Pop Culture Is Having a Metaphysical Moment

The OA, Westworld, Stranger Things, and other recent works toy with the idea of multiple realities—and bring the thrill of new religion.

Brit Marling in 'The OA'

Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality? That’s the prompt that opened HBO’s Westworld, but it’s also the implied question behind shows like The OA, Stranger Things, The Good Place, and Falling Water, as well as movies like Arrival and Doctor Strange. Across popular entertainment lately, science fiction, theoretical physics, and spirituality have blended to offer not escapism but wait-there’s-more-ism, offering a tantalizing hint that our perception of reality is too narrow—and that with a little bit of effort, we can see extraordinary things.

The OA is the latest and clearest example of the phenomenon, the work most likely to trigger feelings of recognition in viewers as it pulls at ideas explored elsewhere in pop culture recently. The hokey-fun Netflix series imagines a young woman—alternately known as Nina, Prairie, and The OA—returning from a seven-year disappearance during which she somehow went from blind to not-blind. What happened? Spoiler: As she tells to a group of boys and their teacher in late-night storytelling sessions, she discovered the power of near-death experiences. Other dimensions, surreal landscapes populated by angels, can be accessed—but you have to die first, at least for a moment. Yet her encounters with the afterlife, forced upon her by an evil scientist using her as a test subject, supposedly also taught her how to open portals to other worlds in life by using a series of choreographed body movements in tune with other people.

The OA’s heady eight-episode first season has rightly drawn a lot of comparisons to one of Netflix’s other breakout original series: Stranger Things. In both works, an enigmatic and strangely named girl prone to nose bleeds breaks from scientific captivity carrying information about other realities than our own. Stranger Things gives the other reality a neat name—“the Upside Down”—and says that getting there is a matter of knowing your quantum physics and activating a very powerful energy source. At one point, the aforementioned girl, Eleven, illustrates the Upside Down by turning over a Dungeons and Dragons board. The moment echoes in The OA scene where Prairie explains after-death dimensions by taking a rolling ball off a maze board—a sign of the need for metaphor when discussing the metaphysical.

Westworld, by contrast, considers the metaphysical entirely as a metaphor: It’s a show not about multiple universes but about the feeling of there being multiple universes, a feeling that arises, lo and behold, from being trapped inside a vast game. Within the show, humans have constructed their own alternate reality in the form of a western theme park populated by robots nearly indistinguishable from real people. But the show itself has the viewer identify with the robots, and the overarching story is of conscious beings probing their previous inaccessible memories to realize that they are living a programmed life. At a certain point, key characters awaken to a world that looks very different from the dusty saloon-scape they knew.

All of these shows feel in kinship with Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s recent hit movie about making contact with alien visitors. The OA posits metaphysical awakening comes by knowing certain body movements; Westworld says it comes from access to one’s own memories; Arrival offers it through Rosetta Stone lessons. Midway through the movie—this is a spoiler—Amy Adams’s linguist character comes to master aliens’ way of communication and finds that doing so has completely rewired the way she sees time. Suddenly, she can “remember” the future as well as she can remember the past. It’s not quite an alternate reality, but it’s not quite time-travel either—more than anything, it’s a fantasy of our world being not what it seems, and of its not-what-it-seemsness becoming accessible through the simple act of gaining knowledge.

There are other recent works along these themes: Dr. Strange, the Marvel movie that introduces a superhero who, through study, accesses other dimensions; Falling Water, USA’s puzzling drama about a shadow world accessible through lucid dreaming; The Good Place, NBC’s quirkily philosophical sitcom positing the afterlife as a series of specially designed neighborhoods.

All of these come with the trappings of sci-fi, featuring rulebook-like alternate logic systems explicated by scientists and architects. The OA pulls from real (though disputed) research on near-death experiences; Stranger Things was clearly informed by some physicists’ TED Talks. But these stories also leap into hallucinatory fantasy less out of Philip K. Dick than Salvador Dali: the preposterous angel worlds of The OA, the dank ruins of the Upside Down in Stranger Things, the fro-yo shops and monster shrimp of The Good Place. It’s like viewers want to be shown the unimaginable—but also be told it squares with the scientific world they already know.

It’s always a tricky thing to propose the existence of a storytelling trend when that trend is abstract and eternally relevant, but it does seem fair to say that certain sci-fi obsessions ebb and flow: In some recent years, apocalypse and/or zombies have seemed the relevant preoccupation, and in others, it’s been aliens. Zipping through dimensions or waking up to perceive a new reality are by no means new ideas—see Sliders, The Matrix, or even Alice in Wonderland. But the recent multiverse musings, taken together, start to feel like a boomlet.

Which means it’s tempting to offer theories for why now. The tenuous but seductive current-events explanation is easy enough. 2016 was a rough ride for a lot of people, and so just as certain portions of the entertainment world may have become ever-more-realistic, other portions have started to indulge the hope that this existence we’re all living in is not the only one. What’s more, thanks to this political moment, there are lots of mini-examples of simultaneous realities. Just today, The Washington Post is running two news stories telling competing versions of the same event in Congress, perhaps out of an attempt to pander to separate reader groups. It’s like the Upside Down for clickbait.

But the sturdier read may be to point to these stories’ evergreen appeal: All of the aforementioned works grapple, in one way or another, with death. The OA and Stranger Things spring from the culturally familiar trauma that occurs when a child goes missing, proposing that such a story can have an ending more fantastical than the grim one we’re used to. Falling Water touches on a similar theme with one of its main characters searching for her baby; Arrival also copes with paternal grief; Westworld zooms out to toy with the idea of reincarnation, resurrection, and immortality; The Good Place is all about death.

Perhaps, more than anything, these are all a secular take on the promise of the divine. Could not the Bible or most other religious texts be slotted into the same metaphysical storytelling tradition? The OA engages with this notion directly: Throughout, Prairie’s tales of afterlife and mystical enlightenment seem to waver in credibility; by the end of the season—mild spoiler—it’s not yet clear whether she’s really seen the other side or is just a false prophet. But the people listening to her story have faith. In a way, the people who care enough to keep watching the show need to have faith too.

They also, though, need to have a degree of skepticism, puzzling through clues to try and find the truth in a manner recognizable to TV viewers ever since Lost. The zing of The OA and other such works comes from the marriage of intellectual process and mystical escape; the appealing implication is not only that there is another place, but that we can understand what it is and how to get there. It makes sense: At a time of falling church attendance and talk of widespread spiritual crisis, fiction may be stepping in to offer some of the imaginative comfort that religion has long provided. Yet the new visions of things hoped for and not seen, as fits the era, presume to be rooted in knowledge rather than in faith.