Mike Flanagan’s latest serving, Midnight Mass, may not be the much-awaited Season 3 of the Haunting series, but it carries the same theme and undertones. The newly released Netflix series is not just a story about supernatural horrors. It pulls apart themes of religion, addiction, faith, love, broken dreams, despair, etc at their seams, spilling their aftereffects and once again asserting that it’s not just the paranormal that possess the power to haunt us. But while long-term fans of Flanagan will persevere knowing that the best is just around the corner, some might be disappointed as Midnight Mass doesn’t necessarily meet the high expectations set up by the director’s prior ventures.
For Midnight Mass, Flanagan pulls a page out of Ryan Murphy American Horror Story and sets up a fictitious island that is sparsely populated with people who are desperately clutching on to religion, hoping to find strength even as their worlds crumble around them. We have Riley who was drunk driving one night and killed a young girl in an accident. Then there is Erin who is trying to find meaning in life in her yet unborn child from an abusive relationship she left behind, Bev whose existence has centered around putting down those around her, holding to the hollow notion that she is above all of them. There are Riley’s parents who are struggling financially, his father who is trying to not let his resentment towards his son become obvious. A paralyzed teenager who is oscillating between trying to live and forgive her culprit. A young priest, Father Paul, whose intentions are pure but his means to the preferred end have catastrophic implications. And of course, a town where miracles and horrors co-exist together but not necessarily in harmony.
When Father Paul lectures Riley about how alcohol isn’t the culprit and instead it depends on who drinks it in the first place, he is not talking about alcoholism, he is trying to defend his own addiction of a different kind of drug, trying to pile up arguments in favor of the horrors he was set to commit. And this allegory is prominent throughout the remaining part of Midnight Mass, where we see the power of religion wielded in different ways by different individuals.
The supernatural elements that plague the island are nothing compared to the horrors that the people live with. Riley sleeps at night with the image of the girl he killed in a road accident, her dead visage seared into his memory, tormenting him every day and torturing his psyche, even though as far as the law is concerned, he has suffered sufficient punishment for his crime. The town drunk has to live with the guilt of being the most ridiculed member of the community, especially since he accidentally crippled a teen girl whose presence is a stark reminder of everything he has ever failed in. A doctor is busy saving lives but when it comes to her mother, all she can do is watch as old age devours her memories, her strength, and her own identity.
The supernatural horrors promised in Midnight Mass are initially way too vague. Certain elements do establish that something is very wrong and is quietly existing amongst the sparse population of Crockett Island, but the morbid atmosphere, the lack of any hope on the horizon does diminish the possibility of a supernatural threat. In a town where people have already succumbed to their inner demons, the expected climax with its traditional monster (with murky roots and dubious motives) does little to get our hearts hammering in dread unlike the finale episodes of The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Unlike Midnight Mass, the Haunting series and even Doctor Sleep had no terrifying monsters to certify as a horror story. Their real horrors complimented their supernatural counterparts so well that it became hard not to feel the palpable fear in the air. But even though Flanagan’s latest work is an original story and is once again majorly about one’s self-created fear and the inability to trump their inner demons, the ever-present supernatural aspect doesn’t keep us peeking at the corners of frames, dreading to see something that was there all the time. It instead leaves our finger hovering over the forward button as neither the human nor the supernatural horrors get a fitting conclusion that should have left us more haunted than the story that set it up. Well, the blame is on Flanagan for giving us such soul-stirring tails of hope and despair in the past that his own work will forever compete with whatever he decides to put on our plates next.