The 13th Floor

Project MKUltra: The Horrifying True Experiments That Inspired STRANGER THINGS

STRANGER THINGS obviously draws more than a little inspiration from our favorite films of the 1980s — classics like ET, THE GOONIES, and POLTERGEIST are major influences that the show wears proudly on its proverbial sleeve. But did you know that show creators Matt and Ross Duffer also drew inspiration from the real world?

A show primarily centered on a child-eating monster that lives in an alternate universe dubbed The Upside Down, it may not seem like STRANGER THINGS has any basis in reality, but it’s the storyline involving gifted young girl Eleven that has a horrifying connection to the world of non-fiction.

Played by an exceptional Millie Bobby Brown, Eleven is a little girl with psychokinetic abilities who escapes from a sinister laboratory at the start of the series, and we eventually learn that she was used by the top secret agency to open up a portal between the physical world and The Upside Down – allowing the monster to cross over into our world and snatch both Will Byers and Barbara Holland.

As mentioned in the show, Eleven was an unwilling participant in Project MKUltra, taken from her mother at birth and trained to do the bidding of the evil Dr. Martin Brenner. Fiction? Well, not exactly. Because believe it or not, Project MKUltra was a very real program carried out by the CIA.

An offshoot of a program that involved the participation of Nazi scientists, Project MKUltra was launched by the CIA in 1953, and the main idea was to test out mind-control techniques as a way of obtaining top secret information from enemy captives – as well as to potentially create “robot agents” who would do anything they were asked to do. Like the fictional Eleven in STRANGER THINGS, the test subjects were mostly nonconsensual citizens who were subjected to all sorts of experimental torture techniques, up to and including extended sensory deprivation, hypnosis, and sexual abuse. Various mind-altering drugs were also administered to the human guinea pigs, intent on inflicting temporary brain damage, physical disablement, and even decreased/increased aging.

Because most of the classified MKUltra files were destroyed by the CIA in 1973, two years before the diabolical program was even made known to the public, many specific details about the experiments remain unclear. But by all accounts, the research was incredibly widespread, conducted at nearly 100 different institutions across the United States and Canada. Test subjects included prisoners, prostitutes, mental patients, and even CIA operatives, and in the majority of experiments, the participants were not even made aware of the fact that they were part of the program. Various reports note that CIA agents were slipped copious amounts of LSD in their morning coffee, for example, leading them to ramble incoherently about monsters. One CIA employee even leapt to his death out of a 13th story hotel window as a result of being covertly slipped LSD, and it’s likely he wasn’t the only casualty.

Many believe that the man, Dr. Frank Olson, was actually murdered by the CIA, who feared that he was going to divulge the sinister secrets of Project MKUltra.

Documents obtained from the Canadian branch of MKUltra make note of test subjects being so altered as a result of forced comas and extended LSD use that they completely lost sight of who they even were, often mistaking their captors for their own parents. You may remember, in STRANGER THINGS, that Eleven referred to Dr. Brenner as “papa,” which is very much in line with the actual behavior of the real-life victims of MKUltra. Similarly, we learn in the series that her mother’s brain was completely wiped clean, which you’ll also find evidence of in the declassified files that weren’t destroyed.

After MKUltra was officially shut down in 1973, program head Dr. Sidney Gottlieb admitted that the two decades worth of experiments, likely far exceeding a cost of $10 million, were completely useless. Over 40 years later, there’s no doubt that MKUltra is no longer in existence, but it is the belief of many that the CIA continues to conduct bizarre and unsanctioned experiments on unwilling citizens across the country. We know they did in the past, so is it so hard to believe that they never stopped…?

A true horror story, if there ever was one.