Thirsting for God: Midnight Mass, ‘Bloodthirsty’ Religion, and the American Gothic Nightmare

Matthew Nelson reflects upon Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix show, Midnight Mass, a masterful—and disturbing—tale in the Gothic tradition that engages questions of faith, religion . . . and bingeing.

…all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others mocking said, ‘They are filled with new wine’.

Acts 2:13

Oedipa…spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work.

-Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Introduction

Christ’s first miracle was to turn water into wine. This wine was the sign announcing God’s presence among his people: that Jesus is Immanuel, God-With-Us, the God and Christ who long ago promised ‘a feast of well-aged wine’[1] to usher in God’s Kingdom. Subsequent to Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the coming of the Holy Spirit is traditionally celebrated on the forty-ninth[2] day after Easter Sunday, Pentecost, when God confirmed his continued presence by making his people temples of the Holy Spirit.

Or, the ambiguity, to some scoffers observing this Pentecostal miracle: are not these crazy people ‘speaking in tongues’ just a bunch of drunks, ‘filled with new wine’?

A related ambiguity is at the heart of writer-director Mike Flanagan’s masterful—and disturbing—new show, Midnight Mass: How do we respond to the mystery, and the terror, of God seeming to be among us? Like the Hebrews under Roman occupation awaiting their Messiah, this show centres upon a community who are filled with apocalyptic expectation, ready for God’s parousia. Or at least, a dwindling few retain such a hope. Though their New England fishing town Crockett Island has fallen on hard times, Crockett’s spirit revives when the island’s new young priest, Father Paul, performs the miracle of healing a paralysed girl. Other miracles soon follow: those who receive the Eucharist—bread and wine become Christ’s flesh and blood—are returned to youthful health and vitality. The ‘town drunk’ is forgiven by the girl he paralysed and enters Alcoholics Anonymous. The Word is preached boldly and Crockett Island hopes again—promising a new ‘shining city on a hill’.[3]

But is salvation and the Kingdom of God truly at hand? Is God really amongst them? Are the doubters in the community in error for suspecting something other than God at work, something deeply wrong? These questions are central to Midnight Mass, and in the following I will explore this ambiguity in light of the show’s Gothic qualities, demonstrating how its thematising of alcohol abuse in connection with the Eucharist helps us to reflect upon the desire for God, and then consider what this has to do with contemporary media-bingeing culture.

The Gothic: Crisis, Critique, and Longing

Gothic fiction originally attained mass popularity in the late eighteenth century, against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the Age of Reason become The Terror of the guillotine. Gothic prominently featured elements of the supernatural and sublime, creating aesthetic effects of terror and horror adequate to the unfolding chaos, and beyond its 1789-1820 heyday, Gothic notably flowered during major cultural transitions and historical crises,[4] often functioning thusly as a kind of historical fiction that engages with the ghosts of the past—the undead, uncanny, and ontologically indeterminate that haunt present reality. What is worth exploring in relation to Midnight Mass is how Gothic stories simultaneously critique, and long for, the more traditionally religious and enchanted past—both critical of traditional religiosity[5] as undead ancestor of contemporary madness and irrationality,[6] yet paradoxically also desiring aspects of that old ‘age of faith and miracle’.[7] In Paul Ricoeur’s terms, Gothic potentially enacts toward religion both a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ and of ‘retrieval’.

Awareness of the Gothic ‘double gesture’ of critique and retrieval[8] is key to appreciating Midnight Mass as a story about both the dangers and the positive possibilities of religion, and of Christian faith particularly. To accomplish this the show leads us brilliantly into a space of mystery and uncertainty, where for the first three episodes (of seven in total) we are denied knowledge of the strange events concurrent with the unexpected appearance of Father Paul.[9] We witness miracles Paul performs and (temporarily) experience with the townspeople that awe-inspiring sense that the present order of things—suffering, sin, guilt, and fear—is being overturned, sharing in their hunger and thirst for God, and for the healing and redemption God brings.[10]

Unfortunately, such desires are sadly at the core of the show’s tragedy. That is because the thirst for God—especially for the sacramental wine become life-giving blood of Christ—becomes corrupted through mixture with a very different kind of blood. Where the Eucharist promises eternal life in Christ, attended by self-giving love of God and neighbour, the sacrament administered by Father Paul is wine not transubstantiated but rather mixed with the blood of an ‘angel’ creature. While Father Paul is motivated by love to bring this ‘gift’ of eternal life to his congregation, we discover that he and his congregation are deceived, because this corrupted sacrament actually yields a vampiric thirst not to love people but to feed on their blood. In the language of Father Paul, this perversion of the sacrament creates an ‘army of God’, whose spreading of the Gospel means bringing an earthly immortality to a select few—a self-elected ‘Elect’—whose ‘salvation’ is achieved by murder (bingeing on the blood) of the unsaved, with all of it culminating in a ‘deluge of fire’ in which the Island is destroyed.

