(Note: this article consists of details taken directly from the television series whether they be explicitly stated or clarified in context; from canonical ancillary materials; and from statements provided by the show’s writers and creators. Any instances of ambiguity, implication, or speculation are specifically noted).
The Island, Jacob, & the Man in Black
The island is the source of an anomalous form of electromagnetic energy, which by certain definitions defies understood science and could be considered magic. This energy distorts time and space, possesses advanced healing properties, and acts as a gateway to whatever spiritual forces exist beyond our world: light and dark, creation and destruction, Heaven and Hell. The intersection between life and death.
The wellspring of this magic is a magnificent bright light emanating from the island’s volcano. The light must be cooled by water, stabilizing the energy and keeping the darkness at bay. The island’s lush jungles house those who’ve died but have not yet moved into the afterlife; they can sometimes be heard as a chorus of whispers.
The island itself seems to have its own lifelike presence, and possibly in some sense a will of its own.
As the island exists in a wormhole, its power connects to other places around the globe, the main exit point located in the Tunisian desert. Throughout human history, the island has hosted various civilizations, now dotting the hills and forests with the scattered artifacts of their societies.
The electromagnetic anomaly can sometimes gift people born on the island with varying paranormal or supernatural powers. Those in the outside world already born with these abilities might find them amplified once coming to the island. But the individual who wields the largest control over this otherworldly energy is the island’s guardian, a position intentionally passed down from one person to another. The protector more or less possesses the power of a living god, granted with borderline immortality until their death, be it by choice or by force.
For the last two thousand years, the guardian has been a man named Jacob. Yet, Jacob is not the only person on the island with godlike powers. Jacob’s twin brother has also been vested with metaphysical importance, but the opposite of his sibling, instead representing death, decay, and darkness. Known only as the Man in Black, Jacob’s twin was directly exposed to the source of the electromagnetic energy, killing his physical body and transforming his essence into a particle cloud of volcanic black smoke.
While bordering on the status of a deity, the Man in Black must abide by limitations imposed by Jacob. He cannot leave the island, travel across large bodies of water in his smoke form, or pass through barriers made of magically potent ash. Nor can he directly harm anyone who Jacob has marked as a potential successor.
Jacob and his twin were born on the island after their birthmother was marooned there. But the woman who actually raised them was the island’s previous guardian, also hinted (but not confirmed) to have been something akin to what the Man in Black eventually became. In other words, just like the island itself, Mother may have embodied the convergence of light and dark. Unlike his brother, the Man in Black always possessed paranormal abilities and a preternatural connection to the electromagnetic energy, demonstrating the potential to communicate with the dead.
As the black smoke he is able to change his density, sometimes appearing as a large column of smoke and other times splitting into numerous smaller slivers. He can take physical form, but only of those who have already died, typically manifesting as his former self but sometimes using the visages of other deceased individuals in order to manipulate and deceive. When possible, he will hide the corpses of those whose appearance he’s adopted. (It’s suggested he might bend the rules occasionally, taking the form of individuals who are still alive). He also possesses telepathy — scanning the minds of people and collecting their memories, communicating through visions and dreams. And while he is unable to physically leave the island, he can however project a ghostly version of himself to the outside world.
Since the protector of the island can institute certain unbreakable laws, Mother established a mandate that the two brothers could not directly cause each other significant harm, Jacob and the Man in Black forced to follow these restrictions as they came into conflict as adults.
Though a large portion of his personality remained after his transformation, the Man in Black appears to have been tainted by the darkness against which the island serves as a barrier. He insists the island is simply a rock with a magnetic abnormality, but his obsessive desire to destroy it implies that he acts as an unknowing emissary of this force of cosmic anti-creation.
For two millennia, Jacob and his brother have been engaged in an existential argument. Jacob believes humans are basically good and can be redeemed no matter their past transgressions, whereas the Man in Black believes it takes little to expose their inherent animalistic brutality.
Jacob brings people to the island as an experiment to prove humanity’s value; meanwhile, the Man in Black uses his powers to corrupt them and turn them against each other until they annihilate themselves, acting as judge and executioner for those he deems unworthy. His corruption is considered an infection or sickness, as some people will fall under his sway to the point where they grow insane or homicidal. When unbalanced, the island’s energy can create a similar effect to the Man in Black’s contamination, causing confusion and madness and even death.
Jacob’s lifelong predilection for Egyptian iconography is reflected in the ruins found on the island, as over millennia his followers built statues, temples, and tunnels adorned with hieroglyphics. (Jacob himself chose to reside in a giant stone effigy of Taweret, goddess of fertility, making his home in the statue’s base). The Man in Black’s presence can be felt as well, as he dwelled primarily in a designated underground chamber where he could be summoned by those seeking to be judged.
