This article contains huge spoilers for Midnight Mass. So help me God if you read this without watching the series first…
An isolated, insular island community? Great. A young, charismatic preacher suddenly coming to town to shake things up? Perfect. That preacher proving capable of performing minor miracles? Love it, no notes!
Of course, as viewers who have watched at least four episodes of the seven-episode series now know, Midnight Mass has one extra supernatural twist in mind that elevates an already interesting story to true mind-blowing status. Critics were understandably asked to keep this aspect of the show a secret before it premiered. So please indulge me as I finally slay these embargo demons and get it off my chest.
Vampires. Vampires! V-A-M-P-I-R-E-S. VAMPIRES! VAMPIRES VAMPIRES VAMPIRES! Literally like Dracula. And Nosferatu. Anne Rice’s Lestat. Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. Vampires. VAMPIRES, BRO, VAMPIRES.
For creator Mike Flanagan, a filmmaker influenced by all manner of classic horror, bringing the fanged bloodsuckers to life was a long time coming.
“My favorite vampire movie is (Werner) Herzog’s Nosferatu,” Flanagan told Den of Geek and other outlets prior to the premiere of Midnight Mass. “That film is the vampire story as high art. I also adore From Dusk Till Dawn. I read Dracula young enough for it to really burrow in for me. And I read ‘Salem’s Lot early enough to color an enormous amount of work that I’ll do for the rest of my life.”
Midnight Mass’s depiction of the mythological undead beast and how it can neatly fit into Christian dogma is one of the most satisfying horror twists in years. Now that the truth is out, let’s discuss Midnight Mass and how it conflates vampires and biblical angels.
Mistaking a Vampire for an Angel
The interesting thing about Midnight Mass is that it clearly takes place in a universe where the average person has no knowledge of what a vampire is. Even Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), arguably the most well-read person on Crockett Island, has to do some research into “porphyria cutanea tarda” (a.k.a. the real life “vampire disease”). This is similar to The Walking Dead’s approach to zombies, in which the “z” word and George A. Romero’s name are never spoken. This strategy in Midnight Mass allows for a truly fascinating case of mistaken identity.
While viewers immediately know that the creature Monsignor John Pruitt (Hamish Linklater) encounters is a vampire, he believes it to be an angel. Given how studied Pruitt is in the Bible and Cathloic theology, it’s entirely understandable why he would think a tall, muscular, bald-headed beast with fangs and leathery wings is an angel. As it turns out, the angels of the Old Testament can be truly terrifying.
Not all angels are soft-featured human-like creatures with fluffy white bird wings. Some, like Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones are designed to intimidate God’s enemies. In the New Testament’s Book of Luke, an angel visits Zechariah and immediately asks him to “be not afraid” because the angel can see the poor guy absolutely shaking in his boots upon his arrival. Angels being terrifying is even something of an Internet meme, with users contrasting the phrase “be not afraid” with images of truly monstrous beasts.
Not only does Pruitt’s vampire have the vague appearance of an angel, it also apparently holds the secrets to eternal life as promised in the Bible. By merely drinking some of the “angel’s” blood, a good Christian can live forever just like God says. Does that blood-drinking sacrament sound familiar? It did to Mike Flanagan.
“In Bible school I used to say ‘if the wine turns into Jesus’s blood literally and we’re drinking it so that we can live forever … that seems like a short leap to vampiric myth.’”
Of course, drinking the angel’s fluids in the case of Midnight Mass also leads to some unwanted side effects like a thirst for blood and extreme sensitivity to sunlight. Thankfully, good ol’ Bev Keane always has a Bible quote ready to go for that. When read through the proper perspective, the Holy Bible may as well be the original vampire story.
The Rules of Vampirism
“The thing that I love about the vampire as a cinematic tool is how malleable it is,” Flanagan says. “We all agree that there is no canon. There are no rules. In fact, part of the joy is seeing what rules people cherry pick as they approach a vampire story.”
