Life was already weird enough in Hawkins, Indiana, but when season 3 of Netflix’s Stranger Things dropped on July 4th, things ratcheted up a notch. The small town that played host to the Upside Down is now the home of a Russian invasion that brings with it a mysterious “truth serum” with very bizarre side effects. Like many other aspects of Stranger Things, this truth serum has roots in real science, even if the details are a bit fuzzy.
Spoilers for Stranger Things Season 3 ahead.
The “flea-on-a-tight-rope” analogy used to explain the existence of the Upside Down checks out, and the same can be said about the strange truth serum. After they’re injected by Russian agents, Steve and Robin go on to spill their secrets and experience wild symptoms, including trippy hallucinations and the munchies.
In real life, we’ve fallen very short of creating a true truth serum. But that’s not to say that we haven’t given it a try.
Is The Truth Serum a Barbiturate?
Going off of the symptoms experienced by Steve and Robin, they may have been injected with some type of barbiturate — a class of central nervous system depressants. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, barbiturates were used as tranquilizers to treat anxiety, insomnia, and epilepsy. Today, these drugs have been largely replaced by another class of drugs called benzodiazepines, which include Xanax.
Perhaps the most famous barbiturate is sodium pentothal (also called sodium thiopental), which was used not only as a general anesthetic but as a truth serum, owing to its apparent ability to lessen inhibition and increase compliance. During World War II, sodium pentothal was used to coerce soldiers to discuss memories during psychological consultations). However, the drug has been used as a method to try to get people to spill their experiences as recently as 2007 in India.
Barbiturates create experiences that, according to a 2016 paper by Indian researchers, are “sedative and hypnotic which produce feelings of serenity, of well being [or] of friendliness” when the drug is administered in light doses. They can be deadly, however, at a higher dose. It was a barbiturate overdose that killed Marilyn Monroe.
A CIA report on the history of “truth serums” notes that a person injected with a barbiturate “goes through all the stages of progressive drunkenness” in minutes:
Outwardly the sedation effect is dramatic, especially if the subject is a psychiatric patient in tension. His features slacken, his body relaxes. Some people are momentarily excited; a few become silly and giggly. This usually passes, and most subjects fall asleep, emerging later in disoriented semi-wakefulness.
These effects somewhat align with the experiences that Steve and Robin have while under the influence of truth serum (at least the giggly, stoner-like behavior). However, the effect of barbiturates falls short of explaining some of the more dramatic visual sensations that the duo experience.
This discrepancy points to another government-sponsored project intended to extract the truth that Stranger Things has drawn from in the past.
Is the Truth Serum LSD?
In the early ‘50s, the CIA began a notorious project now referred to as MK-Ultra. In those experiments, the US government, in search of a way to extract information from Soviet spies, turned to LSD as a potential truth serum, though things didn’t turn out as planned.
As part of the MK-Ultra project, the CIA conducted 149 experiments on hundreds of subjects, including 25 subjects who had no idea what they what were being dosed with. In an obituary of Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA’s project lead, The New York Times reported that one Kentucky man was dosed with LSD continuously for 179 days.
LSD is a hallucinogenic drug that causes altered states of consciousness as well as a sense of “one-ness” with the universe or an overwhelming feeling of sensory overload. One theory is that the hallucinations caused by LSD are due to the way the drug can change patterns of neuron firing in the visual cortex. It was used in the MK-Ultra experiments as an attempt to brainwash subjects.
MK-Ultra has made an appearance in Stranger Things before. Eleven’s mother, for instance, was part of the MK-Ultra psychiatric experiments. In the show, those experiments caused her lasting psychological harm and imbued her daughter with telekinetic abilities.
LSD’s hallucinogenic symptoms more closely match up with what Steve and Robin experience. Additionally, LSD trips can last for hours, which fits with the Season 3 timeline.
The biggest discrepancy is that the timing doesn’t quite match up. The CIA discontinued its experiments in 1973, over ten years before the events of Stranger Things season 3 take place.
But weirder things than using an outdated truth serum have been known to happen in Hawkins. So, it isn’t much of a stretch to say that LSD or even barbiturate dosing may still have been happening under the radar.