The shady role of MKUltra in Stranger Things season 2: Government experiments, hypnosis, and mind control

Get ready, because I’m about to talk about something that sounds like the most insane conspiracy theory, but I assure you: all of this really happened. MKUltra, the shady scientific program that gave Eleven her powers and is almost definitely going to return in Stranger Things season 2, is just the kind of over-the-top initiative you’d expect for an amoral scientific think-tank. The fictional version of MKUltra uses the white-haired Dr Brenner and Hawkins Laboratory to carry out bizarre experiments, but the real-world version wasn’t all that different. 

To be blunt, MKUltra is the kind of thing that drives conspiracy theorists wild. At the height of the Cold War, from the 1950s to the early-70s, the CIA begun their MKUltra program and experimented on American citizens, dosing them with LSD and other drug cocktails without their knowledge or consent. The whole point of the program was to find out if you could develop drugs that could be used for mind-control (I promise I’m not making this up) as the government became increasingly paranoid about the activities of other foreign superpowers like Russia. MKUltra wasn’t restricted to suspiciously vague government departments either. Experiments took place in colleges, universities, hospitals, prisons, and pharmaceutical companies - as well as in the CIA. CIA agents had to stay on their toes; at one party a bottle of Cointreau was spiked with LSD. Even in day-to-day activities at the intelligence agency “surprise acid trips become something of an occupational hazard”. When the goings-on of MKUltra were finally uncovered in 1974, it was revealed that amidst the panic following the Watergate scandal most of the CIA documents had been deliberately destroyed. As far as government cover-ups go, MKUltra is one of - if not the - biggest. 

New characters, new powers?

As far as conspiracies go, MKUltra is a colossus, so it’s no wonder that it crops up in Stranger Things as the source of Eleven’s powers. Midway through season 1, Hopper finds out that Eleven’s mother Terry Ives is one of MKUltra’s test subjects, as photos and news articles from the ‘70s show her in the Hawkins laboratory with Dr Brenner (or Papa, as Eleven calls him). The same articles mention that as part of the experiment she was shut up in sensory deprivation tanks whilst on enough LSD to make her see troupes of pink elephants. After apparently miscarrying her unborn child, Terry sued the government once the program is over, believing they had stolen her baby. Because unknown to Terry, the experiments affected Eleven in foetus form and led to her being born with psychokinesis, making her the perfect test subject for Dr Brenner to raise, using her powers to spy on the Russians. Yet the 011 tattooed on her arm implies she wasn’t the first (or last) test subject to be poked and prodded by the Hawkins laboratory. Which leads me to wonder: could Dr Brenner have other children hidden away? 

After all, the official description for Stranger Things season says “when terrifying supernatural forces once again begin to affect Hawkins, they realize Will's disappearance was only the beginning”. So it looks like we should expect to see some more unnatural goings-on, meaning that MKUltra’s other experiments might feature more heavily. So far we know that four new central characters are going to appear in Stranger Things season 2, and whilst three of them are called Roman, Max, and Billy, the fourth remains a mystery. Many already think that this enigmatic fourth character could be the next test subject in Hawkins Laboratory (possibly named Twelve?), meaning they could have odd powers like Eleven. 

After all, the official description for Stranger Things season 2 says “when terrifying supernatural forces once again begin to affect Hawkins, they realize Will's disappearance was only the beginning”. Infected pumpkins, large arachnid-like creatures in the Upside Down, and topsy-turvy tunnels all indicate that the Upside Down is definitely back, meaning that MKUltra’s other equally unnatural experiments might feature more heavily too. So far we know that four new central characters are going to appear in Stranger Things season 2. While three of them are called Roman, Max, and Billy, the fourth remains a mystery. Many already think that this enigmatic fourth character could be the next test subject in Hawkins Laboratory (possibly named Twelve?), meaning they could have odd powers like Eleven. 

But the character with powers might not be a child at all, but an adult - let’s not forget that new character Roman, played by Linnea Berthelsen, has a “drug-addicted mother” and enigmatically “suffered a great loss at an early age and has been seeking revenge ever since”. Maybe Roman wants revenge upon the Powers That Be for getting her mum addicted to drugs, or perhaps they lost a close friend to the MKUltra tests. 

