NOTE THAT THIS ARTICLE WILL DEAL OPENLY WITH THE PLOT OF STRANGER THINGS SEASON 1, SO IF YOU HAVE NOT YET WATCHED IT THEN THIS IS YOUR ONE AND ONLY SPOILER WARNING
Unless you were living under a rock and/or don’t subscribe to Netflix, you know that the 2016 debut of the television show ‘Stranger Things’ was one of the surprise pop culture hits of the year. The story follows a small town in Indiana where a boy goes missing, a girl with supernatural abilities is found, and it all unfolds in the shadow of dark and mysterious government agents.
While I loved the show and would recommend it to anyone who likes a good sci-fi mystery, what really grabbed my attention was that those dark and mysterious government agents were from Hawkins National Laboratory—a fictional Department of Energy (DOE) laboratory. While DOE’s National Labs are often referred to as ‘crown jewels’ of national science and research, they are not fully understood by the general public. So even though Hawkins Lab is fictional (and sinister), ‘Stranger Things’ shined an unfamiliar light on DOE labs that are not usually recognized outside of the federal energy policy and energy technological research spheres.
With season 2 of ‘Stranger Things’ set to hit Netflix on October 27, 2017, I thought it would be fun to explore the similarities and differences that Hawkins Lab shares with the 17 real DOE labs across the United States. While DOE has already commented on how DOE doesn’t deal with monsters or evil scientists—isn’t that exactly what evil scientists who deal with monsters would say? Seems like some outside research is warranted.
In ‘Stranger Things,’ Hawkins National Laboratory is located in a federal complex in Hawkins, a fictional city in Indiana. Depending on where in Indiana the fictional Hawkins is located, since that is never made specific in the series, the closest DOE lab is either Argonne National Lab just outside of Chicago, Illinois, or Oak Ridge National Lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Either way, DOE has labs in the Midwestern states, making Indiana a realistic place for a National Laboratory.
City of Hawkins
The city of Hawkins, Indiana is portrayed to be a small city where everyone knows each other’s business and the local police force is a very small operation. Of the options that are near to Indiana in real life, this type of town is certainly more reminiscent of the town surrounding Oak Ridge National Lab, where the sum of employees, students, visiting scientists, and facility users is equal to over 35% the total city population. The city of Hawkins might even have a much larger population than the non-laboratory citizens realize if they are all housed inside the secret laboratory campus, making the parallels in type of location between Hawkins Lab a real DOE lab even stronger than they initially seem.
One note here is that, originally, the show was going to take place in Montauk on Long Island. If this were the case, it would have placed the setting of the show only 60 miles from Brookhaven National Laboratory, also on Long Island. It appears that even in an alternate dimension (something the kids in ‘Stranger Things’ know a lot about…) where the showrunners ran with Montauk as the location, Hawkins Lab was destined to be located in a place that mirrors where a real DOE lab might be.
Due to the secretive nature of Hawkins Lab, it is hidden in a forest, surrounded by a barbed wire fence and heavily guarded by security and police.
None of these lab complex features could be considered outside of the norm for various DOE labs:
- Argonne National Laboratory (not far from Indiana) is located in (and named after) the surrounding Argonne Forest.
- A number of the more secure DOE labs are noted by their security and perimeter control, using “barbed wire, chain-link fences, electronic sensors, and surveillance cameras,” while at the same time it isn’t unheard of for an unassuming local citizen to penetrate the complex (as Detective Hopper and Joyce do at the end of Season 1).
According to the bits of history peppered in during Season 1 of ‘Stranger Things,’ Hawkins Lab was created in the wake of World War II and the scientific endeavors sponsored by the U.S. government during that time. As was the case during the timeline of the show in the 1980s, Hawkins Lab was formed in secret due to the sensitive nature of the work going on there.
This aspect of Hawkins Lab is probably the most closely mirrored in actual DOE labs. The entire Department of Energy also traces its lineage back to the Second World War and the scientific pursuits of the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was the government sponsored effort to create the atomic bomb that ultimately brought World War II to an end. Specifically, DOE worked on the research and development of the atomic bomb in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico—present day homes to Oak Ridge National Lab, Hanford Site, and Los Alamos National Lab, respectively. Not only that, but DOE also notes that when the existence of the Manhattan Project and its various sites (accounting for 130,000 workers and $2.2 billion in spending) was made public, it came as a shock that the government was able to run such far-flung secret operations. Hey residents of Hawkins, Indiana, sound familiar?
While never stated explicitly, much of the subtext and fan speculation of ‘Stranger Things’ pins Hawkins lab as being controlled by the CIA– either with the DOE label as a cover or in tandem with the DOE due to the dubious nature of the operations and what would happen if the public found out. Hawkins is the location of the top secret experiments conducted by the U.S. government. Based on the specific projects we know about (discussed next), the mission of Hawkins appears to be pushing the boundaries of science and the understanding of physics by any (dubious) means necessary.
The mission of each particular DOE lab varies depending on the program office it serves. The 10 labs under the Office of Science support the advancement of “the science needed for revolutionary energy breakthroughs, seek to unravel nature’s deepest mysteries, and provide the Nation’s researchers with the most advanced large-scale tools of modern science.” The three labs under the National Nuclear Security Administration serve the mission of “enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science.” The missions of the remaining four labs include energy efficiency and security, national security, and the environment.
