Mad for the mythology of 'Lost'

Fans of ABC's drama about plane crash survivors on a mysterious island watch and re-watch the show, searching for clues.


Alarm bells sounded for Brigit Wampler while watching an episode of Lost one day last spring. She noticed that Boone, a pretty young man stranded on the island with his sister, was wearing a red shirt. Of course, Wampler knew, he was going to die.

She remembered the old Star Trek cliche that any character who didn't have a last name and was wearing a red shirt would be dead by the end of the episode. Sure enough, two weeks later, Boone was checking out a plane trapped in a tree canopy when the plane fell to the ground. Boone was killed.

"I got the reference but I didn't really think they were going to kill him off," says Wampler, 46, a Western Maryland resident who says Lost is the only show for which she puts aside her knitting. "It's pretty much the only show I put all my concentration into, and not because I'm lacking in the brains department."

Lost, a sort of Gilligan's Island update with more attractive castaways and a spookier island, has become one of TV's top shows. Now in its second season, the ABC drama is drawing more than 20 million viewers per week. A fraction of them have become Lost fanatics, poring over every episode to find literary, cultural and mythological allusions that may explain the show's mystery -- what is happening on the island, how are the characters related, why did their plane crash and what does it all mean?

These hyper-fans tape every episode so they can go back to pause the action and search for clues that appear onscreen for only a split-second. The briefest glimpse of a character reading, say, Watership Down, can lead to days of speculation on Lost message boards.

"I watch Lost twice," Wampler says. "I watch it once on the edge of my seat, with my hand over my mouth, going, 'Oh my gosh!' And the second time it's a little more relaxed because I know what the story's going to be and I go, 'Oh yeah, this makes sense.' "

Picking it all apart

The Lost obsessives have formed communities on the Internet, where endless debates rage about the meaning of certain numbers and symbols that appear on the show., which Wampler moderates, has 20,000 registered members, while has 11,000 members.

The college radio station at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pa., has established a weekly two-hour Lost radio program. The show is broadcast live over the station's Web site, but the computer servers often crash because so many fans from around the world are trying to listen at once.

Lost's writers and producers seem surprised -- in a good way -- about the rabid nature of these fans. Some of the writers answer questions on the fan Web sites, though they are often hopelessly vague. Or just confused. One fan wrote in seeking confirmation of the title of a TV show being watched by a character experiencing a flashback (Sentai or Power Rangers, the fan wondered).

Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a supervising producer and writer on the show, responded, "Wow! you guys are like the talmudic scholars of Lost -- seriously, I have NO idea."

A recurring mystery of the show has to do with the numbers that keep popping up. One of the characters had once won the lottery with the numbers 4-8-15-16-23-42. Viewers note that the flight number for the doomed plane that crashed on the island was 815. Also, they note, there was a $23,000 reward out for the capture of the Kate character.

The castaways have found a hatch on their island. When they open it up, they find a man inside who says he must punch those numbers -- 4-8-15-16-23-42 -- into a computer every 108 minutes or something terrible will happen. Of course, if you add up those six numbers, you get 108.

All part of the plan

What does it mean? Or are the writers just having fun with the fans?

"We know that there's very little that occurs in Lost that was not planned by the creative staff," says Kit Cleary, a San Diego financial adviser who helps run the site. "They're not just throwing pasta up against the wall and seeing what sticks. They know what direction they're headed in. They know what the mythology of the island is, and that's key."

Cleary has some of her own ideas. She thinks the survivors are part of a social experiment gone horribly awry, since they are so dysfunctional. She's also picked up on the show's Biblical references. She notes that the first season represented 40 days on the island.

"That is not accidental," she says. "That's a magical number that represents some sort of a cleansing process where you go into yourself and then you come back and you're a different person."

Cleary has also picked up on parallels with Joseph Campbell's book The Hero's Journey, in which an individual is presented with an opportunity to go on a journey in which he dies and is reborn. "These people have died, so to speak," she says of the Lost characters, "and are reborn. This is their second chance."

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