From New England With Love: The Influences of Stephen King & the American Northeast on MIDNIGHT MASS

By Max Restaino · November 2, 2021, 3:00 PM EDT
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This article CONTAINS SPOILERS for the Netflix Series, Midnight Mass and the Stephen King novel, 'Salems Lot

When you're an artist, your influences can come through your own output in several ways, to varying degrees of success and/or subtlety. Saying that someone "wears their influence on their sleeve" could be a compliment or an insult entirely depending on who you ask. Regardless of how overt or minuscule the homage may be, there is one key element that it relies upon to work: Sincerity.

If you're a Stephen King fan, then you already know that Mike Flanagan is one of the few directors—alongside Rob Reiner, Frank Darabont, and Mick Garris—to bring King's work to the screen with a true understanding and respect of the source material. Flanagan is the only one who has done the impossible twice with his King adaptations: First was bringing Gerald's Game to the screen, a book which any reader would formerly have claimed unfilmable. The second, and arguably more impressive feat was adapting Doctor Sleep while honoring both King's novel and Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining in a way that even Stephen King appreciated (King being a long-time outspoken critic of Kubrick's film, of course).

Flanagan isn't shy to fly his Constant Reader flag either, revealing himself as a bona fide Tower Junkie with an "All things serve the Beam" Dark Tower reference in Gerald's Game, and a good old "Ka is a wheel" in Doctor Sleep. Recently, Mike Flanagan released a new series on Netflix, Midnight Mass. The seven-episode series is an original story created by Mike Flanagan and is in no way based on anything written by Stephen King. Still, King's influence runs thick throughout, from surface to core.

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Midnight Mass tells the story of Riley Flynn, a devout Christian, tech-bro, and alcoholic who is sent to prison after killing a young woman while driving drunk. Four years later, a sober & faithless Riley returns to his parents' home on Crockett Island, a dwindling fishing community with a population of 127 people (12+7=19, a magic number in King's Dark Tower series, confirmed on Twitter by Flanagan). At the same time, a mysterious young priest named Paul Hill arrives on Crockett Island to fill in for their aged Monsignor, who has fallen ill during a trip to Jerusalem and is recovering in a mainland hospital. As the mostly devout citizens of "The Crock Pot" go about their day-to-day, they begin to change in increasingly miraculous, unexpected, and terrible ways… not without a price.

"I think Steve and I see the world in similar ways, and are clearly interested in similar ideas. We have some similar backgrounds and experiences," Flanagan wrote to me. "I am proud to admit that his writing influenced my childhood and creative development more than any other author."

Two King titles immediately jump to my mind when thinking of the story told in Midnight Mass: 'Salem's Lot and Revival. The former, about a small Maine town overtaken by vampires, and the unlikely heroes that band together in an attempt to stop them. The latter, Revival, tells the story of Jamie Morton and his lifelong relationship to a minister named Charles Jacobs, a once good man who tried to help people with an enormous cosmic power he didn't understand before a tragic accident robbed him of his faith, and sent him spiraling into a ravenous quest for a knowledge not meant for human comprehension.

Regarding the more superficial story parallels, Flanagan says: "I'm a lifelong King fan, so his influence is undeniable. The one on my mind while developing Midnight Mass was Salem's Lot. I started working on Midnight Mass more than a decade ago, so weirdly it existed and was pretty formed before Revival was even published, and I had to read that quickly to make sure they weren't too close to each other". While Flanagan firmly managed to explore these territories without stepping on anyone's toes, he does create some direct allusions. The finale, for example, when Crockett Island is razed to the ground in flames, leaving the vampires nowhere to hide at sunrise, is much like that of 'Salem's Lot, in which the titular town, fully infested with nocturnal bloodsuckers, is set ablaze by the two surviving heroes.

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Faith (or the loss thereof), alcoholism/addiction, and recovery are not only major themes of Midnight Mass, 'Salem's Lot, and Revival, but the major themes across all of King's work. Like King himself, Flanagan has been publicly open about his past: "We both grew up in New England, we both struggled with addiction, and we both found our own paths to sobriety. So there is an equal amount of influence/homage, invention, and coincidence."

Midnight Mass's small-town New England setting, the close-knit community of Crockett Island, recalls Little Tall Island, the location of King's novel Dolores Claiborne (coincidentally, this novel is a companion to Gerald's Game). Flanagan says that his fictional locale was far more inspired by his childhood. "I've always loved Little Tall Island, but I spent years of my childhood living on Governor's Island NY, and my father grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts (which is a fishing community that FEELS like an island)." His own experiences weren't the only influence, however. "More than anything, Crockett is a reaction to Tangier, Virginia, a community that has fascinated me for many years. In fact, most of the surnames in the show come from the community and history of Tangier. In fact, Tangier's most common surname is... Crockett, named for John Crockett, who settled the island in the 18th century."

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The comparison of the Island communities—Flanagan's Crockett & King's Little Tall—are indeed close enough for government work, but it's not just the islands, and it's not just King or Flanagan either. New England itself is as much a character as Bev Keane or Sheriff Hassan, and one who is familiar to dozens of horror authors. One of whom is native New Englander, B.R. Yeager, whose cosmic horror novel, Negative Space, is set in a fictional town based on his own Massachusetts community. Yeager told me why he thinks horror stories set in New England are so prolific: "New England is a profoundly gothic region…What makes [it] gothic is three-fold: it contains the sins of the past, the decay of empire, and vast unsettled woodlands. In New England history, the sins of the past are well documented." He mentions the Salem Witch Trials and the history of his hometown, Amherst, MA, named for Lord Jeffrey Amherst, a proponent of killing indigenous peoples with infected blankets.

Sins of the past are an obvious theme in Midnight Mass, as much of the plot deals with Riley's continued struggle to reckon the life he took. However, there's more to what Yeager has to say about abandoned industrial communities that tie to Midnight Mass. "Throughout each of the states are once-prosperous mill towns that have either gone to ruin or are in the process… [I]t is very much a pastime of the youth to sneak into these spaces to drink and get high or just hang out." This is an idea that viewers of Midnight Mass are introduced to almost immediately in Crockett's once thriving, slowly dying fishing industry and the tradition of teens going to "the Uppers" to smoke weed amongst hordes of feral cats, (all of whom wash up dead on the beach a day or two later). Like King, Flanagan is interested in the fundamental truth at the center of his stories, and even little things like "where do the kids get high?" are part of what makes their characters feel real.

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Additionally, there are several members of Midnight Mass' cast of characters who particularly call to mind some of King's most memorable. Religious zealot, Bev Keane, would surely get along with Mrs. Carmody, who stirs up religious hysteria in the grocery store refuge of The Mist; Riley Flynn and Dan Torrance, though surely different in temperament, would happily attend AA together. Father Hill could sit down with Charles Jacobs for hours debating whether vampirism was a better cure-all than electricity, and Sheriff Hassan would draw the admiration of Alan Pangborn, Jack Sawyer, Bill Hodges, and even Roland Deschain.

The most significant connection, though, is a spiritual one, something that has to be felt. Midnight Mass feels more like a novel than a TV show, and it's able to capture a feeling that only Stephen King has been able to capture before. "Midnight Mass is a strange animal, as it draws from a huge number of inspirations... but most of them are born of my childhood, sobriety, and atheism. That people compare it at all to King, in any way, is a profound compliment to me." To me, that says more about Flanagan's sincerity than any conscious allusion or thematic parallel ever could.

Midnight Mass is now streaming on Netflix, click below to stream. B.R. Yeager's Negative Space is available at