It’s safe to say that everyone and their mother have heard of Netflix’s new hit show, STRANGER THINGS. Following the adventures of a group of friends in the early 1980’s, STRANGER THINGS is a show filled with sci-fi imagery and far-fetched scenarios. Chief among these is Eleven, El for short. El (played by Millie Bobby Brown) is a quiet young girl with the power of telekinesis—the ability to move things with her mind. El honed and perfected this power through years of experiments and torture at the hands of Dr. Brenner (played by Matthew Modine). It’s discovered that Dr. Brenner has a history with abusive research, namely his work with Operation MKUltra. Though it appeared Dr. Brenner’s experiments ended with the liquidation of MKUltra, he is still able to continue unabated, deep within a U.S. government facility. While both his experimentation and the doctor himself seem far fetched, they are both rooted in reality: Project MKUltra. While this seems like the crazed rants of a conspiracy theorist, in reality, the project marked a strange, and dangerous time in American history.

El, From Stranger Things
El, played by Millie Bobby Brown

Early History, Project Paperclip, and Project ARTICHOKE

The CIA was in its infancy in the early 1950’s. Written into existence by President Harry Truman in 1947, the CIA was created in response to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 6 years prior. Tension was rising between America and the USSR, and knowing any and all covert information about Russia’s activities was paramount to the U.S. government. With this threat in mind, The CIA was created with the purpose of creating a worldwide intelligence network that would be able to know of an attack before it could be perpetrated. The U.S. wanted the ability to thwart a Russian attack on the scale of Pearl Harbor before it had a chance of ever happening. These circumstances led to high expectations for the new agency.

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These high expectations also came with an enormous budget. All of this combined with nearly zero oversight from the government, the CIA was able to experiment as they pleased. This led to the birth of Project MKUltra, officially sanctioned by the agency in 1953 (6% of the CIA’s budget, approx. 10 million, was secretly allocated into the project’s research and development). MKUltra existed from the early 1950’s to the early 1970’s, and was the CIA’s attempt at creating mind-controlling powers for the purpose of extracting information from prisoners of war.

Project MKUltra
Project MKUltra

Many of the scientists who were recruited for Project MKUltra were from the Project Paperclip initiative. The Paperclip Initiative was formed at the end of World War II as many of Hitler’s scientists were scattered across Germany, their research halted by the end of the Nazi regiment. With relations already starting to cool between America and the Soviet Union, a race began to grab as many scientists as possible between the two superpowers.

While President Truman stated that any scientists who had any affiliation with the Nazi regime would be excluded from the operation, the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) circumvented Truman’s orders, creating false political biographies and work histories for the scientists, many of whom were prosecuted for war crimes during the Nuremberg Trials. (The name “paperclip” comes from the paperclips used to attach the scientists new political biographies to their new work papers). One of the most famous scientists brought over during the Paperclip initiative was Wernher Von Braun, creator of the V-2 rocket for the Nazi’s, and the Saturn V rocket for the American’s (that helped the Apollo 11 mission reach the moon.) All told, 1,500 Nazi scientists, engineers and technicians were moved to the United States at the end of the war.

Several of these former Nazi scientists began work on Project ARTICHOKE (formerly Project BLUEBIRD). ARTICHOKE came into existence when it was discovered that both Germany and Japan had used drugs to experiment on U.S. prisoners of war during their incarceration. Not wanting to fall behind in its torture techniques, The CIA began their own experimentation in 1951. In 1953, ARTICHOKE became MKUltra.

Testing of LSD and Operation Midnight Climax

With an enormous budget for research and development (6% of the CIA’s budget, approx. 10 million, was secretly allocated into the project’s budget in 1953), Scientists  were able to freely start experimenting with drugs. Beginning in the 50’s, and continuing through the 60’s and 70’s, scientists tested several different drugs, primarily LSD, in the pursuit of finding any viable uses in interrogation and mind control. The people who were chosen for such experiments were usually derelicts of society, such as the homeless, mental patients and prostitutes. “Those who couldn’t fight back”, as one scientist commented. They would have the drugs administered for days at a time, sometimes weeks.

El, crushing a can with her mind.
El, crushing a can with her mind.

Experiments on the U.S. population was a major component of MKUltra, having been part of the operation since the beginning. In several instances, CIA operatives would poison people on the streets and secretly recorded their reactions. One of the more famous being “Operation Midnight Climax”.

Operation Midnight Climax was based out of CIA safe-houses in both New York City and San Francisco, the stated goal being field testing of drugs and interrogation techniques on the regular populace. Prostitutes, on the CIA payroll, would lure men back to the safe house, where they would be administered different drugs secretly, then observed through a 2-way mirror. The safe-houses were dramatically scaled back in 1963, before closing permanently, in San Francisco in 1965, and in New York in 1966. 

