‘Stranger Things’: The True Story Behind Eleven’s Origins

The Netflix juggernaut Stranger Things premiered in July of 2016 and essentially introduced the world to binge-watching. Audiences watched as a monster snatched Will Byers away into another dimension, and the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, searched to find answers. Thankfully, Will made it safely back home, but that wasn’t the end of the story. 

In the next two seasons, a small group of teens and a couple of adults fought off supernatural monsters, evil Russians, and shady politicians. Now, we’re waiting on pins and needles for Stranger Things Season 4. However, there’s one question that several people have wondered over the years. Is Stranger Things based on a true story? The answer might surprise you.

'Stranger Things' star Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in a production still from season 1 with wires attached to her head while wearing a hospital gown
Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) | Netflix

Is ‘Stranger Things’ based on a true story?

While the overarching storyline of Stranger Things is 100% fiction, that doesn’t mean there aren’t tiny grains of truth peppered throughout the subplots. In 1953 the American government created a project known as MKUltra. The study used the drug LSD to test its effects on mind control. A large part of Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) backstory alludes to this and even goes as far as to mention the project by name. 

When Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) begins to investigate Will’s disappearance, it leads him to a woman named Terry Ives. When Hopper locates her, he learns that Terry is catatonic, but her sister Becky tells him it’s due to the trauma of her baby dying after she was born. Becky tells him that Terry often talked about secret CIA experiments like MKUltra, but she didn’t believe her. 

We later learn that Terry was a test subject in the project, and her child never died, unbeknownst to Becky. Instead, she was whisked away by Dr. Brenner so he could study her and her telekinetic powers. It eventually comes to light that Eleven is Terry’s daughter.

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‘Stranger Things’ and the Montauk Project

There’s no shortage of government conspiracies these days, but in the 1980s, one particular theory got some pretty serious traction. A secret study called the Montauk Project allegedly kidnapped kids with psychic abilities to train them for warfare. This fits Eleven’s story to a tee, but there’s no actual proof that any of this occurred in real life. 

Matt and Ross Duffer, the showrunners of Stranger Things, originally pitched a series titled Montauk. Eventually, this story evolved into the show we all know and love, but there were some key differences. For one, Montauk occurs in Long Island, New York, and not Indiana. Secondly, the show rewrote some of the characters like Steve Harrington, played by Joe Keery. Initially, Steve was much more of a villain, but Keery did such a great job with the role it led the Duffer Brothers to change some of his characteristics. Now he’s a fan favorite.

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The Duffer Brothers wanted to keep things grounded

While Stranger Things might be filled to the brim with supernatural aspects, there is somewhat of a true story underneath. The Duffer Brothers always wanted to have a healthy dose of science to go along with the science-fiction.

In an interview with The Rolling Stone, Matt Duffer said, “We wanted the supernatural element to be grounded in science in some way. As ridiculous as it is, the monster [in the alternate dimension] doesn’t come from a spiritual domain and it’s not connected to any religion. It made it scarier. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe in aliens and alternate dimensions.”

It looks like Stranger Things Season 4 is leaning even harder into the scarier elements of the series. Many fans have complained about the lack of scares in season 3, and the creators listened to their complaints. Several cast members have said the upcoming season is the scariest yet. Stranger Things Season 4 premieres in the summer of 2022.