The latest Stranger Things 4 trailer promises plenty of chaos in the California sun. But a far more important locale, one intimately tied to the happenings in Hawkins, Indiana, remains as relevant as ever to the show. The Soviet Union and the United States are still fighting the Cold War. That power struggle is the reason Dr. Martin Brenner began his research into children with incredible powers. Now the newly released list of Stranger Things 4 episode titles points to the show introducing Nina Kulagina, the real-life Russian woman who not only inspired Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven, but whose claims of psychic powers led the U.S. government to launch its own research into telekinetic abilities.
Netflix’s “Title Tease” video features the name for every Stranger Things 4 episode. Unlike past seasons, this crop of nine titles features revealing information, like “Dear Billy,” “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab,” and “Papa.” But the most interesting is episode five, “The Nina Project.” On a show where the U.S. and USSR battle over psychokinesis supremacy, that can only refer to Nina Kualgina, an infamous figure of the Cold War.
Kulagina, a former member of the Red Army tank regiment and housewife, stopped a frog’s heart on May 10, 1970. That would not have been particularly noteworthy had she not claimed to do it with her mind. She followed that up by using her apparent psychic powers to increase the heart rate of a skeptical doctor. When his heart began beating at a “dangerous” level authorities quickly halted the display.
This was not the only time Kulagina showed off her abilities. She also used her mind to move other objects, like matchsticks and egg yolks floating in water. And she claimed she’d always had these powers, which she said she inherited from her mother. Researchers around the world knew about her in the early ’60s. But the May 10th recording stands out for what it led to. Eventually, the tape made its way into the hands of the U.S. government. Debate ensued over whether it was legitimate or not. Had the Soviets really unlocked the secrets of ESP? Or did they simply want American forces to think they did? Making your enemy worry about—and therefore possibly devote resources to—an imaginary strength has incredible value.
Ultimately the true intent of the tape’s release is less important than what each country did because of Kulagina and the promise of true psychic power. The USSR really was researching the potential of telekinetic ability at the time they made that tape. And it had been for years. The CIA finally began doing its own similar research in 1972. Then in 1977, right around the time the fictional Dr. Brenner began working with Eleven and other supernaturally powered kids on Stranger Things, it handed over the program to the Defense Intelligence Agency. Under DIA the research became known as Project Stargate, America’s answer to the Soviet Union’s extra sensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis program.
Project Stargate, which ended in 1995, is no longer a big secret. The U.S. declassified millions of files about the program in 2017. There’s even a Q&A section about it on the CIA’s official website. And yet, the whole thing sounds made up. As History.com writes, Stargate “recruited men and women claiming to have powers of extrasensory perception (ESP) to help uncover military and domestic intelligence secrets.”
Yes, the U.S. government really hired people who claimed they could “see” across huge distances with their minds. That included “looking” into secret places inside the USSR while standing on the West Coast of America. Or “finding” terrorist groups and missing planes across the globe. But the project didn’t limit itself to only terrestrial investigations. In the ’80s the program even had someone “examine” Mars.
That all sounds totally absurd. And yet the most unbelievable part of the program is its final assessment which said ESP is real. Here’s the CIA on Stargate’s findings:
“That report’s conclusion—which echoed the assessments of the CIA officers involved in the program during the 1970s—was that enough accurate remote viewing experiences existed to defy randomness, but that the phenomenon was too unreliable, inconsistent, and sporadic to be useful for intelligence purposes. We decided not to restore the program.”
The official stance of the United States of America’s Central Intelligence Agency is that psychic powers exist, they just aren’t reliable enough to exploit. Was Nina Kulagina a fraud? Almost certainly. Regardless of her talents, real or faked, though, she is partially responsible for making the world’s two Superpowers invest resources into exploring ESP. Nina Kulagina is also partially responsible for inspiring Stranger Things‘ story.
We’ve previously covered how Stranger Things draws on the U.S. government’s vile MKUltra program. That project, also in response to Soviet fears, focused on mastering mind control. It involved experimenting on “volunteers” and unwitting subjects, much like Eleven and the other kids at Hawkins Lab. But the parallels between the horror series and Project Stargate are even more direct.
Dr. Brenner had Eleven, living in Indiana, use her powers to look at military targets in the USSR. To do that she needed a deprivation chamber to focus her mind and her senses, just like Kulagina who claimed she needed time to focus her own mind to harness her telekinetic “powers.” And like the participants of Stargate—a moniker likely the inspiration behind the name of Hawkins’ Starcourt mall—Eleven and the other kids were assets meant to be weapons in the Cold War.
Unfortunately for Brenner, Eleven accidentally opened a portal to the Upside Down. If that happened in real life the CIA hasn’t told us yet. But Stranger Things 4‘s “The Nina Project” has already told us so much and helped us learn about Kulagina. At the very least it highlights how the horror series has been pulling from Project Stargate since its first episode. Whether we will meet a fictional version of the real woman who inspired Eleven is a question we can’t answer yet. We’re not psychic. As far as we know.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.