What more is there to say about Stranger Things? The Duffer Brothers’ sci-fi horror series is dripping with 1980’ nostalgia, and has earned praise for its references to beloved authors like Stephen King and filmmakers like John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg. The Netflix original series was smash hit and a second season is reportedly already on the way.
But there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the show’s central plot. The Duffers actually reached beyond kitsch ’80s pop culture and drew some of the show’s most important plot elements not from other fictional works, but from real life. Major season 1 spoilers ahead.
The show’s plot revolves around a group of children and adults in a small Indiana town facing off against some unsettling supernatural phenomena set in motion by a sinister government conspiracy. Through the course of the show, we learn that government-sanctioned experiments by Hawkins Labs to turn a young girl named Eleven into a psychic weapon have gone horribly wrong, ripping a hole in the fabric of the universe and unleashing a terrifying otherworldly creature on the unsuspecting town.
While that may seem like just another tip of the hat to older fictional works like Firestarter or The X-Files, the truth is that the U.S. Government did actually run secret programs with eerily similar goals as those of the creepy Dr. Brenner at Hawkins Labs.
The first of those programs is specifically referenced in the show. In episode three, Chief Hopper tracks down a woman named Terry Ives, who attempted to sue the government over abuse she suffered at the hands of Brenner as part of something called Project MKUltra. Ive’s brain is scrambled, but we learn from her sister that Ives believed she was dosed with mind-bending drugs and unwittingly experimented on.
In reality, MKUltra was a real program that did just that. It was the name given to a broad program funded by the CIA to develop so-called “mind control” and interrogation techniques between 1953 and 1973. According to documents released to the public after the program was shut down, among the many goals of MUKUltra was the development of “substances which will enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture and coercion during interrogation and so-called “brain-washing”.
In order to achieve that goal, the CIA believed that hallucinogenic drugs, particularly LSD, might hold promise. Using front organization like universities, hospitals, and prisons, the program’s research often involved dosing unknowing “volunteers” with massive does of the drug. As you’d imagine, those experiments didn’t always turn out well. In the early days of the program a scientist and CIA employee Frank Olson was unknowingly dosed with LSD by a supervisor. He later jumped out the window of a New York hotel, plunging 10 stories to his death.
In Stranger Things, it appears Ivey’s fate after participating in MKUltra was less fatal, but just as damaging. We learn that Ivey was pregnant when she was part of the MKUltra experiments, which had the side-effect of imbuing her infant daughter, Eleven, with psychic abilities. It’s hard to say if the development of extra sensory powers was an aim of the real MKUltra program, but declassified documents from the project did include a 1961 proposal to study “extrasensory perception,” or ESP.
“Such states can be induced and controlled to some extent with hypnosis and drugs,” the document chillingly states. “Any positive results along these line would have obvious utility to the agency.”
Whether those experiments were ever carried out are unknown. Most of the documents related to MKUltra were destroyed in 1973. Two years later, the program was all but shutdown after investigation by a special committee and U.S. Congress exposed the CIA’s illegal and inhumane program to the public.
(Quick sidebar: It’s worth noting here that the recent film American Ultra, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart, is also about Project MKUltra. You can stream it on Amazon Prime.)
It wouldn’t be long before the U.S. Government was once again dabbling in the supernatural. Just four years later in 1978, the American Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) would begin a 20-year, $20 million program with goals that are all too familiar to Stranger Things fans.
In the show, Brenner and company trained Eleven to use her powers to physically locate, and eventually kill, individuals. Using a sensory deprivation tank full of saltwater, Eleven projects her consciousness into a black void to search for her target.
The goals of the DIA’s Project Stargate were nearly similar. A joint venture between the DIA and private contracts, the Stargate was created to explore the development and use of psychic abilities against America’s’ enemies, particularly the Soviet Union, who at that time was rumored to be training its own psychic spies.
The program was particularly focused on the use of remote viewing, or the ability of a person to use their psychic abilities to reach out and “see” places, people, events, and objects in places they’ve never physically been or seen before. It’s easy to see why such an ability would be attractive to military. Imagine a spy who could located, infiltrate, and retrieve classified information from an enemy’s most secret facilities half a world away, all without leaving the United States.
The government was serious about its research, bringing in scientists, paranormal researchers, and even a self-proclaimed psychic named Ingo Swann. Swann trained promising participants in remote viewing, and wrote a lengthy field manual for the military on how to use the technique. The manual describes different levels of remote viewing: The lowest being the ability to sense things as vague as colors, smells, and simple geographic features, and the highest being the ability of the psychic spy being able to “see” fully three dimensional areas of facilities, and move about them freely to snoop.
The use of Eleven’s powers needed the help of a cool-looking sensory deprivation tank and space-age helmet that looks like something straight out of James Cameron’s The Abyss, but for the 20-some remote viewers used in Project Stargate, the process was far more simple. Swann’s manual states that the ideal environment for remote as a “featureless” room furnished with a table and two chairs to cut down on any distractions. The manual ditches the space age helmet, opting to equip the remote viewers with pens and paper as their only tools.
While watching a remote viewing session during Project Stargate was about as entertaining as watching paint dry, the program apparently yielded some promising results. According to a government audit conducted shortly before the program was shut down, those “successes” included one remote viewer who accurately identified code words, personnel and other details at a secret underground site in West Virginia. Later, the same viewer was able to describe and draw a large crane located at a secret Soviet construction site in Semipalatinsk, USSR. In both cases the information was verified and classified by the project’s management as “highly accurate”.
In a 1995 interview on ABC’s NightLine, a former technical advisor to the project, “Norm” claimed that remote viewers also tried to locate human beings.
“We did use it to try locate people that we didn’t know where they were or were worried about,” he said. “And on a couple of occasions it was reasonably successful.”
Sadly, the Project Stargate was ramped down in the late 1980’s. Its oversight was transferred to the CIA before it was shut down for good in 1995. According to the audit, while some of the results produced by Stargate had potential, only about 20 percent of the information supplied by a viewer during any one session was accurate.
“Unfortunately, at the time the remote viewer is generating the information, we have no way of deciding which portion is likely to be the accurate one,” the audit states. “So, even if remote viewing is a real ability possessed by some individuals, its usefulness for intelligence gathering is questionable.”
In the end, it looks like the government actually did dabble in some of the “strangest” plot elements of Stranger Things. But unlike Dr. Brenner and his cohorts, they eventually gave up on exploring the possibility of enhancing the supernatural and psychic abilities of an individual, and creating a superpowered psionic like Eleven. At least for now. At the end of his interview, “Norm” hints that it may simply be a matter of time before the power that be once again look to harnesses unexplained phenomena for their own ends.
“I don’t think we’re yet ready. There too much data that tell us something is there,” he said. “You can’t dismiss that.”