If you’re looking for a solid, binge-worthy scary series this Halloween, you could do a lot worse than The Midnight Club, the latest Netflix horror series from Mike Flanagan (Haunting of Hill House, Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass). Based on the young adult horror novel of the same name by Christopher Pike, it mines the haunting specter of human mortality for its chills and thrills and ends up being both an entertaining horror story and a moving reflection on how we all cope differently with the harsh truth of our finite lives.
(WARNING: Major spoilers for the 1994 book below. We’ll give you another heads-up when we get to major spoilers for the TV series.)
The novel features seven terminally ill teenaged residents of the fictional Rotterdam Home hospice who are facing the prospect of their own imminent deaths. There are regular therapy sessions, but the teens find an even better way to cope with their fate. They meet at midnight every night in the library to tell scary stories. (If you’re thinking it sounds like a ripoff of Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark, think again. Flanagan and Pike are both too smart for that.) Eventually, the teens make a pact that whichever of them dies first will attempt to communicate with the others from the Beyond—just to let them know what it’s like, so they’re better prepared. Then the first member of the group does indeed die.
One might assume, given the book’s marketing push, that a series of seances or other attempts to communicate with the lost member would ensue. Instead, Pike delivers a moving exploration of how the teens learn how to deal with their own inevitable deaths. Some are in denial, some lash out in anger, and some resort to homeopathic remedies to glean a false sense of hope, but this is a hospice. People don’t come here to get better, and there are daily reminders of that fact. It shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to say that each teenager succumbs to their illness in turn. And it’s to Pike’s credit that rather than being a grim march of obituaries, the novel serves more as a celebration of how the teens figure out how to overcome their fear and live in the face of death. And the stories they tell really do prove to be the best therapy in terms of moving each teen toward acceptance and some measure of peace.
Flanagan has a true gift for adaptation, with a knack for not slavishly hewing to the source material while remaining true to its themes and characters. The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and his film adaptations of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep and Gerald’s Game are all shining testaments to his skill. (I eagerly await his forthcoming Netflix series, The Fall of the House of Usher, based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.) He’s also capable of powerful original creations, such as last year’s exquisite Midnight Mass, which dealt with similar themes of mortality and trying to cheat death. So it’s easy to see why he was drawn to adapting Pike’s novel.
Flanagan has once again made some significant changes for his Midnight Club—including adding a few characters and a supernatural element largely absent from Pike’s novel—but the basic premise and several main characters are the same. High school senior Ilonka (Iman Benson) is preparing her speech for graduation day when she’s diagnosed with terminal thyroid cancer. A series of visions draws her to the Brightcliffe Hospice Care for Teenagers—especially the story of a teenaged girl decades earlier who had mysteriously been cured of the same type of thyroid cancer. Ilonka is determined to learn what really happened in hopes of also finding a cure. Once there, she is drawn into the titular Midnight Club.
The other club members at Brightcliffe are Kevin (Igby Rigney), who has late-stage leukemia; Sandra (Annarah Cymone), a devout Christian with terminal lymphoma; the wealthy, pathological liar Cheri (Adia); Natsuki (Aya Furukawa) who suffers from both depression and terminal ovarian cancer; Spencer (Chris Sumpter), who has AIDS; and Amesh (Sauriyan Sapkota), who has glioblastoma. There’s also Anya (a breakout performance by Ruth Codd), Ilona’s bitterly sarcastic roommate with bone cancer, whose right lower leg was amputated, relegating her to a wheelchair.