Eleven was just the beginning

So, assuming they don’t have telekinesis, what powers might this new supernatural character have? Well, declassified documents surrounding MKUltra say that hypnosis was studied in the early 1950s, so the first obvious super-powered candidate is a top-class hypnotist. I’m imagining a blindfolded pre-teen being walked around in the same hospital gown as Eleven, with the blindfold only loosened when he or she is in a testing room, escorted only by blind employees who can’t be hypnotised. Of course, the room would have a two-way mirror as they’d be able to hypnotise anyone through normal glass, as I’m guessing that Dr Brenner would quickly realise it requires a lot of forethought to keep control of someone who can bend others to their will by merely glancing at them. Granted, hypnotising someone would require direct face-to-face contact, but once they made eye contact they’d definitely be as dangerous as Eleven. 

But MKUltra wasn’t just interested in hypnosis. Notes from way back in 1955 say that part of MKUltra was devoted to the discovery of “materials and methods” which can cause paralysis. In the eyes of the CIA powers which can cause targets to fall limp could be just as useful as psychokinesis, especially as MKUltra (and Stranger Things) took place during the Cold War when there was intense focus on manipulating foreign leaders and undermining their ability to lead. Just imagine how many people would doubt their leader if he or she suddenly fell in the middle of giving a speech, or had to sit out during tense political negotiations because they’d been paralysed. What if there was another test subject who got given these paralytic drugs when she was pregnant and gave birth to a child who can paralyse others at will? 

Before I get too far into the realm of fantasy, Matt and Ross Duffer have said in an interview that they “wanted the supernatural element to be grounded in science in some way”, so I doubt they’d write a character who just has to look at someone to make them slump to the ground. The Poison Dart Frog can poison people with one touch thanks to the toxins which seep through their skin, so maybe this child could paralyse by touch too - through chemical saliva, oils in their skin, or instinctively knowing the nerve hotspots they’d have to touch to render someone limp. One of the episodes is called The Tadpole, so who knows, maybe this isn’t far off the mark. 

Eagle-eyed test subjects

Another aim of the MKUltra program was to create “substances which increase the efficiency of mentation and perception”. Mentation is just a fancy word for thinking, so it sounds like the CIA had someone in mind who could process information far quicker than the normal human. Considering that the eighth episode of season 2 is called The Brain, maybe Dr Brenner has a child like this hidden away as it sounds like a plausible code name for someone who has some serious mental skills. Imagine someone who noticed everything - every twitch in your face, when your breathing picked up slightly, seemingly innocuous details about your clothing or complexion. They’d be like Sherlock Holmes on overdrive, drawing accurate conclusions about what people have been up to which makes it seem like they’re psychic but in reality are based on having a forensic perception skill. 

Such extreme perceptiveness also fulfils the chief goal of MKUltra’s successor, MKSEARCH: to create a perfect truth drug. Instead of a drug, imagine having someone this observant sit in on interrogations. They’d easily determine whether someone’s telling the truth. Perhaps they’d look innocuous and be sat taking notes, or watching through a two-way mirror. Hawkins laboratory have undercover agents already, so visits to unwitting citizens by not one but two plumbers or social care workers wouldn’t look amiss (although you can bet having one of them staring constantly might be a bit unnerving and very noticeable).

But as the ultimate goal of MKUltra was mind control, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that the most powerful test subject would be someone who could control people. Not via hypnosis or Dr Brenner’s low-key charm, but instead using their voice - dipping their tone and cadence in such a way that people can’t refuse their requests, kind of like the ultimate persuasive technique, but with a supernatural edge. Almost like Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave. Most of you are probably familiar with that commanding tone parents take that makes you jump to attention. Similarly this child would instinctively know the precise intonation they should use to get people to do what they say, or how to discreetly plant ideas in their head, just like the Bene Gesserit from Dune.

So there are my wild speculations about what other MKUltra-induced powers could be in store for us in Stranger Things season 2. With the Upside Down due to make a bigger appearance in the next season, hypnosis, paralysis by touch, or mind control might not even be the weirdest things we see on screen. If you have any theories of your own, put them in the comments below! 

Zoe Delahunty-Light

While here at GamesRadar, Zoe was a features writer and video presenter for us. She's since flown the coop and gone on to work at Eurogamer where she's a video producer, and also runs her own Twitch and YouTube channels. She specialises in huge open-world games, true crime, and lore deep-dives.