Disclaimer: The following article contains heavy spoilers for Seasons 1 to 4 of Stranger Things on Netflix and the views expressed below are based on the writer’s personal opinions. Read at your own discretion.
After nearly a three-year hiatus, Stranger Things turned our worlds upside down by gracing our screens once again with a brand new season; introducing us to lovable (Eddie and Chrissy, wink wink) and annoying (I’m talking about you, Jason and Angela) new characters, keeping us on our toes about the intentions of the new villain (Vecna is the best villain in the show, argue with the wall!), getting us to play “Running Up That Hill” and “Master of Puppets” on repeat for a month, and of course, putting us through a rollercoaster of emotions with the countless tragic deaths- and almost deaths. Living up to its name, the show has explored many strange things in its tenure. From a child with psychic powers to a creepy tentacle monster, the show couldn’t stray further from reality. Right?
Wrong! Although blood-curdling monsters like the Demogorgon and Vecna (hopefully) do not exist in the real world, the creators of Stranger Things – brothers Matt and Ross Duffer – admitted that parts of the show were inspired by true events. In fact, the premise of the show was based on a real-life top secret CIA experiment called Project MKUltra whereas Eddie’s arc in Season 4 of Stranger Things was inspired by the true crime story of the wrongfully convicted West Memphis Three. But, just how similar are the fictional renditions to the true events that transpired?
Hawkins was a small – and seemingly inconspicuous – town nestled in the heart of Indiana. From a distance, Hawkins looked like your average small town with its close-knit residents and practically non-existent criminal activity. However, upon closer look, one would notice the ominous building that lurked in the shadows of the trees with only a single abandoned road leading up to it, the Hawkins National Laboratory. Unbeknownst to the residents of Hawkins, this lab was the breeding ground for a CIA-sanctioned research program spearheaded by Dr. Martin Brenner called Project MKUltra. The project involved conducting experiments on human subjects to develop mind control techniques that could be used as weapons against enemies in the Cold War.
Enter Terry Ives – a pregnant college student who was the perfect guinea pig for the experiment. She was given an astronomical amount of psychedelic drugs, namely LSD which resulted in her daughter being born with supernatural abilities such as telekinesis and portal manipulation. Stripped from her mother and rebranded as Eleven (“011”), she was trapped in the lab and exploited by Dr. Brenner for more than a decade alongside several other children. It was only when she encountered a monster (deemed the Demogorgon by the friends she would later make) and accidentally thrust the lab into chaos by opening an interdimensional portal to the Upside Down, that she managed to make her escape.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, the Duffer brothers said that they wanted “the supernatural element to be grounded in science in some way”. Hence, Eleven’s origins on Stranger Things were partially inspired by the “bizarre experiments they had read about taking place in the Cold War”. Similar to the fictional version, the real-life Project MKUltra was conducted by the CIA and aimed to develop techniques that could be used against the Soviet Union. It was primarily triggered by the U.S. government’s fear that U.S. prisoners of war were being brainwashed by Communists into confessing to crimes the U.S. explicitly denied. The Director of the CIA at that time, Allen Dulles referred to them as “Soviet brain perversion techniques”, asserting that the battlefield had transcended the likes of guns and bombs and that it was now a “battle for men’s minds”.
The real-life Dr.Brenner was none other than Sidney Gottlieb, who is hailed as the godfather of the entire U.S. LSD counterculture. The evil mastermind can be credited for buying the world’s entire supply of LSD in the early 1950s and distributing it to hospitals, clinics, and prisons, asking them to carry out research projects to discover how the drug could be used as a mind control weapon. According to Stephen Kinzer – a journalist who devoted a huge chunk of his life to bringing the injustices committed by the CIA to light – seizing control of people’s minds was a two-step process. First, “you had to blast away the existing mind”, which Gottlieb managed to accomplish much to the dismay of the unwitting test subjects. However, it was part two of the process that Gottlieb couldn’t crack, where he had to ‘find a way to insert a new mind into the resulting void”.
The CIA even utilised electroshock therapy, hypnosis, polygraphs, and radiation on more than 150 human test subjects. While some people volunteered to undergo the insane experiments, some were only there because the CIA had backed them into a corner. The CIA tended to prey on vulnerable members of society such as mentally-ill public school students, war veterans, and “sexual psychopaths” from state hospitals. However, the CIA was partial to prisoners as they were more likely to consent to the experiments in exchange for additional recreation time and a reduced sentence.
One of the unlucky test subjects was former crime boss turned prisoner Whitey Bulger, who was hoodwinked into volunteering for Project MKUltra under the guise of finding a cure for schizophrenia. “The room would change shape. Hours of paranoia and feeling violent. We experienced horrible periods of living nightmares and even blood coming out of the walls. Guys turning to skeletons in front of me. I saw a camera change into the head of a dog. I felt like I was going insane.” he wrote. Bulger who was convicted in 2013 for perpetrating eleven murders, extortion, racketeering, and drug trafficking believed that it was his participation in Project MKUltra that drove him to violence. As he had never committed murder prior to the LSD, even his juror concurred that Bulger’s altered brain chemistry could have led him on the path of violence.
“I was in prison for committing a crime, but they committed a greater crime on me.”Whitey Bulger
But, it didn’t stop there. In their quest to achieve the impossible, the CIA resorted to increasingly unorthodox approaches such as Operation Midnight Climax. When the moon graced the sky, prostitutes enlisted by the CIA would lure men high on LSD into a “safe house”. Little did they know that the house was anything but “safe” – it was a trap! A two-way mirror and bugging equipment had been covertly installed in the house so that the CIA could watch the lewd acts from afar. Although the CIA initially planned to use the “safe house” to observe the effects of LSD on men engaging in sexual behavior, it eventually morphed into a means for several officials to fulfill their voyeuristic fantasies.
Ultimately, the CIA’s dreams of mind control proved to be unachievable and Project MKUltra met its demise in 1963. Although Gottlieb destroyed most of the evidence regarding the sinister experiments, enough evidence had survived to piece together this tragic piece of history.
Outcasts and Satanic Panic
Dungeons and Dragons is an integral part of Stranger Things – it is the rope that binds Dustin, Mike, Lucas, and Will together in friendship. In fact, Dungeons and Dragons lore is so closely interwoven with the plot of the show that the characters name monsters after Dungeons and Dragons villains such as the Demogorgon, Mind Flayer, and Vecna! Therefore, as huge fans of the role-playing game, three of the four friends join the Hellfire Club at Hawkins High School headed by Eddie Munson. Eddie – a social pariah and drug dealer with a love for heavy metal – may have seemed like a freak on the outside but fans of the series managed to look past his pitfalls and see the good in him.
Yet, the same couldn’t be said for most of Hawkin’s residents. When high school cheerleader Chrissy was found dead in Eddie’s trailer, the whole town turned against him. In reality, Eddie had only been trying to help Chrissy with her troubles when Vecna claimed her soul. Traumatised, Eddie fled the scene and went into hiding while the police searched high and low for him. Meanwhile, Chrissy’s boyfriend Jason, filled with rage, enlisted the entire town to join him on a manhunt to take Eddie down. Although there was no substantive evidence pointing to Eddie as the murderer, Jason was influenced by media propaganda revolving around Dungeons and Dragons and believed that the Hellfire Club was a satanic cult led by Eddie. Swayed by Jason’s convincing speech, the entire town believed that Eddie was indeed a villain despite the fact that he died trying to save Hawkins.
“ That’s bullsh*t! The Hellfire Club isn’t a cult, it’s a club for nerds!” Erica to Jason
The Duffer brothers confirmed that the inspiration for Eddie’s character was drawn from Damien Echols, a teenager who was a part of the West Memphis Three. In 1994, Echols, along with his two friends Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin were wrongfully convicted for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Similar to Eddie’s fate in Stranger Things, the three teenagers were accused of murder by townspeople despite a lack of concrete evidence. To them, the teenagers’ long hair and heavy metal obsession were enough to put them behind bars.
The conviction was also a knee-jerk reaction to the satanic panic that gripped the nation during that time. Due to baseless propaganda and smear campaigns, many were led to believe that satanist cults were committing ritualistic murder and running rampant across the country. They labelled heavy metal bands such as Metallica as “the devil’s music” and some even claimed that Dungeons and Dragons drove kids to murder by promoting violence and witchcraft.
Hence, Echols was sentenced to death while his two friends were sentenced to life in prison. However, the uncertain nature of the case and alleged presence of emotional bias led to the ruling receiving widespread criticism from the public. In fact, the case became such a hotly debated topic that it sparked a trilogy of documentaries titled Paradise Lost, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. The West Memphis Three spent almost two decades on death row and were only given a shot at redemption in 2010 when newfound DNA evidence was presented in a retrial. The following year, they entered Alford pleas which led to their release. However, they weren’t fully exonerated as they will always be seen as criminals in the eyes of the court due to circumstantial evidence and testimonials.
Nevertheless, the West Memphis Three were now absolved as far as the public was concerned and they could now reenter a world far less bigoted – towards metalheads, at least – than the one they had left. This is where their path veers from that of Eddie’s; they got to clear their names whereas Eddie will always remain a cold-blooded killer to the people of Hawkins.
Although some pretty strange things have happened on the show, one could possibly argue that stranger things have happened in the world we inhabit. By taking inspiration from these mind-blowing series of events for the plotlines of Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers have ensured that these stains on humanity will not go unnoticed by future generations. And, it makes for good TV too.
Written by: Priyanka
Edited by: Poorani