All depictions of vampires are indeed quite different. Vampires can range from the classic Stoker-ian monster to Twilight’s nigh-invulnerable sparkle bois. Midnight Mass’s version of the vampire leans towards the classic, albeit with some tweaks. In terms of appearance, The Angel (as we will be calling Midnight Mass’s O.G. vampire for simplicity’s sake) has a more bestial look like Nosferatu rather than an aristocratic one like Count Dracula or Anne Rice’s creations.
“We winked at (Nosferatu the Vampyr actor) Klaus Kinski a few times when we designed our guy,” Flanagan says.
Though the Angel resembles Nosferatu in appearance, its vulnerabilities owe more to Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles. Religious iconography does not appear to hurt the Angel nor its thralls. Traditional human weapons like bullets or blades also do no harm (at least not mortally). These vampires are, however, tremendously susceptible to both fire and sunlight. Exposure to the latter for even a few seconds is enough to kill the Angel and his many acolytes.
Like in Rice’s works as well, the path to creating a new vampire is quite simple. Step 1: Drink its blood. Step 2: Die. In Dracula and ‘Salem’s Lot, the method of vampire creation is merely being bit by one, zombie-style. Rice and Flanagan’s approach is quite a bit more intentional and interesting. It also opens the door for perhaps Midnight Mass’s most ingenious storytelling quirk: communion. John Pruitt is able to get nearly the entirety of Crockett Island to become a vampire by spiking the communion wine with his buddy’s blood. Then, all that remains is for them to poison themselves to death, Jonestown-style.
The mass “resurrection” scene in which the congregation awakes as their new vampire selves also provides some insight to just how hard it is to contain the vampire’s overwhelming hunger. Riley Flynn was able to resist it when he turned because John Pruitt babysat him like a psychedelic mushroom guide. The plan for the rest of the congregation was to have their babysitters as well but that didn’t quite work out. Still, Riley’s dad Ed makes it clear to his wife Annie, that even if it’s hard to resist the call for blood, it’s not impossible.
“When I saw them at the church, I thought it was something they really couldn’t help. Like something impossible not to do. But it isn’t, Annie,” he says.
Maybe if more vampires were like Ed Flynn, a whole island full of vampires wouldn’t be too bad of a thing in the first place.
How to Defeat a Vampire
While every vampire story presents its own unique take on the creature, the answer on how to defeat a vampire is usually the same: by doing it together.
“We poor humans only have so much that we can give,” Flanagan says. “We’re ill-equipped as individuals to make any kind of meaningful stand. The only way evil in the world can be brought down is through collective effort. That’s something Stoker understands inherently. It’s clearly something King understands.”
Alongside the aforementioned Bram Stoker and Stephen King, Flanagan presents a small team of humans at story’s end who will do what it takes to defeat evil, even if it means dying in the process. Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), Dr. Sarah Gunning, Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli), Annie Flynn (Kristin Lehman), Warren Flynn (Igby Rigney), and Leeza Scarborough (Annarah Cymone) are the six residents of Crockett Island brave enough to try to take down the Angel. All but two (Warren and Leeza) die. They do succeed in eliminating the immediate threat on Crockett Island but it’s possible the Angel made it away to suck blood another day, damaged wings and all.
What’s interesting about Midnight Mass’s “final crew” is that six appears to be the magic number when it comes to taking down a vampire. Stoker’s Dracula has six heroes: Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker nèe Murray, Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming), John Seward, Quincey Morris, and Abraham Van Helsing (of which, only poor American cowboy Quincey Morris dies). King’s ‘Salem’s Lot also has six: Ben Mears, Matt Burke, Susan Norton, Mark Petrie, Jimmy Cody, and Father Callahan (of which, decidedly more than one of them die). This strange bit of arithmancy is something we asked Flanagan about.
“The number was certainly not intentional,” he says. “Once it was clear that Riley was not going to be carrying the torch to the end it really was about asking ‘who are the characters who seem in the very beginning to be at a disadvantage and how do we empower them in the end?’ This was gonna be played out by Sarah Gunning, Sheriff Hassan, and everyone else who would get to just give a little piece.”
Considering that Erin and company were outnumbered about 117 to six, it was a pretty good showing for Crockett Island’s last humans standing.
All seven episodes of Midnight Mass are available to stream on Netflix now.