Young adult horror is magical. It opens a door for younger audiences to engage with themes about life that may be hidden from them otherwise. And that’s exactly what Mike Flanagan‘s The Midnight Club does. Created and written by Flanagan and Leah Fong, the series is ten episodes and offers up the story of eight terminally ill young adults as they process their mortality and the loss of their friends and futures, all while a supernatural mystery lies in the walls of their hospice.
Based on the 1994 novel of the same name and other works by Christopher Pike, The Midnight Club is a look into youth and death that we haven’t seen from Flanagan before. Centered in a hospice for terminally ill young adults, eight patients come together every night at midnight to tell each other stories. Invoking a pledge for the people who came before them and those who will come after, they tell each other stories looking to scare each other. However, each story also reveals parts of the patients, their pasts, and their longing for their futures.
But the central character in this story is Ilonka (Iman Benson). She serves as the nexus for the narrative, driving others to communicate, open up, and push back against expectations. Once a salutatorian on her way to an Ivy League education, Ilonka is now dying of thyroid cancer and isn’t going quietly. While the others at the hospice have seemingly made peace with death, Ilonka sees an opportunity in the supernatural history of the hospice to cure herself and her newfound family, but at a high cost.
An anthology of sorts, The Midnight Club’s vignettes offer windows into characters, expanding them and making each one of the ensemble cast members noteworthy. While the series isn’t a traditional anthology, it does use the format of one to tell a larger story beyond what we can see in the main cast. This format works because the stories allow the characters to speak their truth, even when they don’t feel like they can outside their stories. In addition, the stories overturn stones in each characters’ hearts, allowing the audience to identify with them deeply.
The anthology format also allows Flanagan to work in cameos from actors who have been central in his other series without taking away from the narrative at hand. Using them thoughtfully, each cameo redirects back toward the titular club and their lives in one way or another. This allows the actors to bring these stories to life to give phenomenal and emotional performances. Ilonka, Kevin (Igby Rigney), Sandra (Annarah Cymone), Anya (Ruth Codd), Cheri (Adia), Spencer (William Chris Sumpter), Natsuki (Aya Furukawa), and Amesh (Sauriyan Sapkota) are all dynamic characters. Each and every one of them gets a chance to do more and take the spotlight. But among them, Codd, Sumpter, Sapkota, and Furukawa find themselves at the center of the most gutwrenching stories in the series.
The Midnight Club manages to weave a narrative through different lives and problems. It touches on religion, loss, mental illness, queer identity, grief, addiction, and most potently, guilt. And while the series packs a lot of themes into just ten episodes, none of it feels shoehorned into the narrative. Instead, The Midnight Club looks at each element with loving attention that speaks to all audiences. It speaks to those currently going through the awkwardness of being a teen (or just leaving teenagehood) and those of us who have our teen years in the rearview mirror.
Flannagan has used his Netflix series to explore grief, the uncomfortable way it burrows into us and lives long after the event that caused it. With grief, he’s examined depression, addiction, and the role family comes to play in it all. And he does more of the same in The Midnight Club, except he does it with a young audience at its core. More young adult horror than anything else, The Midnight Club not only talks about losing people you love but also coming to terms with your future and death. It’s a magnificent exploration of fears and hesitations, of pushing back on your family and finding a new one.
Some story elements aren’t perfect, particularly Ilonka’s descent into desperation for the sake of her friends. Or the holes left in the story around why the supernatural occurrences were happening and if they were real. But, more importantly, if The Midnight Club doesn’t get a second season, these gaps will mount to make a well-crafted story feel extremely incomplete.
But even with those gaps and some less-than-stellar wigs and costuming in the vignettes, The Midnight Club fills a necessary space of exploration for young viewers in the same way that Are You Afraid of the Dark? or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark did for me. This is a series that can open conversations, particularly around depression, self-harm, and coming out, and it does that through horror.
The Midnight Club is equally a series that shows us Flanagan like we haven’t seen before and a series that takes the very best parts of his work and distills it to a new audience. The beauty of horror as a genre is that it shows us our fears and unpacks why they hold that space in our minds. Horror can be an exploration of the things we’re too scared to talk about, a cathartic experience in a safe space that can be necessary for survival. The Midnight Club may not be as revelatory as his last work, but Flanagan captures a multitude of experiences that I’m grateful for.
The Midnight Club is streaming exclusively on Netflix now.
The Midnight Club
The Midnight Club is equally a series that shows us Flanagan like we haven’t seen before and a series that takes the very best parts of his work and distills it to a new audience…The Midnight Club may not be as revelatory as his last work, but Flanagan captures a multitude of experiences that I’m grateful for.