Black Balsam’s Midnight Mass

2021 is apparently the year I finally feel represented by television (despite hailing from the home of Dunder Mifflin and the airport where Mrs. McAllister finds the polka band in Home Alone). First, there was Mare of Easttown’s delightful, Mr. Brightside-backed bar scene, and now, Netflix’s Midnight Mass, which I found equal parts terrifying and thought-provoking, and which made me realize how ingrained Catholocism is in me. 

I was raised in the Catholic Church but haven’t been a practitioner or believer since I was middle-school-aged (despite being an altar boy until my senior year of high school). Without getting too deep (because I have many complicated thoughts about my Catholic roots), I believe that as an entity and business (anyone convincing themselves the Catholic church is not a business doesn’t fundamentally understand the Catholic church), it’s a profoundly evil organization exploiting hopeful people. 

I also still deeply relate to the Catholic church, and the Jesuit philosophies I studied during my college years have strongly shaped the way I view the world and navigate life. I’m probably agnostic at best, atheist at worse, but I think that whether he was the son of God or not, Jesus was a pretty chill dude who provided an excellent roadmap for being a decent person and leaving the world a better place than you found it. And when my grandmother passed away this summer, I found the Catholic funeral mass the cathartic event I needed. The night she died, I felt adrift down here in Ashville while my family was together back in Pennsylvania. I sat alone in my apartment, had a few too many glasses of what could tentatively be considered rosé (aka wine that tastes like juice aka my unfortunate wine of choice), and found solace playing the Catholic hymns of my childhood that she loved at far too loud a decibel. Most importantly, what I still deeply relate to in terms of Catholocism is the number of good, decent people I love and care about who believe and practice. I can disagree with the organization and the teachings, but I’ll never bash the practitioners. 

And without getting too philosophical, that’s not only what resonated with me about Midnight Mass but scared me shitless: the possibility of decent people you care about being swept up trying to do the right thing. As one of my favorite Midnight Mass think pieces wrote:

You’re going to hear a lot of Biblical passages recited during this show, but the most applicable proverb to describe Midnight Mass can’t be found in that text. It’s an old saying, one that you’re all familiar with: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” That’s the plot of Midnight Mass in a nutshell; how you can be so blinded by the righteousness of your purpose that you fail to see the wrongness of your work. 

Also, there were the details: the altar boy cassocks, the particular tile pattern that adorns the floor of every church hall I’ve ever been in, and the music I found myself singing along to. Then, there was the one true villain of the show, Beverly Keane, who, if you too were raised Catholic, you know (she reminded my brother and me of the same woman from our catechism years). 

There’s something intrinsically creepy about church music, especially when deployed over a darkening landscape as the show did to great effect in its penultimate episode

Remember The Black Balsam Knob singers/church group/possible cult in the making I observed with my cousin this past summer? Well, I think Black Balsam Knob on a Friday night is their ritual because I returned on a hike with my brother over Labor Day Weekend, and they were there, like they never left, sitting in unison, singing in unison, and continuing to unnerve me. I was skeptical of them before, but now that Midnight Mass burned itself into my psyche, I think going forward, I’ll avoid Black Balsam Knob Friday sunset hikes at all costs.

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