Stranger Things explored: Secrets of the MKUltra Program

Warning: the feature below discusses spoilers from the Netflix series, Stranger Things. Do not proceed unless you want to be spoiled, or just bookmark and read after you watch Season 1 of the series.

Stranger Things continues to be the sleeper series of the summer as avid viewers around the globe keep indoctrinating their friends to watch, to the tune of 8.2 million viewers (per SymphonyAM) in the first 16 days since it dropped in July. Yes, it's that good.

Aside from its '80s era authenticity and stellar performances, the creative team behind the show, including the Duffer brothers and their writing team, littered the series with enough conspiracy theorist tidbits to keep the intrigued screen-capping until Netflix officially orders and produces Season 2.  The series would have worked purely as an exercise in nostalgia, pressing all of our receptive Gen X, Amblin-era buttons, but Stranger Things excels by grounding its story in the "what-ifs" of the real, secret research of the U.S. and Canada known as Project MKUltra.

Hawkins Laboratory


The ultra-secret CIA mind-control program is mentioned in "Chapter Three: Holly, Jolly" when Chief Jim Hopper starts investigating the heavily-protected Hawkins Laboratory just outside of town. Based on his own sneaky intel inside the walls, and some old school microfiche skills, Hopper determines there's something going on inside the walls of the facility that's far bigger than anyone in little Hawkins, Indiana could ever imagine. 

In reality, according to the August 1977 congressional report on Project MKUltra, there were a lot of "Hawkins Laboratories" all over North America, with the CIA commissioning "eighty-six universities or institutions” starting in 1953 to research a myriad of human experimentation to “develop a capability in the covert use of biological and chemical materials.”

The core path of these experimentations were committed on unwitting participants, including ingestion of LSD without proper consent or medical supervision. Some institutions were provided grant money that was in fact CIA funding shrouded to keep the scientists and administration in the dark about the extent and true purpose of the experiments. There were over 149 subprojects under the Project MKUltra banner, including ones that  explored “additional avenues to the control of human behavior” including “radiation . . .[and] paramilitary devices and materials.” Detailed information about any of the studies do not exist today because, in 1973, then-CIA Director Richard Helms, ordered all MKUltra documentation destroyed. What is known today only exists because some of the paperwork was archived in a separate location that wasn't part of the massive CIA purge.

Eleven works her mind-magic on a can of Coke.


Stranger Things riffs on two of the documented CIA subprojects that focus on mind control: PROJECT BLUEBIRD and PROJECT ARTICHOKE. For both, children were either taken from their parents or acquired from orphanages for experimentation focused on breaking down, and then building up, inherent abilities such as telekinesis, hypnotic or psychic suggestion for ordered assassinations, covert intel acquisitions or controllable altered states.

Terry Ives post-experimentation. 


In "Chapter Six: The Monster,"  Chief Hopper and Joyce Byers discover the possible connection between the news clipping of Terry Ives, who reported that her daughter Jane was taken by the government, and the bald girl (Eleven) sighted in Hawkins. The pair travel to the Ives residence outside of town where Becky Ives, Terry's sister, tells them about her older sister's participation in MKUltra. For pay, Terry and her unborn child were exposed to LSD experiments. Becky discounts her sister's story that Jane was taken away at birth to become a weapon for the scientists, instead asserting that Terry suffered a miscarriage. But the outcome of the series proves that Jane was taken by Dr. Brenner, who served as the little girl's handler and father-figure. Renamed Eleven per a simple arm tattoo, Jane grew up in the bowels of the MKUltra program.

Eleven is very unhappy. 


Eleven's story is similar to the real-life accounts of Carol Rutz, who in 2001 wrote  A Nation Betrayed: The Chilling True Story of Secret Cold War Experiments on Our Children and Other Innocent People about her harrowing path to, and experiences inside, Project MKUltra as one of its young victims. Rutz says she was subjected to "electroshock, drugs, hypnosis, trauma and sensory deprivation" with the intent to turn her into a Manchurian Candidate to be used against Cold War enemies that were also said to be exploring similar paths to unconventional warfare or subterfuge to acquire state secrets. Rutz says that, from the age of four, she was worked on by former Nazi scientists and other government doctors who elicited alternate personalities from her in order to control her behavior to do their bidding.

For years, Rutz says she was programmed to become a killer: "What they were trying to accomplish with me was to create someone who could kill by the power of using their mind. In other words, a psychic killer. I do not say that I ever did that. I am saying that is what they were trying to achieve." Chillingly, that too is what seems to be Brenner's ultimate goal for Eleven as well, as evidenced by the smile on his face after Eleven mentally kills the two guards who man-handle her back into her isolated cell. 

While Rutz was released from the program, she spent decades recovering from the experimentation and learning to control her multiple personalities to function in the world. After releasing her book, she was approached by many other survivors. She says, "I have heard from hundreds. So if I have heard from hundreds, there have to be thousands."

With the documentation of the specific numbers wiped out forever, the facts of the depth, breadth and outcomes of any of the subprojects of MKUltra are now the domain of conspiracy theorists and those, if any, who survived with reliable first-hand accounts. There's no doubt the experiments were performed, but success beyond normal hypnosis or extreme suggestion is where Stranger Things theorizes actual results. The series posits the idea that a rare few - perhaps as little as 11 participants - were actually discovered to have powers that were able to be harnessed like Brenner was able to do with Eleven via sensory deprivation and extreme emotional bursts of focused power.  

Dr. Brenner and her colleagues.


Because only the surface is scratched with the Brenner's subproject in Season 1, and its revealed that the alternate dimension (Or Upside Down) was a mistaken by-product breach due to Eleven's telepathic abilities, there's plenty for the Duffers to still reveal to audiences in Season 2. 

Some of our ideas regarding possible MKUltra storyline expansion could be:

Where is Eleven, and were her powers so developed that she could move herself to a safe place?

Who are Eleven's precursors?

Were there actually 10 other kids with similar, or different powers, who were controlled by Brennen, or perhaps other labs?

Are any of the 10 in the outside world doing their CIA mandated work? Was Eleven a work-in-progress, or the only one to survive the process?

Regardless of our arm-chair theorizing, Ross Duffer recently told Variety that revealing everything unanswered in Season 1 of Stranger Things is not the goal of Season 2. "What we wanted to do with the show — and this season specifically — was mostly seeing the mystery and these extraordinary things through the eyes of these ordinary characters. By the end of the show they don’t know or understand everything. That is purposeful. We do cut away to the government occasionally for these pops of mystery or horror, but what we didn’t want was to have a scene of the scientist just sitting down to explain everything."

WIth that being said, what do you want to see explored in Stranger Things Season 2, or outstanding MKUltra explorations?

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