Stranger Things and MK Ultra: Digesting an American Atrocity

America, like most nations, is built from conspiracy and atrocity. Our history, like more histories, attempts to fit these bloody materials into a shape that makes them coherent, even necessary. Of all the known chapters of American history, the Cold War is one of the most surreal. From exploding cigars to cats with radio-skulls, CIA documents from this era read like cartoon fever dreams. Project MK Ultra, one of the most infamous dips into the surreal from this era, has recently found a new audience in the form of Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things. By pushing these events into the realm of the fantastic, Stranger Things allows us to better digest them, dissolving historical shame with nostalgia.
 
The MK Ultra project is an essential component of paranormal activity within the Stranger Things universe. For those unfamiliar, MK Ultra was a government investigation into mind control using sensory deprivation and surreptitious doses of LSD. Many test subjects had limited or outright fabricated knowledge of what was happening and why. It has been alleged that at least one man involved with the project was later assassinated to keep its secrets. Though the project itself is mentioned only briefly, its DNA is evident across the activities of the series’ central conspiracy. Dr. Brenner’s lab is more than willing to mistreat its subjects and to assassinate anyone who gets too close.
 
Stranger Things also mediates huge portions of its story through the characters’ and audience’s fantasies. The topography of the kids’ world is written in cultural references to D&D, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, and that world is depicted to the audience through allusions to the works of artists like The Clash and Stevens King and Spielberg. The Upside Down itself seems to be a dark mirror of our world, with many of the same pieces shaded by unearthly falling ash and eternal darkness. We access it through the deepest parts of our minds, and sometimes something terrible can break through to wreck us.
 
Armored in layers of nostalgia, the Stranger Things kids are the perfect foils to the shady conspiracy of The Upside Down. In their conflict we see the struggle between two different views of our history. On the one hand we have the threatening atrocities of our pasts, pointedly represented by government agents and disappearing friends. On the other hand we have our own idealized childhoods, rich with levels of adventure, camaraderie and competence rarely exhibited by actual children. These are the latch-key kids Baby Boomers dream of having been, up against nakedly evil, basically faceless enemies.
 
Anyone paying attention to the populist rhetoric of the American right should recognize some of these themes. The Duffer brothers beautifully illustrate the tension between the narrative that the American government is innately evil and the narrative that America was once great. I doubt anyone involved in the production of Stranger Things is a Trump supporter, but the show does play with one string on the right wing’s Fascist banjo. When Trump’s most immediate prototype, Sarah Palin, refers to “real America,” many in her audience likely picture a place similar to Hawkins, Indiana. To whatever extent they think of America’s historical atrocities, they either simplify them to justify the resulting status quo, or castigate them as unAmerican intrusions into a patriotic ideal.
 
Ultimately, Stranger Things’ depiction of the past mythologizes it. Wicked and maddening events, like MKUltra, are sublimated into science fiction, blending seamlessly with the paranormal elements invented by the creators. Regular citizens are depicted as plucky heroes in natural opposition to the corrupting influence of the outside. Crucially, the audience is allowed to imagine itself as innocent, and to quarantine any disruption of that innocence within the fantastical realm of The Upside Down.
 
Now, it would be silly to allege that the Duffer Brothers are intentionally trying to obfuscate the reality of the MK Ultra project. Their own claim, that they wanted to root their fantasy in something plausible to give it weight, rings true. But narrative, and fantasy in particular, performs many functions in our minds and one of those functions is to ease anxiety and structure a world of conflicting inputs. This gives us clarity and comfort at the expense of smoothing over some of reality’s rough edges. It’s perfectly natural that this narrative catharsis would mirror the rhetorical catharsis offered by the right wing. In both situations the audience has a need to see itself as pure and good while dwelling in the shadow of history.
 
We must transform our past into narrative in order to contain it in our minds. This is a dangerous opportunity; writing history requires  us to rewrite the past, just as accessing a memory corrupts it. In this transformation, we can pretend our childhood friend groups were more capable, more charming, more loyal than they actually were. We can tell ourselves that we listened to all the coolest music right as it was coming out. We can rewrite our histories until we emerge as their heroes, and reclassify as fantasy those atrocities that we cannot accept.

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