On Midnight Mass and Genre Expectations

The first problem with Midnight Mass is it doesn’t deliver on its promises. That’s not a problem with the show, but happens because its promises are wholly inaccurate.

This is becoming a universal problem, exacerbated by handing all advertising responsibilities to detached departments wholly interested (and job-dependent) in getting people to watch a film, rather than depicting anything near accuracy with the film’s advertising.

just look at this “Star Wars Does Horror” poster giving entirely the wrong vibe

Everything from the ad art to the ‘it’s like this show!’ references suggests a late-70’s / early 80’s horror experience stretched to 7 hours, something akin to Stranger Things or American Horror Story and earlier entries from Midnight Mass creator Flanagan (though audiences as well as advertisers would do well to remember people can work across wildly different genres and styles, including the Spielberg whose works are being heavily cited and referenced in a resurgence of alien and thriller cinema which includes Stranger Things). But Midnight Mass‘s closest analogue isn’t Stranger Things, in fact it’s much closer to Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

I first read Beloved in my late teens . . . and hated it. Likely in part because I was an idiot teenager, but after re-reading years later, I believe it’s also because I expected a more traditional ghost story. A monster! Possession! Something big and intense and genre-laden! Not only is Beloved not that, it never purports or wants to be.

Beloved wants to take the bare bones of the genre and cover them with rich character interactions, meaty historical reckonings, and fraught prose. It wants to trap its main characters with their reckoning, and make us the audience witness it in all its terribleness. It takes a genre story which is usually explicit, has highly tense sequences and jump scares throughout, and runs some of its elements loosely through a ‘based on a true story’ reckoning with institutional atrocities and personal sins, the strands not weaving typical supernatural apparition or horror until the very end.

As Beloved uses certain ghost story conventions to turn a fairly straightforward family drama into an examination of slavery, abuse, and generational trauma, Midnight Mass uses parts of certain horror conventions (to be clear: they’re vampires.) to turn a fairly straightforward island community drama into a meditation on the Church, atonement for sin, and generational trauma. In the same way Beloved uses the vindictive spirit of a dead child to force its characters into painful fights and revelations, Midnight Mass uses vampires as its convention to force the occupants of a remote island to actually face things, to talk about their shit in a way ‘daily’ humans don’t – blunt and in rambling paragraphs, at length with just one other person like a long drawn out therapy session.

In the end both Beloved and Midnight Mass hold to one of the main tenets of vampire / zombie / ghost lore:

humans are the real monsters . . . but also our only hope.

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