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Midnight Mass and the Renaissance of Intelligent Horror

I've just wrapped up Netflix's latest mini-series Midnight Mass from writer/director Mike Flanagan and let's just start by saying, it may have actually changed my own approach to writing horror. Mike Flanagan is not a newcomer to the genre or Netflix. His previous titles on the platform, The Haunting of Hill House and its follow up The Haunting of Bly Manor were both critically well-received. Both series brought with them an amazing score, beautiful cinemaphotography, and a higher caliber of intellect than what you might find from an entry into the Conjuring Universe (which for better or worse has become the flagship of the supernatural horror film genre). Now, director Flanagan has taken all the elements that made those shows great and has brought them to his own original written series Midnight Mass. With this new series, Flanagan is both following and helping to lead a growing trend in horror tv and films over the past few years, an intelligent approach that looks to leave you unsettled and questioning the world around you, as opposed to just leaving you disgusted and maybe a little dumber afterward.

After failing to get the concept published as a novel (and I know that feeling all too well), Flanagan pitched the idea to Netflix, and with his track record of success with their platform, it was greenlit. Midnight Mass follows the story of Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) whose returned to his hometown of Crocket Island after a drunk driving accident sent him to prison for manslaughter. Also finding their way onto the island is a mysterious young priest (Hamish Linklater) carrying with him an equally mysterious wooden crate. Shortly after their arrival, strange occurrences begin taking place, people begin to disappear, and the sighting of a winged monster in the window becomes all too common.

Right off the bat, horror fans are going to notice a striking similarity to Stephen King's iconic novel and the film adaption Salem's Lot, and that is for good reason. Mike Flanagan has admitted Stephen King's influence on his work. Flanagan can also be credited with having two of the most faithful film adaptions to King's work with Doctor Sleep and Gerald's Game. However, beyond the basic setup, both works approach their subject matter very differently. Speaking specifically about Salem's Lot the film, the primary goal of the filmmakers is to scare the pants off of the audience. With chilling images of the vampiric neighbor kid scratching at your window in the middle of the night, and haunting set pieces like the abandoned mansion on the hill they accomplish this very well. Midnight Mass, on the other hand, chooses to terrify us by making us explore those questions we are afraid to ask ourselves. What happens when we die? What is it like to die? Are we all just killers deep down?

Midnight Mass chooses the slow burn, existential dread side of horror that continues to haunt you well after the credits roll. Existential horror seems to be the recurring theme over the past few years with studios like A24 putting out films like MidSommar and Hereditary both of which have received critical praise. As well as Jordon Peele's entries like Get Out and Us. These films all seem to represent a shift in the genre, the over-the-top slasher/fantasy horror of the '80s, the blood-soaked teen horror of the early '90s and early '20s have their place in all our hearts but what we're seeing now is a recurrence of horror films that represent what novels have been giving horror readers for decades, true psychological dread, and I think we as fans are all the better for it.

In the beginning, I said that Midnight Mass may have changed how I approach writing horror, and since I take these kinds of things in as a writer myself, I figure I should share my takeaway. Midnight Mass does very little to reinvent the wheel when it comes to vampire mythology, which seems to be what most writers approaching legacy monsters think they need to do. Anyone watching Midnight Mass for the first few episodes will be able to identify the "angel" as a vampire right away, even if the word vampire is not uttered once in the entire show. All the elements are there. Drinks blood from the throat burns up in the sun and creates more vampires by feeding humans its own blood. Classic vampire motifs. So what's the takeaway? The takeaway is that as a writer, you don't need to feel the pressure of reinventing a mythos that has been handed down for centuries, you just need to get creative about how you choose to deliver it and that is exactly what Midnight Mass does.

Finally, I want to leave off by saying I hope that would-be horror writers and filmmakers alike are paying attention to this renaissance of intelligent horror. There's still a place for the classic slashers but if you really want to leave an audience with something memorable nowadays, you need to assume the people watching aren't just a bunch of brainless dopes with a gore-fetish. Challenge your audience, and ask truly terrifying questions. The ones that keep us up at night, the ones we push down because the answers are always too scary to approach. That is true horror.

If you like Midnight Mass you may also be interested in my own occult-horror novel "In the Web of the Spider Queen" set to release Fall 2022. Stay tuned for pre-order updates.


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