So we watched Midnight Mass recently – it’s the new Netflix series from Mike Flanagan, who made Haunting of Hill House and Haunting of Bly Manor. It’s really good. It’s another step forward for him as a director – he’s clearly becoming more sophisticated and refining his depiction of place and these really striking, searching depictions of different characters. I won’t give much away about it, except to say that it’s about a small island full of Catholics and Something Goes Wrong. There’s this underlying idea that monsters and demons exist, but that the Catholics are largely too stupid to recognise them for what they are. They’re so trapped in their myopic point of view that they cannot identify monsters as monsters – and so the horror stems from the creatures lurking in the darkness, but also from our inflexibility of thought and our inability to understand the threat these creatures represent. That inflexibility is directly tied to religion. There is some nuance required with that argument, which I don’t totally have time to unpack – obviously it’s not all the religious people in the show – but there’s still a theme there, right. I don’t think the show says that religion is bad, but religion is unquestionably the ground in which the horrors of Midnight Mass are sown.
Anyway, I have a bit of a mental tally of media where religion is depicted as bad or evil – because it’s the only way it ever comes up in media, really – and I was mulling over whether or not to add Midnight Mass to the list. I think the conclusion I’m coming to is that media depictions of religion aren’t really about religion in the first place. We’ll get to Borderlands in a minute, okay, chill out. One of the common practices we see in media and culture throughout history is this idea of Othering. The Other is a construct that you draw up in opposition to yourself, not as a group in its own right, but only as a contour or inverse designed to highlight your own features. Women are depicted as irrational not in isolation but to throw into relief the rationality of men. In different periods and places, Africa, Indigenous people, and the Middle East are each in turn depicted as uncivilized – again, not in isolation, but to throw into relief the civilized nature of the West. Crucially, the Other is not a thing in itself: it is a symbiote, a parasite, an inferior second created by the Self to highlight the Self’s own features.
I think what I’ve been missing, then, is that religion in media is often Othered. It doesn’t exist as an entity in itself, but as an expression of the fears and concerns of a largely secular mainstream media system. Midnight Mass isn’t really about how religion can make people blind – it’s rather a secular expression and exploration of the fear of becoming blind, of becoming like those awful religious people. You can see how a religious person might take offense at that characterization, but I think it’s important to recognise that they’re not really talking about us. They’re only talking about themselves. Like in The Talos Principle, religion serves not as a concept in its own right but as a mechanism for exploring essentially secular thoughts. The horror of Midnight Mass, the threat that secular people are thinking through, is this: What if I am so inured to a particular way of thinking that I’m missing an obvious, looming existential threat? It’s interesting to note, for instance, that the story takes place in the aftermath of a catastrophic oil spill, with fishermen resentful of environmentalists from the mainland imposing quotas on how much they can catch. Ecological disaster offers the backdrop to the whole story. The Catholic characters play out on screen a parable of the blind leading the blind, and we shiver in the knowledge that we could be just like them.
Mm. Borderlands, then. I’ve been playing Borderlands 2 recently – I’m installing the third game as we speak – and I was thinking further about religion in video games. In Borderlands 3, the villains are a cult of religious fanatics – the Children of the Vault. It’s like a religion where the gods are streamers – you know, it’s a commentary on Twitch or whatever. Again, it’s religion as metaphor, as the carapace of the language used to reflect on these issues. In a series where madness is used as a way of cocooning the mind, the religious cult serves as a dark extreme, as an Other illustrating the Self – as a reminder of the perils of this type of thought. As in Midnight Mass, the cult offers a narrative without self-awareness, an uncompromising narrowness of view leading to an inability to identify the monsters. And the tipping point from protective madness into ruined madness is marked by a complete surrender of any alternate reality or alternate perspective.
Consider, for instance, Tiny Tina in the Assault on Dragon Keep DLC for Borderlands 2. During a DnD-style tabletop roleplaying game, Tina, as the game master, brings back a heroic version of Roland, who was murdered during the events of Borderlands 2. The other heroes push her about it throughout the game, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with her using this fantasy as a way of coping with the loss of Roland. At the climax of the narrative, Tiny Tina breaks, acknowledging that Roland is dead and saying that she just wanted to pretend for a little while. The others encourage her back into her story, reassured that she still has that basic level of contact with reality, and after the game ends, Tina farewells a statue of Roland at his grave. This DLC suggests that the healthy version of madness exists alongside and not in opposition to reality. It’s a way of processing grief and trauma without losing touch altogether. In Borderlands 3, by contrast, one of the Children of the Vault cuts off both his legs at the request of the cult’s god-queen. Madness is no longer a coping mechanism – the connection with reality is severed, and so are his legs – no, sorry.
Really, the cult in Borderlands 3 isn’t any sort of direct comment on religion. It’s an Othering of religion in order to reflect on the value and peril of telling yourself a different story – to provide a shadow of the cocooning behaviours that Tina and Tannis and many other characters engage in. It’s the dark side of those processes. You can draw out the commentary on Twitch streamers as well – you know, the cultists are essentially a bunch of simps, they’re way over-invested in the god-queen, and it’s cringey and embarrassing, and she’s very clearly exploiting them – and again, the heart of that dynamic is the inability of the cultists to recognise what they’re doing. They have no self-awareness – they are simps specifically because they cannot identify their simping behaviour. The only difference between the cultists and Tina is that Tina is able to move on, able to recognise the story as a story and move flexibly around it, adapting and changing over time so that she doesn’t become stuck in this one particular narrative. Religion serves as the vehicle in all of that, as the framework or shorthand – but the game isn’t really about religion in any direct sense. It’s the material, but not the meaning.