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What’s your story?

What’s your story? October 18, 2021

I’ve started watching Dopesick, the Hulu miniseries based on Beth Macy’s non-fiction book on oxycontin and the opioid epidemic, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America. The whole cast is remarkable in this and, so far, the show is compelling — an important story well told.

It’s also dreadful, but in a literal sense. To watch the beginnings of this story in the 1990s is to be filled with dread. As viewers now, in 2021, we know things about this story that the characters portrayed by Michael Keaton and Kaitlyn Devers and Will Poulter — characters based on real people — do not and cannot yet know. And so watching their tragedies unfold, inexorably, is a bit like watching a horror movie. You want to yell at the screen to warn them — “Don’t! Don’t go in there!”

And so, in a way, watching Dopesick feels a bit like it felt watching another recent miniseries, Midnight Mass.

Some might consider it a spoiler to mention that Mike Flanagan’s horror-parable is a vampire story, but I don’t think mentioning the show’s premise really qualifies as such. Nor is it a spoiler to tell you that Flanagan’s tale is set in a 21st-century American community in which, impossibly, no one seems familiar with any of the folk-lore or pop-culture tales of vampires present in any actual 21st-century American community.

That’s an odd conceit of this story — one that requires almost a greater suspension of disbelief than the story’s portrayal of vampires as something real. These are the two impossibilities that Flanagan invites us to accept as preconditions for the telling of his tale: 1) All those vampire stories and legends are true; and yet 2) Somehow, none of the 21st-century Americans living on Crockett Island has ever heard of them.

Midnight Mass extends some assistance for suspending our disbelief on that first point, offering some semi-plausible acceptability by nodding in the direction of some mutant porphyria-like disease. That’s enough to allow us to play along in the same way that a science fiction story will let us do so by having someone babble about “quantum tachyons” or “reversing the polarity.” But no such assistance is provided to help us suspend our disbelief on that second point — no pretext or explanation for how it is that no one on this island has ever heard of Dracula, or Buffy, or Twilight, Nosferatu, Salem’s Lot, Anne Rice, or The Lost Boys.

This might seem like a glib gimmick, the sort of thing that Ryan George cheerfully excuses by saying, “Because then the movie couldn’t happen” in those fun “Screen Rant Pitch Meeting” videos on YouTube. What it really reminds me of, though, is the background strangeness of shows like Elementary and Sherlock. Both of those are quite fun, offering enjoyable version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories set in modern-day New York City and modern-day London. Or, rather, in almost-New York and almost-London. We discussed this here years ago:

There is one recurring aspect of the show that seems wholly unreal and that can be jarring every time it comes up. Elementary, it turns out, is not really set in contemporary New York City, but rather in some parallel-universe version of contemporary New York in which no one has ever heard of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

The setting is not really New York in 2012, but New York in 2012 as if Conan Doyle’s iconic stories had never existed.

That’s not a huge difference, but we’re constantly reminded of it when watching Elementary. Every time Sherlock Holmes is introduced as “Sherlock Holmes” and people respond without a hint of recognition, we’re confronted with the difference between the world of the show and our own world. Here in our world — the real world — everyone knows that name. Sherlock Holmes is not merely famous, he’s proverbial. “No [kidding], Sherlock,” we say, sarcastically invoking the fictional detective as the universally recognized epitome of deductive brilliance.

That’s the paradoxical problem in all stories like this. In order to present a setting in which Sherlock Homes can seem real, that setting cannot allow for the existence of the fictional Holmes. And a world without the fictional Holmes can never seem wholly familiar or real.

That’s a bit of what I think is going on in Midnight Mass. It’s a kind of trade-off. In order to make the vampire aspects of this modern-day vampire story seem more realistic, the show changes its portrayal of modern-day life in a way that makes it less realistic.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think this unexplained impossibility of a world without vampire stories is a problem in Midnight Mass. I think, rather, that it’s what the story means, at least in part. It’s not so much that all the characters’ genre-blindness is a clumsy pretext allowing the story to happen as that this is a story about genre-blindness. It’s a story about people failing to understand what kind of story they’re in.

(It will be tricky to describe what this means without getting increasingly spoiler-y, and I’ll do my best here to avoid that, but if you haven’t yet watched Midnight Mass and hope to later do so with all of its twists and surprises intact, then don’t read the rest of this until you’ve done so.)

The setting on a sparsely populated New England island village in Midnight Mass makes for a community that is literally both isolated and insular. The former is part of why no one on Crockett Island recognizes the increasingly obvious signs of the kind of story they’ve become a part of. They don’t have movie theaters or broadband or a local comic book shop where the Frog brothers could pull out a vampire comic book to serve as a guide to what’s happening around them. But the insularity of the island village is the greater factor in why they fail to understand their predicament. These are people who already have a story, and their story is the only story they can imagine or can imagine needing to know.

Flanagan leans into this with a patient, slow-burn first few episodes that often seem like they belong to some other genre of story-telling. For long stretches at the beginning, this seems less like horror than like some kind of cross between Shetland and Mare of Easttown, and so the audience shares a taste of the islanders’ confusion. What’s going on? Where is this going? What kind of story is this?

The characters all think they know, and they seem obstinately reluctant to consider any other possibilities. This makes sense, at first, as the story they already have initially seems capable of explaining the increasingly strange events disturbing their life together. As that explanation becomes increasingly strained, the good people of Crockett Island begin changing their own story, eventually beyond all recognition, drastically changing who they are in a desperate attempt to avoid having to change who they think they are. They go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the identity-threatening possibility that they might have been wrong about the kind of story they’re in and the role they’re playing in it.

In the ’90s and early 2000s, horror movies went through a meta-narrative phase involving genre-savvy characters who, having seen enough horror movies themselves, were capable of realizing when they were in one. Think of Scream or The Cabin in the Woods or Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. I think Midnight Mass explores some of the same territory, but from a different angle and without the ironic detachment. Where Scream was a horror movie about what it would mean for characters to recognize the kind of story they were in, Midnight Mass is a horror movie about characters who ought to recognize the kind of story they’re in, yet don’t. And it’s about why they don’t.

This is why I think Midnight Mass is urgently timely in a Matthew 23 kind of way. It’s a very dangerous thing not to understand what kind of story we’re living in. If we don’t recognize what kind of story we’re living in, we’ll never recognize our own roles in that story. And if we don’t understand that, we might end up being Bev Keane. Or Hazel Massery.

Who is Hazel Massery? That’s always an important question. Because if you don’t know who Hazel Massery is in your story, then there’s a very good chance it’s you.

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