Midnight Mass and Religious Sociopathy, Part 1: Islands are Insular

Michele Somerville
6 min readNov 5, 2021

Spoilers! I have strained to avoid divulging the most dramatic spoilers, but please know that there are some spoilers herein.

Islands Are Insular

Midnight Mass is a horror series, yes, but it’s also more. The ice blue light over the water, the salt and wind-parched wooden houses and battered ground; the sound — the ominous horn sounds, the church bell, Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” sounding over the entrance procession and Sunday Mass at Saint Patrick’s; and the conventional Catholic hymns many Catholics easily recognize are impressive from an aesthetics standpoint, but it is Flanagan’s donning the theologian’s cap for this project which most impressed me. Maybe Flanagan wasn’t trying to create an allegory capable of explaining so much of what is wrong with contemporary Roman Catholicism, but he did so — and expertly. He uses fictional Crockett Island and its inhabitants to point to the ways insularity, exceptionalism, entitlement, avarice and the defects of clericalism eat away at the body of the contemporary, Vatican II Roman Catholic Church. It’s not so much the beliefs that Flanagan seeks to critique, but the ways they are trashed and adulterated by religious leaders. Flanagan is interested in the message, and in the ways insularity, Catholic exceptionalism, ends-justify-the-means dominionism, clericalism, and greed work together in predictable ways to twist the message of the Gospels, and a create fertile ground for a kind of religious sociopathy.

It’s easy to see how Mike Flanagan’s interest in Catholic insularity developed. An Irish Catholic former altar boy, he lived on Governor’s Island in New York City (His parent was in the U.S. Coast Guard.) and attended both high school and college in the white flight suburbs a bit south of Baltimore (The film The Keepers offers a solid glimpse of the Catholicity of this particular milieu.) The choice to set the action of this series on an island makes sense, given the filmaker’s interest in fathoming Catholic insularity. Crockett island has been tested. Its fishing industry was shattered by an oil spill. The low-ball cash award for damages and hardship, we learn, was, embezzled up by the smug Bev Keane a sadistic zealot church lady who seems designed to remind Catholics of a certain age of every smug and vicious Catholic school we ever had. The population has dwindled, but as is often the case, when people are raised in raised in religious insularity, sometimes even ones who most want to depart fail to escape.

Riley tries to leave but tragedy, addiction, having nowhere else to go drive him to return. Doctor Sarah, who has rejected the religion of her devout mother, plans to leave when her aged mother dies. Erin the schoolteacher, who is pregnant without a partner at the start, tried to leave but, returned, forced by personal strife. People can come on go on Crockett Island but the ferry only runs twice a day. (Who controls the boats controls the people.) If everything one needs and knows is on the island, one need never depart. Flanagan wants us to notice how dangerous this pull is.

Father Paul starts an Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) meeting in the St. Patrick’s recreation hall on Crockett Island in part because he knows that Riley Flynn, who as the first episode begins, we see returning to Crocket Island after serving a driving while impaired/vehicular manslaughter sentence, must travel to the mainland to make his court-mandated meetings. Compassion and concern lead Father Paul to initiate a weekly meeting, but so too does ego drives this effort. Father Paul appears to need a meeting to cope with his own urges, as well. Furthermore, the priest has his eye on the island pariah and alcoholic, Joe Collie, whom he hopes to save. Joe Collie does begin to attend. As a result, he develops new resolve to stay sober and hope for redemption.

While the Masses in the church proper are often aesthetically powerful, in the first few episodes, it’s in the conversations that take place between Riley and the priest, in stark rec room, that pack the greater spiritual wallop. In AA, the priest is just a guy struggling with a “hunger,” as he calls it. There, the defects of clericalism don’t much surface or pertain. Riley, who has no use for church, shows a measure of willingness to share his feelings and convictions, and demonstrates an interest in contrition and making amends. Joe Collie, the town drunk, who shot the girl in the wheelchair, to whom Bev later on in the series refers as an “it,” a man assumed (by most church insiders) to exist outside of the sphere of God’s grace, becomes new, with help from both the priest and Riley. Across the way, at St. Patrick’s Church, there is more pomp and in many ways less God.

Shortly after Riley returns, his mother tries to explain his father’s malaise in the aftermath of the oil spill which shattered the local fishing industry. “We thought environmentalists were our friends,” she says. Referring to restrictions on fishing, she adds, “We can only catch as much as they say. But they’ve never been watermen … We used to be hundreds. Now were just dozens.” Only those on the island, she argues, can understand. Later, when the new priest first takes to the pulpit, he notes that the Crocket Islanders are fisherman as were the apostles. Promoting exceptionalism helps religious tyranny to take hold. We deserve to violate the fishing regulations because we have the esoteric knowledge only fishermen/islanders/apostles have.

The word “isolate” derives literally from the Latin word for “island.” One of the defining traits of cults is the tendency of “cult” leaders to “isolate” adherents from family and friends who challenge beliefs of the sect. The insularity of Catholics living and worshipping on Crockett Island contributes to a sense of exceptionalism. These Catholics steep in their holiness. They worship in a vacuum of challenges. Islands are insular!

When Riley’s father demands that his son attend Mass as a means of honoring his mother, he qualifies the directive by adding, “I don’t care if your heart’s not in it.” The father invites his son to perform devotion. His father, presuming, to know the condition of his Riley’s soul, warns him not to receive Communion. I found this scene chilling, because it put me in mind of the many times I have worshipped, as a Catholic outsider, in insular Catholic communities, wherein hearts so often seemed not to be much in it, and an overriding Catholic exceptionalism and entitlement predominated. “This is how we do it here” was where the heart should be.

How striking the difference is between Riley’s religious exchange with his father and the one outsider and Muslim, Sheriff Hassan, shares with his Christianity-curious son Ali. Both fathers in the course of their talks on the subject of devotion point to the imperative of honoring the religiosity of their two devout mothers. But Sheriff Hassan is torn between wanting his son to be a Muslim and wanting his son to know God: “I know you’re curious, “Hassan says, “I will not tell my son not to look for God. But son … we already have him.” Riley Flynn’s father is not interested in the search for God. He just wants Riley to behave and comply. Insular religious communities do tend to emphasize compliance and complacence. The holy insiders in the story are smug and creepy. They have the answer. They have the hotline to God. But it’s the outsiders — Riley and Sarah, the atheists; Erin, the “cafeteria Catholic” teacher; Hassan the Muslim — who, in courage and dignity, discern.

MMS

October 31, 2021

Read Part 2

Read Part 3

Consider subscribing to Indie Theology .

--

--

Michele Somerville

She/her. Poet, writer, teacher, hermeneut punk. Author: Glamourous Life, Rain Mountain Press, http://rainmountainpress.com/books-glamourous-life.html