Breaking down the legitimacy of “Stranger Things”

Real CIA experiments and conspiracy theories behind the Netflix show


WARNING: spoilers ahead for seasons one through four of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”


A TV show about kids who uncover government secrets and a hidden parallel universe? Completely unheard of before the first season of “Stranger Things” streamed. But the government experimenting on citizens in the pursuit of psychic abilities? Viewers might be shocked to find that in the real world, that isn’t so fictional. A conspiracy theory even goes as far as to read like a draft of the show’s screenplay. It may be able to predict the direction “Stranger Things” goes in next.

Netflix’s “Stranger Things” is described by its creators as an ode to horror novelist Stephen King and film director Steven Spielberg. The show horrified viewers with a 7-foot interdimensional reptile, then, in pure King fashion, upped the ante with shadow monsters and mind control. Where Spielberg comes in is the more fantastical elements made believable. As in “E.T”, “Jurassic Park” and “Jaws”, a sense of 80s nostalgia normalcy is presented in “Stranger Things” before all grounding in reality is shattered and viewers are plunged into an outlandish adventure. 

“Stranger Things” encapsulates these influences and proves all art must pay its dues to its pop culture predecessors. But after four seasons of getting acquainted with the show’s elements, perhaps “Stranger Things” owes even more of its content to some lesser-known, but appropriately out-there, inspirations. If the conspiracy theories behind “Stranger Things” must be factually dismissed, then they should at least gain some credit for influence.

“Stranger Things” creators, brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, attribute audiences’ fascination with the show to the fact that, theoretically, it can all be scientifically explained.

“We wanted the supernatural element to be grounded in science in some way,” Matt said in a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone. “As ridiculous as it is, the monster [of “Stranger Things”] doesn’t come from a spiritual domain and it’s not connected to any religion. It made it scarier.”

Following the immediate success of season one, the Duffer brothers revealed they wrote “Stranger Things” with real CIA projects and government cover-ups in mind. Some programs of note are the Stargate Project, a spy operation of the late 1970s, and MK-ULTRA, a largely declassified, widespread CIA effort to discover psychic powers. The concept of experimental LSD is prominent throughout “Stranger Things.” So is the abduction of children and the use of unwitting test subjects, all of which have been uncovered as a part of MK-ULTRA. 

What the Duffer brothers have been less forthcoming about is the “Stranger Things” connection to the Montauk Project, a conspiracy that connects several unexplained phenomena to secret government activity. It’s one of the key inspirations of the Duffer brothers as they originally wanted the show to be titled “Montauk” and had it set in the theory’s origin of Long Island, New York. Switching the title and relocating the setting to fictional Hawkins, Indiana was due in part to a lawsuit by filmmaker Charlie Kessler. He alleged that the brothers had stolen the idea of “Stranger Things” from his content and a shared conversation between the Duffers and Kessler at a film festival. 

Kessler, however, is not the creator of the conspiracy theory nor the author of its most popular iteration: “The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time.” Self-published in 1992, the book attempts to be a personal, tell-all narrative by author Preston B. Nichols. According to Nichols, his authority on the subject comes from the recovery of deliberately erased memories that revealed him to be the leading director of the book’s alleged experiments.

There are many other accounts of the same Montauk Project conspiracy, but its similarities to “Stranger Things” lie in a beast that wreaks havoc after being unleashed from another dimension, reminiscent of the Demogorgon. There are test subjects at the Montauk Project lab who could make objects float at their will, like Eleven and her siblings. It even features the concept of remote viewing, a skill of Eleven’s that she uses to locate people and what season four villain Vecna uses to spy into his victims’ minds.

“Stranger Things” even follows elements of “The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time” chronologically. Nichols claims to have had to destroy all of the project’s devices and machines in order to stop the threat of a monster. In season one, Eleven initially sacrifices herself at the end to kill the Demogorgon, leaving viewers to wonder if she was dead or alive. 

Should the Duffer brothers continue to use Nichols’ book as an influence, a strong case can be made for the involvement of time travel in season five. The show has been hinting at the addition of this concept since the prevalence of the movie “Back to the Future” in season three and has continued through the clock imagery and easter eggs of season four. 

According to Nichols’ version of the conspiracy, Montauk Project researchers would use their experimental machines to open portals into different time periods and destinations. In order to defeat the remaining monsters of the Upside Down and close the gap once and for all, Eleven or any surviving kid of Dr. Brenner’s experiments may have to navigate space-time. 

A release date for season five isn’t set for the show. Fans will have to wait until 2024 or 2025 to see how “Stranger Things” finally ends, and whether or not the Duffer brothers stick to their main muses or forge their own path for the finale.