Stranger Things on Netflix was a smash hit and already has a cult following. While many reasons can be given for its success, one of them is very clearly all of its references to theoretical phenomenon. We’ve talked about alternate dimensions and Stranger Things before, but there’s another tidbit in the show that’s worth exploring, too:

MK Ultra.

It’s just a passing reference made by Eleven’s aunt when Hopper and Joyce visit her in episode six. She tells the two that her sister was drafted for a government experiment – MK Ultra – while she was pregnant with Jane/Eleven.

What Was MK Ultra?

Although it was just a reference made in passing, MK Ultra has fascinated people for decades. It was a CIA-funded program in the 50s that studied mind control. Specifically, it was aimed at the possibility of behavioral engineering – literally, being able to take over and control another human.

For this reason, it is often tied to the Manchurian candidate conspiracy theory.

So This Was a Real Thing?

Well, yes and no.

As opposed to most conspiracy theories, there is actually a great deal of evidence that proves MK Ultra was 100% a real thing funded by the CIA.

Does it mean that the government has mastered mind control? No.

However, because of declassified documents and oversight investigations, we do know some facts.

MK Ultra Grew Out of Paranoia

The program began less than a decade after WWII ended. Thanks to another CIA program, Operation Paperclip, the United States had taken in a number of Nazi scientists. Working side-by-side, it became clear to the U.S. that our superiority might soon be challenged by other rising powers.

This included the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. The Soviet Union had almost certainly also found their own Nazi scientists. Moreover, the Cold War was in full swing, so the U.S. was no longer the only nuclear power.

These three superpowers had allegedly also figured out a certain degree of mind control including the idea of a “truth serum.” It was time to play catch-up and MK Ultra was the way to do so.

Drugs, Hypnotism and Interrogation

One of the main resources used by MK Ultra was LSD. The hallucinogen’s psychedelic properties were only discovered in 1943, so there seemed a real possibility that it could be the key that opened the human brain.

Studies were especially focused on finding out if the Soviets could use this drug to make people talk (again, a “truth serum) and, if so, learning to do the same. Most subjects had no idea they had been drugged.

Reportedly, many people suffered long-term mental debilitation or even died because of these ongoing LSD experiments.

Other drug experiments involved giving a subject both barbiturates and amphetamines at the same time intravenously through both arms. The former was released first and then the latter.

Morphine, heroin and temazepam were also used.

We also know that hypnosis was considered as a possible weapon. Experimenters would try to hypnotize subjects into experiencing anxiety, increasing their ability to recall information and, of course, telling their secrets.

Certain interrogation techniques came out of these experiments as well. The CIA learned to disorient people and then use certain techniques to force their subjects to tell the truth so the pain would stop.

150 Projects

While we’ll never know the extent of what MK Ultra researched and/or discovered, we do know that it entailed some 150 different projects over more than a decade and received millions and millions worth of funding.

And Then Watergate Happened

The project was finally brought down (many conspiracy theorists don’t think it ever was) after Watergate. With government officials panicked and looking for any sign of corrupting, the then head of the CIA, Richard Helms, ordered that all the documents related to MK Ultra be destroyed.

However, in 1977, some 20,000 documents were found that had been stored incorrectly.

We don’t yet know if MK Ultra caused Eleven’s powers or if the experiments were used to keep her mother from knowing she was taken. Look for more answers – and more awesome references – in season 2, starting in the fall.