Ask screen horror fans who they think is the undisputed master of the genre at the moment, and many will respond with Mike Flanagan, the writer, and director behind many of the most popular horror series of recent years. Flanagan is the man who brought us The Fall of the House of Usher, The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Midnight Mass. They have all been critically acclaimed, with fans appreciative of the fact that Flanagan does not rely on cheap shocks like “jump scares” to terrify his audience. Flanagan’s horror is more complex.
Yet, of all the shows that Flanagan has created in recent years, it is perhaps Midnight Mass (2021) that may have the most important legacy. The main subject matter is that of vampires, and he may have rehabilitated the blood-sucking undead and placed them on the top of the horror pantheon again.
Flanagan returns to vampire horror roots
Why do we make such a claim? Well, we can best explain it by describing what Midnight Mass is not. It is a world away from the sultry teenage vampires in Twilight or the scientific explanations of the vampirism in Morbius. In Midnight Mass, Flanagan’s vampires are frightening, yes, but there is also the existential horror present in the characters that is reminiscent of movies like The Exorcist. Midnight Mass has traditional scares and gory moments. But like William Friedkin’s masterpiece, the focus is mostly on the troubled souls who face the vampires.
But in a broader sense, we might argue that Flanagan has rehabilitated the vampire genre. Why make such a claim? We can argue that traditional movie monsters – vampires, werewolves, zombies, mummies, and the like – have become so familiar that the audience is largely desensitized to them. In fact, in most cases, they are no longer presented as figures of horror, at least in the traditional sense of horror. There are literally 100s of modern vampires in entertainment, ranging from the moody teens in Twilight and Dampyr to games like Castlevania and the vampire-themed Wild Thirst. But vampirism is usually a character trait, not a curse in these examples.
A curse, not a character trait
Flanagan reverts back to the idea of the curse, intertwined with religion and the occult. Here, vampires are not stylish or sexy. They are figures of horror. That does not sound so radical, but when you consider the dearth of truly scary vampire movies and television shows in the 21st century, then you understand that it is. Of course, there are other examples, such as Priest (2011), and there have been a handful of slasher vampire movies and video games. But the kind of horror that stays with you long after you stop watching is few and far between.
As mentioned, the desensitization of the audience is an important factor. If you consider the scariest movies and television shows of the 21st century, such as The Witch (2015), they tend to shy away from revealing their monster overtly. There’s a reason for this – the reveal dilutes the horror. However, Flanagan is comfortable revealing his monsters early. In Midnight Mass, we get glimpses of the vampires in the first episode, and the same goes for the ghosts in The Haunting of Hill House. Yet, they remain terrifying. That’s quite the feat. The point, as such, is that true horror plays on the audiences’ psychology. And once you do that, you can reveal your monsters in any fashion you like. Flanagan understands that, so he does not need to rely on cheap theatrics to shock his audience. In doing so, he has also rehabilitated the vampire as a terrifying figure in the horror canon.