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 of his latest project, “Midnight Mass,” a limited series of seven episodes that premiered Friday on Netflix, are homemade.
It includes the turmoil of being a writer, not an 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 a lot scarier. ”
Flanagan has gained a reputation for what can be called humanistic horror. In addition to ghouls and goosebumps, much of his work is centered on deeply felt family drama, populated by damaged characters struggling with everyday fears of being a parent, partner, human being. “The Haunting of Hill House”, his popular Netflix series from 2018, takes place as “Six Feet Under” with poltergeists.
Sometimes the endings of his shows and films that give long-suffering characters a measure of peace are mocked by several sadomasochistic fans of the genre. But Flanagan, while never saving on nightmare fuel, believes that horror can offer something deeper.
“Horror allows us 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 filled with Flanagan’s own experiences of death in his extended family, including specific images 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 subsequently after a terrible accident. After years of imprisonment after searching for God – not only in the Christian Bible but also in every sacred text he can lay his hands on – Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returns to her childhood home on an isolated island to become with his family. Shortly after, after the arrival of a young, jeans-wearing priest (Hamish Linklater), strange things begin to happen. Some seem like gifts from an all-loving God; others not so much. Either way, it seems that a higher power is actively interested in worldly affairs.
That’s right: after having success with Jackson, James and King, Flanagan accepts God.
At first glance, the quiet island community of the show looks far from the eerie mansions of “Haunting.” In fact, “Midnight Mass” – which also stars “Haunting” actors Henry Thomas and Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s wife, draws on many of the same concerns in that series in its interrogations of theology and faith.
“When you talk about the afterlife and the soul, you’re talking about ghosts,” Flanagan said. “We can not avoid being attracted to the idea that death is not the end for us and that we will see the people we have lost again. That idea is one of the things that initially interested me in horror and lies as much behind our religions as behind our horror fiction. ”
He first aired “Midnight Mass” as a TV show in 2014. “Everyone passed it on, including Netflix,” he said. Before that it had been an unfinished screenplay, and before to a novel attempt. “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 wanted to tell curious crew members, “This is the best project I’ll ever do.”)
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 weight fall from his eyes.
“I was shocked and understood for the first time what a really strange book it is,” he said. “There were so many ideas I had never heard before in church, and the violence of the Old Testament God is frightening! To slaughter babies and drown the earth! It really struck me that at that time I did not know my faith. ”
Like Riley, Flanagan spent years studying different religions. In the end, the books that spoke most to him supported atheism, rationalism, and science – books by Samuel Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan. “I had more of a spiritual reaction to reading ‘Pale Blue Dot’ than I had ever read the Bible,” Flanagan said.
“Midnight Mass” speaks of his continued interest in matters of faith, including faith in its most extreme form. “I am fascinated by how our beliefs shape, how we treat each other,” he said. “When we look at politics and the world today, so many of us behave based on the belief that God is on our side and that God does not like the same people we do.”
Another of Flanagan’s private horrors found his way to the show: his battle with alcoholism. “I come from a long line of drunken Irish,” he said.
“But my biggest fear was not that I would die in a drunk car accident,” he continued. “It was that I wanted to kill someone else and live. It is the beating heart of ‘Midnight Mass’. ”
Flanagan himself spent much of his childhood on a strange little island. The family lived for a number of years on Governors Island, in New York Harbor, where his father served two terms in the U.S. Coast Guard.
It was a place that was well suited for ghost stories and an active imagination. Flanagan immersed himself in the young adult horror novels of John Bellairs, RL Stine and Christopher Pike and finally believed Stephen King’s “It” in fifth grade. When he defied his mother’s wishes, he later saw the adaptation of the ABC mini-series (1990) on the VHS self-improvement exercise and the beginning of a lifelong obsession with King’s work. In sixth grade, he and his friends made a 20-minute film of “It” in the backyard. (“I have 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 talking films about love and life on campus. “The 90-minute episode of ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ no one asked for,” he said.
He knew he had found his calling, even though he had not quite found his genre. When he moved to Los Angeles, he allowed himself five years to get his foot in the door as a feature film. Five years passed – twice. Eventually, he spent 12 years working as an editor, cutting car commercials in the evenings and reality TV together. Shaping sense out of piles of raw footage was a useful education, though Flanagan did not always feel that way at the time. (For the record, he considers his work on “Jealous of My Boogie”, a music video for “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, up there with some of his best.)
Flanagan still worked as an editor while directing his Kickstarter-funded feature film, “Absentia” (2011), and filmed on weekends with equipment borrowed from work. He was finally able to finish his daily job across the production of his follow-up feature, “Oculus” (2014). The two films were well received, but they end in 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 left editing, became a parent and married Siegel. Flanagan started making the kind of horror that both freezes the bones and makes you feel like patching things up with a family member afterwards.
He has been sober for three years now. “I had people in my life tell me, ‘If you drink enough, it’s another person coming out, and he’s pretty awful.'” He said. “I finally hit the point where I said that if I do not change this behavior, I do not know what will happen.”
This change in trajectory may have something to do with how “all night skills” convey a belief in humanity and redemption. The newfound sobriety is also one of the reasons why, even after struggling for so long to get “Midnight Mass” off the ground, he is relieved that he did not reach it before. “I was not a place where I could handle the material until now,” he said, sounding grateful.
“I wrote about alcoholism, but was not yet sober; I wrote about atheism, but I had not overcome my anger, “he continued. “I’ve had some beautiful revelations.”
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