In short, Midnight Mass portrays the horror of the Church become Vampire. Or, yet more cynically, the Church revealed as Vampire.[11]

Bingeing and Desire: Wine, Blood, Media

In accordance with the former interpretation,[12] we might observe how the show’s remarkably detailed Scriptural references and representations of Catholic ritual force us to reckon with what precisely has become idolatrously twisted in the faith of various characters—including especially Father Paul and his right-hand woman Bev Keane—and, in turn, to reflect upon how characters like Erin Greene maintain their Catholic faith while also resisting the deception proffered by Paul and the ‘angel’, even to the point of herself imaging Christ.[13] But that is not all that is theologically incisive and constructive about the show, for it also provokes reflection upon the role of desire itself and its relevance to bingeing, in terms of connections evoked between alcohol, Eucharistic wine, the blood of Christ, and that of human beings. Such connections are also central for appreciating the story’s protagonist and representative ‘doubter’, Riley Flynn, in relation to his highly religious community.

Raised Catholic, Riley has rejected his childhood faith after four years in prison for killing a girl while drunk driving.[14] In one especially poignant moment at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Father Paul pushes Riley, who is haunted by guilt over this girl’s death, to admit he is jealous of Paul: Riley reveals he envies Paul for feeling disburdened of guilt for causing a death while also ‘under the influence’—as Paul killed Joe Collie ‘accidentally’ when, after Joe encountered him ‘boozing’ (drinking blood from the communion chalice), Paul was overtaken by his vampiric thirst.[15] For Paul, his own ‘blood-drunk’ murder parallels Riley’s drunk-driving accident, but Riley, accepting responsibility for what he has done, refuses this parallel and despises Paul’s falsely ‘cleansed conscience’. Thus, in what amounts to a spiritual climax, the atheist Riley is ironically truer than Paul to the faith that Riley has rejected. In turn, this moment also powerfully expresses the show’s overall portrayal of ‘drinking’—blood and alcohol abuse[16]—as alleviating guilt in a false or inadequate manner, and as analogous forms of destruction.

Which brings us to media bingeing as paralleling these forms of thirst, insofar as they all bespeak interwoven spiritual and physical desires. That is, just as the show critiques the abuse of alcohol and the Eucharist as false escapes from guilt and other burdens, so too does it provoke questions regarding whether our media consumption functions likewise.  Might our ‘drinking’ from media streams, although seemingly less destructive[17] than alcohol abuse or ‘vampiric faith’, likewise be a spiritual matter, as expressions of desire? For what do we ‘thirst’ in such media binges? For what reasons—of the heart and of reason[18]—do we ‘drink’ from our media streams?

In asking this, I do not intend to imply (or suggest that Midnight Mass implies) that such ‘thirst’ is wholly negative. To the contrary: Midnight Mass is largely sympathetic to its characters, their human struggle with addictions, and desire for salvation; likewise, from an Augustinian theological perspective, our thirsts—our desires, longings, hope for removal of guilt and sin, and ensuing freedom to love not destroy—all of these are considered part of our humanity and our creatureliness. In this view, such desires should be affirmed as good, but also rightly ordered.[19] Indeed, perhaps the ultimate horror of Midnight Mass is that of seeing the hell resultant from good desires wrongly ordered. Similarly, perhaps the show is one long parable, in which the horror of alcohol abuse is portrayed as the dark mirror of Christian faith gone wrong—faith gone idolatrous, disordered, selfish, hateful to God and humanity, yet in the guise of Christianity.[20] And for those who practice Christian faith, here’s the rub: In light of the disorder and twisted faith in Midnight Mass, what does it mean to ‘drink’ and become streams of ‘living water’,[21] from the Holy Spirit, from Christ the true ‘Vine’ who feeds his ‘Vineyard’ people with his blood, to feast not unto death but unto life?[22]

Conclusion

Though disturbing and understandably not for everyone, Midnight Mass is an exceptionally thoughtful show. Its Gothic explorations of religion (and subtextual political relevance)[23] make it a journey through hell that can potentially sober us all up—perhaps even unto joining in with the hymn that repentant townspeople sing at the show’s conclusion: ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’.

