Mae Murray details how Midnight Mass creator and director Mike Flanagan got her experience of disability right with the creation and evolution of Leeza Scarborough.
[Content Warning: Spoilers for Midnight Mass ahead and the mention of trauma, violence and childhood sexual abuse]
There isn’t much I can say about Midnight Mass (2021) that hasn’t already been said, but because I exist in disability circles and am privy to the conversations that take place there, I really need to get something off my chest—I think series creator and director Mike Flanagan got my experience of disability right with the creation and evolution of Leeza Scarborough (Annarah Cymone), a teenaged girl who uses a wheelchair. I’ve seen a few premature reactions to her character from people in the disability community, whose only source appears to be the intentionally misleading trailer. They narrow in on the moment Father Paul withholds the Eucharist and forces Leeza to rise from her wheelchair, making a miraculous example of her before an awestruck congregation. “We don’t need to be fixed,” is a rallying cry in the disability community. Seeing Leeza rise from her chair is an affront, one that lacks the context of her arc as a whole.
“We don’t need to be fixed!”
I don’t blame anyone for being skeptical. Disability as written by non-disabled people tends to get it wrong. So many narratives center the feelings of the caregivers of a disabled person, their angst or their anxiety around the burden of caregiving. The conflict in these stories is often the disability itself and the goal of the characters to find a cure. These stories predictably lack the nuance to include the disabled person’s experience of themselves and of the world. Midnight Mass is not that story. It’s more complex than that and I think my own experience of disability is a good way to explain why.
Leeza feels robbed and she was. She was robbed of her childhood as she knew it when alcoholic Joe Collie irresponsibly misfired a gun, paralyzing her from the waist down. One moment, she was walking with her father and the next she couldn’t feel her legs. Her world was turned upside down and when we meet her character, her greatest wish isn’t that she weren’t disabled—it’s that the trauma she experienced had never happened at all. I also feel robbed most of the time.
My jaw aches from constant clenching, the left side of my face perpetually swollen. It feels like there is cotton in my ear and pressure behind my eye. It was a hot July day in Arkansas when it happened—I was eight-years-old. My older step-brother shot a bottle rocket at me, the zip and pop of it erupting at my left ear. I heard nothing at first, just felt pain like a needle, felt the rush of blood in my head and the muddled vibration of the creek that ran behind the condemned trailer we called our home. I held my fingers up to my ear and snapped. SNAP. Snap. I could barely register the sound. I will spend the rest of my life doing that, the ebb of hearing in my left ear changing constantly depending on the day, the weather, or whether or not I’ve had too much sugar or salt.
Seventeen years later, I was diagnosed with systemic Lupus Erythematosus, an inflammatory autoimmune disease that attacks every organ in the body, including the skin and joints. At the time, my rheumatologist was speaking about the possibility of remission. Now I am twenty-nine, and she more often speaks of pain management and making me comfortable in my daily life. So, I live with a sense of fatalism. I read Flannery O’Connor, one of my biggest literary inspirations, taken from the world by Lupus at the age of thirty-nine. I write, hustle and beg for opportunities ravenously like a person chasing a dream with fire at her back. I know it will catch me someday; I am acutely aware of my own mortality.
Of course, my Lupus diagnosis isn’t something that was done to me by someone else in a direct sense. As with most autoimmune diseases, it was more likely an amalgamation of biological and environmental factors. My history has been blackened by complex trauma—I have both witnessed and fallen victim to substance use, domestic and sexual violence, and poverty. I believe I was genetically predisposed to autoimmune disease, but the nature of the cards I was dealt in life triggered the inflammatory response that would become this incurable thing within me. Blame a body constantly in fight-or-flight, a body that truly keeps score.
"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."
The Serenity Prayer resides at the heart of Midnight Mass. It is referred to most often in the Alcoholics Anonymous scenes between Riley and Father Paul. It is arguably the most important piece of religious text featured in the series and its inclusion has a thematic echo that reverberates through each character’s arc, most notably Leeza’s. When we first meet her, Leeza feels isolated, and some of that is undoubtedly self-imposed. In the first episode, Warren Flynn invites her to join him and his friends out on the beach, but she politely declines. There is something unspoken but clear when she does, "I will only slow you down."
I was twenty-five when I was diagnosed with Lupus. It would be unreasonable to deny that life was different, that there isn’t a ‘before Lupus’ and ‘after Lupus.’ Before Lupus, I went hiking frequently. I enjoyed going to the beach and laying in the sun. I would go to clubs and bars, stay out late with my friends and I was up for almost anything. Now, those things are impossible. I’m exhausted and can’t get through the day without a nap. I’m photosensitive and have what amounts to a sun allergy—even a little exposure can cause a rash, severe fatigue and inflammation in my lungs, joints, brain, and heart. The pain I feel is constant and sometimes so excruciating that I can’t sleep. There are times I have to use a cane to walk. Eventually, invitations to hang out came less and less, and when they did come, they were often to do things I was no longer able to do. I would politely decline, usually with an apology. I will only slow you down.
Leeza and I live with grudges inside of us. My hearing loss was something done to me by someone very, very cruel. That same older step-brother went on to sexually abuse all of my siblings—a much deeper cut, a much more painful wound. The trauma I experienced throughout my life was likely the reason Lupus manifested in my body. Those things I witnessed and endured, most of them done to me or where I could see, creating a body in overdrive that seeks to destroy itself. If you asked me if I could change myself, if I could “fix” what has been done to me, I would tell you, “Yes.” Not because there is anything inherently wrong or bad about my disabled body, but because of how it came to be. I see in Leeza a disabled person who feels the same way. When she confronts Joe Collie in his trailer, she unleashes the anger she has been harboring silently for so long. "You stole from me."
“You stole from me. Not just who I was, but who I could’ve been. You stole from me things I didn’t even have yet. You reached through time, Joe Collie! You reached through time and you stole. All of that is true, and all that is still in here, but that’s not why I came here today. I came here today… I came here today… I forgive you.”
Eventually, the audience learns that Leeza’s “healing” is the result of ingesting vampire blood fed to the congregation as the sacrament. Over the course of the series’ seven episodes, bad backs are miraculously pain-free, elders are made young again and yes, Leeza regains her ability to walk. However, this comes with a price and the residents of Crockett Island pay it. Father Paul’s own motivations are revealed as well. He could not accept the love of his life slowly dying and sought to reverse what would otherwise be inevitable. It’s that inevitability that I dwell on—it is as haunting as it is beautiful. Our mortality, our fates, the ways in which we feel we are meant to live our lives, the reality, and what we would do to change it. What would I do? What wouldn’t I do?
Leeza’s exploration of love and forgiveness, of hatred, of her relationship to her disabled body in an ableist religious community, is one of the less talked about cruxes of the series, but to me and the disabled body I inhabit, it is the most important. In the end, salvation did not come in the healing of her disabled body, but in the embracing of it. In the final scene of the series, Leeza and Warren Flynn watch from a distance as fire consumes everything they’ve ever known—their family, friends and the island they called home. The boat they’re in gently rocks on the water. Despite the horror of what they have just experienced, their faces are serene. "I can’t feel my legs," Leeza says and then, she smiles.
Mae Murray is a contributing writer with bylines in Dread Central and Ghouls Magazine as well as the editor of the upcoming horror anthology The Book of Queer Saints (2022) which focuses on queer villains.