliefs and cynically lampoon them, then it would have been a run-of-the-mill horror outing. Instead, creator Mike Flanagan weaves in a real understanding of faith and how easily it can be corrupted, using the vampirism as both a metaphor and a literal horror.
There are three things Midnight Mass gets very right about Christianity. One is the aforementioned incorporation of faith into all aspects of one’s life, but the second is the combination of hope and urgency that propels a fervent evangelical desire to spread the Good News. It’s clear from the start that Father Paul wants to bring this exciting healing power to his congregation and save them all. Well, most of them—yes they must consume some of the others, but as he very boldly preaches, there will be casualties in God’s war. Father Paul’s speeches are stirring; so many scripts misunderstand Christianity as being primarily passive and peaceful. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not meant to be easy or about good vibes. It’s a radical call to action; John 15:13 says “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” You can read that as a nice sentiment, but the implications are actually extreme; they’re meant to be. Father Paul calls upon this embedded understanding and even desire for action among the congregants, and they stand ready because Christians are used to the imagery of war and battles to define what’s coming next.
And what’s coming next, the edgings of Revelation, is what Father Paul is hoping to incite with his sermons and the miracles that follow. Miracles are a foundation of Biblical scripture, and their impact is always enormous in bringing more to the faith. The same is true here on Crockett Island—one of the most devout parishioners, Leeza Scarborough, is able to walk again. Surely, this is a blessing. Because at the same time, all of those who have been coming to church regularly and partaking in the sacrament are becoming younger, more vibrant, their aches and pains are disappearing. It’s not like a Pentecostal revival exactly, but a slow movement towards what Christians are promised in the new kingdom on Earth: that believers will be made perfect. Again, with all of these changes being scripturally-based, at least seemingly, it makes sense why the parishioners would go along with it despite the other horror happening around them.
And that’s the third thing Midnight Mass captures so well: The frightening beauty of the Paschal Mystery. The brutal history chronicled in the Old Testament leading up to the tortured sacrifice of Christ for all sinners, leading to the resurrection and ultimately the end of days; it should send shivers down your spine. Bev and the Scarboroughs know this, and it’s how they convince themselves that what is happening with Father Paul, and his plan to bring this to the rest of the congregation, is all probably sound. It’s also why Father Paul does not clock the vampire lord as a demon, but rather, an angel. Biblically speaking, angels are rarely described as beautiful humans, and never as chubby babies. The prophet Ezekiel gives a very long and detailed description of the guardian cherubim, which are an ox-lion-eagle combination with massive wings, or interconnected wheels with eyes, and “the appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire.” Even the way they move is terrifying.
Isaiah also adds that seraphim are “each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.” They are in constant worship of the Lord, and “at the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.” So again, one can somewhat forgive Father Paul for thinking that this dark creature who emerges from the depths of the Holy Land and can pull off a fedora pretty well is actually not a super evil being, but in fact a miracle-wielding agent of God.
But as we acknowledge the frightening part, let’s not forget the beauty. It’s summed up in a number of small ways throughout the series, but its best example comes in Erin’s depiction of the afterlife in Episode 4, “Lamentations,” after Riley asks her what she thinks happens when we die. “Speaking for myself?” she asks. He confirms, but then she instead speaks on behalf of her lost child:
“No, not for myself. I’m not the one that died today. She was never awake. When she came down into this little body this… just-forming little body, it was asleep. So all she ever knew was dreaming. She only ever dreamed, she didn’t even have a name. And then in her sleep, that perfect little spirit just lifted up. Because God didn’t send her to suffer through life on Earth, no. This one, this special little soul, God just sent her down here to sleep. Just a little nap, a quick dream. And then he called her back, wanted her back, and so she went back, same as she floated down she rose up above the Earth, past all of the souls in the atmosphere and all of the stars in the sky, and then into a light so bright… and then for the first time, she starts to wake up.”
“She’s wrapped in a feeling of love. Just pure, amazing love. Of course she is, she’s pure. She has never sinned. She never hurt a single living thing, not even an ant. And she’s not alone. She’s home. There are people there and she doesn’t know it, but they’re her family. Her grandfather and her great-grandfather, and they love her, and they name her. And then when God reaches down and kisses her head, the second he says her name she grows up in a blink, and she’s perfect. Her body as it would have been on her best day on Earth, her perfect age, her peak of herself. They tell her about her mom down on Earth and how I’ll be there soon enough, and she’s happy, and nothing but joy for all eternity. And she’s loved, and she isn’t alone.”