 

[1] Isaiah 25:6 ESV.

[2] Cf. Thomas Pynchon’s melded ‘anti-detective’ ‘female Gothic’ novel, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), which involves its protagonist Oedipa in a highly ambiguous quest for the reality of the signs she’s perceiving—indeterminately sacred and transcendent, or a secret anarchist group, or a hallucination, or a hoax—all leading up to what some critics have suggested is the moment just prior to a Pentecostal revelation. See Edward Mendelson, ‘The Sacred, the Profane, and The Crying of Lot 49’, Blooms Modern Critical Views: Thomas Pynchon, Ed. Harold Bloom (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003).

[3] ‘Crockett Island’ invokes the spirit of American pioneer frontiersman Davy Crockett, associated with the Puritan pilgrim ideal of America as promised land: John Winthrop’s ‘shining city on a hill’. Insofar as Crockett Island is a kind of microcosm of America, functioning similarly to Stephen King’s ‘shining’ Overlook Hotel (an ‘island’ in the wilderness) in The Shining (1977), Midnight Mass follows a tradition of American Gothic that interrogates this Puritan religious inheritance. For a classic introduction to American Gothic, see Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion Books, 1960), and recent exploration of related themes in Christopher Leise, The Story Upon a Hill: The Puritan Myth in Contemporary American Fiction (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2017), and Jordan Carson, American Exceptionalism as Religion: Postmodern Discontent (Columbus: Ohio State University, 2020).

[4] Like the late nineteenth-century imperialist cauldron leading to World War I (Stoker’s Dracula), the 1960’s countercultural ferment and 1970’s ‘malaise’ (Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Blatty’s The Exorcist), and the contemporary post-9/11 era. Given recent events, it is impossible not to consider Midnight Mass’s appearance amidst the current weight of two years of a worldwide pandemic, followed by the outbreak of violence in the Ukraine that threatens another world war. Such a moment of crisis and uncertainty—the current fruit of crises that have been unfolding in recent years and that extend much further into history—is very much that which typically characterises the Gothic as regarding both its content and the context for its creation.

[5] Often (but not exclusively) Catholic in the European context, or Calvinist Puritan in the American.

[6] As an especially relevant example of American Gothic fiction which broaches connections between religious and political forms of ‘religious irrationality’, it is interesting to consider Midnight Mass alongside Stephen King’s earlier tale of contemporary vampire invasion, ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), written when America reeled from knowledge of government corruption in the Nixon administration and Watergate. As King himself says, reflecting later, ‘The fear behind ‘Salem’s Lot seems to be that the Government has invaded everybody’. (Stephen King, ‘The Fright Report’, Oui Magazine, January 1980, 108). I can only gesture here to how worthy it would be to examine Midnight Mass as bearing similar relevance to the current American political context, in which anxieties about cultish, irrational, anti-science, illiberal, ’religious’ or ‘Puritan’ thinking are all features of critical commentary on both Left and Right sides of the political spectrum (although drawing diverse conclusions), with accompanying communication breakdowns and the sense that democracy itself is under threat. An insightful exploration of such themes can be found in Anne Applebaum’s book Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Democracy and the Parting of Friends (Dublin: Penguin, 2021) and her article, ‘The New Puritans’, The Atlantic, 31 August 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com /magazine/archive/2021/10/new-puritans-mob-justice-canceled/619818/. Accessed 4 February 2022.

[7] Thomas Pynchon, who writes insightfully of this in his short essay, ‘Is It O.K. to be a Luddite?’, The New York Times online, 28 October 1984, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/05/18/reviews/pynchon-luddite.html?. Accessed 18 February, 2021.

[8] I am indebted to Alison Milbank for this idea. In her reading of English Gothic, Milbank argues further that Gothic fiction performs creative theological work, broaching possibilities for theological mediation—e.g., as between Catholic and Reformed Protestant faith—and suggesting the need for mediating spiritual practices lost in the historical ‘rupture’ of the Reformation. Milbank, God & the Gothic: Religion, Romance and Reality in the English Literary Tradition (Oxford: Oxford, 2018).

