The Weirdest Sci-Fi Movie on HBO Max Reveals an Even Stranger True Story

The Men Who Stare at Goats fictionalizes real-life attempts by the Pentagon into psychic powers.

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Running through walls, becoming invisible, and viewing faraway places with the power of your mind might sound like purely fantastical — and fictional — abilities. But they’re completely real for many of the characters in The Men Who Stare at Goats.

In the 2009 film, journalist Bob Wilton travels to war-torn Iraq to follow an intriguing lead. He gets wind from a source that there’s a secret U.S. Army program designed to create “super soldiers” who can harness the power of extrasensory perception (ESP) and wield a range of supernatural abilities.

Warning: Spoilers!

Sure enough, Wilton meets the central figures in the program, such as “psychic spy” Lyn Cassady and Lieutenant Bill Django, who leads the experimental New Earth Army. They give Wilton the scoop on their psychic powers — which includes one instance where Cassady killed a goat by simply staring at it.

While the film itself was meant to be a satirical comedy, the directors flash a statement across the screen just minutes into the film: “More of this is true than you would believe.”

Sure enough, The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on a real-life U.S. military program that took place in the 1970s and 80s. But was it enough to bring out psychic powers in ordinary people?

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War and Peace

The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on a book with the same title, written by journalist and filmmaker Jon Ronson. Ronson investigated the U.S. Army’s foray into the supernatural during the 1970s and 80s, after devastating losses in the Vietnam War.

During that time, “the Californian New Age Human Potential Movement was blossoming,” Ronson told NPR in a 2009 interview. “And the military, being quite sort of extreme, out-of-the-box thinkers anyway, took the craziest New Age ideas and tried to adopt these for the soldier.”

In the movie, fictional Lieutenant Bill Django organizes a group of soldiers called the New Earth Army. Their guiding principle is to bring about peace, not war, by harnessing the supernatural powers of the mind.

There’s no New Earth Army in real life, but there was once a manual written for a proposed group of soldiers called the First Earth Battalion. Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon, who inspired Django’s character, authored the manual in the 1970s.

Through illustrations and philosophical writings, the manual outlined his vision for a non-lethal organization of “Warrior Monks” who could use their physical and spiritual strengths to restore peace to Earth.

“The Battalion ‘mythology’ I developed was a creative thinking tool designed to encourage the young leaders in the army to think of new ways, with the aim of changing the nature of war and improving the chances of survival for all involved,” Channon wrote in a 2009 article for The Guardian.

But that wasn’t the military’s only foray into New Age concepts. Around the same time, the intelligence community got wind that the Soviet Union was working on parapsychology research. Fears that they could use psychic soldiers to steal information, subliminally influence behavior, or even psychologically harm soldiers began to escalate.

Cold War rivalry

Of course, anything the Soviets were capable of, the U.S. wanted to do better. So they funneled money into their own parapsychology experiments.

It started with investigations into psychokinesis and ESP at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in California. Then, in 1978, the Defense Intelligence Agency, in partnership with the SRI, began conducting top-secret research at Fort Meade in Maryland.

Today, these efforts are known as Project Star Gate (or the Stargate Project). The CIA has since declassified thousands of documents about the research — though at the time, government officials often denied it was happening.

Project Star Gate mainly sought to learn if the military could use remote viewing for intelligence gathering. Remote viewing is the ability to see or sense things happening far away.

A group of psychics and mediums were put to the test to carry out missions without leaving Fort Meade. In one instance, medium Angela Ford was asked to track down a fugitive in the 1980s by using remote viewing.

"My boss asked me, 'Where is Charles Jordan?' I said, 'The man is in Lowell, Wyoming.' And I spelled it: L-O-W-E-L-L,” Ford told CBS News in a 2018 interview. The man was 100 miles west of Lovell, Wyoming (with a V), though Ford recounts the attempt as a success.

Research for Project Star Gate continued until 1995, when an independent report from the American Institutes for Research concluded that there was no concrete evidence that remote viewing worked and that it added no real benefit for guiding intelligence operations.

The government didn’t completely stop looking into ESP after Project Star Gate ended, though. Navy researchers in 2014 looked into premonition and intuition, or the idea that people have a “sixth sense” about something before it happens.

And outside of government research, ESP has long been a subject of interest –—and debate — in the academic community. While some claim to have evidence that it exists, many cite flawed study designs and inability to reproduce results as reasons to be skeptical.

A controversial field

Today, research into ESP typically happens in the field of parapsychology. Parapsychology is widely regarded as a pseudoscience, but there are still a few academic labs and groups that actively probe the questions of the supernatural.

“The consensus within parapsychology, I think, ranges from totally convinced [the paranormal] exists … to gentle skepticism, open-mindedness, and just not knowing,” Susan Blackmore, an author and former parapsychologist who now considers herself skeptic, tells Inverse.

In order for skeptics to believe that ESP is real, there’d have to be convincing evidence. As it stands, Blackmore says the studies that attempt to demonstrate its existence are often riddled with statistical errors. And when experiments are replicated, researchers often don’t get the same results every time, which sheds scientific doubt on the weight of supernatural claims.

If one day parapsychologists did find convincing evidence of ESP, it would also pose a challenge to many of the fundamental theories posed in physics and psychology that are based on centuries of research, Blackmore says. Hence why many scientists outside of parapsychology just don’t touch it.

The problem right now is that the paranormal can’t be explained reliably in scientific terms. That poses a challenge to many researchers — but isn’t necessarily a problem for believers in ESP.

“There's a million reasons why people go on believing,” Blackmore says. “We skeptics aren’t not even going to try to persuade people it doesn't exist.”

However, if a theory of the paranormal was proposed one day, and had some preliminary evidence to prove it was viable, that could change things. It would have to be not just a plausible idea, but testable as well, Blackmore says. In that scenario, “I think a lot of scientists would jump to go back into it,” she argues.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is currently streaming on HBO Max.

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