Is Hawkins Laboratory real? The bizarre conspiracy theory that inspired Stranger Things
On Montauk Point, the eastern most tip of Long Island, sits Camp Hero, a 400-acre wooded state park. During World War II, it was a crucial, heavily fortified military base, with two 16-inch canons that protruded from the bluff and pointed out to sea, and a huge radar tower erected at its centre.
The base was decommissioned in 1981, but the radar still stands, like an ominous, industrialised wicker man that looms over the park. It’s straight out of the X-Files, which is fitting, because Camp Hero is home to one of the darkest conspiracy theories in US history – the “Montauk Project”.
For Long Island native and filmmaker Christopher P. Garetano, finding the truth behind it (or beneath, we should say) has been a lifelong obsession. It began when he was a child. While walking up the beach at Montauk, a military guard appeared from nowhere to turn him away.
“I didn’t even realise there was a base there,” he recalls. “It’s difficult to even see the radar tower behind the thick foliage in the summertime if you’re not looking in the right direction. But I was stopped by this guard, and I always wondered what that was. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I heard the legends.”
In 2015, Garetano released his documentary The Montauk Chronicles, based on 10 years’ worth of research, and more recently continued his investigation for the History Channel series, The Dark Files. And he’s not the only one hooked by the conspiracy theory. The legends of Montauk – experiments on children, alien abductions, time travel, psychic powers, journeys to the far side of the galaxy, mind-bending drug tests, and monsters conjured out of thin air – were also the original inspiration for Stranger Things.
In fact, “Montauk” was the original working title for the show, and early drafts of Matt and Ross Duffer’s script set the story in the fishing town of Montauk, before they shifted the story to the fictional suburb of Hawkins, Indiana. They were also not alone: while the Duffer Brothers maintain that they had been working on a film on the topic since 2010, they are currently facing trial over a lawsuit submitted by Charlie Kessler, who alleges that they based Stranger Things on a feature film script he wrote called The Montauk Project, which Kessler says is home to “various urban legends, and paranormal and conspiracy theories.” The trial is set to begin on May 6.
In case you’re not getting the psychic messages currently beaming your way, here’s a quick refresher of the show: psychic girl Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) undergoes experiments in a government lab, which opens a portal to the “Upside Down”, a terrifying parallel dimension, and unleashes a flesh-hungry monster. The second season – which starts this week on Netflix – promises more skull-bursting telekinesis, inter-dimensional Demogorgons, and upside-downery.
As the legend of Montauk goes, tests just like those carried out on Eleven happened in secret bunkers below Camp Hero. The stories are commonly thought to have started with the book The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time by Preston B. Nichols and Peter Moon, a novel about the supposed events. Nichols claims to be an electrical engineer who worked on the project in real-life.
“As I say in the book,” he tells Garetano in Dark Files, “you can believe it as fact, or you can believe it as science fiction.” Nichols’ account, along with those from alleged time-traveller Al Bielek, and a handful of survivors make up the popular narrative of the Montauk conspiracy theories.
Children are said to have been abducted and subjected to horrific torture – with many of them dying – to create Manchurian Candidate-style super spies. According to Nichols, they were “shattering their minds, programming them, then putting them back together.”
The legend says – and this is where it gets really Stranger Things – that subjects were put in a hi-tech chair that could propel psychic powers through the radar, opening a vortex to other dimensions and timelines, or even manifest physical, rampaging monsters through the power of the mind.
The survivors of these experiments are known as the “Montauk Boys”, and the most famous of them is Stewart Swerdlow, a self-professed “Hyperspace Intuitive” who’s part alien abduction survivor, part new age healer (he’ll “de-programme” you from the government’s mind control for a cool $300). According to Swerdlow, alien beings snatched him while his parents were brainwashed; he was then experimented on at Camp Hero, and sent back in time on secret missions.
Another survivor, identified under the alias “James Bruce” in Garetano’s documentaries, recalls mind-bending drug tests in so-called “Acid Houses” at Camp Hero. The drugs, he says, could create psychic link with other subjects.
