The OA Explained: The Ceremonial Magick Theory

I finally got around to watching The OA on Netflix—and it’s now one of my favorite shows. The storyline is intriguing and riddled with metaphysical concepts, the acting is solid, and as a mystery/psychological drama it’s engrossing. The ending is ambiguous and ripe for endless speculation. I prefer to think of The OA as all “real,” because as such the show is a near-perfect example of the variety of practices in Ceremonial Magick. 

(Spoilers follow.)

The theories about The OA fall into two camps: either Prairie’s story is true or not. Either she had a near-death experience (NDE) as a child during which she became blind, then in her early 20s was conned into joining a NDE “study” where she was held a prisoner for seven years. She and the other captives were drowned repeatedly and revived as the doctor, Hap, studied their NDEs in an attempt to scientifically prove the existence of an afterlife. After learning to remember their NDEs, the prisoners use their otherworldly experiences to learn physical movements that can open a portal to another dimension. 

The other theory is that Prairie (the OA) is a mental case. She was treated for schizophrenia as a child, and though probably held as a prisoner for seven years, she made up most of her story, including the mystical elements, as a way to deal with the intense trauma. 

The OA: A Story of Ceremonial Magick

the OA movements explained

The OA’s most obvious interpretation is that the captives are learning about the Western magical tradition through their NDEs. This can be seen in the use of astral experiences, the angels, meeting guides on other planes of existence, learning to bring back information from other planes, dream interpretation, and the five-movement ritual they learn over the season. 

Often misunderstood, Ceremonial Magick isn’t about doing magick spells for love or money, but the ultimate goal is to connect with the divine. A variety of tools from various religious traditions are used for this, such as meditation, mantras, and prayers. But the practice most commonly associated with Ceremonial Magick is the use of ritual gestures and words that, when performed physically and with the right intent, will cause changes on other planes. As an example, the rituals taught by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn instruct magicians to draw Hebrew letters and geometric figures in the air while vibrating specific God-names. Once a Ceremonial Magician is further along on the path, his or her Holy Guardian Angel (HGA) will teach new methods, so a magician may end up learning rituals (movements and words) while scrying the astral plane or through dreams. A simple interpretation is that eventually you learn that the Holy Guardian Angel who’s been guiding you is actually you (like your “higher self,” though some claim the HGA is a separate being). 

The process by which the OA and others receive the movements is the same method used by magicians—except rather than NDEs, magicians use astral travel, the inducement of gnostic states, or meditation to access the hidden depths of consciousness.  

The prisoners are kept in glass cages (like a large aquarium). In many ways these mimic a monk’s cell or hermitage: The furnishings are as sparse as possible for a human to live, just a single cot; water runs through their cells, alluding to a stream a solitary monk in the woods might use; the food is as austere as possible; they have no possessions from their previous life, save a few items of clothing; and they have no contact with the outside world (even less so than monks), meaning they have the time necessary to pursue mystical experiences and magick. 

In this way, The OA reminds me of Jack London’s novel The Star Rover, in which inmates in solitary confinement learn past-life regression and to travel to other worlds to deal with the pain of a straight jacket. (See my review of The Star Rover: Jack London’s Must-Read Novel on Astral Travel.) 

Magick, like the movements in The OA, can be used for good or evil. As the captives are learning the movements, Hap is learning them too. He ultimately releases the OA, saying he doesn’t need her anymore. The implication is that since five people are needed to create the portal, Hap can perform the movements with the four remaining captives and take the journey with them. They’re so traumatized and easily led by Hap’s position of power (he even got Homer help kidnap Renata) and ability to kill them at will, that it’s believable that they’d perform the movements with him. 

Magick is the same way. It can be used to reach the ultimate Godhead, or to journey to the depths of hell. It can be used to heal or to harm. It can bring self-awakening, or it can be used to fall deeper into self-delusion (a common pitfall among New Age practitioners). 

NDEs and Astral Travel

the oa NDEs near death experience

The captives are all people who’ve experienced an NDE, a subtype of out-of-body experience or astral travel. Through Hap’s repeated drowning of his test subjects, they learn how to remember their NDEs and use them to access occult information. 

Somehow Hap is able to record the audio of their NDEs because he has the right equipment. After one of Prairie’s NDEs he plays some recordings for her in an attempt to target her location. The sound she recognizes from her NDE is of the rings of Saturn. 

The most dubious aspect in this scene that Hap was able to record their NDEs while they were dead. As far as Prairie traveling to Saturn—that’s the kind of experience ceremonial magicians achieve via astral scryings and through the use of rituals, symbols, and mantras to astral travel to specific places in the universe. Such “trips” are then verified by looking up words and symbols from the session to see if they also match up to the intended location. 

(I haven’t tried it yet, but it seems like a great idea to play a loop of NASA recordings while doing an astral projection to a specific planet.)

The Original Angel

Khatun, whom the OA first met during her NDE as a child, tells Prairie she’s the “original angel.” Later Prairie says all five of the captives are angels. When French breaks into her house, he finds a book called The Book of Angels by Audrey Ebbs stashed under her bed (the book was made up for the show). 

The emphasis on angels is another sign The OA can be interpreted as related to Magick and Western Esotericism. Ever since Christianity engulfed Europe, esotericism in the West has been filled with angels. The Book of Abramelin details a six-month-long (or more) retreat in which the magician can meet his Holy Guardian Angel. The Golden Dawn included angelic invocations in its rituals, and revised the Abramelin ritual for modern use. In his travels to other worlds, Emanuel Swedenborg conversed with angels and said all humans have the potential to become angels. Balzac used his ideas in the novel Séraphîta, which tells the story of an angel living on earth. (See my review, A Swedenborgian Novel About the Life of an Angel.) 

Since Hap’s captives are engaged in magical practices and astral journeys, all while living in an enforced meditative state (no TV, no contact with the outside world), they’re certainly following part of the formula for becoming an angel. (The missing facet is meditative prayer and belief in God.) 

Dream Interpretation

the OA near-death experiences NDEs
Prairie’s first visionary dream was of being trapped in a fish tank, which she later interprets to be the bus accident where she drowned as a child. Throughout her life she has nightmares and sleepwalks as a child. Toward the end of season one, she says she’s learning how to accurately interpret her dreams. 

Like astral travel, or apparently an NDE, one gets better at dreamwork with practice. (See my guide to Jungian dream interpretation.) 

We don’t yet know if there will be a second season of The OA. If it happens, and I know its many fans are counting on it, my hope is they take the mystical path rather than the psych ward. There’s just too much of the otherworldly occult to make an “it’s all in her head” trajectory satisfying.