Day 6

Stranger than fiction: The real-life CIA projects that inspired 'Stranger Things'

'Stranger Things' is built around a massive government conspiracy, but it's not all science fiction. Here are the real-life CIA experiments that inspired the story.
Real CIA projects inspired the experiments performed on Eleven, a key character from the hit TV show Stranger Things. (Courtesy of Netflix)

More than a few Canadians will be sleep-deprived this weekend after staying up late to binge-watch Stranger Things 2

The show's much-anticipated second season dropped on Netflix on Oct. 27.

Stranger Things was an instant hit when it launched last summer, receiving rave reviews for its eerie soundtrack and unabashed pastiche of '80s influences.

It follows a group of kids in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, as they struggle to uncover a massive government conspiracy with the help of a psychic girl named Eleven.

Stranger Things 2 is set in 1984, one year after the events of the first season. The monsters are back — and bigger.

But while the show's plot is pretty fantastical, it's not all science fiction.

Stranger Things' creators actually borrowed parts of the story from real-life CIA experiments.

Some of those experiments took place in Montreal, where, in the 1950s and '60s, psychiatrist Dr. Ewen Cameron subjected his patients to treatments including electroshocks, experimental drugs and long periods of chemically-induced sleep.

Earlier this year, the Canadian government quietly paid a $100,000 settlement to the daughter of one of Cameron's victims.

But Dr. Ewen Cameron wasn't the only one conducting bizarre and troubling CIA experiments on unwitting patients in the mid-to-late 20th century.

We asked journalist Cady Drell to take us through some of the creepiest government experiments that inspired Stranger Things.

Here's some of what she had to say.

Stranger Things 2 dropped on Neflix on Oct. 27. (Netflix)

Project MK Ultra

"The most obvious real-life influence for Stranger Things was this project called MK Ultra. [It] was a CIA covert operation that happened from the 1950s to the 1970s.

It took place at over 80 institutions — schools and universities, jails, even hospitals that were privately funded. And a lot of the participants in it had no idea that they were part of a government experiment.

They wanted to find ways to extract information, and they were testing them on the American public.- Cady Drell

MK Ultra's point was to develop methods and products for war, especially the Cold War.

They wanted to find ways to extract information, and they were testing them on the American public.

Project MK Ultra is actually mentioned by name in the show when Chief Hopper, who's kind of trying to get to the bottom of everything that's happening at Hawkins Laboratory, tracks down Terry Ives ... who tried to sue the government for abuse. She explicitly mentions Project MK Ultra, and being a part of those experiments without being aware of it."

These shady CIA operatives play a pivotal role in the first season of Stranger Things. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Sensory Deprivation

"Eleven is one of the main characters in Stranger Things, and we discover pretty early on that the government is trying to shape her into almost a killing machine. She's a human weapon of war, and they're doing this by putting her through a lot of different experiments.

"Dr. Ewen Cameron ... used a combination of hallucinatory drugs like LSD, electroshock therapy, and sensory deprivation on a lot of unwitting patients."- Cady Drell

One of the first indications we get in the show that the government is participating in some unorthodox experiments is when we see Eleven, who is a little girl, entering a sensory deprivation chamber; she's being submerged in water.

These actually existed and were used by the government as part of MK Ultra. Dr. Ewen Cameron, who was working on a subproject of MK Ultra, used a combination of hallucinatory drugs like LSD, electroshock therapy, and sensory deprivation on a lot of unwitting patients — many of whom came to see him for things like anxiety."

Eleven prepares to enter a sensory deprivation tank in a scene from Season 1 of Stranger Things. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Mind control and "Remote Viewings"

"MK Ultra was clearly a huge influence on Stranger Things, but it was shut down by the 1970s, and Stranger Things takes place in the 1980s. [But] there were actually some pretty weird government experiments going on in the '80s, too.

The one that most closely resembles the things that were happening in Stranger Things is the Star Gate Project. Star Gate was just getting warmed up by 1983; it actually started in 1978 and went all the way to 1995. And it was established to see whether psychic phenomena could be used in military applications. It wasn't even a CIA project; it was an army project.

Eleven struggles to resist her captors in a government facility. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Do you remember that scene where Eleven is told to try to kill a cat with her mind? Those telekinetic abilities and psychic powers were something the government was genuinely testing for.

There was a movie and a book called The Men Who Stare at Goats about the people who were involved in the Stargate experiments, testing telekinetic abilities by attempting to kill goats with their minds.

One of the other missions for [the] Star Gate project was to see whether people could engage in 'remote viewings'.

We actually see this in Stranger Things as well, when Eleven, while undergoing sensory deprivation, is able to listen in on a Russian conversation and actually see them in front of her.

There was a section of the government that was convinced that we could potentially engage in 'remote viewings', and they were convinced enough that they thought this project was worth continuing from 1978 to 1995."

For more about the CIA projects that inspired Stranger Things, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

(Courtesy of Netflix)