‘Stranger Things’: The Real Life Inspiration for Hawkins’ Shadow Organization

Donna Dickens
TV Netflix
TV Netflix Stranger Things Sci-Fi

When the third season of Stranger Things debuting this week, the idyllic summer of 1985 will be interrupted once again by the nightmares from the Upside Down. But even though a malformed Demogorgon with a razor-sharp maw is terrifying, the creatures from another dimension are merely a symptom. The true monster terrorizing Hawkins, Indiana so far have been the humans in charge of the Hawkins National Laboratory. Nothing good ever comes from a shadowy government organization hiding in the woods. Nothing.


Ostensibly an extension of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Hawkins National Laboratory (HNL) borrows from a real program. The Department of Energy does fund a National Laboratories program. Formed in the aftermath of WWII, these facilities are now so robust that the DOE funds a full 40% of physical sciences research in the United States. Each National Laboratory combines academia, industry, and the military to curry the best results. Labs focus on specialties such as nuclear physics, bioscience, national security, neutron science, chemistry, and nuclear proliferation require a high level of security. It would not have seemed suspicious, or even strange, to have active patrol around a National Laboratory.

A massive campus with at least six above-ground floors spread over four wings — as well as an unknown number of basement levels — the Hawkins National Laboratory was no small operation. It’s entirely possible the building was the primary employer in Hawkins, a town with a population near 30,000. Unless the government somehow had a self-contained economy within the building, the HNL employees would definitely live amongst the general population. If even 10% of the working population got a paycheck from HNL, they might be more willing to overlook the odd research assignment.


The Department of Energy isn’t the only piece of reality that Stranger Things integrated into their shaded government facility. In the beginning of Season 1, the audience learns the head of Hawkins National Laboratory — Dr. Martin Brenner — came to the project directly from the MKUltra program.

For decades, the real-life MKUltra program has been a stain on the U.S. Government. A secret program run by the CIA from 1953 to 1973, MKUltra was also known as the CIA Mind Control Program. Using various psychotropic drugs — most notably LSD — the government-funded research into discovering a myriad of ethically and morally dubious areas. Grants were approved for topics such as discover of substances that could increase perception and awareness, cause the victim to age faster or slower, produce believable symptoms of a disease that could then be reversed, or even lower ambition and will to work. Other parts of the MKUltra program focused on drugs to do everything from giving a person amnesia or rendering them unconscious to elixirs to make soldiers more resilient against torture. One known project was experimenting with brain implants in dogs, with the hopes of controlling their movement via remote control.

Nearly all of the participants in the MKUltra program were unwitting victims. Run by chemist Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA sought out “people who could not fight back” such as terminal cancer patients, drug addicts, prisoners, sex workers, and other marginalized communities. During the Watergate scandal in 1973, the CIA panicked MKUltra and its human rights’ violations would be discovered. The program was shut down and all evidence it ever existed was destroyed. Only a few thousand documents survived the 1973 purge, as they were misfiled in the records building. From those limited resources is everything we know now about the programs. There are massive gaps in our knowledge: we know MKUltra had over 150 active sub-projects spread amongst at least 80 locations. What we don’t know, is what they were all doing. Or even if they actually shut down.


Over the years, a handful of people have come forward to say the MKUltra experiments were never scuttled, simply renamed and left to carry on. The most prominent voice is that of Victor Marchetti. Mr. Marchetti worked for the CIA from 1955 until his resignation in 1969. During his tenure, he rose to the level of special assistant to the Deputy Director of the CIA. He claimed for decades the program continued but was never able to produce evidence.

This brings us back to Hawkins. We know from Stranger Things that Eleven is the daughter of Terry Ives. Ms. Ives was one of Dr. Brenner’s test subjects who unwitting subjected her unborn child — Eleven — to the rigors and side effects of the MKUltra program. Dr. Brenner and his team then abducted Eleven and raised her in the subterranean levels of the Hawkins National Laboratory. It isn’t until about a year after Eleven is born that the MKUltra program is shuttered. Yet, in Stranger Things, nothing changes for the researchers at HNL. The experiments with Eleven and the other gifted children continue. Funding doesn’t dry up. Even after the lid is blown off MKUltra in 1977, it appears Hawkins, Indiana remains flying under the radar.

It isn’t until Eleven’s escape sets off a chain of events ending in the destruction of the gate to the Upside Down that things spiral beyond the government’s control, ultimately leading to the lab’s shutdown at the end of the second season. Even then, they use the death of Barbara “Barb” Holland as a smokescreen, claiming her life was taken by an “experimental chemical asphyxiant” instead of an interdimensional monster.

Even that though, can’t truly be the end. If the inhumane experiments at the Hawkins lab were stricken from the MKUltra records, how many other facilities also lurk out there and just what is their purpose? Was Dr. Brenner really interested in telekinetic and telepathic powers simply to get a leg up on the Russians in the Cold War or on some level did he already know about the Upside Down? After all, the scientists seemed very ready for inter-dimensional travel for a facility allegedly in the business of traumatizing children.

Stranger Things 3 premieres July 4th on Netflix. 

Donna Dickens
Donna has been covering genre entertainment for nearly a decade. She is a mom, a wife, a Slytherin, a Magical Girl, a Rebel, and a fan of House Tyrell.