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Prairie's near death experience in The OA

What Netflix’s ‘The OA’ Gets Right About Near-Death Experiences

Netflix has been producing some fantastic television series in recent years that revolve around themes that we love here on the Grail – from the occult-tinged time-traveling series Dark through to the Spielbergian Stranger Things.

Another series that flew under the radar a little (perhaps lost in the hype around Stranger Things, which debuted just a few months before it in 2016, and also as a result of its slower pace and more thoughtful plotline) is The OA. To avoid spoilers (c’mon, you haven’t watched it yet?), I won’t give too much background – but suffice to say, it heavily revolves around the subject of near-death experiences (NDEs).

And, refreshingly, it appears the show’s creators – including Brit Marling, who is both the star and co-creator/co-writer – did their research, because they don’t just use NDEs in a superficial way. The story touches on a number of lesser-known aspects of near-death experiences, and present them in an intelligent way that are crucial to the unfolding storyline.

This isn’t overly surprising, given that Brit Marling has said that, while creating the story, she and co-writer Zal Batmanglij read a lot about near-death experiences – from Raymond Moody’s seminal 1970s book Life After Life through to the more recent research of Dr Sam Parnia.

So when near-death experiences are presented we see references to tunnels, seeing loved ones in another realm, being offered a decision whether to stay in the ‘afterlife’ or return to life, and other aspects that researchers have identified as common elements.

According to Marling, the NDE appealed to their story-telling due to the way it is an amazing account that can only be taken on trust by others who did not undergo the experience:

I think what we took from all those stories that we’d read about in like Raymond Moody’s book “Life After Life” or Sam Parnia’s research was the idea that it was this realm of science in which it’s all largely actually based on storytelling and just first person accounts of what they experienced. It’s very hard to actually measure anything outside of the fact that somebody flat lines and then suddenly returns.

And I think it was the details of convergence like everybody talks about a light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone talks about leaving the body and having this birds eye point of view and the feeling of, sort of, pain and shame and everything falling away and a kind of transcendent state of bliss and then maybe facing the choice of whether or not to return to the body.

And so it felt like we could take these maybe Hallmark moments of this experience and then feel free to, sort of in true science fiction fashion, use them as a spring board into our own storytelling.

But the creators of The OA went above and beyond with their treatment of NDEs – they also reference lesser effects of the experience. For example, multiple characters (including Marling’s character, Prairie) return from their NDE inspired to make music . This has in fact been documented in real-life reports. Take the case of Anthony Cicoria, who was struck by lightning while using a pay-phone, and suffered cardiac arrest and an accompanying NDE in which he left his body.

After ‘returning’, Cicoria – an orthopaedic surgeon – was seized by a need to make music. As Oliver Sacks described it:

Life had returned to normal, seemingly, when “suddenly, over two or three days, there was this insatiable desire to listen to piano music.” This was completely out of keeping with anything in his past. He had had a few piano lessons as a boy, he said, “but no real interest.” He did not have a piano in his house. What music he did listen to tended to be rock and roll.

…”At this point, one of our babysitters asked if she could store her piano in our house – so now, just when I craved one, a piano arrived, a nice little upright.”

…And then, on the heels of this sudden desire for piano music, Cicoria started to hear music in his head. “The first time, it was in a dream,” he said. “I was in a tux, onstage; I was playing something I had written. I woke up, startled, and the music was still in my head. I jumped out of bed, started trying to write down as much of it as I could remember. But I hardly knew how to notate what I heard.”… But whenever he sat down at the piano…his own music “would come and take me over. It had a very powerful presence.”

“It’s like a frequency, a radio band. If I open myself up, it comes. I want to say, ‘It comes from Heaven,’ as Mozart said.”

Another ‘skill’ that NDErs sometimes return to life with – which often isn’t mentioned in mainstream media reports on the near-death experience – is psi ability. Just as Prairie appears to have the ability to sense the future (precognition, or presentiment), so too have real-life NDErs reported that after returning to life, they began having various psi experiences – from seeing the future, to telepathy and other psychic talents.

A number of researchers have written about this aspect of NDEs, including one of the most respected scientists in the field, Bruce Greyson. In his paper “Increase in Psychic Phenomena Following Near-Death Experiences (PDF), he notes that questionnaires filled out by experiencers have shown that they report more ‘psi’-type experiences than non-NDErs. According to Greyson, this may be interpreted…

…as evidence that NDEs somehow produce an increase in psychic experiences, presumably by facilitating communication with an individual’s latent sensitivities or with some alternative reality. Another interpretation compatible with these data is that the NDE may merely increase an individual’s awareness of, or ability to recognize, those paranormal abilities he or she always had.

And, on a personal note, I was certainly intrigued by moments in the final episode (no spoilers) in which there were sounds that have been associated with near-death experiences (whooshing, rushing water) – see my essay “Her Sweet Murmur: Exploring the Aural Phenomenology of Paranormal Experiences” for more details – suggesting that the creators really did dig into the NDE research literature.

Overall, I was really impressed by how The OA used near-death experiences as part of the story-telling, and the genuine nature in which they presented the actual phenomenon. Really looking forward to the second series (which is reportedly not far off) to see where they take things!

(For more detail on the fascinating scientific research into near-death experiences, be sure to read Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife.)

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