Bloodsuckers, Bad Readers: "Midnight Mass" and "What We Do in the Shadows"
By Phillip MaciakOctober 22, 2021
There are currently two television programs about vampires living in small, economically-depressed island towns in the contemporary United States. Three would be a trend, but two is still a lot. When night falls on the island, the ghouls come out to play. Some lurk about like the vicious, Gothic monstrosities they are; others drunkenly loaf about the city, like anthropomorphic Victorian coaches. They fly about on bats’ wings, stalking their victims, turning some to eternal midnight, leaving others to rot. While the vampires of Crockett Island (Netflix’s Midnight Mass) and the vampires of Staten Island (FX’s What We Do in the Shadows) don’t share much aesthetically, they do share this common, fatal instinct.
Also, they all seem a little lost.
One of the scariest things that can happen in a horror movie is for religious fanatics to be right. What’s scarier than the fact that the little girl in The Exorcist really is possessed by the devil? Or that the colonial New England of The VVitch really does turn out to have a vvitch problem? The world is a mystery to everybody, nobody knows what’s going on, everybody’s just guessing. But there’s a horrible frightfulness to the idea that the people whose guesses seem most outlandish, most shot through with prejudice and the arrogance of corrupt and poisoned faith, whose readings of sacred texts are the most violent and hateful and annihilatingly literal, are the ones who are getting it right.
Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix series Midnight Mass, on the other hand, is about a bunch of religious fanatics who get it wrong. Perhaps for that reason, it’s not particularly scary. But, also for that reason, it’s extremely gripping. This series is the third installment in what’s become an annual drop of seasonal Halloween content from Flanagan. It follows last year’s The Haunting of Bly Manor (a loose adaptation of Henry James’ ghost stories) and the previous year’s The Haunting of Hill House (a loose adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name).
Like those series, Midnight Mass is something of an adaptation, though it’s not billed or credited as such. What precisely it’s an adaptation of is actually a significant question for the show, and it’s the source of the central mistake made by the religious fanatics. Indeed, the characters in Midnight Mass are quite aware that they’re living through an adaptation. The mistake is that most of them think they’re living through an adaptation of the Bible — specifically, its alternately glorious and terrifying tribulations — when they’re actually living through an adaptation of Nosferatu. Oops!
Midnight Mass is a show about religion, about forgiveness, about community, about the sickness unto death, about alcoholism, about the death of parents, about the death of industry, about the very specific character type of nosey, judgmental church volunteers, and, like everything else, kind of about COVID. But, mostly, it’s about bad readers.
One of the longest running jokes on What We Do in the Shadows is a joke about bad reading. Nandor the Relentless — a 759-year-old vampire, living with his roommates and his human servant on Staten Island — is shopping for party supplies. As, you know, a ghastly creature of the darkness, he gets very excited when he sees an item he thinks is called “creepy paper.” Guillermo, his human familiar, discreetly points out to the documentary crew filming them that what Nandor has discovered is actually crêpe paper. Bad reader.
The joke returns in this third season in an arc that demonstrates how unusually connected this farcical mockumentary is to its more dour and serious cousin on Netflix. Put very simply, if Midnight Mass is about a bunch of regular people who don’t understand that they’re in a vampire movie, What We Do in the Shadows has always been about a bunch of vampires who don’t understand that they’re in a TV show about regular people.
The concept of Midnight Mass, which isn’t revealed until the fourth episode but which is pretty guessable right away, is this: the elderly, senile priest of a Roman Catholic parish on a remote island that’s suffering from the decline in commercial fishing and the aftereffects of an oil spill — the show is weirdly not about living in climate change induced end times — takes a trip to the Holy Land as a last hurrah. While there, his dementia worsens, and he wanders off literally on the road to Damascus. During this time, there’s a massive sand storm, the priest gets lost in the desert, and he eventually finds shelter in an ancient cave or structure that’s seemingly been unearthed by the winds. In the darkness, he’s attacked by a giant, pale, winged, humanoid creature who sucks his blood. The priest begins to say the “Our Father” and prepare for death, but then the creature opens up one of its own veins and gives the priest his blood to drink. The priest wakes up the next morning, transformed into his much much much younger self, who happens to look a lot like character actor Hamish Linklater. Young Priest — I think Hamish Linklater’s very handsome, but there’s only one spot for “Hot Priest” in The Discourse — stashes the creature in an Indiana Jones-looking trunk, beats it back to the island, and sets about working miracles by surreptitiously feeding the creature’s blood to the parishioners of the church. MIDNIGHT MASS!
What has obviously happened, what would be obvious to any person who has even tangentially encountered popular culture of any kind at any point in the last two hundred years, what the deal very clearly is, is that this fucking guy got bit by a vampire. But that thought does not seem to so much as cross the mind of the priest. Instead, what the priest instantly surmises, is that he has met an angel of God. He has been restored to youth by an angel who’d been unfortunately trapped on Earth, and so his duty is to both free the angel and return it to his sleepy island town to help restore the island to its former glory. Again: oops!