While still alive, the Man in Black used his connection to the island to determine how to manipulate its power: channeling the water and light at the island’s heart by turning a wheel built next to an electromagnetic pocket, a project he never completed before his death. Some of Jacob’s people would one day finish this work by constructing different ways to harness the electromagnetism for their own purposes. One of these endeavors included completing the Man in Black’s wheel. Turning the wheel shifted the island’s location, but not without dangerous spacetime side effects. Additionally, certain methods to tap the island’s energy dimmed the light of the source, damaging the island and increasing the Man in Black’s influence.
The Others, the DHARMA Initiative, and Charles Widmore
The island’s most recent natives are a group sometimes referred to as the Others. Their origins dating back to the mid-1800s, the Others protect the island from the Man in Black as well as outsiders who arrive on the island and might seek to take its powers for themselves. Not entirely above manipulative tactics but still allowing for free will, Jacob brings additional groups to the island to see if they can coexist, again to prove his brother wrong. Jacob refrains from directly interacting with the Others, instead assigning a day-to-day leader who follows his cryptic instructions.
In the 1950s, the United States armed forces happened upon the island, establishing an outpost for nuclear testing. While the soldiers were wiped out by the Others, this discovery nevertheless caught the attention of Alvar Hanso, a Danish industrialist-turned-philanthropist with military connections. Alvar had been made aware of the island’s existence through his ancestor Magnus Hanso, the captain of a vessel called the Black Rock which had been shipwrecked there in 1867. (The lone survivor of this doomed voyage would go on to become the first member of the Others, selected by Jacob).
The journal of the ship’s first mate described strange occurrences upon the vessel’s approach to the island. This diary somehow made its way back into the hands of the Hanso family. Using his significant United Nations access to cutting edge scientists, Alvar Hanso employed researchers who tapped into one of the electromagnetic hotspots connected to the island, allowing Hanso to locate the island’s frequently shifting coordinates and track its movement.
Hanso had become deeply concerned for the fate of the human race after seeing a top secret report about the mathematical probability of human extinction. Called the Valenzetti Equation, the formula calculated a precise date for the end of humanity, be it through nuclear war, famine, a pandemic, global warming, overpopulation, or some amalgamation thereof. The equation utilized the core factors of 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42. However, these numbers went far beyond a mathematical calculation: various combinations of the numbers could be seen in events connected to the island, acting almost as a fingerprint.
Hoping to utilize the island’s mystical energy as a way to create world peace through scientific advancement, Hanso funded the DHARMA Initiative, a project meant to study the island and its many properties. Overseen by two utopian social scientists at the University of Michigan, the endeavor’s name stood for Department of Heuristics And Research on Material Applications. During the 1970s, DHARMA established various stations all over the island, as well as a small-town community for employees and their families. A sonic fence generated by pylons surrounded the DHARMA barracks, fending off the black smoke (which DHARMA had nicknamed Cerberus).
The Initiative investigated many fields of research, focusing most significantly on time/space displacement and electromagnetism, but also pharmacology, mind control, parapsychology, and the bioengineering of animals such as polar bears, birds, and sharks.
A handful of the polar bears would be trained to turn the ancient wheel, located in a frozen subterranean alcove. It’s not entirely clear if the chamber was refrigerated by DHARMA to protect against the extreme heat of the electromagnetic energy source, or if the freezing temperature is an environmental byproduct of the wheel’s function to control the water and light.
In addition, DHARMA eventually engaged in experiments involving chemical and possibly biological warfare, with the implication that they developed implants which either release poison or cause the individual to become susceptible to the island’s negative properties. DHARMA also required its workers to be injected with a serum, the purpose of which is uncertain. It may have served as protection against the Man in Black’s malevolent influence and the potentially harmful effects of the electromagnetism, or otherwise acted as another form of psychological manipulation. DHARMA created a version of this vaccine for prenatal use, the specific purpose of which is again unknown.
The project’s presence proved immensely unsettling to the Others, who pushed back against these unwelcome guests, the DHARMA workers referring to them as “the Hostiles.” The groups often came into conflict, sometimes resulting in bloodshed. They each increased their security measures substantially, reaching uneasy truces at best. The Others feared that DHARMA’s experiments might do significant harm to the island.
Their concerns proved justified.
In 1977, DHARMA attempted to construct a station for studying the island’s unique electromagnetism, drilling into one of the energy pockets and causing a catastrophic release which almost destroyed the island (and by extension all of existence). This disaster was temporarily averted by detonating the core of a leftover nuclear weapon at the accident point, as atomic radiation can cause a spacetime distortion akin to the island’s electromagnetic properties, and the two forces neutralized each other enough to prevent total devastation.
The intended lab was eventually completed, but further incidents with the now-unstable electromagnetism resulted in that area of the station being permanently sealed off with concrete.
