Happy Halloween: Midnight Mass and even scarier, the Cult of Gwen Shamblin
The Exorcist came out when I was 13 years old. My Baptist preacher grandfather was visiting us at the time and he made arrangements to go see the movie in the theater. Now understand that my father growing up was not allowed to go to movies or listen to rock music. He was allowed to see Ben Hur and would sneak away to listen to top 40 radio when the station aired in 1955. I’m sure this is why my dad went into the music industry. Every week during his career at CBS Records we got a box with all the newly released albums. The little kid in him that listened to rock radio in his closet so his parents wouldn’t hear must’ve been in heaven.
So you can imagine the shock at my Grandfather announcing that he was going to see a rated R movie, and a horror movie at that. After he came back from the theater I asked him, “Why that movie Grampa?” He told me that Evil is real, and he wanted to see what it looked like. Pretty horrifying for a 13 year old to hear, but in retrospect, that’s probably why a lot of us watch horror movies. We think that Evil might be real and we want to see what it looks like.
As a side note, Linda Blair, the actor who played the child from The Exorcist lived in the town I grew up in. Almost every day I passed her little cottage; it was a grey shingled house on the corner just up from the town Playhouse and across the street from the First Congregational Church. I always pressed my nose against the glass of the school bus to see if I could spot her. I was sure that playing that role had changed her somehow and I wanted to see how. I never once spotted her, not in her yard or in the Village Market, our grocery store where I worked as a teenager. I’m sure the poor woman just wanted to be left alone.
Over the last few weeks of this Halloween month…
I’ve watched two horror series, and even though one is a documentary and one fantastical fiction, they both give us glimpses into the nature of evil. Here’s a hint: it’s all about malignant narcissism.
I’m going to try to avoid spoilers but just a warning that I may venture too far into the stories for your liking, so you may want to stop here and watch both shows, Midnight Mass (Netflix) and The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin (HBO Max) before going forward. Or if you don’t care.. read on!
First Midnight Mass is from horror auteur Mike Flannigan from the Haunting of Hill House series. Flannigan is a cradle Catholic who says he was raised in “healthy Catholicism” though identifies now as an atheist. He is also a recovering alcoholic, sober three years this month. Both his struggle with faith and his struggle with alcohol create the foundation for the series. What strikes me his writing is the compassion which he brings to these characters, both the addicts and the zealots. In his NYT interview he says that he started working on this project long before he got sober and before he had processed his religious upbringing.
“The newfound sobriety is also one of the reasons that, even after struggling so long to get Midnight Mass off the ground, he is relieved he didn’t get to make it sooner. ‘I wasn’t in a place where I could handle the material until now,’ he said, sounding grateful.
‘I was writing about alcoholism but wasn’t yet sober; I was writing about atheism, but I hadn’t gotten over my anger,’ he continued. ‘I’ve had some beautiful revelations.’” - NYT interview with Darren King Sept 24, 2021
The story takes place on an isolated island inhabited by fishermen and their families. Many of the people on the island attend the one church. The rest we are led to believe are ambivalent except for the new sheriff and his son who are devout Muslims. The story starts by following the character of Riley Flynn (Jack Gilford) who returns home after getting out of prison for a fatal drunk driving accident. Riley comes back to his childhood home where if belief isn’t mandated, church attendance certainly is. Part of Riley’s parole is attendance at AA and when a new young priest (Hamish Linklater) comes to town, he starts a chapter in the church so Riley doesn’t have to go off island.
It’s when Father Paul comes to the island that stuff starts to get real weird, real fast. We recognize a sincerity in the young priest as well as charismatic zeal. But this doesn’t last. He changes, drunk on the power of what he sees as “God’s plan” for this community.
Without giving too much away, remember this is a horror series and so there’s lots of blood and monsters, some supernatural, some human. But there’s also sacrifice and redemption. In one scene Flannigan captures the essence and power of forgiveness so poignantly you forget you’re watching a horror movie. And finally towards the end of the series, a character delivers a monologue that as one commenter posted, could have been pulled directly out of Rohr’s The Universal Christ. I laughed cause I thought the same thing.
Midnight Mass is what might happen if Stephen King and Richard Rohr had a horror baby.
This show isn’t for everyone. In the show, the people who don’t find redemption are those who weaponize scripture and use their piety as power to judge others. In real life, maybe I’m wrong, but those people probably won’t like this series.
And speak of the devil…
It’s uncanny the similarities of this Vampiric horror series to the real life story of Gwen Shamblin and the Remnant Fellowship church. This HBO series, friends, is the real horror story. I, surprisingly, had never heard of Gwen Shamblin even though her Christian weight loss program, The Weigh Down, (yup you read that right) was in thousands of Evangelical churches in the late 80’s. Thank God! I honestly can’t imagine what that would have done to me.
