Be Not Afraid: The Many Faces of Father Paul from Midnight Mass

Trigger warning: this article makes reference to suicide, mass murder, alcoholism, cults, and religious fundamentalism. 

Over the past five years or so, Mike Flanagan has quickly risen through the ranks of renowned horror directors. In my opinion, his 2021 Netflix series Midnight Mass is his most successful creation to date. The seven-episode limited series details the small-town drama of Crockett Island following the return of Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), recently released from prison for committing manslaughter in a drunk driving accident four years prior. Despite being initially framed as the protagonist, Riley gets less attention than expected and dies in Episode 5, “Book V: Gospel.” Therefore, it could be argued that the actual protagonist is Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater). 

At the very least, Father Paul is the most significant character in Midnight Mass. The priest-turned-vampire is the catalyst of the entire plot, the primary antagonist (if not also the protagonist), and extremely multi-faceted. As well as being a fascinating character, he is also a tool used to explore religious extremism in a deeply disturbing way. 

Father Paul or Monsignor Pruitt?

For the first few episodes of Midnight Mass, Father Paul is quite the mystery. He arrives on the island and takes over mass at Saint Patrick’s Church (the only religious institution on the island) rather suddenly. The previous and long-time religious leader, Monsignor John Pruitt, left the island a little while ago for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He was beloved by all residents of Crockett Island, as many of them have grown up with him around, and all have fond memories of him. Father Paul claims Monsignor Pruitt has fallen ill, and so he has been sent by the diocese as a temporary substitute. 

Of course, knowing it’s a horror series kind of spoils the surprise a little bit; Father Paul is suspicious from the get-go. Although he’s extremely charismatic, it’s not hard to gather that he isn’t who he says he is. That is, until his confession.

Father Paul in the confession booth, the light from outside casting patterned shadows on his face

In Episode 3, “Book III: Proverbs,” we discover that Father Paul is actually Monsignor Pruitt. Via monologue (surprise, surprise), he informs the audience that during his pilgrimage, due to suffering from dementia, he got confused and lost. As a result, he ended up in a sandstorm in the middle of the desert. Stumbling into a cave, he descended to take cover and discovered a creature down there. What we know to be a vampire, Pruitt interpreted as an angel of God. It turned him into a vampire, de-aging him in the process. Under his new alias, Father Paul returned to Crockett Island.

His Holy Presence

Naturally, Father Paul couldn’t exactly tell his parishioners the truth of what happened. He had to show them so they’d believe. This depended on a long-term plan and getting his people to like him. I’ll get to the former in a bit, but for now, let’s focus on the latter: Father Paul’s personality.

Hamish Linklater’s portrayal of Father Paul is almost hypnotic. A gentle, soothing voice and calm demeanour instantly lure the viewer (and most of the other characters) in. His approach is very inoffensive, appearing rather meek and humble but charming at the same time. This makes it easy for the island residents to trust him because he’s so approachable. He even expresses the occasional bout of humour; for example, joking about using the old translation of “peace be with you/and also with you” since he’s stuck in his ways (also a clever nod to his real age). 

Additionally, Father Paul is an excellent speaker. As a priest, he delivers many sermons at Saint Patrick’s throughout the series—yep, as monologues, but these ones I’ll accept. In these moments, he has a powerful, commanding presence that ensures the parish is hooked on his every word. Listening to him is like a spiritual experience in itself. He appears possessed with vigour when he lectures passionately about God’s mission and love. It’s easy to see how his parishioners firmly believe he is a vessel for God.

Father Paul enthusiastically delivering a sermon with Beverly Keane in the background

In Episode 2, “Book II: Psalms,” Riley reluctantly has his first Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting with Father Paul. Although, with the island being so small, it’s not anonymous in the slightest. During these meetings, Father Paul speaks in a low, gentle tone, with occasional outbursts of emotion, much like in his sermons. He doles out wise advice, and in order to gain Riley’s trust and respect, uses a non-judgemental approach. Initially, he very much misjudges what will be helpful for Riley by implying that suffering is “God’s gift,” something Riley refers to as “a monstrous idea.” Father Paul changes tack slightly after this but continues sticking to his own truth. He holds Riley accountable for his own actions while firmly reiterating that “[God] can find the good in [his actions], and find the love in them.” Religious convictions aside, it’s hard not to find these words comforting.

Each AA meeting starts with the following prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Again, even without the Catholicism angle, this is a solid approach to life. In these words are self-love and self-kindness, acceptance, empowerment, and emotional intelligence. Ironically, the prayer also applies to Father Paul’s ulterior motives quite significantly.

A Divine Gift

As previously mentioned, we know there’s something sinister lurking behind Father Paul’s mask before his real identity is revealed. Despite this, he’s incredibly easy to like, with words so convincing that we can’t blame most of the island for falling under his spell. This friendly exterior makes Father Paul all the more insidious when we discover his plan of action.

After his confession in Episode 3, we learn that Father Paul has been dosing the Communion wine with vampire blood. This action in itself places him pretty firmly in the ‘villain’ category. However, Father Paul believes that the vampire who turned him was an angel from God, therefore believes that it’s God’s will for him to share this gift with the Church. Since the blood gave him a new lease on life and cured him of dementia, he simply wants his parishioners to have the same benefits. His only desire is to care for and nurture the residents of Crockett Island. From this perspective, we can sympathise with him, as his intentions are benevolent. His piety is admirable.

Father Paul holding the Eucharist in his blue-purple robes during Mass

Even more than this, Father Paul’s plan does work; he improves people’s eyesight and even causes Leeza Scarborough (Annarah Cymone) to walk again after years of paralysis. Obviously, there is a glaring issue here with the idea of ‘fixing’ disabilities, but the plot purposefully creates an interesting commentary on the common practise of spiritual healing—problems and all. But from the show’s framing of it, Father Paul is doing a lot of good for the community.