The priest is a bad reader. His situation could not be clearer. What’s happened to him could not be more of a textbook illustration of what we [vampires] do in the shadows if the creature had been wearing a cape and name tag that said, “Dracula the Vampire.” But the priest doesn’t see that. Is it the context of the Holy Land? Is it his age-ravaged mind clinging to the only story it remembers? Is it cruel optimism? In lots of ways, the priest’s inability to read this situation for what it very obviously is is the show’s ultimate subject.
Reading, interpretation, divination, exegesis, prophecy — these are all varieties of the same practice. We just ask different things of them. In some contexts, we welcome and acknowledge the idea that our interpretation of an event or a text is malleable, subject to the peccadilloes of our own subjectivities. In other cases, we want to resist that kind of wishy-washiness. We want predictions to be certain, interpretations to be accurate, prophecies to come true. We might want to believe in religion as if it is a science or, as the sign says, believe in science as if it is a religion. But this desire to trust in readings and interpretations is its own corruption of our gaze. What happens when we only ever see what we want to see? It is this desperation that prevents the priest from interpreting the text in front of him with clarity. And because he returns to the island as the man whose authority rests in his ability to interpret The Text, his followers follow suit. The danger of this, I think, is what Flanagan is really getting at.
There’s a hilarious and haunting image in the third season of What We Do in the Shadows where a group of vampires are all spinning hula hoops in a dance studio. The camera takes a moment and then pans and lingers on the full-length mirror in the room that captures only the hoops, eerily loping through the air. What are these vampires looking at? Who do they see?
What We Do in the Shadows is funniest and most touching when the vampire leads find themselves haplessly negotiating very human social dynamics. They may believe they are living through the romantic escapades of a quartet of charismatic, sexually-irresistible immortals, but, most of the time, they’re just gross, smelly low-lifes getting into petty squabbles at the office and being upsold by Best Buy sales associates. They have jobs as bureaucrats for the Vampiric Council, whose seat of power lies in the basement of an office building on Staten Island; they loan money to friends who’ll never pay them back; they put all their energy into toxic relationships; they get really into genealogy. Nobody thinks they’re scary or sexy or mysterious or any of the things vampires are supposed to be. They’re just the sort of people you’re trying to get out of having to talk to. Until they kill you and drink your blood.
The mockumentary framing does a lot of this work. From This is Spinal Tap to The Office, the special sight of the fake documentary is one that reveals subjects whose stories of themselves don’t match up to the reality. But our vampires don’t just have an inflated sense of their own importance; they see themselves as heirs to a glorious mythology, a romantic lineage, and that vision is unshakeable. Their picture of themselves is itself immortal. That they literally can’t see themselves in the mirror might be the show’s funniest and deepest and oldest joke.
One of the things I liked a lot about Mike Flanagan’s earlier Netflix series was how genuinely scary they were. Both series are incredibly compelling, both are virtuosically shot and edited, and both utterly collapse in the end in baffling divergences from their source texts. (Dear television!) And both are absolutely terrifying. In both series, Flanagan returns, again and again, to a particular — and particularly effective — visual trick. The trick is, very simply, that, very often, even in scenes where nothing “scary” is occurring, there’s a ghost in frame. The ghost is usually in the background, out-of-focus, or even artfully concealed by our own attentiveness to the frame’s nominal subject. Sometimes, Flanagan would rack focus to the ghost or have the ghost draw our attention through movement or sound, and it would be thrilling. You’ve been in the frame with it all along. But, more often than not, he’d just let the ghosts hang out, let us not notice them. The cumulative effect is deeply unsettling, and it’s vouchsafed, in part, by all the ghosts that are there but that we fail to see. The jump scares work, but the deeper scare is the realization that you’ve never been alone in the frame. You’ve been watched, haunted this whole time.
I’ve mentioned that Midnight Mass isn’t very scary, and it’s not. The creature is plenty terrifying, but he’s not quite bad enough to haunt your dreams. There are lots of jump scares, but, because so much of the show is about reliving trauma and coming to terms with the ritual aspects of being in thrall to it, we come to expect most of those scares when they occur. What it is, instead, is a bad vibe. There’s something wrong with it. And, as with the other Flanagan Halloween spectaculars, we sense this visually more than anything else. There are all the older characters clearly being played by young actors in old age make-up; there’s an early two-shot conversation between two characters where the editing rhythm is just simply off, too many cuts at the wrong time, one more angle than is necessary; there are monologues that feel, for lack of a better term, written. There’s a kind of pasteboard quality to a lot of this early exposition. The world feels as if it’s been constructed unevenly, and we come to realize that it’s uneven because there’s something wrong with its foundations.
What happens if you only see what you want to see? What happens if what you think you’re looking at isn’t what you’re actually looking at? What happens if you build your entire existence around that false sense of certainty? What if you watch a TV show like that?
