The search for faith can be eternally destructive in the wrong hands, which “Midnight Mass” and Thirst explore through their uniquely reborn priests.
“Can you think of a miracle more amazing than that? I mean, cure blindness, sure. Or part the seas, all right. But a second chance? That’s a real miracle…”
Religion is often viewed as a taboo subject matter to explore, especially in the context of horror, but there’s a lot of common ground between the two areas in the context of faith. Neither religion’s sermons or the monsters that lurk in the shadows can have any power without faith and belief. They inherently require a level of buying in and trusting the storyteller and their premise. Faith and religion are no strangers to the horror genre, but it’s especially exciting when these ideas become intrinsically mixed together. There is no shortage of religious horror content, but even Freddy Krueger will admit that belief is fundamental to existence and can be its own super power.
Vampires are a subset of the horror genre that are often linked to religion and faith, and their very mythos boils down to religious iconography like their weakness to crosses and holy water. What makes Chan-Wook Park’s Thirst and Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass such fascinating counterpoints is they both examine the corrupting powers of faith through the conflicted lens of two priests, Sang-hyun and Father Paul, who become vampires and are left to grapple with their piety, albeit from two very different vantage points on humanity.
SPOILERS FOR THIRST AND “MIDNIGHT MASS” FOLLOW…
Thirst is a haunting story about Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a Catholic priest who heads into humanitarian work with terminally infected people, only to receive a blood transfusion that turns him into a vampire and sends him down an impossible test of faith. Alternatively, Midnight Mass depicts Crockett Island, a small community who gets mystified by the arrival of an inspirational priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), who brings with him a series of miraculous events. Paul’s backstory and his unbelievable transformation into something greater eerily aligns with the Bible and sets him up to change Crockett Island as he becomes increasingly convinced that he’s meant for something greater.
Sang-hyun and Father Paul (or his true identity, Monsignor Pruitt) head down very similar paths, but ultimately handle their transformations in very different manners. Foundational horror films like The Exorcist, The Devils or more recently, The Witch, examine holy figures who have lost their way, but the priests in Thirst and Midnight Mass are such fascinating figures because they’re forced to entertain their new animalistic urges with their eternal devotion to the cloth. It’s traumatic for a human to take a life for their own, but it’s completely antithetical to a priest’s pact with God. However, what if a priest’s signals get crossed and they view their inhuman cravings as the Will of God moving through them? This question speaks towards how faith is a dangerous power that can corrupt and that no one is worthy of becoming a false prophet. Sang-hyun and Father Paul both arrive at this conclusion, but one gains the clarity to stop himself while the other needs his power stripped away from him.
The circumstances around Sang-hyun’s turn into a vampire in Thirst are left intentionally vague as if it’s some sort of miraculous act of God that will allow him to continue to do good. Sang-hyun rebels against this premise and doesn’t look for a higher purpose. “I feel like I’ve been chosen,” claims Sang-hyun at one moment over his vampiric condition. “I feel like I’ve been given a special role in this life.” Midnight Mass’ Father Paul feels the same, but he forces a Biblical narrative on it all whereas Sang-hyun spends the film trying to figure out his purpose. He doesn’t develop any delusions of grandeur and he views himself as a monster, not a saint. After Sang-hyun’s transformation he refuses to be called “father” anymore because he doesn’t want his vampire status to taint its saintliness. Meanwhile, Father Paul goes so far as to build his transformation into the act of sacrament and the ritual of church.
Unlike Father Paul, Sang-hyun lacks awe upon his turning. Sang-hyun’s first act after learning that he’s a vampire is to try and kill himself. He abandons hope while Father Paul continually leans into how his transformation is a gift from God. It’s a significant detail, but just the fact that Midnight Mass refers to its creatures as Angels speaks towards the built-in level of reverence that’s present in the material. It demands faith and respect whereas Thirst hides in the shadows and avoids adulation. Sang-hyun even considers talking to God to be no different than direct communication with Satan. It invites this comparison while Midnight Mass gets explicit on this front, but is too blind in faith to see it as such.
Midnight Mass more closely looks at how faith can corrupt while Thirst presents faith as a prison and that more freedom can be found through independence than susceptibility to a belief system or martyr figure. The characters in Thirst that lack faith are the ones that wield the most power and don’t fear what awaits them after death. “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” Midnight Mass instead weaponizes faith in an enlightening way where it’s used to justify actions through mob mentality, yet in Thirst, Sang-hyun struggles to commit bad acts and take lives, even after being “chosen.”
It’s like there’s a greater responsibility to do the right thing and not exploit his abnormality. Sang-hyun learns that vampire cells can reverse the effects of the debilitating Emmanuel Virus and he has a group of infected people who are already ready to praise him, yet he doesn’t turn them and relieve them of their pain. He doesn’t view himself to have this right and so it’s fascinating that Father Paul is in a very similar scenario on Crockett Island where he does the exact opposite and decides that the public deserve to share in his glory.
It’s quite telling that both Father Paul and Sang-hyun both receive martyr status, but Sang-hyun treats it like a curse. The public begins to refer to him as “The Bandaged Saint,” but he continually rejects this status rather than turning it into his narrative, like Father Paul does. One of the most important moments in Thirst is that one of Sang-hyun’s final acts before he takes his life is that he intentionally ruins his reputation with his followers so that they can be freed of this false idol. Sang-hyun becomes disgusted not only with himself, but those that idolize him. His powers don’t give him confidence like they do Father Paul, but they only amplify his doubt. Sang-hyun’s perspective is much more akin to Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) and it’s almost as if he were the central character in Midnight Mass rather than someone who experiences such a puritanical power trip like Father Paul. It’s crucial that Midnight Mass explains that Riley Flynn’s time in prison leads to him looking for God in every sacred religious text that he can find, yet he only leaves the experience more convinced that he’s an atheist. Father Paul activates Riley and shows him that he’s “chosen,” but even this isn’t enough to sway his beliefs. He, much like Thirst’s Sang-hyun, embodies the antithesis of Father Paul.
The similarities between Thirst and Midnight Mass become unavoidable in their final acts. Both narratives can use faith to obfuscate the truth and warp intentions, but there’s no hiding from the harsh light of day that shines down as a final judgment for both priests. The conclusions of Thirst and Midnight Mass depict desperate scrambles to survive the rising sun, but it’s during these moments of pure hopelessness that Sang-jyun and Father Paul become the most enlightened and at peace with all of existence. Their journeys mirror contrasting Biblical stories, but they both function as powerful parables. Father Paul and Sang-hyun both perish, because no alternative is possible, but their final moments are with their loved ones, which is all that they wanted from the start. Faith in the eternal, unspoken bond of love is more powerful than any endless belief in religion or monsters.
Both Thirst and Midnight Mass culminate with an affirmation over how dangerous faith can be, especially when it can fester in an echo chamber. Sang-hyun and Father Paul both witness the casualties of what happens when they spread their gospel–whether it’s their beliefs or their inhuman powers–but one recognizes the folly of this whereas the other views himself as a God. They arrive in agreement that no one deserves this power–Midnight Mass even reinforces that God loves everyone equally and that no one is superior to anyone else, regardless of faith, intentions, or their background. However, Thirst’s Sang-hyun arrives at this conclusion on his own, whereas in Midnight Mass it’s forced upon the entirety of Crockett Island. The false idol needs to get torn down whereas Thirst never erects it in the first place.
Faith can be suffocating when it’s manipulated, but when the dust settles in both of these stories the sun never shines more brightly. And in the end, we’re all dust, and to dust we shall return.