Though Netflix and Brit Marling's uber twisty sci-fi show has seriously stumped viewers and sent Reddit into a theorizing frenzy, the inspiration for The OA is actually somewhat simple. (Emphasis on "somewhat.") Three years after its debut, the streaming giant is finally releasing the highly-anticipated second chapter of The OA on March 22. But before the saga continues, perhaps it’s time to return to where it all began and revisit the exact event The OA is based on.
As a brief refresher, the first season of The OA introduced Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling), a woman who turns up seven years after being abducted as a blind young girl, but with her eyesight restored. While connecting with her adoptive parents, Prairie (the OA, aka Original Angel) bonds with a group of teen boys, narrating the story of her disappearance while NDEs (near death experiences) and dimension travel ensues.
According to Marling, who co-created the show, the premise was actually based on a real-life encounter she had with a stranger at a party who said she’d died and come back to life. “She just seemed to be operating at a different frequency. When she told me she had a near-death experience — and described leaving her body and what she felt inside herself on the return — you understand why she felt like a person who was both apart from the world, but also more deeply in it,” she told The Associated Press in 2016. “The idea of a character like that became really appealing.” And just like that, the idea of Prairie’s story in The OA’s wild universe was conceived.
Before The OA broke off into various plot lines and complexities, it was really just based on Prairie’s experience. “The earliest seed of it was the idea that a young woman had had a very traumatic, overwhelming experience that she refuses to talk to anybody about, but she connects oddly with this group of teenage boys,” Marling told Esquire in 2016. “Her story ends up filling some sort of vacuum in their lives.” Eventually, though, Marling and her co-creator Zal Batmanglij became most intrigued by exploring the wildly complicated concept of the near death experiences.
“We were also fascinated with the idea that death is such an unknown liminal space, and that how we even define it has changed so much over time,” Marling explained to Esquire. “It used to be that you'd hold your hand over someone's mouth to see if breath was coming out, and now we have EKG machines to measure the heart and EEG for the brain, so our measurement of death shifts as science changes.” (This, she explained, inspired Jason Isaac’s twisted doctor character Hap.)
An aspect of the NDE that The OA explores, for example, is Khatun, the mystical spirit guide Prairie encounters between life and death. According to Batmanglij, Khatun wasn’t just an imagining from the show’s creators, but came from research. “We based a lot of that stuff on actual accounts of near-death experiences, because those experiences do often mirror magical realism,” Batmanglij told Esquire. “We took a lot of inspiration from Raymond Moody's 1975 book Life After Life – he's a psychiatrist who interviewed 150 people who'd had NDEs, and there were so many similarities.” The co-creator further explained that Prairie’s experience with Khatun, while boundary-defying and fantastical, is actually “taken from a doctor's perspective."
The OA’s creators even did their due diligence by researching high schoolers and bringing the group of guys in the show to life. Marling told Esquire that she and Batmanglij spent time traveling to schools in the midwest, observing kids from the back of classrooms, and interviewing students. “We were really moved by how much it feels like young people are struggling to make sense of the direction of their lives,” she explained. Aspects of teen life like bullying and social media also played a part. “There was something that felt urgent to us about the idea of Prairie as an outsider… who comes into that setting and provides a sense of ritual and community where people are coming every night.”
And while many elements of The OA are based in truth, there are, of course, countless aspects of the show that have been dreamt up by its creators. “Zal and I were always kind of secretive about protecting it, because we'd spent so long just daydreaming all the story mathematics and plotting out the riddles of the world,” Marling said in the interview. Last November, she reinforced that idea on Instagram, writing, “We aren’t an adaptation. We are drawing just from our imaginations every time we go to write a new part.”
This brainchild, comprised of research and pure imagination, leaves audiences with countless interpretations. From dimension travel to the afterlife and merely a dream, The OA theories are endless, and as the story continues, it’s really just the beginning.