Nandor the Relentless is having a midlife crisis. Tired of the endless horizon of vampire immortality — and bruised by a recent break-up — he gets sucked into an eighties-themed wellness cult, in which vampires study how to become human. They pull out their fangs, they jazzercise, they learn about how to be insincere in social settings. It’s telling that this is the most sinister cabal we’ve encountered on the series. There’s something up with all these posi-core, fangless vampires.
But there’s something up, this season, with everything about the world of the vampires. The energy vampire Colin Robinson can’t find the origin of his species; the other vampires do find the origin of their species, but he turns out to be a grotesque monster they have to hide away at an AirBnB in Nutley, NJ; Nadja’s ghost, living in a porcelain doll, becomes despondent at the idea of an afterlife trapped within an eerie children’s toy; and all of this is compounded by the fact that they’re now in charge of the Vampiric Council, an organization that once symbolized for them all the mystery and majesty of vampire-kind, but which quickly reveals itself to be a dumpy, bureaucratic nightmare. Nothing in this season is comfortable anymore. Nandor regressing to his humanity makes sense, then. Being a vampire isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But maybe these creatures sought the promise of that existence because they never knew how to be people in the first place.
Flanagan is slow about revealing the fundamental instability of the world of his show. We surmise that the priest has regained his youth — and we see it happen to various parishioners who don’t need their glasses anymore, don’t feel back strain anymore, and, in the most spectacular instance, don’t need a wheelchair anymore — but it isn’t until nearly halfway through the series that we see the origin of this gift and its more telltale symptoms, like how his flesh burns in the sunlight and how he hungers for tasty, tasty blood. And, even then, Flanagan’s able to stretch out our sense of possibility that maybe this is what angels are like? Maybe vampires, the show briefly suggests, are just misunderstood angels. This angel should be lustily sucking blood from my neck without regard to my screams of agony and terror, right? That’s just regular angel stuff. The media wants you to think these guys are vampires living in castles and kidnapping virgins, but the vampire is just a cultural construct, a myth. All along it was just bloodthirsty angels with long creepy fingers and pointy ears, who only go around at night to hunt for delicious human blood to slurp from the gaping wounds they tear into the necks of human beings. Angels: hark!
That’s at least how our priest sees it. He twice delivers a monologue that reveals that he seems to think he’s in a standard-issue horror film. Throughout the Bible, he says, whenever people encounter angels, they’re sore afraid, struck with terror at God’s awesome avatars. And, because that’s the sort of thing a horror movie might pull, we go along for a moment. Nobody ever says the word vampire. Not even at the end. The power of this act of bad reading makes us, even for just one beat too long, bad readers, too. And that’s a very powerful trick to pull.
It’s to Flanagan’s credit that the full, gnarly reality of the situation doesn’t really sink in until the bloodbath in the penultimate episode, at the Easter Vigil, the titular Midnight Mass, when the priest locks the congregation in the church and offers them all poisoned cups so that they’ll all die and be reborn as he was. The vampire, dressed in a chasuble, solemnly processes to the front of the church, like a little boy at his first Holy Communion. It is both the show’s scariest and silliest moment.
Why, finally, does the vampire agree to any of this? Upon being released by the priest initially, why did he not just zip over to Damascus and have himself a buffet dinner? Why did he consent to folding himself up in an old trunk and traveling to the Pacific Northwest of all places? Why did he agree to wear a hat and trenchcoat when he walked around at night, looking like the Babadook? Why did he agree to wear the vestments at the Easter Vigil and march up the aisle? Did they practice that part? Again, why did he not eat everybody at any point? Who knows why vampires do what they do (in the shadows)? Maybe he’s having a midlife crisis, too.
One of the best episodes of What We Do in the Shadows is the second-season episode called “On the Run.” In it, Laszlo, one our protagonists, goes on the lam to avoid an old enemy. He hides out in a small town in Pennsylvania, masquerading as a bar owner and high school volleyball enthusiast named Jackie Daytona. The joke of the episode is that the townspeople buy every bit of Laszlo’s preposterous, thinly-veiled human act. Laszlo’s caricature of humanity comes off as real humanity to real humans. And, as much as that episode was about a community brought together by a mysterious stranger, it was also built around this dark joke. Jackie Daytona, and his jaunty toothpick, shouldn’t be enough to fool a whole town of people, but he is. The people of Staten Island shouldn’t be vulnerable to this team of morons, but they are. Or maybe Laszlo's human cosplay is premised around a reading of humanity that we just can't make our way around to, no matter how many times it proves true. It should be harder to bleed the world dry. But it isn’t.
When the priest later sees the error of his ways, it’s clear specifically how he sees that error. He realizes, not that he’d done wrong but that he was wrong. When he admits to his old flame that he’d brought the vampire back in order to see her young again, to see her escape dementia and death, we understand that his desperation wasn’t merely about the evidence of things not seen, but the things he hadn’t done. It was about profound, petty regret. The priest opened himself up to the miraculous meaning of his assault because seeing it that way would allow him to see her that way again. It was the story he wanted, the one he needed, so he read for it. It’s hard to be a good reader, a good person, and alive all at the same time.
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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