The real life conspiracies that inspired Netflix's Stranger Things
Our relationship with the US government is a perplexing one, unceasingly complex and eternally problematic. The powers that be are the American people’s guidepost, a formidable force on the world stage, our pillars without which we could not stand. As citizens, our lives are often in their hands, but are they deserving of our trust? Or are they undercover agents donning disguises to fool us all?
No more potent has this idea ever been than in Netflix's Stranger Things, the hit science fiction horror television series which debuted in 2016. Spearheaded by the Duffer Brothers, the first season introduced us to the fictional 1980s town of Hawkins, Indiana where 12-year-old Will Byers has vanished into thin air. Then, as the show goes on, we discover the US government are conducting a succession of shadowy experiments in a research facility that are affecting the residents of Hawkins in a series of calamitous ways.
With its unique blend of 1980s nostalgia, small-town horror and dark enigma, the show was the hit of summer 2016. Yet, as much as we hoped that the bizarre Upside Down parallel dimension, terrifying Demogorgon monster and widespread government betrayal was a dive into a magnificent writer’s imagination, it has been alleged that the clandestine experiments taking place on the show were actually far from fiction. In fact, the Duffer Brothers were reportedly mainly inspired by two incidents that have gone down as some of the most unfathomable footnotes in US history.
Firstly there was Project MKUltra, a covert CIA programme that was developed in the early 1950s and the very experiments that Terry Ives, who fans suspect to be Eleven’s mother, allegedly took part in offscreen.
Originally the secret operation was designed to identify and develop drugs and procedures that could afterwards be used as weapons during interrogations and torture during the Cold War, amid fears that the Russians and Chinese had already developed such practices. But, officially authorised in 1953, by 1955 the CIA had expanded the project to include everything from mind control to telepathy, ESP, psychic warfare and “remote viewing”, research not a million miles away from the experiments performed on Eleven, a young girl with psychokinetic abilities who has been raised and experimented on in Hawkins National Laboratory.
As time went on, Project MKUltra became deeply troubling as it adjusted its main focus to mind control techniques and conducted dozens of extensive experiments on American citizens, often without their knowledge. Perhaps most notably were the CIA’s illicit experiments with LSD; scientists suspected that surreptitious administration of the chemicals within the drug were the "the secret that was going to unlock the universe” and help them win the war. Strongly believing LSD could make Soviet spies defect against their will, they started administering LSD to mental patients, prisoners, drug addicts and prostitutes, ”people who could not fight back," as one agency officer put it.
For many of these drug tests, there were “no medical personnel on hand to administer the drugs or observe their effects” and the experimentation quickly proved lethal as many of the randomly selected subjects were hospitalised after showing symptoms of paranoia and schizophrenia and several died, including one of the project’s researchers who was quietly drugged by the CIA in 1953 and fell out of a window to his death.
Far from compact, research was performed by the CIA at 80 institutions across America, including 44 colleges and universities, as well as hospitals, prisons, and pharmaceutical companies. Unsurprisingly, almost all records were destroyed from the 10 years of covert activity, which only came to light when a New York Times report prompted an investigation by the US Congress.
When it comes to Project MKUltra, the American government’s betrayal of its own people is without a shadow of doubt. Yet when it comes to the creators' second inspiration, the line between fiction and reality appear more blurry. Whereas Project MKUltra has gone down in the murky underwater of US history, some will recognise The Montauk Project as a far-fetched figment of the imagination, an elaborate and deluded tale that hasn’t yet made its way into credited chronicles. But, whether you believe it to be fiction or reality, it is this story that Netflix's Stranger Things owes its narrative to. A little-known fact is that the show was originally was named "Montauk" at first.
The story begins with the account of Preston Nichols, who claimed to have recovered repressed memories of involvement in a series of secret United States government projects designed to develop psychological warfare techniques, as well as time travel and teleportation.
According to Alfred Bielek’s account, he and his brother Duncan were apart of the legendary Philadelphia Experiment in 1943, where the US Navy is said to have attempted to make a destroyer undetectable to radar. Apparently, the U.S.S. Eldridge battleship was wrapped in steel wire and electromagnetically charged, leading it to disappear in a mysterious green mist with two brothers aboard. To those watching, it looked like the ship was there one minute, and gone the next.
It is then that the story becomes hard to swallow. Supposedly the fluffed test caused the ship to travel through time to the 1970s and it was here that the US military ordered Bielek and his brother to go back to 1943 and destroy the equipment on the Eldridge, preventing further experimentation from taking place. After travelling back, they completed their mission and when their parents had another child, they transported Duncan’s consciousness from 1983 into the newborn sibling; the brother is said to have had psychic powers which led him to become the focus of the Montauk Experiments, a program conducted at Camp Hero on Montauk, Long Island, which saw young children be kidnapped and subjected to take part in mind control experiments.
It was these abductees that became known as the “Montauk Boys” and, in the years since, several other Long Island men have come out claiming that they were abducted from their homes by Camp Hero scientists who wanted to "break" them psychologically so that they could implant subconscious commands. Although seemingly detached from reality, it seems possible that the Montauk boys were the inspiration for the group of young children stolen by the US government in the TV show. After all, there had to be 10 others who came before Eleven, right?
After Preston Nicolas spent years experimenting with Duncan, the government allegedly found they could travel to different times and places. According to the book, he could “concentrate on the person and be able to see as if he was seeing through their eyes, hearing through their ears, and feeling through their body. He could actually see through other people anywhere on the planet.”
However, everything went wrong when the scientists decided it was time to bring the experiment to its close. Activating a contingency program where they approached Duncan in the chair and whispered “the time is now”, they aimed to end the program, but their plans were awry when the young psychic let loose a “big, hairy, hungry and nasty” monster from his subconscious that began terrorising the army base, smashing and eating everything in sight. Sound familiar?
In order to save himself and the others, Nichols has to smash all of the equipment that powered the Montauk Chair and the beast disappeared. But of course the government couldn't just leave things like that. Afterward the incident, employees were apparently brainwashed and the lower levels of the base were filled in with cement.
So, is the story real or imaginary? As absurd as the Montauk Project sounds, it’s not for us to say. All we know is that the bizarre tale serves as a perfect inspiration for Netflix's Stranger Things; the child abduction, the mind control, the terrifying Demogorgon, the alternate parallel dimension. Practically all that’s missing is Barb, who no doubt got no justice in this warped world either.
The writers’ love letter to the Montauk Project and the Project MKUltra will most likely continue in the upcoming series where the dire consequences of the government experiments will come to light even further. What happened to Will in the Upside-Down? Will we meet the 10 other children who were taken by the government? What is Brenner and the Department of Energy actually trying to accomplish?
But, regardless of these important questions, ultimately the incidents occurring on the small screen and in reality may act to teach us an important lesson when it comes to putting our trust in the US government. That, when it comes down to it, we have to trust them - but should we?