The random LSD doses also found their way into government facilities throughout the years, especially CIA compounds. Many government employees were secretly drugged at work, including scientists, U.S. military personnel and CIA employees. Several cases of secret poisonings occurred in various testing facilities, causing LSD to be labeled a “working hazard” for the CIA. This experiment tragically culminated with Dr. Frank Olson. An MKUltra researcher, Dr. Olson unknowingly ingested the drug and began a psychotic episode that ended with him falling to his death from a 13th story window. Conspiracy theorists, as well as Dr. Olson’s family, believe that Dr. Olson was actually assassinated by the CIA to prevent him leaking information about the project to the press.

Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron

Dr. Brenner, played by Matthew Modine.

One of the lead researchers for MKUltra and the man who appears to be the inspiration for Dr. Brenner, is Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, a Scottish psychiatrist. Dr. Cameron’s experimentation with reprogramming memories in patients with schizophrenia caught the CIA eye. Surprisingly, Dr Cameron never realized he worked for the CIA as he was paid through a CIA front, “The Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology”.

Dr. Cameron conducted his experiments in the Allan Memorial Institute of McGill University in Montreal. Like Dr. Olson, Dr. Cameron experimented on his patients with LSD as well as several paralytic drugs and electro-convulsive therapy, well above their recommended voltage. Dr. Cameron would routinely put his subjects into a drug-induced coma for weeks or months. He would then play a looped tape of repetitive sounds and words, an experiment he called “psychic driving”.

Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, one of the head MKUltra scientists
Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, one of the lead MKUltra scientists.

He typically experimented on patients arriving with minor issues, like anxiety disorders and depression. Most of those same patients left with permanent mental damage, issues including amnesia, loss of speech, incontinence, and disorientation. Some believed that the interrogators were their own parents, the damage was so severe (shown in STRANGER THINGS by El calling Dr. Brenner “papa”). During this time, Dr. Cameron became the first chairman of the World Psychiatric Association, as well as the president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association.

Project MKDelta

Project MKDelta was an offshoot of the MKUltra experiments. While MKUltra was designed to be tested domestically, MKDelta was implemented globally. Because of the complete destruction of documentation, only the name and stated goal of MKDelta remain. With the U.S. fighting in both The Korean War and the Vietnam War during the time of MKUltra’s existence, it’s not hard to believe that prisoners of war during those years may have been given LSD with the purpose of information extraction.

It has also been theorized that MKDelta was the cause of the Pont-Saint-Esprit incident in France, where a mass psychosis ravaged the small town causing 32 people to be committed to insane asylums and another 7 left dead. While the exact cause of the poisoning has never been determined (at the time it was considered to be ergot poisoning due to bad bread, then possible mercury poisoning), The fact that all records pertaining to MKDelta have been destroyed makes it impossible to find any conclusive links between MKDelta and the poisoning of Pont-Saint-Espirit.

Liquidation of the Project and Committee Investigation

Project MKUltra continued through the 1960’s, its scope tremendously wide-reaching. 80 institutions, including colleges, hospitals, prisons and pharmaceutical companies, saw MKUltra research performed there. The project was downsized in the late 60’s, and in 1973, with the revelation of the Watergate scandal, the project was immediately halted and all documents concerning the project destroyed by the order of acting CIA Director, Richard Helms.

The first public knowledge of MKUltra was in 1975, when the Church Committee brought their research and findings to the U.S. Congress. Shortly afterwards, President Gerald Ford commissioned an investigation into the CIA. With the majority of paperwork destroyed, the investigating committee could only rely on witness testimony.

In 1977, a Freedom of Information Act request uncovered 200,000 documents concerning MKUltra, accidentally misplaced in a financial record center. Through this paperwork and through accounts from eyewitnesses, it was clear that the CIA had conducted illegal activities with their experimentation, namely the non-consensual way they administered their drugs.

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In 1976, Gerald Ford issued an executive order on intelligence activities, prohibiting non-consenting use of experimental drugs on human subjects (both Presidents Carter and Reagan expanded on this directive). All lawsuits were settled out of court against both the U.S. government and Canadian government, and it is not known the full extent of Dr. Cameron’s experimentation, as all his personal records were destroyed by his family after his death in 1967.

Though the official report is that MKUltra ceased to exist in 1973, some believe that mind-control experimentation by the U.S. government exists today. There are no reports of telekinesis stemming from such experiments, but who knows? Maybe one day a group of small town friends will stumble upon an El of their own.


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