Another example of Father Paul having a justified, ethical approach is after Riley gets turned due to incredibly bad timing. The ‘angel’ itself turns Riley, and it all happens so quickly that Father Paul can’t intervene. (There is, however, time for him to join in on drinking some of Riley’s blood, which is obviously questionable.) Afterward, he takes the time to sit Riley down and talk him through exactly what’s happened to him and how to deal with it. He does keep him contained in the rec centre, but that’s because it’s daytime, so he’s preventing Riley from getting burned to death. Father Paul teaches him how to survive and then sets him free afterward, allowing him full autonomy in how he wishes to respond to his situation. He actually approaches Riley in a very healthy way, with complete honesty. Despite Beverly Keane (Samantha Sloyan)’s protests, Father Paul insists on Riley’s free will.

In contrast, he doesn’t tell his parishioners that they have been ingesting vampire blood and also doesn’t ever specify that they will be turning into these creatures. This, therefore, means they cannot give informed consent. Morality is irrelevant when individual choice is removed. Furthermore, Father Paul’s genuine conviction and belief in his actions make him more dangerous. Regardless of his moral outlook, he’s manipulating his entire parish and indoctrinating them to take his misguided ideas as gospel. There are many parallels with real-life cult leaders—Jim Jones, in particular. In the penultimate episode, “Book VI: Acts of the Apostles,” Father Paul essentially kills the entire parish by convincing them to take poison. The vampire blood he’s been microdosing them with means that only their mortal form dies, and they are reborn as vampires. However, most of those who choose not to drink the poison are instantly murdered by the flock of starving newborn vampires. The scene plays out as a mass murder-suicide. 

The Church congregation, all pews full, listening to Father Paul

This kind of manipulative religious leader has connections with Christian fundamentalism and extremism. I would argue that Bev, Father Paul’s right-hand woman, is a better example of this kind of Christianity; she picks and chooses Bible passages to fit her own agenda, which specifically involves Islamophobia against Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli). She is far more strict and puritanical in her approach. On the other hand, Father Paul is humble and focused on the spiritual aspect. This makes him both more insidious and empathetic. Ultimately, it’s all about perspective.

Human Again

In the final episode, “Book VII: Revelation,” Bev leads a massacre with her fellow vampires of any human left on Crockett Island. It’s at this point that Father Paul sees the monstrosity he’s created, learns of Bev’s plan, and instantly backtracks. He tells her:

I was wrong. We were wrong. We are wrong. And we need to stop this. […] It was never me, that’s the thing about priesthood, it isn’t supposed to be me. It was always supposed to be God.

At this, Bev denounces him as a “false prophet” and continues her leadership of the vampires. It becomes evident that Bev is embracing her own personal agenda and committing blasphemy by positioning herself above God, whereas Father Paul has maintained his faith and loyalty to his God by realising his mistakes. He knows his place and knows not to overstep. Consequently, Father Paul becomes more of a hero. He doesn’t attempt to stop Bev, knowing that would be a death sentence—he’s lucky enough she didn’t kill him after he turned against her. But he does completely detach himself from the destruction and malicious killings running wild on the island.

Father Paul sat alone in the church, bloodstains on the walls

An additional plot twist that gives us more sympathy for Father Paul is the discovery that he used to be in a relationship with Mildred Gunning (Alex Essoe). He is the biological father of Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish). Instead of choosing to stay with her and raise their daughter together, he stuck by the Church and retained his priesthood. This is a very human story, stripping Father Paul back and showing us that he’s just a man—a man who has created much destruction and wrongdoings but still just a man, making choices. His vampirism, even his priesthood, doesn’t matter in the end.

In a typically dramatic fashion, immediately after Father Paul is reunited properly with his daughter, she’s fatally shot. As a knee-jerk reaction and desperate attempt to bring her back, he starts feeding his blood to her so she’ll live on as a vampire. However, she spits it out, rejecting it. This moment is a perfect, wordless discussion of consent in regard to vampirism and a summary of Father Paul’s character. He thought he was doing the right thing by saving Sarah’s life, but didn’t even consider asking if she’d want to be turned into a vampire. Naturally, we feel devastated on his behalf, faced with losing a daughter he only just found again. But it’s easy to forget that it’s Sarah’s choice.

Father Paul and Mildred holding Sarah in their arms

In the end, Father Paul has learned he was too eager to jump to change what he could, and now has the wisdom to know what he shouldn’t. He and Mildred die together at sunrise, holding their dead daughter in their arms. It’s heartbreaking but shows that he still had the chance to be where he was supposed to be. Right before the end of their lives, they all got a snapshot of an idyllic, alternate life where he made that different choice instead.

Father Paul’s last words are “Forgive me.” Even after all the death and pain he caused, he can still be redeemed by love. Whether or not you think he deserves forgiveness, it’s a beautiful moment. Isn’t that what we all hope for in the end—to be at peace, surrounded by loved ones? In these final moments, in the all-encompassing light of dawn, sans worry, sans pressure, sans fear, Father Paul becomes far simpler than he ever has been. Make of that what you will.

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Written by Robin Moon

Robin writes for 25YL and Horror Obsessive as much as their scattered brain will allow. They love dark fantasy, sci fi, and most things horror-related, with a huge soft spot for vampires. Don't make the mistake of mentioning Buffy around them or they won't shut up about it. Seriously. They're also a fiction writer and aspiring filmmaker; in other words, they much prefer spending time in made-up places and far-off universes than in the real world.

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