Stranger Things is one of Netflix's biggest hits to date. There are several aspect of the show that make it so popular, from the character driven story, to the 1980s nostalgia, to the "government labs creating telekinetic children" science fiction that was really popular in that '80s time period. Stranger Things bases that plot on the real life CIA "Project MKUltra" experiments. Now Netflix has a new series called Wormwood, which also focuses on MKUltra and an American biological warfare scientist name Frank Olson. But who is Frank Olson in real life? What did he have to do with MKUltra? And could he have been responsible for a kid like Eleven existing?
Let's back up a moment and talk about what MKUltra was. It was the official name of a government program run by the CIA. Unofficially that program was known as "the CIA's mind control program," where it ran illegal experiments both U.S. and Canadian citizens, exposing "patients" to mind-altering drugs, most notably LSD. It was rumored to have grown out of programs that were started after WWII, some of which included hiring former Nazi scientists.
According to the records, the program was sanctioned in 1953, and over the next 20 years conducted extensive research on if illegal drugs could be used to create "super-soldiers" or "perfect spies". It was a total failure, and halted completely by 1973.
What does that have to do with Wormwood? The six part miniseries is a docudrama, based on the real life story of Frank Olson. It is told from the perspective of Eric Olson, Frank's son, interviewed by director Errol Morris.
Olson is searching for answers about what happened to his father and if he committed suicide, as is claimed, or if he was murdered. Frank Olson died in November of 1953, only a few months after Project MKUltra started. Prior to his death, he worked for the CIA as a bacteriologist and biological warfare scientist at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
Here's the facts as are presented to us in the miniseries: Frank Olson's boss worked for Project MKUltra. On Nov. 19, 1953, Frank went to a meeting held out in rural Maryland, where his boss covertly dosed him with LSD. As this was a time before informed consent laws were as they are now, Olson was not aware that he was the subject of an experiment or that he was being dosed with anything.
What happened next is not clear. Olson probably had what's known as "a very bad trip." What we do know is this: nine days later on Nov. 28, 1953, Frank Olson jumped to his death in New York City, out a hotel window, falling 13 stories.
His death was ruled a suicide. His family knew nothing about him being dosed with LSD just beforehand, the MKUltra experiments, or anything that had happened. Eric just knew his father had jumped to his death.
In 1973, in a government panic induced by Watergate, much of the now-closed down MKUltra files were destroyed, but not enough of them. In 1974, the New York Times dropped a bombshell piece alleging the crimes conducted by the CIA in the name of these experiments. This caused congress to hold hearings, and a year later in 1975, what was known as the "congressional Church Committee" working with the presidential Rockefeller Commission, reported that this extensive program had indeed been conducted. Moreover, they revealed that "at least one subject" had died as a result of these deaths. That death was Frank Olson.
The CIA continues to this day to insist that Olson was not murdered, but that his suicide was an unfortunate outcome of being dosed with LSD in such a terrible manner.
Eric Olson is not so sure. As he notes in the series, there was a 19-page CIA manual from 1953, called A Study of Assassination, which contained the following instruction:
Was Frank Olson's death a suicide? Was it murder? Wormwood dives in to find out. It's streaming on Netflix now.