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In ‘Midnight Mass,’ there is ungodly horror and there are puritanical Christians

Watching the show's Muslim police chief try to convince parents to keep Bible classes out of public schools is like backing a losing sports team.

Actor Hamish Linklater as Father Paul in “Midnight Mass.” Photo courtesy of Netflix © 2021

(RNS) — What would you sacrifice to get a miracle?

Okay, not a real miracle, but for the residents of Crockett Island, the setting for the new hit horror show “Midnight Mass,” that doesn’t matter — they are looking for a miracle. And they’d give anything for it. 

An enthralling American Gothic saga by the creator and director of “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor, ” the new seven-episode series, on Netflix beginning Friday (Sept. 24), explores small-town fear with modern stories of addiction and Islamophobia.

A young Catholic priest, Father Paul, arrives on Crockett Island as a replacement for beloved Monsignor Pruitt, who had served as pastor on the island as long as anyone can remember. 

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He joins an ordinary but downtrodden population, most of them nearly destitute after an oil spill has put a damper on the island’s vital fishing industry. All of them also are burdened with some more personal struggle: Sarah, a physician, is taking care of her bedridden mother. The mayor’s daughter, Leeza, was shot by the town drunk and is paralyzed from the waist down. Sheriff Hassan and his son are the only Muslims in town and are patronized by others because of it. 

Poster for Netflix’s “Midnight Mass.” Image courtesy of Netflix

Poster for Netflix’s “Midnight Mass.” Image courtesy of Netflix

Hamish Linklater (“The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “Legion”) takes a nearly perfect turn as Father Paul, who slips into the locals’ hearts with the offbeat charisma that has a familiar Gothic edge: Gangly and shy one minute, raining fire and brimstone in Mass the next, he instantly gains the town’s trust. 

Father Paul arrives at the same time as Crockett native Riley, who’s just been granted parole after killing a girl in a drunken driving accident four years prior. 

Not long after, the miracles begin. The islanders respond, hoping if they start attending daily Mass they’ll get a miracle for themselves. Even when it becomes clear these miracles come with a price, no one asks questions. When the spectacle shatters and shakes the faith of the whole town, Crockett Island has to decide whether to succumb or fight through to a more genuine faith. 

Despite some genuinely well-executed lessons about performative Christianity and about forgiveness — “The only thing standing in my way (of a better life) is hate,” one characters says about their need to move past an injury. Uncharacteristic of most mainstream TV, “Midnight Mass” offers genuine critiques of Christianity without being anti-religious. 

Best of all, the show isn’t preachy, and never condescends. The characters do have a tendency to monologue: to themselves, to crowds, in conversations. It’s easy at times to get lost among the talking heads, but they always captivate. 

A scene from Netflix’s “Midnight Mass.” Photo by Eike Schoter/Netflix © 2021

A scene from Netflix’s “Midnight Mass.” Photo by Eike Schoter/Netflix © 2021

The show deftly blends the eternal horrors — fear of monsters, say — with more contemporary ones: that is, anything that doesn’t fit into the puritanical worldview of small-town Christian existence. There are plenty of things to fear in “Midnight Mass”: the hush of the island in the dark, figures lurking in the shadows, the occasional jump scare. But most of all, fear the ignorant islanders who accept self-serving miracles sooner than they accept one of their own. 

The fly in this ointment is Sheriff Hassan. Seen by nearly everyone in town as “the other,” Hassan is driven to reveal that one reason he moved to the island was the mistrust he faced a as a Muslim in the New York Police Department. 

“You know, maybe here’s where we make a difference,” he says. “Not in the big city, but in this tiny village. Win over the f—ing PTA and call it a victory for Islam. So I don’t intimidate. I don’t overshare or overstep or intrude in any way. I don’t even carry a gun. And still … still … Beverly Keane, and a few others too, look at me like I’m Osama bin f—ing Laden.”

Actor Rahul Kohli, left, as Sheriff Hassan in the Netflix series “Midnight Mass.” Photo courtesy of Netflix

Actor Rahul Kohli, center left, as Sheriff Hassan in the Netflix series “Midnight Mass.” Photo courtesy of Netflix

RELATED: Dissent from Traditional Plan dominates United Methodists’ top court meeting

Watching Hassan try to convince Crockett Island’s parents that their Bible teaching isn’t right in a public school — if their sons and daughters came home with Qurans in their backpacks, he tells them, they wouldn’t stand for it — is like backing a losing sports team. He’s kind even in the face of their cruelty; he’s respectful of their faith even though they don’t care to understand his. 

Yet Hassan is the only one whose faith doesn’t waver. No matter how the townspeople’s heads are turned by the miracles Father Paul performs, he continues saying his prayers, highlighting the importance of humble, ritualistic faithfulness. 

To watch Crockett Island’s residents fear Hassan more than they do the monsters at their doorstep is a twisted irony that makes the show a dark delight.