[9] Unexpected, as the elderly Father John was supposed to have recently returned from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Father Paul claims to be his temporary replacement.

[10] One recalls Psalm 42 and its question: ‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I meet with God?’

[11] In terms of the Gothic double gesture, this is the ambiguity of, on one hand, the life-giving Church turned idolatrously to its opposite (thus presuming the possibility of authentic goodness, which has been corrupted, and of its potential restoration), or, on the other, the Church shown as always already destructive and vampiric, with the monstrous ‘angel’ rendering this reality explicit. Though just the suggestion of such an ambiguity will no doubt be offensive for many to even contemplate, it is characteristic of the Gothic to confront us with this sort of religious and existential dilemma, and to broach new ways of thinking about or relating to these matters.

[12] That is, ‘the Church become Vampire’, not ‘the Church revealed as Vampire’. See footnote 11 for further clarification.

[13] Erin leads the effort to prevent the undead townspeople from destroying the world, by burning the boats to the mainland—a self-sacrificial action that implicitly imitates Christ, who gives himself for the life of the world; as Erin puts it, ‘Dying for people we’ve never met: no greater love than that’ (paraphrasing John 15:13). Note too that Erin literally gives her blood in her death when the ‘angel’ attacks her, ‘clipping its wings’(as her abusive alcoholic mother claimed Erin ‘clipped her wings’ when Erin was born) to destroy it, even pulling the ‘blood-drunk’ creature to her in order to do so; this action images Christ as the one who willingly lays down his life to destroy the devil by his own death on the cross, that moment which seemed to mark the devil’s triumph but is actually the very occasion of his defeat. In short, Erin incarnates her faith through these Christlike actions. On a theological level, we might note that Erin simultaneously maintains her Catholic faith in these actions, even while expressing sentiments in her dying moments which reflect a radically non-individualistic vision of self-dissolution and self-identity with the cosmos that merges biblical language (‘I am that I am’) with pantheism. Precedent for this merger can arguably be found in the ‘Orphic’ tradition of American writing (Harold Bloom), especially in the Transcendentalist Emerson and associated poetry of Walt Whitman.

[14] For Riley, ‘every god, goddess, every religion, every holy war’, is an ancient product of wonder at mysteries we cannot fathom, just ‘primitive man ’star-gazing in the darkness, wondering who the hell could’ve lit those campfires in the sky’.

[15] The implications of this linkage are further seen by considering how Joe, like Riley, clearly desires alcohol to numb himself and alleviate guilt—in his case, for shooting and paralysing the girl Leeza while drunk. Though also non-religious, his addiction to alcohol begins to break after Leeza, following her healing, confronts Joe and forgives him, thus precipitating the beginning of life transformation at Alcoholics Anonymous—redemption tragically cut short, however, when he encounters Paul ‘boozing’ from the communion chalice—and shortly afterward Paul kills Joe as his vampiric thirst overcomes him.

[16] Recall too how Riley’s friend Erin Greene is a victim of such abuse, as both child and ex-wife of alcoholics.

[17] With the qualification that, perhaps, in the age of compulsive ‘doom-scrolling’ of news and indiscriminate consumption (and sharing) of online opinions and information for its own sake—such streaming may yield surprisingly destructive consequences, individually and collectively. Spiritual discipline, as much as intellectual (or morbid) curiosity, seems to be needed here.

[18] Cf. Blaise Pascal: ‘The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know’.

[19] The basic idea is that one should love God most, and flowing out of this one loves oneself and others, and the rest of the created world.

[20] Again, one must also appreciate the central ambiguity hinted at earlier, as regarding the difference between ‘the Church become Vampire’ and ‘the Church revealed as Vampire’. This analysis focuses upon a reading of the show in accordance with the former possibility, which arguably makes more sense of Erin as a character. See footnote 11.

[21] John 4:14, 7:38.

[22] John 15:1-17.

[23] See footnote 6.

Author

  • (Associate Editor) is a doctoral student at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews, under the supervision of Gavin Hopps. He is researching the theological implications of the fiction of Thomas Pynchon (1937- ), exploring his work as post-secular literature, and in relation to the Gothic tradition.

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