Based on these options, it seems reasonable that the mission of Hawkins Lab lines up with the mission of labs under DOE’s Office of Science—as both are focused on using DOE labs to advance science and solve the physical mysteries of the universe.
From creation in the 1950’s through the 1970’s, Hawkins was home for Project MKUltra, which exposed human subjects to psychedelic drugs and extreme isolation to test the boundaries of the human mind (the CIA actually did conduct a ring of experiments called MKUltra on that aligns with this type of description, though there was never any indication that the Department of Energy was involved).
One of the test subjects at Hawkins was pregnant while undergoing the experiments of MKUltra, leading to her daughter, who we only know as ‘Eleven’, to be born with telekinetic abilities. The discovery of her abilities led Eleven to be subject to intense testing and experimentation on those abilities. One discovered ability was to connect with other living creatures when she was placed in sensory deprivation, which the scientists at Hawkins worked to leverage to gain intel on a Russian enemy (the show takes place during the Cold War).
While conducting one of the tests on Eleven to gain access to the Russian enemy, Eleven encountered a mysterious monster-like creature (known in show lore as the Demogorgon) from another dimension, called the Upside Down. This discovery led the scientists to aggressively pursue and continue this line of experimentation on Eleven to gain more information about the Upside Down and the Demogorgon.
So in short, at Hawkins you have projects dealing with:
- Human test subjects;
- Telekinetic powers;
- Espionage on enemy nations; and
- Alternative dimensions containing scary monsters.
For the real-life DOE parallels, let’s break that down:
Human test subjects
Unfortunately, this aspect of projects at Hawkins Lab cannot be unequivocally declared to have no parallel to the DOE labs. The truth is that the Atomic Energy Commission, which became the Department of Energy in 1977, has a history of human experimentation. These shady tests dealt with the effects nuclear exposure had on humans, and a Freedom of Information Act inquisition revealed that DOE still to this day provides “healthcare to people in various Pacific Islands affected by nuclear tests.” So again, the origination of the labs and these tests comes from World War II era science, just like we learn is the case for Hawkins Lab.
The development or research into telekinesis is one aspect of the fictional Project MKUltra that does not appear to have any parallel in the DOE lab system. Though this must obviously come with a caveat of—well, if they did have such abilities, would we as the public necessarily know about it yet?
Espionage on enemy nations
If any sort of actual top-secret espionage activity had technology developed by DOE, odds are that information wouldn’t be publicly available and thus would not end up in this article. However, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) has billed itself as the ‘real’ Hawkins Lab and is responsible for “certifying the safety, security and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent in a post-nuclear-test-world.”
With their state-of-the-art supercomputers, radiochemistry team, and asteroid defense (too bad this is comparing DOE to ‘Stranger Things’ and not ‘Armageddon’), LLNL boasts that its scientists are responsible for “technical guidance to the policymakers who struck the recent Iran deal, they certify airport security equipment to ensure bad things don’t make it onto planes and they are cyber defenders tasked with thwarting attempts to bring down critical U.S. infrastructure.”
If these are the projects they are telling the public about, its only up to your imagination the types of projects that are considered hush-hush…
Alternative dimensions containing scary monsters
On DOE’s website, they admit that the closest DOE labs come to exploring parallel dimensions is contributing to various NASA technologies (such as nuclear batteries for deep space probes) to explore new worlds in this dimension. In contrast to that message, though, former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz did coyly tell Chelsea Handler on her talk show, when asked about whether DOE explores parallel universes like in ‘Stranger Things,’ that DOE’s support of basic science and theoretical physics “looks at things like higher dimensions than three dimensions, and parallel universes.” However, your mileage may vary on how directly to connect that type of research to Hawkins’ research into the Demogorgon and the Upside Down.
In its 40-year history, scientists associated with DOE have been bestowed many awards– including a host of Nobel prizes. Accounting for all of DOE and its predecessor agencies, science and research at DOE and DOE labs have accounted for 115 Nobel Laureates across the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology/medicine.
A key characteristic of Hawkins Lab is its intense secretiveness. As such, it is reasonable to assume that most revolutionary projects in the lab, whether the creation of a human with telekinetic powers or the ability to open up a rift to the Upside Down, are not public knowledge to the scientific community and thus have not received the Nobel prizes such discoveries surely would have warranted.
So if you take all that information in, and line it up side-by-side as I’ve done below, it becomes clear that the distance between real DOE labs and Hawkins Lab is not as far as DOE would want you to believe. But at the very least, we can breathe easy that it does not appear that the parallels that are still in existence today encompass any of the sinister motivations or human rights violations found in Hawkins Lab. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that no future FOIA’s reveal anything sinister, and, if anything, we simply find out that Barb was found safe and sound.
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Is there anything about Hawkins National Lab that I missed? Let me know! Also, I’ll do an update of deemed necessary once I’ve completed my binge of the second season. While everyone else is desperate to learn the fate of Barb, find out more about the Demogorgon, and watch to see if Will makes it out of the Upside Down alive, I’ll be glued to my TV to try and get a peek at the administrative structure of Hawkins Lab and find out which DOE Program Office it falls under! (Update: Read about what season 2 of ‘Stranger Things’ might be saying about DOE’s nuclear past and future!)
Sources and additional reading
About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.