The IRL Urban Legend That Inspired 'Stranger Things'
Stranger Things is very open about its '80s influences, which range from homages to "okay, we’re just copying stuff now." Eleven's story, however—the government experimenting on a girl for her psychic abilities—does not copy any single obvious pop culture source. Viewers debate just where the idea came from. Is it a spin on Stephen King stories like Firestarter? Does it rip off the game Beyond: Two Souls, which itself uses a bunch of established tropes but which Stranger Things replicates in many eerie ways?
More than anything else, this plot seems to crib off The Montauk Project, a series of books by Preston Nichols and Peter Moon. These books are about a series of government experiments, some on children, at Long Island's Montauk Air Force Station. And yet if you ask fans of the books about the connections, they probably won't call it copying. They'd say Stranger Things is simply basing its story on the real life Montauk Project, because according to the conspiracy theory community, the project was real.
The theory piggybacks off MKUltra, a CIA project that was real. We've talked about MKUltra plenty before: The CIA tinkered with people's minds using drugs and torture, and Stranger Things namechecks the project, saying it experimented on Eleven's mother. MKUltra led to other weirder theorized military experiments, including a naval experiment in Philadelphia to render ships invisible, and these in turn led to the still weirder idea that the military shifted to mind control and recruited children for its research.
In Nichols and Moon's books, they claim to have been two of those children, and outside the books, they only occasionally reveal that, no, it's just fiction. In the books, the government use children to open portals. Naturally, some kids have shaved heads and wear electroencephalogram thingies on their heads, like Eleven.
Al Bielek, who claimed to have been part of the Philadelphia experiment, said that his brother was the most powerful of the children, and in the books, these portal shenanigans made him manifest a monster "from his subconscious." Stranger Things has flirted repeatedly with the idea of Eleven creating that show's monster, though it has yet to really make that idea explicit, maybe since they've yet to figure out how that can make sense.
Originally, the connection between Stranger Things and the Montauk Project was anything but secret. They were going to call the series Montauk and set it in Montauk and its Air Force Station. If Nichols and Moon then chased Netflix down for plagiarism, that would have been tricky. "We didn’t steal any of your ideas," Netflix might have said. "These weren't your ideas at all. All this stuff really happened, and to children besides you. Right?"
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Top image: Netflix