70 years of MKUltra, the CIA ‘mind-control’ program that inspired ‘Stranger Things’

Electroshock, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, verbal and sexual abuse, and other forms of torture were also part of the experiments, which sought to develop a drug that could help manipulate an individual’s behavior

Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things
A scene from 'Stranger Things.'Courtesy of Netflix

MKUltra is not referenced explicitly on Stranger Things — the popular Netflix show — but the series seems to be inspired by the controversial CIA program. In the show, a government laboratory is conducting illegal experiments on a young girl and other persons, torturing them, and harnessing their special abilities for their own purposes. This is similar to the goals of the CIA human experimentation project, which was started 70 years ago.

Controversial and unethical experiments were conducted on human subjects by the Agency for the MKUltra project, including the use of mind control techniques and the administration of drugs such as LSD and other chemicals. Electroshock, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, verbal and sexual abuse, and other forms of torture were also part of the non-consensual experiments, which were created because the CIA was convinced that communists had discovered a way to control human minds. Its activities — which were hidden and classified before their files being destroyed after an investigation — remain a subject of concern and investigation to this day.

What was MKUltra and how did it start?

MKUltra was a CIA program involving the research and development of chemical and biological agents. According to official documents, it was “concerned with the research and development of chemical, biological and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior.”

Journalist Stephen Kinzer, who spent several years investigating the program, called the operation the “most sustained search in history for techniques of mind control.” He also found evidence of the CIA recruiting World War II Nazi torturers and vivisectionists to continue experimenting on “thousands” of subjects, with some of them teaching CIA officers about the lethal uses of sarin gas, which was being developed as a weapon during the war.

The program was born as a response to rumors of mind control techniques used on U.S. prisoners of war by the Soviet, Chinese and North Koreans. The CIA wanted to develop their own “mind-controlling” drugs for use against the Soviet bloc and other captives, and even planned schemes to drug Fidel Castro, President of Cuba.

MKUltra began with a proposal from the Assistant Deputy Director for Plans, Richard Helms, outlining a “special funding mechanism for highly sensitive CIA research and development projects that studied the use of biological and chemical materials in altering human behavior.” The project said the development of “comprehensive capability in this field of covert chemical and biological warfare give [the CIA] a thorough knowledge of the enemy’s theoretical potential.”

The project began on the order of CIA director Allen Dulles on April 13, 1953, and was headed by Sidney Gottlieb, who also headed the CIA’s 1950s and 1960s assassination attempts. During its duration, the program engaged in illegal activities including the use of U.S. and Canadian citizens as unwitting test subjects, with experiments carried out under the guise of research at more than 80 institutions aside from the military, including hospitals and prisons.

The MKUltra Experiments

A 1955 MKUltra document outlined the objectives of the mind control program, which aimed to study various mind-altering substances. These substances were intended to serve a range of purposes, including promoting illogical thinking and impulsiveness, enhancing mentation and perception, preventing or counteracting alcohol’s intoxicating effects, producing signs of reversible diseases for malingering, and enhancing the usefulness of hypnosis. Other objectives included developing substances that would enable individuals to withstand torture and coercion during interrogation, produce amnesia, shock, and confusion, disable individuals physically, alter personality structures to enhance dependency, and reduce ambition and working efficiency undetectably. The document also mentions developing substances to weaken or distort vision or hearing faculties, a knockout pill for surreptitious administration, and a material that would make physical activity impossible even in small doses.

One of the first studies was conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health. The purpose was to test various drugs, including hallucinogens at the Addiction Research Center in Lexington, Kentucky, which was a prison for drug addicts. The test subjects were administered hallucinogenic drugs, and — as a reward for their participation — they were provided the drug of their addiction.

LSD was one of the drugs tested in the MKUltra program, and according to official documents, the final phase of LSD testing “involved surreptitious administration to unwitting non-volunteers subjects in normal life settings by undercover officials of the Bureau of Narcotics acting for the CIA.”

One notable case is that of Frank Olson, a United States Army biochemist and biological weapons researcher. He was given LSD without his knowledge or consent in November 1953, and died falling from a 13th-story window a week later. His death was described as a suicide that had occurred during a severe psychotic episode. Gottlieb, who had conducted the experiment failed to take into account Olson’s already diagnosed suicidal tendencies which might have been exacerbated by the drug.

Drugs were used primarily as an aid to interrogations, but they were also used for harassment, discrediting or disabiling purposes. By 1957, they had developed sex drugs for operational uses, and they have been used in different operations on a total of 33 subjects. By 1963, the number had increased substantially.

Given that the CIA destroyed most records after MKUltra’s activities, its failure to follow informed consent protocols, the uncontrolled nature of the experiments and the lack of follow-up data, the full impact of the experiments, including deaths or the psychological trauma of those involved may never be known.

The CIA also created secret detention centers where they would put people suspected of being enemy agents and people it deemed “expendable” to undertake several types of torture and human experimentation.

The revelation

In 1973, in the middle of the Watergate scandal, some government agencies started to panic. That was the case of the CIA, whose director Richard Helms ordered all MKUltra files destroyed. Despite this, some 20,000 documents survived and were investigated years later.

In December 1974, The New York Times released an investigation alleging that the CIA had conducted illegal domestic activities, including experiments on citizens during the 1960s. This prompted investigations by the United States Congress, with the Church Committee, and the Rockefeller Commission, which looked into the activities of the CIA, the FBI, and intelligence-related agencies of the military.

In 1975, the reports revealed that the CIA and the Department of Defense had conducted experiments on unwitting and cognizant humans subjects as part of a program to find out how to influence and control human behavior through psychoactive drugs, and other chemical, biological and psychological means. They revealed the death of Frank Olson.

As a result, President Gerald Ford issued the first Executive Order on Intelligence Activities in 1976, prohibiting “experimentation with drugs on human subjects, except with the informed consent in writing and witnessed by a disinterested party, of each such human subject.

Despite the government’s aggressive efforts to evade legal liability, some victims were able to obtain compensation through court orders, out-of-court settlements, or acts of Congress, often with varying degrees of success. Frank Olson family received 750,000 dollars by a special act of Congress.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS