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The Real-Life Experiment That Inspired Stranger Things

Proof that reality can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

Credit: Stranger Things/ Netflix; Wikimedia Commons

Stranger Things has been a record-breaking success for Netflix. Its latest season left fans kneeling on the edge of their seats and shattered the site’s streaming record with 286 million hours of viewing time in its opening weekend.

Blending sci-fi and supernatural horror, it’s no wonder the show is such a phenomenon. Series creators Matt and Ross Duffer, professionally known as The Duffer Brothers, have opened up about the show’s inspiration, citing eighties classics like E.T., Alien, and Nightmare on Elm Street. However, real-life events have also inspired the show, proving reality can sometimes be stranger than fiction. 

“We wanted the supernatural element to be grounded in science in some way,” explained Matt Duffer in an interview with Rolling Stone. The brothers cited a series of “bizarre experiments we had read about taking place in the Cold War,” specifically Project MK-Ultra.

Launched in the early fifties, Project MK-Ultra was a series of mind control experiments led by the CIA. The U.S. government launched the program as a means to weaponize mind control tactics; however, the program ultimately resulted in failure, leaving behind hundreds of human deaths and other horrific details.

The Experiment

It was the early days of the Cold War. Fear against communists was rampant and the CIA became convinced the Soviet Union and China discovered how to control human minds.

Silly as it sounds, the zeitgeist was highly consumed by a heightened paranoia. Americans were fed stories about mind control and hypnosis, while the government grew concerned over nuclear warfare. Seized by this myth, the CIA not only believed that communists had accomplished this fantasy, but that the CIA could also achieve this.

Alas, fueled by their fear, the CIA entered their forays into mind control experimentation. The program was launched in 1953 and headed by the CIA’s chief chemist, Sidney Gottlieb.

Dr. Sidney Gottlieb; Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to journalist Stephen Kinzer, the project aimed to design multiple mind control techniques, including a truth serum, an amnesiac, and a drug that would allow agents to obediently carry out orders. 

In tandem, part of Gottlieb’s experiments were covertly funded at universities and research centers, while others were conducted in American prisons and in detention centers in Japan, Germany, and the Philippines. 

Ultimately, MK-Ultra served as a continuation of many experiments led by Nazi and Japanese forces during the second world war. In fact, aside from taking inspiration, the CIA actually hired torturers who had worked in Japan and in Nazi concentration camps to lecture the project’s scientists.

At the time, the U.S. never signed on or adapted any domestic rules that prohibited the state from experimenting on others without their consent– allowing the CIA’s scientists to carry out similar crimes to what Nazi doctors practiced in concentration camps. 


You may have heard stories about the CIA’s secret experiments with LSD, through which the 1960’s counterculture was first introduced to the drug. Originally created in 1943 by Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hoffman, CIA scientists became obsessed with testing the drug. According to Kinzer, Gottlieb arranged for the CIA to pay $240,000 to buy the world’s entire supply of LSD, unwittingly becoming the “godfather of the entire LSD counterculture.” 

The CIA introduced the hallucinogen across multiple hospitals, prisons, and universities, compelling them to carry out research projects under the guise of false philanthropic institutions. As the story goes, people who volunteered for these experiments and began taking LSD, in many cases, found it very pleasurable. Soon after, as Kinzer explained, users began sharing LSD with their friends, in the end contributing to an unexpected foundation of the 1960’s counterculture. 

Crime boss Whitey Bulger; Source: Wikipedia

However, not all test subjects were aware of what they were being tested with. Crime boss Whitey Bulger was one of the prisoners who volunteered for what he was told was an experiment aimed to cure schizophrenia. As part of this experiment, Bulger was given LSD each day for more than a year, resulting in horrific hallucinations. 

“I was in prison for committing a crime,” wrote Bulger, “But they committed a greater crime on me.” By the end of his life, Bulger eventually discovered the reality behind his experiments, alleging he’d enact vengeance over the scientists who abused him. 

Dr. Jeckl and Mr. Hyde

Trying to make sense of the man behind the program, Gottlieb was a contradiction. During his career with the CIA, Gottlieb designed weapons and conducted torturous experiments. Post his career in the CIA, Gottlieb moved to India, studied Buddhism, and helped both leprosy victims and the poor. 

“You wonder, how could he have reconciled this?” said Kinzer to NPR. “In the long run, in the cosmic sense, I think you can say that commitment to a cause always gives you the justification for immoral acts. And patriotism is among the most seductive of those causes because it posits… anything done in its service is virtuous.”

Kinzer continued, “I don’t think he ever faced the question or answered the question of whether there are limits to the amount of evil you can do in a righteous cause before the evil begins to outweigh the righteousness.”

In the end, many of Gottlieb’s subjects endured psychological torture ranging from electroshock to high doses of hallucinogenics. Due to the experiment’s secretive nature, it is impossible to measure the human cost of Gottlieb’s experiments; however, experts estimate hundreds. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gottlieb shut down his experiments in the 1970s, deleting as much recorded evidence as possible. By 1975, MK-Ultra was first brought to public attention, as the Church Committee of the United States Congress called Gottlieb to testify for his projects. Gottlieb was left unmarked after his testimony; yet proof and documents have since risen, revealing glimpses of MK-Ultra’s terrible experiments.

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Writer and creator based in San Diego.

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