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Part 5: Leeza's Story - Midnight Mass and the False Promise of Miracle Cures

By Nichole Goble May 23, 2024 

I admit that I am not the biggest Mike Flanagan fan you’ll encounter in various horror circles. While there are certainly films of his I absolutely love, there have been a few – like 2016’s Hush – that left me a bit cold. I had been enthusiastic about the representation of a character with a disability but the overall depiction ended up missing the mark. But I could still appreciate the heart and intent that Flanagan always seemed to inject into his work and it keeps me coming back to his projects, time and again, to enjoy his uniquely thoughtful approach to storytelling.

I knew very little about Flangan’s Midnight Mass when I sat down to watch it upon its release on Netflix. I had seen the trailer and knew there were some heavy religious themes sprinkled in the work, but that was it. It has become my favorite piece of Flangan’s work to date for very personal reasons.

Midnight Mass is a sprawling, multi-episode series about a small, struggling island community (Crockett Island) experiencing miraculous events upon the arrival of a new, young priest following the church’s longtime priest's death. Also “new” to the community is a prodigal son, Riley, who has returned upon his lease from jail following a drunk driving incident that killed the driver of the other car. Flanagan allows us to get deep with other community members and learn about their (and their family’s) history within the community, their unique experiences with Father Paul Hill, and the God-like abilities and authority he seems to wield. One family we get to know quite well is the Scarborough family – parents Wade and Dolly, and daughter Leeza.

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Leeza, like many of the town’s residents, is a devout member of St. Patrick’s Church. She is in a wheelchair, paralyzed following an accidental shooting at the hands of “town drunk Joe, but remains at the front of the church with her family as membership/townspeople’s attendance in services dwindles amidst their diminishing faith in light of the town’s ongoing economic hardships. Leeza represents “keeping the faith” when times are hard and prayers go unanswered.

I grew up in what I like to call “fundamentalist adjacent.” My parents divorced right after I was born and my father became a born-again Pentecostal believer while I was an agnostic Methodist. Most of my time at my Dad’s house during visitations was in church services. I was born with Turner’s syndrome, a rare chromosomal abnormality, and remember vividly the laying on of hands and faith healings that I would go through at my dad’s church as a child. If I was a good person, a good child, God would heal me and I could be like all of the other kids in my Sunday School class. I could be like my sister and stepbrothers and not some sinful piece of my Dad’s past. I obviously didn’t conceptualize this all as such a young child, but definitely latched on to the belief that I was different and this kind of difference wasn’t good but God could cure me if I was truly good and believed enough.

While the character of Leeza is a bit older than I was at that time, I related to her experience on a visceral level. I wanted so badly to be seen as good enough and whole by everyone: my family, other kids, the adults in the town at church, and most importantly God. By following every command at church and home with my Dad, God might see that I was worthy to be healed. I was too young at the time to understand the dissonance of these feelings and return home to my mom, who was starting to teach me self-advocacy around my disability and how it was just part of the beautiful way I was made. Decades later I am still sorting through that in therapy.

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My prayers, and the prayers and the faith of those at Dad’s church, went unanswered. I’d go home and my mom would take my doctor visits. She would sit with me in isolated hospital rooms during various surgeries and procedures, She would help me clean and bandage the site where I had a J-tube. I wasn’t good enough for God’s love and grace, but she loved and cared for me regardless.

I had been left on read by God, but God replied to Leeza. Miracles begin happening on Crockett Island – specifically for those who have started attending service at St. Patrick’s more frequently since Father Hill’s arrival. Those who drink from the communion cup regularly see everything from aches and pains to Alzheimer’s simply go away, while the town’s doctor can’t seem to find a medical reason for these occurrences. During service, Father Hill asks Leeza to walk to him to receive communion. There are some shocked and incredulous reactions but Leeza stands up from her wheelchair and makes her way down the church aisle to receive. The congregation is now a witness to a miracle and a testament to Leeza’s devotion and resilience. She had remained faithful when others had drifted or turned away and was rewarded.

This moment was devastating for me as I remember crying and asking why God wouldn’t heal me as a child. But as an adult now, I felt anger. At this point in the story, we don’t the secrets behind Father Hill’s identity or what’s actually being served for communion (I’ll get to drink itself in just a moment), but we can clearly see how Father Hill wants to use Leeza and these other miraculous happenings to build his flock of followers. Miracles witnessed with the eye can turn even the most ardent skeptic into a believer and something we see echoed in various Bible stories of individuals rising from the dead or being healed. It can convert even those that are not of the faith. Be a devout follower and heed the Good Word strong enough and this could be you! Sign up a friend or a few and you get that miracle even quicker. God, and St. Patrick’s Church, have the cure for whatever ails you, physically or mentally, if you go all in. Father Hill starts holding AA meetings at the church, attended only by Riley at first but then by Joe who has been moved by Leeza’s recovery. Both men ended up paying for their inability to follow Father Hill as vehemently as others.

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We come to learn, not too terribly long after, about the real source of these miracles. Father Hill isn’t actually Father Hill. He is the town’s former priest, Monsignor Pruitt. Pruitt had taken a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and had taken refuge in an ancient ruin during a sandstorm. In this ruin, he is attacked by a winged, half-bat/half-human creature. Pruitt lies dying and the creature feeds him some of its blood. Pruitt awakes and he realizes he simply didn’t survive but has been “restored” to his youth. Believing the winged being that attacked him to be an angel, he captures it and returns back to Crockett Island under a new identity to restore that town and its residents like he had been. The communion wine is the creature’s blood and those that show their faith with regular attendance are restored.

As more story elements started to be revealed, the connection to many ableist tropes became apparent. Leeza checked the box as an inspirational disabled character. She and her parents are looked at with some pity by the townspeople, something we commonly do with disabled characters. But the trope I want to zero in on is the one around disability “cure,” or the moment where a wheelchair-using character has broken free from their wheelchair and can now walk or gets rid of a chronic condition or illness miraculously goes away (no longer needing to be a source of pity of those around them). These cures rarely come from science but from supernatural forces – God, a magic portal, etc. These narratives do two things quite slyly: they undermine the validity of disabilities and use these characters’ stories as examples of healing through resilience and faith.

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But Flanagan doesn’t let Leeza’s recovery stay within the trope territory. The series ends with her being one of the lone survivors of the battle between the believers and non-believers, rowing off the island and commenting to her companion (another teenager in the town and bother to Riley, Warren) about the returning paralysis to her legs. Her cure wasn’t only a temporary sham but had the power to turn those who were given the blood after dying into vampires, essentially. There is a hopeful future for Leeza, even if she will need a wheelchair.

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Nichole Goble is the host of a podcast (BODIES OF HORROR) that examines horror movies through the lens of disability as well as co-host of Anatomy of a Scream, a feminist, queer-positive website, podcast network + YouTube Channel. Additionally the team runs Grim Magazine, an independent, biannual digital and print journal that showcases the voices of women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC writers and creators.

Pitch This Is Grim Mag here!

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