Mike Flanagan Explores His Private Horrors in ‘Midnight Mass’

The writer-director Mike Flanagan has become best known for his adaptations of works by Shirley Jackson (“The Haunting of Hill House”), Henry James (“The Haunting of Bly Manor”) and Stephen King (“Gerald’s Game,” “Doctor Sleep”). The horrors in his latest project, “Midnight Mass,” a seven-episode limited series that premiered Friday on Netflix, are homegrown.

That includes the unease of being an author, not adapter. “There’s nowhere for me to hide now,” Flanagan admitted in a recent video interview, speaking from Los Angeles. “Behind Stephen King is a great place to hide. This is much more frightening.”

Flanagan has earned a reputation for what might be called humanistic horror. Beyond the ghouls and goose bumps, much of his work is centered on deeply felt family drama, populated by damaged characters wrestling with the everyday terrors of being a parent, a partner, a human being. “The Haunting of Hill House,” his popular Netflix series from 2018, plays out like “Six Feet Under” with poltergeists.

Sometimes the endings of his shows and movies, which offer long-suffering characters a measure of peace, are derided by more sadomasochistic fans of the genre. But Flanagan, while never skimping on the nightmare fuel, believes that horror can offer something deeper.

“Horror affords us the opportunity to really look at ourselves and the things that scare us, that disturb us, as a society and individuals,” he said. “It’s incredibly powerful.”

“The Haunting of Hill House” was infused with Flanagan’s own experiences with death in his extended family, including specific imagery from his life. But “Midnight Mass,” he said, is by far his most personal work — it is inspired by some of his most persistent fixations, as well as his experiences with religion and addiction.

It begins with a young man and the aftermath of a terrible accident. After years in prison looking for God — not only in the Christian bible but also in every holy text he can lay his hands on — Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returns to his childhood home on an isolated island to stay with his family. Soon after, following the arrival of a young, jeans-wearing priest (Hamish Linklater), strange things start happening. Some seem like gifts from an all-loving God; others not so much. Either way, a higher power appears to be taking an active interest in worldly affairs.

That’s right: After having successfully taken on Jackson, James and King, Flanagan is taking on God.

At first glance, the quiet island community of the show seems far from the spooky mansions of “Haunting.” In fact, “Midnight Mass” — which also stars the “Haunting” actors Henry Thomas and Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s wife — draws on many of the same preoccupations of that series in its interrogations of theology and faith.

“When you’re talking about the afterlife and the soul, you’re talking about ghosts,” Flanagan said. “We can’t help but be attracted to the idea that death isn’t the end for us, and that we’re going to see the people we’ve lost again. That idea is one of the things that interested me in horror in the first place, and is as much behind our religions as it is behind our horror fiction.”

He first pitched “Midnight Mass” as a television show in 2014. “Everybody passed on it, including Netflix,” he said. Before that, it had been an unfinished film script, and before that an attempted novel. “Midnight Mass” appeared as a prop book in Flanagan’s films “Hush” and “Gerald’s Game,” his own way of keeping the idea alive over the years. (He would tell curious crew members, “That’s the best project I’ll never make.”)

But the show’s origins go back much further. It reflects Flanagan’s experience when, after what he describes as a healthy Catholic upbringing — including 12 years as an altar boy — he finally read the Bible, and felt the scales fall from his eyes.

“I was shocked, for the first time comprehending what a really strange book it is,” he said. “There were so many ideas I’d never heard before in church, and the violence of the Old Testament God is terrifying! Slaughtering babies and drowning the earth! It really struck me that I didn’t know my faith at that point.”

Like Riley, Flanagan spent years studying various religions. Ultimately, the books that most spoke to him espoused atheism, rationalism and science — books by Samuel Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan. “I had more of a spiritual reaction from reading ‘Pale Blue Dot’ than I ever had reading the Bible,” Flanagan said.

“Midnight Mass” speaks to his continued interest in matters of faith, including faith in its most extreme form. “I’m fascinated by how our beliefs shape how we treat each other,” he said. “Looking at politics and the world today, so many of us are behaving based on the belief that God is on our side, and that God dislikes the same people we do.”

Another of Flanagan’s private horrors found its way into the show: his struggle with alcoholism. “I come from a long line of drunken Irishmen,” he said.

“But my biggest fear wasn’t that I would die in a drunken car accident,” he continued. “It was that I would kill someone else and live. That is the beating heart of ‘Midnight Mass.’”

Flanagan himself spent much of his childhood on a weird little island. The family lived for a number of years on Governors Island, in New York Harbor, where his father served two stints in the U.S. Coast Guard.

It was a place that lent itself well to ghost stories and an active imagination. Flanagan immersed himself in the young-adult horror novels of John Bellairs, R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, finally braving Stephen King’s “It” in the fifth grade. Defying his mother’s wishes, he later watched the ABC mini-series adaptation (1990) on VHS — a self-emboldening exercise and the beginning of a lifelong obsession with King’s work. In sixth grade, he and his friends created a 20-minute film of “It” in the backyard. (“I’ve since apologized to Stephen for the unlicensed adaptation,” Flanagan said.)

He studied film at Towson University in Maryland, where he made a series of three talky movies about love and life on campus. “The 90-minute episodes of ‘Dawson’s Creek’ no one asked for,” he said.

He knew he had found his calling, even if he hadn’t quite found his genre. Moving to Los Angeles, he allowed himself five years to get his foot in the door as a feature filmmaker. Five years went past — twice. He ultimately spent 12 years working as an editor, cutting together late-night car commercials and reality television. Sculpting sense out of piles of raw footage was a useful education, though Flanagan didn’t always feel that way about it at the time. (For the record, he regards his work on “Jealous of My Boogie,” a music video for “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” as up there with some of his best.)

Flanagan was still working as an editor while he directed his Kickstarter-funded feature film, “Absentia” (2011), shooting on weekends with equipment borrowed from work. He was finally able to quit his day job partway through production of his follow-up feature, “Oculus” (2014). The two films were well received, but they end on notes of despair that became much rarer in his work.

A more hopeful view of the world found its way into his scripts after he quit the editing gig, became a parent and married Siegel. Flanagan began making the kind of horror that both chills the bones and makes you want to patch things up with a family member afterward.

He has been sober for three years now. “I had people in my life tell me, ‘If you drink enough, it’s a different person that comes out, and he’s pretty terrible.’” he said. “I finally hit the point where I said if I don’t change this behavior, I don’t know what will happen.”

That change in trajectory might have something to do with how, for all its terrors, “Midnight Mass” conveys a faith in humanity and redemption. The newfound sobriety is also one of the reasons that, even after struggling so long to get “Midnight Mass” off the ground, he is relieved he didn’t get to make it sooner. “I wasn’t in a place where I could handle the material until now,” he said, sounding grateful.

“I was writing about alcoholism but wasn’t yet sober; I was writing about atheism, but I hadn’t gotten over my anger,” he continued. “I’ve had some beautiful revelations.”

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