Note: this essay contains spoilers to Midnight Mass (2021)
One day, I don't know when, someone decided to call desire a set of strange, indescribable physical phenomena - be it pain, hunger, perhaps both entwined - but from that moment when the scorching in our veins was named, the brutality of the strangeness is interrupted, and the ancient horror of reckless abandonment, hidden behind the new word, begins to be forgotten.
Let's go back to before language. That's what [Marina] Tsvetaeva did. Let's go back to that disturbing age, the age of myths and folktales, the age of stone, of fire, of knives. Before language, there was and is a fire that bites but doesn't kill, the everlasting hunger that, like all pain, simultaneously exposes and separates us, making us seem strange to ourselves and our beloveds with all that begins with: "I want to fill my mouth with your name, but any part of you will do."
Some forms of eroticism can only be characterized by an inexplicable acuity of terror. Like Rilke, we know that "Every Angel is terrifying." The sight of both blood and the holy, no doubt, is of the most developed of these horrors as, one is surprised to note, the fear of one's own terrible fragility. It seems impossible to judge our plaited doomedness using a word other than seductive since nothing is more attractive than the body of our beloved presented, flushed, and soaked in sweat. In such a manner, extreme seductiveness might reside at the boundary of horror. [It was always you: your unutterable name, this growl in my throat. // I beg you, eat me up. Want me down to the marrow.].
Most of the monsters lurking beneath the proverbial bed threaten us with destruction, not with the perhaps more frightening possibility of our becoming otherwise. But vampires, who are similar enough to remind us of ourselves yet alien enough to disconcert us, torment us with a particular brand of existential violence: they undermine our certainty in current iterations of ourselves. For centuries, they have peered into mirrors only to discover that they lack a reflection — the makings of an identity crisis if there ever was one. It is increasingly apparent that the makings of something human are present in them — and more alarmingly that the makings of something vampiric are present in us.
Perhaps this is why the forbidden can be nearly knee-buckling erogenous. I don't mean the simple desire for sex, but desire as the quest for agency, connectedness, aliveness, and vibrancy. How do we reconcile our repressed desires, denied selves, fundamental human needs of security and adventure, commitment and freedom, intimacy and individuality? Are the pangs we feel the dynamic between safety/security and aliveness?
That inner hunger begins with the kept secret, with the silent separation from the rest of the world. It's a future crime against your own heart. And a form of glory. Love abjures to adore. Longing is a forest fire. It can burn right through your core. And if you burn long enough, the world will blister around you. That form of desire can feel monstrous, even though it's human. In "Horror and the Holy: Wisdom-Teachings of the Monster Tale," Kirk J. Schneider remarks: "This is also the message of classic horror: if a monster learns appropriate restraint, it can become an angel."
Some (grotesque) horror fans despise Flanagan's work because it's about horror but never directly. As the New York Times noted in a recent profile, "Flanagan has earned a reputation for what might be called humanistic horror ... while never skimping on the nightmare fuel, [he] believes that horror can offer something deeper."
The Haunting of Hill House is horrifying, not because the house itself is haunted, it's horrific because the monster isn't the monster; it's the manifestation of the character's (and in turn, the viewer's) grief, loss, pride, desire, and fear. The monster skulking in the shadows, the darkness at the edge of the woods, the haunted house that is too broken to be home—those are manifestations of events that grabbed onto the fabric of time in a fit of abject horror and clamped down so tightly that they couldn't keep moving forward toward resolution and eventual dissipation like they were supposed to.
These metaphors revolve around the traumatized or neglected child and the mourning mother, the twist in your gut, and the little emptiness in your chest at the end of the day. All the little daily horrors we face but can't approach them directly enough to understand them. Gothic horror gives us these little metaphors as gifts and says, "Here, hold these for a while and see what you find." And all of these gifts require us to go back to our point of grief, denied desires and selves - and release them. We have to care, be curious, willing, and clever, and look for a way to heal the hurt. We have to be achingly human to survive.
Most modern horror asserts that all hope is lost - and the fans who find that paradoxically comforting will despise Midnight Mass. Flanagan rejects that idea and leans into rationalism and humanism (not the belief in the divine, although influenced by it). Both what Riley and Father Paul (Monsignor Pruitt) have done are uniquely unforgivable. In the opening sequence, Riley willingly drives drunk, kills a young woman, and is plagued by guilt while doing his best to be useful after serving his sentence, knowing it will never be enough. In contrast, Paul poisons an entire town with a vampiric pathogen for the sake of rescuing his beloved from a hopeless state of mind and body. He doesn't feel any remorse; everything is a means to an end, and his goal so blinds him that he is unable to recognize the atrocities he is committing - until the very woman he came back to save shows him otherwise, not with contempt, but with love.
Being in recovery and having buried two intimate partners, I can relate to both of these characters. Regarding Riley, I've been clean for over a decade now. I am an active/practicing member of abstinence-based recovery programs, but it's important to note that the process of amends doesn't undo the harm I caused in active addiction. I never killed anyone, but I did ruin and poison lives (especially in the final years when I dealt to support my habit). I wrecked so much havoc on my body that it resulted in a chronic autoimmune disorder, which is likely how I'll meet my end. I've paid terrible costs and yet have been given a life of abundance.
Is it possible to atone for every monstrous thing I've ever done? Will I ever be able to embody the grace that I've been extended? Perhaps, both atonement and grace are ongoing processes. It may never be my destiny to complete that work, but it is mine to continue. As For Monsignor Pruitt - I know, at the moment of my past beloved's death, I would have done anything to bring them back - even as a shadow, even as a dream. If there had been a way, I would've marched into hell to retrieve them. I would've pulled half the world into it with me if that was the cost. The enormity of our grief can lead us to justify terrible, awful things. These things are done, not in the name of love, but in the absence of it.
Cancel culture, which perhaps modern horror mirrors, says, "Nothing can redeem you. So roll over and die." Gothic humanism responds and says, "Perhaps what I've done is unforgivable, but I can stop contributing to harm, and maybe, just maybe - I can start making amends." The miracle of grace lies in the possibility of restoration, redemption, and transformative justice - knowing we don't deserve it, not in the actual act of being redeemed. And anyone who has never experienced grace (even secular clemency) or is open to its possibility will resent this story.
Both grace and desire work through us, often despite our protests, and for this reason, they are better than we are. Certainly, desire alone can also be worse. But whatever its content, a true passion that stakes us is always noble in at least one regard, if only in virtue of its structure. Longing that plagues is the antithesis of the longing that's possessive. Genuine desire originates both within and without. Great sex elevates us to the extent that we agree on the manner of its (our) aim. To desire is always to risk total reinvention because the potential for revolution (burning up) is latent in the act of choosing desire itself. I believe we are not yet lost as long as we can want: wanting often pierces us while also giving us wings.
Still, perhaps I will remain haunted by this image: sitting in the corner covered in blood, protected from the light coming through the window of a parish. Because like you, like any human-turned-vampire from hunger, I too know what it's like to be simultaneously thralled to, distressed, and drenched by the hot gore of my desire.
And what, dear God, is on the other side of that desire? I want that too. My want is so wide I cannot cross it, [....] yet.
As Maggie Nelson wrote: