Is Dr Brenner from Stranger Things based on a real person? Meet real MK Ultra scientist

Stranger Things season 4 official trailer from Netflix

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Dr Brenner (played by Matthew Modine) is a looming presence in Stranger Things as the chief scientist running experiments at the Hawkins Lab. Throughout the series, he’s presented as a callous researcher determined to crack the mind regardless of the human cost. Hawkins Lab and Dr Brenner might be fictitious entities dreamt up by Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brother, however, the writers very much took their cue from history.

Is Dr Brenner from Stranger Things based on a real person?

The duo was inspired by the Stephen King novel Firestarter, which saw several characters on the run from shadowy state agents after taking part in government experiments.

Although the paranormal elements are fictional, the experiments had echoes of the very real MK-Ultra project.

MK-Ultra was part of the US government’s efforts to gain a military edge over the USSR during the Cold War and involved human experimentation, including giving patients drugs such as LSD and administrating electric shocks in the hopes of unlocking the human mind for the purposes of espionage.

The project was all about how to control and manipulate the human mind, trying to protect any prisoners of war from divulging state secrets.

Running between 1953 and 1973, much of the evidence and documentation around MK-Ultra was destroyed, but some of it remains and offered a disturbing insight into the lengths the US government went to as part of their warfare strategy.

After the truth came out about MK Ultra, there were even meetings held in Congress to ensure these sorts of experiments – which contravened the Nuremberg Code – could never happen again.

Nonetheless, there are records of various institutions across America running MK-Ultra experiments, some of these tests are mentioned in Stranger Things such as immersion tanks and sensory deprivation.

The aim of MK-Ultra was to develop effective psychological warfare against the enemy.

These experiments not only come up in the show but are also explored in the official prequel novel Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds (2019) by author Gwenda Bond, whose book explores the backstory of Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) mother Terry Ives (Aimee Mullins) and how she became one of Dr Brenner’s lab rats.

Suspicious Minds is set 20 years before the events of the show with the Vietnam War in full force as the Cold War spills into live conflict.

The story follows Terry as she comes into Dr Brenner’s sphere and he carries out experiments on her and ultimately comes into possession of her child Eleven.

While writing Suspicious Minds, Bond was given free rein on the novel and received advice from the programme-makers who were working on season three at the time.

Speaking exclusively to, author Bond said of the depiction of MK-Ultra in the Stranger Things universe: “Based on my research and reading, I think it’s very tangible and real. And for my book, I tried to make it the same way, to use the same kind of things they would have used: sensory deprivation tanks.

“So there obviously are leaps here and there, but I think a lot of it is a fair depiction of what might have been going on in some of these cases – or certainly what people wanted to do. There were definitely a lot of proponents of this kind of junk science and parapsychology.”

While it’s unclear whether the Duffer Brothers based Dr Brenner on a real-life figure, they were also certainly a lot of scientists working on these government-sanctioned, CIA-sponsored projects involving unethical human experimentation on unwitting test subjects who may have inspired the writers.

One such figure was Dr Harris Isbell, the Director of the Addiction Research Center at the Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, who conducted various barbaric experiments on drug addicts and inmates.

According to a paper from Arcadia University titled Was It All Just A Hallucination? The CIA’s Secret LSD Experiments, Dr Isbell and his cohorts exploited people who had been admitted to the hospital.

Their subjects were addicts hoping to kick their drug habit, but instead there were offered heroin to “volunteer” in these experiments.

There was no consideration for either ethics or indeed his test subjects. In one experiment, Dr Isbell and his associates administered subjects with LSD for 77 days straight to monitor the effects.

At the time, the US government was fearful of the USSR capturing soldiers and giving them LSD to extract information, so a key part of Isbell’s experiments was about developing a tolerance to the drug.

Much like Dr Brenner, Dr Isbell’s experiments amounted to human torture in the supposed advancement of science and psychological warfare.

Reflecting on writing about the villainous scientist, Bond said: “My only direction on Dr Brenner, my main direction, was to keep him a little mysterious. Like we didn’t want to fill in everything.

“So I suspect we will get more this season. I just to think my way into him based on the research and what these guys were like, obviously based on the way he carries himself.”

She went on to say: “It’s interesting, I did a panel with Matthew Modine and he was telling me about developing that character and how the vision for him was a little bit different at first.

“He said, ‘I want to be like Carey Grant in North By Northwest, wear suits and be very precise and buttoned-up.’

“And we see even more of that precision of everything in his home at the beginning of those eight minutes [of season four] and I feel good about that because that was very much my vision of him that he is someone who likes order. He likes people who follow his rules and he likes things to be a certain way.”

Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond is available to buy now

Stranger Things season 4 part 2 will be released on Netflix on July 1

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