To Burn the Rot

Today I am sharing a piece by guest writer Kate Eichelberger. While Kate and I are friends, her opinions do not necessarily reflect my own but she raises good questions here that we should all be willing to meditate on more deeply. Also, if you have not seen the Netflix show “Midnight Mass” and don’t wish for any spoilers, this is a good post to skip. Otherwise, let’s let Kate’s words ruminate in our minds and hearts and reflect on a piece of good art and entertainment. Kate’s review of “Midnight Mass” is below. You can find Kate on Twitter @katerintree.

I’m not usually much of a horror fan, but from September through November I crave the cathartic fear and relief of well-done horror. I request Stephen King from the library, and after the kids are in bed my husband and I dive into the old classics. I’m not much for slasher flicks. I prefer The Exorcist, The Shining, and Rosemary’s Baby. I’m picky about horror movies, so when my husband Adam encouraged me to watch Midnight Mass, I was skeptical. On a rainy night, after the kids were in bed, we sat down to watch the first episode. Hours later we peeled ourselves away from the TV to go to bed, and I watched the clock all the next day until we could finish the series. It’s extremely good – and if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to watch things that have been spoiled, then minimize this tab and go watch it ASAP because I’m going to spoil the show.

Now for the spoiler-laden summary: it’s the story of a small community on an economically depressed island where most families are supported by fishing. Many of the residents attend the only Catholic parish on the island. When weird things start happening – some unsettling and disturbing, but others seem truly good – viewers become aware that something is very off in Father Paul, and something very wrong is happening. 

As a cradle Catholic, descended from blue collar, rust belt, Irish and German families, the show resonated with me culturally. The Newton Brothers’ soundtrack of hymns in harmony, sometimes accompanied by organ, was both beautiful and familiar, fading into the background in places, lulling me as the viewer into a sense of comfort. It wasn’t until the fourth episode, “Book IV: Lamentations” that I fully understood: there are two monsters in this story.

Father Paul (who we later learn is actually the “miraculously” younger Monsignor Pruitt) is not a vampire when he returns to the island from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but he brings a vampire with him. The origins of the evil on Crockett Island did not begin within St. Patrick’s Parish, but the evil thrived and was safe there. Despite a horrific experience in a sandstorm outside Jerusalem, the priest is completely, perhaps naively, blind to the true nature of this creature, and can only see the potential good that can come. At first, it truly does seem to bring revival and resurrection to Crockett Island. Residents appear younger, old injuries are healed, and the pews are full at Sunday Mass. Mildred, an elderly resident suffering from dementia, regains her memory and her mobility to the shocked awe of friends and family. Leeza, a teenager permanently disabled by a hunting accident, rises from her wheelchair and walks one day right in the middle of mass. It’s tempting, even as a viewer, to accept these occurrences as works of God. 

In the fourth episode, a character is killed accidentally, falling to the floor in a spreading pool of his own blood, and Monsignor Pruitt/Father Paul (at this point fully a vampire) is unable to resist, and he feeds on the blood of the man with the ferocity of a wolf on a carcass. This is horrible to watch, even as there is a sense that Pruitt/Paul is acting on an animal instinct and has no maliciousness in his actions. It is when Bev, perhaps the most terrifying character in this entire story, walks into the priest’s residence and finds the unmistakable scene of a vampire feeding on the blood of a dead man, that we meet the second monster in this story. Bev begins covering up a murder, protecting Fr. Paul’s reputation, protecting the institution of the Church without a milisecond’s reservation. There is no concern for the victim, there is no thought of doing what is right, only of protecting the parish, protecting Fr. Paul, protecting the Church. With composure that, frankly, chilled me to watch, Bev calls in devout parishioners – upstanding members of the community – to clean up the mess, to dispose of the body, and to make sure that no consequences come down on the people she perceives to be worthy of protection. 

There are two monsters in Midnight Mass: the demonic predator, a creature whose very nature is to hunt, to prey, to destroy; and then the organization of the Catholic Church, whose structure encouraged deceit and self-preservation rather than transparency and accountability

To a soundtrack of familiar hymns, amidst the quotidien blue-collar community, Pruitt/Paul brought an evil into his church, knowingly allowed it to spread – fed it to his parishioners himself. Parishioners Wade, Dolly, and Sturge all overcame their own reservations, ignored their conscience, and actively participated in covering up the horror. Using Scripture, wearing a crucifix, and often dressed in an approximation of vestments, Bev bullied and threatened fellow parishioners into cooperating, but they did cooperate. No one went to the authorities; they closed ranks to protect their own.

In the final episode, the town burns. The church, the parish hall, the houses, the general store, the boats, the ferry – they all burn. The heroes of the story sustain fatal injuries in their efforts to burn any remaining shelter on the island, to prevent the vampires in the town from surviving even one more day. Sending the two remaining children to the safety of the unknown off the island, outside the community – outside the church – our heroes give their lives to allow Warren and Leeza to escape. Erin bleeds out on the grass, staring at the stars, and Hassan prays Fajr (dawn prayer) with Ali on the beach. They die at peace, knowing that in destroying St Patrick’s they’ve done what is right. Meanwhile, Bev claws at the sand, shrieking and seeking shelter. Our final glimpse of the residents of Crockett Island is Warren and Leeza, the only survivors, adrift in a canoe. As the light breaks, the voices singing a heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee” stop mid-verse, and Leeza turns to Warren and says “I can’t feel my legs.” And that’s the end of the series.

Did Mike Flanagan, the writer and director of Midnight Mass, read the McCarrick report? I don’t know. The internet tells me he was raised Roman Catholic. But his message in this work is clear: to Mike Flanagan, there is nothing worth saving in the Church, and the best thing we can do is burn it down so we can save the children it hasn’t harmed yet.

The scariest thing about Midnight Mass isn’t the vampires, it isn’t the death and gore. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a cradle Catholic. I am married to a man who has worked for the Church for almost 20 years, I have attended, taught at, and sent my kids to Catholic schools, and we are raising our kids in the Church. More than once I have had people who don’t have kids or who aren’t practicing Catholics ask me, “How can you continue to bring kids to church when you know everything you know about the abuse?” There are days when the answer is easy, and there are days – like after the recent reporting of The Pillar – when I honestly don’t have a good answer.  And so for me, the scariest thing about Midnight Mass was that, as I re-watched the last episode last night, the town burning, the people singing, the kids escaping, the dawn breaking and the light destroying the rot and filth and evil that had taken over, I thought, “Y’know? Mike Flanagan might be right. Maybe the best thing would be to burn it down.”

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