[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Midnight Mass.]
Mike Flanagan is no stranger to stories about trauma, faith, and all manner of scary creatures, but with his latest Netflix series, Midnight Mass – his third, his self-professed most personal, and the first non-adapted all-original of the bunch – the Haunting of Hill House and Haunting of Bly Manor filmmaker skewed things in a new direction. Trauma, faith, and scary stuff are still at the forefront, but this time, he left behind the ghosts in favor of a slow-burn, seven-episode creature feature that weaves together vampire tropes with biblical texts.
During a roundtable interview with Collider’s Christina Radish and reporters from several other outlets, Flanagan explained, “When I was a kid and in Bible study, the horror elements embedded in the Bible were impossible to ignore. We didn’t [connect horror and religion] at all. That was already there… You’ve got demons. You’ve got talking serpents. You’ve got people being torn apart and tortured. It’s all there. The Bible is a blood-soaked text.”
Set in the remote community of Crockett Island, Midnight Mass kicks off when a “new” priest comes to town, with miracles and monstrosities in tow. Expecting the return of the elderly Monsignor John Michael Pruitt, the island’s longtime local pastor, the community instead meets Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater). In short turn, the island’s residents experience inexplicable transformations. An elderly woman, Mildred (Alex Essoe), de-ages and makes a rapid recovery from dementia. A paralyzed teenage girl, Leeza (Annarah Cymone), suddenly walks again. A pregnant woman, Erin (Kate Siegel) not only loses her baby, but tests show she was never pregnant in the first place. Miracles… and monstrosities.
It’s a dense, heavily textual series that leaves a lot of unanswered questions, but if you’ve just finished your binge, we’ve got you covered with a deep dive into what the heck happens and what it all means – with insight from Flanagan himself.
What Happened to Father Paul?
It all comes back to Father Paul – and Monsignor Pruitt – who are revealed to be one and the same. As flashbacks show, the elderly Monsignor got lost on his travels and wandered into a cave, where an ancient winged creature drank his blood, fed him its blood in return, and the Monsignor emerged transformed, once again the young, healthy version of himself. Believing his transformation to be a miracle and the creature to be an angel of God, Pruitt/Father Paul made his way back to Crockett Island, smuggling the creature back with him. And the power of its blood. Turns out all those miracles have an easy but horrifying explanation: the Monsignor was feeding his congregation small doses of the blood in the Communion, and they began to feel the effects of that power.
Just like the Monsignor, most of the churchgoers are quick to believe the miraculous before the monstrous, with a few outliers. One of which is Dr. Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), Mildred’s daughter, who’s watched her mother inexplicably, unscientifically recover from dementia. And while running tests, notices that her mother’s blood catches fire if it’s in direct sunlight.
Though the series never directly addresses the creature as a vampire, her theory directly ties into those myths. “There’s this blood disorder called erythropoietic protoporphyria,” she explains. “A lot of those myths probably came from EPP. People with it are extremely sensitive to light, to the point of burning and blistering in the sun. And very anemic.” Dr. Gunning theorizes that the creature’s blood acts like a virus – up to a certain point, the body will resist and attempt to push out the foreign presence, but once a certain tipping point is reached, the transformation is complete.
That’s exactly what ends up happening to Father Paul. Being the first and most frequent consumer of the creature’s blood, Father Paul reaches that tipping point and “dies”. Speaking with The Wrap, Flanagan confirmed as much outright.
“When The Angel first finds Father Paul, it doesn’t kill him. It just gives him enough blood to get younger and to feel vital, because it needs him to get it out of there. He has to travel during the day. And then finally, he’s taken in too much of the blood, it hits that critical mass that Sarah talks about, and he dies. And then there’s no going back.”
When he awakes, he is fully transformed, which comes with some significant changes. In the first few episodes, he could wander freely in the sun. Now, it immediately scorches him. And worse, he is now consumed with a powerful thirst for human blood, which leads him to drink a town outcast dry after an unfortunate confrontation. Notably, Joe (Robert Longstreet), who mostly kept to himself and didn’t attend the church, doesn’t revive after the Monsignor kills him.
Soon after, Riley (Zach Gilford), is killed by the creature and quickly comes back from the dead – now also fully transformed. With the help of the Monsignor, he is able to control his bloodlust – a skill the Monsignor also develops with time. But Riley doesn’t see the creature as an agent of God. Haunted by his deeds as an alcoholic and now faced with a future as a bloodthirsty monster, he instead chooses to tell Erin what happened to him and, in order to convince her, lets the sunlight consume him, immediately bursting into flames.