“That’s what we mean when we say Heaven. No mansions, no rivers of diamonds, or fluffy clouds, or angels wings: You are loved, and you aren’t alone. That is God. That is Heaven. And that’s why we endure all that we endure on this big, blue, sad rock. I’ll be there soon enough. And I’ll see my father, and my grandmother, and I’ll see my little girl, and she will be happy and safe. And I will be so glad to meet her.”
Reader, when I say I wept.
The fact that the scene is also set to a twinkling background rendition of “Nearer, My God, to Thee,”—one of many hymns used beautifully within the series—shows (once again) an earnest desire to actually depict belief in a real way. Riley’s reply of “I really hope you’re right” was also perfect. He doesn’t believe, but he hopes for Erin’s sake it’s true. And Erin, not responding in speech but just by taking his hands, is passing on another silent hope: you are loved, you are not alone.
This is what Father Paul also hopes to impart on Riley during their AA meetings in Episode 2 and 3, “Psalms” and “Proverbs.” He pushes back on Riley’s “why do bad things happen to good people” arguments and cynicism towards the religion he grew up with, and explores the nature of grace and perfect love, quoting from scripture throughout. Riley then goes through trying to explain away Leeza’s miracle through rational means, and Father Paul says rather drolly, “that sounds wonderful, frankly.” But he also admits, “I’m not going to have an answer that will satisfying you.” Riley agrees that he would want more, to which Paul replies, “and I’ll always wish that I could give you more. But that’s all I got.” And yet, it’s not. Father Paul continues to push Riley towards his better self, to encourage him not only to speak truth but to stop being glib and pretending that things don’t matter. When it comes to the hope of Christianity, to what Christians are called to be, these conversations are among the most powerful in the series; the most honest, the most raw.
Ultimately, though, they take a backseat to the other, larger happenings in Crockett, which makes sense for this story. But that’s where a show like Evil comes in. Those conversations between Riley and Father Paul are what Evil seeks to explore in-depth every week; that space between belief and unbelief, between faith and rationalism. Where do they intersect? Where do they overlap? Where are they irreconcilably opposed? Though the show does, at times, draw out its both-sides-isms too far, its general desire to confront a world in which both things can be true and to, again, probe the implications of that are staggering.
But where these shows falter is ultimately in the absence of God. In horror, Satan makes many and varied appearances, demons are everywhere, and yet typically God and Jesus are absent (if God is depicted in any way, Jesus never is; and God is usually kind of a jerk). Miracles done in their name are false, believers have been led astray, and if they are reached out to directly there is only silence in return. I’m not sure why these series stop here; is there a fear of being considered too Christian or too religious or too overt if God speaks or Jesus is acknowledged, in this context, as a savior? It’s safer, or more culturally palatable certainly, to exist in this liminal space where characters seek to discern the nature of God without ever actually interacting with him in a tangible way, or genuinely naming and claiming Christ, but it’s not particularly bold.
And yet, Midnight Mass goes further than most on the matter. It also subverts the beauty of pure goodness with a corrupted desire through the “angel” Father Paul brings to Crockett Island. He wants to spread its “good news,” and others follow believing it to be the truth they’ve been hoping and praying for. But there’s a scene late in the season where Father Paul finally understands just how out of control this has gotten, as Bev begins separating the “worthy” vampires (a word that’s never explicitly used) from those who didn’t deserve this gift. Father Paul wanted to bring this to everyone who would dare to accept it, while Bev immediately sets up a hierarchy. None of this lasts long, but there’s a moment when Father Paul realizes this was all a mistake—people were not made perfect through this sacrament, it only amplified their worst instincts. This wasn’t divine, it was evil, and its consequences are such. And yet, there is still a remnant, still a few who haven’t gone forth in utter bloodshed in this holy war of the damned. But it doesn’t matter; on Crockett, “the wages of sin is death,” and the hope of the people there is extinguished.
Erin’s final thoughts on death are not the same as the ones she spoke to Riley earlier, but are instead about a cosmic-based cycle of loss and renewal. Midnight Mass ends with an uncertainty about where, exactly, hope might come from next for its lone two survivors, but over and over again in the series, it seems to arrive with the dawn. Perhaps the implication is to return to scripture: 1 John 1:5—“God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.”
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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