Similar to Father Paul, Gwen seems to start out with good intentions. She graduates from college with a degree as a nutritionist and though her program is in no way predicated on balanced nutrition, she seeks to lead people to better health. Well, maybe not health but weight loss. But also like Father Paul, drunk off her own success, which she translates as God’s blessing, she feels she has discovered the answer to solve ALL THE PROBLEMS and she’s ready to cash in.
So Shamblin starts The Remnant Fellowship church. Both Midnight Mass and Shamblin adopt this idea of the remnant “an end time [group] of believers who are faithful to God. The remnant church is a visible, historical, organized body characterized by obedience to the commandments of God and the possession of a unique end-time gospel proclamation.” (wiki) This “unique proclamation” is, however, determined by Gwen herself and it starts with BE THIN. Being thin, she says, is the outward manifestation of an inward obedience to God’s will. So is having perfect, well behaved children (spare the rod and spoil the child), an absence of any kind of mental illness (no depression or even grieving allowed) and having a marriage characterized by male leadership (overlooking such paltry things as adultery and domestic violence).
As we watch over three episodes, Gwen transforms from annoying church lady to full blown succubus. I imagined the reason she had to tease her laughable hairdo higher and higher was to hide the horns growing underneath.
Obviously this is not a church - it’s a cult. Adam Brooks, one of the Remnant survivors interviewed for the series says, “One of the things I’ve learned through this whole process is that churches are messy places full of messy people with lots of messy contradictions and that’s partly what draws them together. But cult leaders don’t like that. Cult leaders like it neat. This is the box you’re gonna live in.”
In one episode, Gwen’s daughter who is alarmingly thin, loses her 5 month old baby. We have no idea why the baby has died, but interviewees all say that the child’s death was ignored and church went on as always without any mention of the loss of the child. Shamblin teaches her flock that anything good one experiences is a blessing from God and conversely anything bad that happens is a result of God’s judgement. So dead babies are swept under the rug. It’s not the only death the series documents and the other is far more sinister.
And then as if Gwen’s teaching about God’s wrath comes back to haunt her, as HBO was about to air the series last spring, an airplane piloted by Gwen’s second husband, the bizarre grifter and Tarzan actor Joe Lara, crashed soon after taking off killing Gwen and Joe as well as five other Remnant church leaders. So HBO released the first three episodes of the series this month and is set to rework and include the crash and the aftermath in the upcoming half of the series.
Gwen’s Carrie-esque daughter has evidently taken over Remnant Fellowship since Gwen’s death.
Shamblin’s story gave me more nightmares than Flannigan’s
Perhaps that’s because some of the rhetoric I heard out of Shamblin’s mouth had hints of some things I’ve heard over the years preached from a pulpit or two. Even more so, however, I left the series struck by the weight of responsibility of having a voice, even a small one. On this blog. In spiritual direction. In my classroom. Wherever our voice is listened to, we all have a responsibility to be incredibly circumspect in how we communicate and a responsibility to stay grounded in some practice that keeps us humble. Because good intentions can be highjacked.
Rohr says that he prays for a “daily humiliation,” something that reminds him of his own brokenness. That brokenness is at the core of spiritual community, not in order to be “fixed,” but to learn how to love others in their brokenness and be loved in our own. And that ultimately, it is exactly in that brokenness that we are loved by God. On my heart lately has been the fact that the absolute “good news” is that there’s nothing to be done. (And this might be a scary story to some of you.) There’s nothing we can do to earn and nothing we can do to separate us from God’s love. All our mistakes and all our achievements, God is impervious to them. They don’t sway God towards loving us more or less. God’s unswayable! She just sees our bumbling hearts fumbling their way towards hope and that’s enough. We’re not born into a hole we need to work our way out of. We’re created the same way God created everything else. And just like everything else, God named us good.
One of my favorite stories is from a good friend of mine who was in the process of bidding on a house, and as is the practice in AA, he was praying for God’s will to be done. Not his will, but God’s. He told me though, as he was praying, he thought for a moment, “God if you do this for me….” We all know the bargaining prayer. He immediately felt badly about it, but then he saw an image of God listening to him and loving him, saying, “Aww … he’s so sweet. Look at him trying.” Ha! That’s not just a good story, it’s good theology. We’re broken, imperfect people and the most we can really hope for is that we are stumbling towards a greater awareness of our belovedness that is already imprinted on us.
So screw Christian weight loss cults, go eat all the candy this halloween! For we are all a beloved mess, and there’s nothing to be done about it.
What is spiritual direction?
"The practice of Spiritual Direction inspires people to experience authenticity in their lives as they connect with and explore the ground of all being, that deepest of truths which is beyond life and death, and goes by many names, including God, and no name at all." (from sdiworld.org)
How do we discern the vibrant hum of the Divine presence within us?
We show up in solitude.
We breathe deeply into silence.
We slow down into stillness.
And where do we begin? With our own sacred stories.