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The Opening of ‘Midnight Mass’ Depicts Mike Flanagan’s Worst Nightmare

In a personal essay, Flanagan shares just how deep his connection is with the series and its characters.
Midnight Mass Zach Gilford
By  · Published on September 30th, 2021

Entering the Discourse is a thrice-weekly column where we dig into who is saying what about new releases and upcoming projects. Today, we look at a personal essay from Mike Flanagan about Midnight Mass.

Mike Flanagan has an annoying habit of breaking your heart while scaring the hell out of you. It’s no easy task, but he makes it look like he does it in his sleep. Flanagan’s work, including Doctor Sleep to The Haunting of Hill House, navigates the intricacies of the human experience, from grief and addiction to love and friendship. His latest project, Midnight Mass, is the filmmaker‘s magnum opus, his dream project. And it’s here that he gets incredibly personal.

This week, Flanagan penned an essay for Bloody Disgusting about his deep connection with the series. It is imbued with his past, from his relationship with God to his struggles with alcoholism. He started writing the script in 2010, but he put it down to direct his first film, Oculus.

Why Midnight Mass Couldn’t Be a Movie

While Midnight Mass was initially intended to be a feature, Flanagan quickly realized that wouldn’t be possible when he revisited the project three years later. He writes:

“I have a more advanced screenplay from 2013, and I remember the moment when I realized it wasn’t going to work: I was well over 150 pages into the draft, Riley Flynn and Father Paul Hill were having their first consequential conversation about alcohol (this would later become their first AA meeting scene). 150 pages is longer than most finished screenplays, and I wasn’t even close to midpoint yet. This thing was always too big to be a movie.”

In his essay, Flanagan also reflects on earlier versions of the script that he wrote while he was still drinking:

“It’s fascinating to me, looking back at early drafts of Midnight Mass, just how plainly my own issues with alcohol were driving the story.”

This materialized primarily through the character Riley Flynn. Flanagan describes him as:

“A thinly disguised surrogate, an avatar unlikely to fool anyone except myself, who wouldn’t admit how much I had in common with my own character for many years.”

The Personal Nightmare Depicted in the Series

In a Netflix featurette about Midnight Mass, Flanagan explains that when he was drinking, “there were times where I felt like the consequences weren’t going to apply to me.”

But deep down he was terrified of the consequences of his destructive actions. He elaborates on this in his personal essay, explaining the significance of the show’s opening, which shows a young girl dying on the pavement after Riley Flynn hit her while driving drunk. For Flanagan, that was his absolute worst fear. He writes:

“That was always the nightmare scenario, and that was why my most personal story – Midnight Mass, the story I could never entirely put down – opened the way it did. It faded in on my worst, most ingrained anxiety: not that I would die because of my drinking, but that I would kill someone else… and live.”

Flynn lives out that exact hell, falling asleep every night face to face with the specter of the girl he killed. No matter how many years pass, the character cannot escape his guilt. There is no one to blame but himself, and that idea is what haunted Flanagan. 

Mike Flanagan’s Past Selves

Mike Flanagan is now three years sober and finally sharing Midnight Mass with the world. This is a story about grappling with your place in life, the struggle with growing up, and facing your own demons as they threaten to destroy everything you love. And for Flanagan, it was about occupying two sides of himself.

In the Netflix featurette he says:

“I wanted very much to try to tell a story wherein I would authentically try to inhabit both perspectives that exist within me about faith and religion to see where I came out.”

So where did he come out? Flanagan doesn’t give an answer. However, he hints in his essay that the series helped him answer the big question of “how shall we live.”

Despite his struggles, Flanagan looks back upon them as important parts of shaping the script for Midnight Mass. He writes in his personal essay:

“I think back on those various past versions of myself, all of whom touched and shaped this story at different times along the way, with their anger, their fear, their addiction, their existential crises. All of those versions of me are in conversation with each other on this show – the altar boy, the atheist, the scientist, the believer, the moderate, the student, the parent, the child, the alcoholic – and I am grateful for all of them. There was so much I wanted to say, every time I sat down to type about the people of Crockett Island, so much I thought I knew, so much I didn’t know.” 

Midnight Mass is now streaming on Netflix.

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)