There are a few key points in there to make sense of the ending: 1) There’s a window during which the human body can filter out the blood, but also a threshold at which it transforms you. 2) Whether you hit that threshold or die another way, you’ll return fully transformed if you have the blood in your system. 3) The blood has tremendous healing effects on the body, but sunlight is one of the few things that can still definitely kill you.
So, Is the Creature an Angel or a Vampire?
Obviously, that all sounds like vampirism, to a tee. And in a behind-the-scenes video, Flanagan and series producer Trevor Macy certainly don’t sound like they’re talking about a celestial being. “The creature in Midnight Mass isn’t slick or charming or attractive,” Flanagan said. “This thing is just simple and ugly and a bit oblivious to what it was doing.”
“Its needs are basic, it eats, it seeks shelter,” Macy continues, “and it has enough brains to figure out ‘Oh if I were to co-opt this particular human, it might make it easier to feed,’ but that’s where its agency stops.”
However, the series also offers up plenty of biblical passages to support the townspeople’s belief in the Monsignor’s angel. Two particularly critical passages quoted in the series include Luke 2:9, “Lo, lo and behold, an Angel of the Lord appeared to them. And they were afraid,” which the Monsignor embraces as an excuse for the creatures inherently and obviously horrifying qualities. And John 6:51, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. And I will raise them up on the last day, for my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink and whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will remain in me, and I in them,” which, obviously, sounds like vampire stuff.
Midnight Mass never explicitly answers if the creature is a vampire, an angel, or just the result of a blood pathogen. To quote another great work of religious horror, “Demons to some. Angels to others.” Because it doesn’t matter what the creature is. What matters is what people believe it is, and how they respond to it. Sarah believes it is a rational scientific anomaly, and so she responds to it rationally. Those who believe it to be an agent of God, respond more drastically.
That interpretation becomes literal when the creature speaks, but only in mimicry. During the roundtable, Flanagan explained:
“The angel very much represents a mirror for us. I love that he doesn’t seem to have any complex plan or any real personality. It’s just a thing that does what it does. When it comes to fundamentalism and fanaticism, it isn’t something that necessarily comes to us with a well-thought-out plan or an ideology. What it does is it parrots back to us our worst ideas, in some cases. It uses our own voice.”
How Does It End and What Does It All Mean?
All the threads come together in the sixth episode, which features the titular Midnight Mass, a chaotic bloodbath wherein the most fanatical of Father Paul’s followers are convinced to drink poison and be literally reborn. On Easter mass no less, a religious holiday inherently tied to themes of death and rebirth.
The sequence draws heavy inspiration from real-world tragedies including Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, in which cult members were convinced to take their lives in a mass suicide, and during the roundtable, Flanagan explained why that sequence was always so central to the show’s themes:
“That’s a perfect example of the most grotesque expression of the perversion of faith. When you talk about parents helping their children drink cyanide, as I was wrestling with my own ideas of what faith is, I found it so monstrous and hard to understand how sane people could be brought to a place where they could do that, or they could watch that happen. Jonestown, and other situations like that – Heaven’s Gate was the same way – are so hard to understand, but we keep doing it. It’s something we humans are capable of doing and don’t seem to be stopping. So, that was always baked into this. It was always going that way.
One of the things that struck me with Heaven’s Gate, even more than with Jonestown, is that in order to drink the poison, or the Kool-Aid, and to take that last step, you have to truly believe that you are not dying, in that moment, at least not in a meaningful and permanent way. Because we had woven vampiric resurrection into the story, this gave us a chance to arm the characters with that certainty and to play with the characters who didn’t share it, who say no when the cups are passed out, and to watch the community wrestle with that. It wasn’t just the people who willingly drank it, but the people who forced someone else to drink it when they refused.”
Father Paul hoped to keep the churchgoers locked in until they could recover from the initial blood-lust of their transformation, but he’s shot in the head during the chaotic carnage. During the time it takes him to recover, the island’s most extremist resident, Bev (Samantha Sloyan), takes charge. She unleashes the bloodthirsty churchgoers on the rest of the island and the massacre continues, while also burning every building – except the church – to the ground so that none can escape.
However, her grand plan goes up in literal flames when the few remaining survivors scuttle the boats and burn the church down, leaving Bev and the rest of the island no place to hide from the rising sun. Sarah and Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli), a practicing Muslim, are both shot and because they never took communion, they die naturally. All who were transformed go up in flames when the sun rises. The only survivors are Leeza and Riley’s younger brother, Warren (Igby Rigney), who drift out to sea while Crockett Island burns.
