Midnight Mass: Catholic representation and the importance of detail

I’ve been watching Midnight Mass over the past few days, and while I did have the whole story spoiled for me before, I still enjoyed the hell out of it. To be perfectly honest, it was the spoilers that got me interested in the first place, so this viewing was more “How does that play out?” than “What happens next?”

Part of the charm, at least for me, is representation: seeing My People on screen. And by “My People,” I mean Roman Catholics. And you must be thinking, why is that a big deal? We see Roman Catholics in the media all the time, from The Sound of Music to Sister Act. But you see, those tend to deal with very big, obvious, in-your-face aspects of Catholicism. Nuns and priests? Even within the Catholic community, they’re considered fairly extraordinary.

It is, I suppose, the difference between showing an ethnic minority in traditional garb, and showing that same minority living with the nuances that make them what they are.

The media has a bad habit of gesturing at Roman Catholics whenever a point needs to be made about Christianity or faith. And it occurs to me now that there might be something … culturally appropriative about that. As though Hollywood wants to throw on our cassocks and chasubles without understanding how they fit. The trouble is, there’s actually no shortage of Catholic representation in the media. There’s so much of it that we can’t separate the sincere from the appropriated, the wheat from the chaff. Not every story requires attention to those tiny details that tell the audience the author knows what he’s talking about, after all.

But in Midnight Mass, when the altar boys turn to the task of filling the cruets, when Bev speaks to Father Paul about wearing gold instead of the green mandated by “Ordinary Time”, when the Flynns bat around terms like “thurifer” and “acolyte”, I feel seen. I feel as though I’m being addressed by someone who really gets me. I look at the flood of Catholic representation elsewhere and I feel as though I’ve spent my life like an infant fed on corn starch: full, yet undernourished. Was this how Mexicans felt when Coco built its story around the Dia de los Muertos?

This, I think, is also what gives Midnight Mass its power. This story could have been told in broader strokes, skipping all of these smaller details. But it is this attention to detail that makes it feel both real and personal. Crockett Island matters to me because the spiritual lives of its Catholic residents feel real in an intimate way. Despite my rational mind telling me that this could never happen in real life, my instinct says, “This is far too close to home.”

Which is not to say that you can only enjoy Midnight Mass if you are a Catholic or intimately familiar with Catholic practices. We enjoy media touching on details outside of our experience all the time. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Fiddler on the Roof. It’s just that the the more detail there is, the more you’re assured, if you’re an outsider, that you’re being fed something authentic; and the more accurate those details are, the more an insider feels, as I felt, that this is real and that he or she belongs in the larger fabric of the world where such stories are told. Even if one has never had an issue with any sense of belonging before — it’s nice to be counted.

Midnight Mass is brilliant, and I don’t say it just because this one aspect of its cultural setting resonates with me. It is beautiful in a way that, I think, would appeal to anyone who loves Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood — its lyricism and the deft portraiture of village life. I’ve not read any Graham Greene, but, by all accounts, there should be a deep resonance there as well, a similarity of theme and approach. It’s just … probably not going to appeal so much to anyone just looking for the thrill of ordinary horror, without the literary trimmings. But for anyone with a taste for literary analysis, Midnight Mass is a show that has me making up lengthy essays in my head about everything from story structure to individual characterisation to our relationship with dogma.

Also, I’ve pretty much spent my morning rewatching the ending sequence over and over again. It hits, and it hits hard.

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