By 1980, DHARMA had begun using round-the-clock containment measures in order to keep the energy from spilling over into cataclysmic levels, an operation that lasted for decades. The destabilized electromagnetism caused dangerously high concentrations throughout the island and its vicinity. One side effect of this imbalance is that it resulted in women being unable to carry pregnancies to term if the child was conceived on the island. Mother and child would invariably die, as the island’s warped healing properties turned against the pregnancy. This put the continued existence of the Others in doubt, since they could no longer reproduce. (It also most likely contributed to the Initiative’s development of prenatal drugs).
As the years wore on, DHARMA decreased in relevance . . . goals mostly unmet, their focus shifted to fighting with the Others. But even that waned, and they let their guard down. Seizing the opportunity, the Others infiltrated the chemical weapons station built by DHARMA. They gassed the island, killing most of the Initiative’s members, and then shooting whoever remained.
They did allow the DHARMA workers’ younger children to live, so the Others could adopt them into their society and keep their own civilization going. The Others commandeered DHARMA’s homes, facilities, and resources, and continued ordering food and supply drops from the project’s mostly forgotten warehouse operations.
In the late 80s, a team of French researchers were stranded on the island after a storm. While attempting to explore the terrain, they found themselves in the black smoke’s territory, a place polluted by the Man in Black’s sinister presence. After an attack by him, one by one the team members came under his spell and grew increasingly deranged and violent.
The sole living member of the expedition was pregnant at the time of the shipwreck, and gave birth to her daughter on the island. Her child was later kidnapped by the Others. Shortly after giving birth, she hiked to DHARMA’s radio tower, where she left an SOS message. This broadcast partly overrode radio communication with the outside world. (An underwater DHARMA station also controlled radio contact, but due to its location was difficult to frequently access).
At this time, the leader of the Others was a man named Charles Widmore. Known for his ruthlessness, he had ordered the mass execution of the Initiative. The Others grew weary of his cruelty, as well as his penchant for breaking their rules by repeatedly visiting the outside world. He was finally banished from the island.
Widmore came from a wealthy family, and he returned to the world with a significant fortune awaiting him. Using his vast financial resources, he steered the Widmore Corporation, a powerful company with interests in many different industries. But his business ventures were a smokescreen, hiding the fact that he was investing significant money into finding the island again, to both destroy his former compatriots and retake the island for himself. Widmore assembled a massive network of companies, scientists, assassins, and even a handful of people who had previously experienced the island’s power.
In addition to counteracting the Man in Black, the Others’ new focus became protecting the island from their erstwhile leader. They established their own web of spies and operatives to subvert Widmore, the two factions engaged in a hidden war which spanned the globe.
On September 22, 2004, Oceanic Air flight 815 crashlanded on the island while en route from Sydney to Los Angeles. The survivors had been picked by Jacob — who’d watched them from afar, and even personally interacted with a handful of them at some point in their lives to leave his mark — in the hope that one of his chosen might emerge as his successor and build on what he’d achieved, while also learning from his mistakes.
With Jacob unable to kill his brother himself, the survivors are part of his longform plan to destroy the Man in Black, who aims to escape from the island and see it annihilated. Additionally, Jacob assembles a group of people in the outside world to come to the island when signaled, including a reformed Charles Widmore.
Widmore had gone so far as to plant fake wreckage off the coast of Bali in order to end the search for flight 815. After his people detected an electromagnetic energy surge, Widmore located the island, sending mercenaries who caused an immense amount of carnage. He’s later convinced by Jacob to see the error of his ways . . . or so he claims, but at the very least his aim to stop the Man in Black appears to be genuine.
Yet the Man in Black has his own long con, quietly manipulating several key individuals for decades as pawns in an endgame to murder Jacob. (Much of his behavior indicates that he was also hoping to thwart Widmore’s return to the island, though given his propensity for trickery this may have been duplicitous on his part). The Man in Black succeeds when Jacob is ultimately stabbed to death; Charles Widmore too dies as a result of his machinations. But Jacob had anticipated these moves and saw fit to establish countermeasures.
Jacob’s strategy results in the island’s energy source briefly extinguished, which renders the Man in Black flesh and blood, allowing him to be killed. The shutdown also causes the activation of the island’s volcano, as the forces of the apocalypse begin to well up, ready to be unleashed upon the world.
Disaster is averted when the water and light at the island’s heart are restarted. This begins to heal the damage the island had incurred from countless years of people trying to harness its powers.
Long after these events, when those chosen by Jacob have all lived out their lives and passed away, they find themselves in a purgatorial realm designed to resemble a reality where the plane never crashed. As they each slowly come to remember their previous lives, they reunite to help each other move on into the island’s light, to experience whatever comes next.