The whole thing sounds like an amalgamation of every major conspiracy theory. The only thing missing is JFK, though if you asked Swerdlow – a man who claims he was sent to biblical times to first assassinate, then get a blood sample from Jesus Christ himself – I’d bet my de-programming money that he’s claimed he was transported onto the grassy knoll that day.
“People say the legends originate with Preston Nichols’ book,” says Garetano. “They say he made it up and the book was fabricated. But I’ve spoken to people who lived on the base in the 1970s who never read the book, and they were hearing those stories about secret experiments back then… way before any books were ever written. So where did those stories come from?”
And more survivors come forward every year. “Something’s very consistent about the alleged victims,” says Garetano. “They seem broken to me. Whereas someone like Stewart Swerdlow is very rehearsed, and seems like he could be making it up to make money – and he has made a lot of money from this story – the people I find to be authentic are damaged. They live alone. They don’t have a lot. They’re afraid to tell the story.”
The US government does have a proven fascination in paranormal phenomenon and parapsychology. In January of this year, the CIA dumped over 13 million files online, revealing details of the agency’s “Stargate” programme, which ran from the 1970s to 1990s and involved tests into psychic abilities, research into UFOs, and a particular interest in “remote viewing” – seeing far-off objects or places with the mind. One file even attempts to document an attempt at astral projection to the surface of Mars.
But beneath the Stranger Things-esque – and let’s be rational for a moment, totally impossible – elements of the Montauk legend, perhaps it’s really an amalgamation of something else: very real US government conspiracies. As journalist and Dark Files co-investigator Steve Volk says, “The reason that Americans are so interested in conspiracy theories is that conspiracies happen.”
Between the 1930s and 1970s, the US authorities were responsible for some hideous experiments in the name of science and national security: the Tuskegee syphilis study, which duped African American men into being infected with the disease and left them untreated; MK Ultra, a secret CIA operation into “mind control” techniques for interrogation and torture, which administered drugs to unwitting civilians; and the experiments in Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison, where tests were carried out on prisoners’ skin using biochemical substances, including dioxin, a highly carcinogenic ingredient in Agent Orange.
“My thinking is, if happened in one place – or even two or three places – I wouldn’t put it past it happening at Camp Hero,” says Garetano. And with its already-dodgy track record, the US government testing drugs does sound credible next to aliens, monsters, and time travelling soldiers. “Survivors always talk about an injection being given to them,” says Garetano. “You can imagine that a highly experimental hallucinogen could cause them to think they’re seeing these things.”
There’s little hard evidence to corroborate first person accounts of the Montauk Project, of course, but there is something hidden at Camp Hero – quite literally.
In Garetano’s Dark Files investigation, geophysicists used electrical resistivity tomography to find evidence of what looks like a man-made, concrete structure 60ft below the ground. A local also came forward with photos and video footage, taken when he and friends broke into the base in the early 1990s, which captures tunnels and bunkers full of old electrical equipment below the base, including locked doors that would lead to even deeper secrets – none of which should be there, according to the official blueprints.
Photos were also taken inside the Acid Houses, with mysterious psychedelic patterns painted across the walls. And the radar tower is still cordoned off by a fence – the only part of Camp Hero officially off-limits for Garetano.
“There was a big resistance from the town to keep us away from the tower,” he says. “We couldn’t get permits to get anywhere past the fence. They were always checking on us.
Credit: Google Earth
“One afternoon when we were shooting Dark Files, there were suddenly about 100 members of the US Army core of engineers at the base conducting experiments on the ground, testing the soil, taking photos, drilling. It just so happened that on this cold December day, in the middle of nowhere, they were abruptly scheduled on the same day we had our permit. It was to keep us away.”
So what really happened at Camp Hero? Psychic superpowers and vortexes through time and space? Abducted children turned into super-spies? Or psychedelic drug tests and mind control experiments? It could be pure science fiction, or it there could be some truth in it, blown out of proportion by crackpot books and opportunist con men. A real conspiracy, perhaps, turned all the way up to Eleven.
Map of Montauk, Plum Island and Old Lyme below Pppl – Mick Raven