But not before a few key thematic events take place.
Does the Angel/Vampire Die?
“I didn’t wanna try to come up with an ending that I thought would please people. I wanted to come up with the ending that I thought would have the most to say, down the line,” Flanagan said during the roundtable interview.
During the final chaos, several important throughlines come together. First, many of the transformed churchgoers begin to confront the horror of what they just did, seeking solace in each other and accepting their fates as the sun rises on them. Naturally, Bev is not one of them, and just like she was too cowardly to drink her own poison during the Easter mass, she attempts to evade judgment once more, frantically trying to escape her imminent death, ranting in a rage even as the sun consumes her.
Then there’s Erin, who gets snatched up by the creature amidst the chaotic final stand. As it feeds on her, she delivers a monologue about the meaning of life, what waits after death, and the nature of the universe. “The monologue, to me, that is the reason the show exists is Erin’s monologue, as she’s dying at the end,” Flanagan said. It’s a much more forgiving, optimistic, and hopeful statement of intent than one might expect from a show in which almost everyone dies, but it’s not just Erin’s words that drive home that hope, it’s her actions.
Because the creature is also distracted as it feeds on her, and she takes that opportunity, her last dying moments, to do what she can to stop it from escaping, using a kitchen knife to cut holes in its wings, doing her part to stop the spread of the danger it carries.
As the sun starts to rise over the island, while Leeza and Warren are rowing out to safety, they see the creature struggling to fly away and keep ahead of the rising sun. They wonder if it can make it to the nearest shore, some thirty miles away, before the sun catches up with it. But they never get an answer, and ultimately, that’s the point.
As Flanagan explained during the roundtable,
“When Warren and Leeza watch that angel flying away, the thing is, if this is a parable, and it is, then the angel doesn’t represent vampirism or horror, but represents a corruption in any belief system and represents fundamentalism and fanaticism. That’s never gonna go away. You might chase it away from your community for a minute. You might send it off into the dark and hope the sun will rise and that corrupting ideology will disappear, but it won’t.
The show could never show the angel die, for that reason. That last moment of the next generation, of two kids looking out at the ashes of what the grownups made, I feel like that’s what my kids are gonna get, no matter what. That’s what all of our kids are gonna get. I wish it wasn’t so on fire as it is right now, but it really is, and we’re never gonna be able to explain that to them. We’re never gonna be able to explain adequately to our children what happened to the planet that they inherited and why their parents’ generation treated each other the way that it did. We’re never gonna have words to articulate that and this, for me, is my best guess. It’s my best answer for them, in a series of questions that I don’t know that they’ll ever really be able to answer.”
Speaking with The Wrap, Flanagan further emphasized the intended ambiguity and effectively debunked a popular fan theory (while enthusiastically encouraging alternate readings, it should be noted). The series’ final line comes from Leeza, who says “I can’t feel my legs.” While some have interpreted this as evidence that the creature did indeed die before making it to safety, Flanagan explained:
“We’re not saying he died… Our hope really there was just to say that Leeza’s concentration in her blood had begun to tip back, that she was going to be OK. We didn’t want it to confirm about The Angel, in that way that you can never kill fanaticism, it’ll always kind of come back.”
Macy echoed, “That’s why the, ‘I can’t feel my legs’ at the end, is because she’s starting to heal.”
But ultimately, much like the nature of the creature itself, it’s not the literal answer to whether it survives that matters as much how the characters responded to it, and thus, how it was defeated. Just as it gained its power through community, so it was destroyed.
“To the point about the group of people having to come together to confront evil, that’s a very profound trope, in a really good way, because I do think that we’re ill-equipped, as individuals, to really make any kind of meaningful stand that isn’t just confronting something within ourselves,” Flanagan said during the roundtable. “The only way evil in the world can really be brought down is through collective effort.”
Macy built on that, adding “One of my favorite things about the end of the show is the comfort and encouragement that the characters give each other, as they each take the baton and do that one brave thing that gets us to the end. That’s where some of the most profound things come out.”
Flanagan continued, “Like most of us, most of them will never live to see whether they win, which is something else that I think, unfortunately, is just true of the human condition. We’re all just pushing it a little bit further and we’re never gonna see it.”
Midnight Mass is now streaming on Netflix. Stay tuned for more from our interview with Flanagan and Macy.
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