Stranger Montauk

How did the hit Netflix show "Stranger Things" take its cues from the real-world legends of Montauk? Let's dive deep into a secret backstory involving reptoids, radar systems, demagorons, and a landscape haunted by the Cold War. . . . 

 

Expectations are high for the second season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, slated to premiere at Halloween, but as viewers eagerly await the return of Eleven, Mike, and the rest of the gang, many on the East End might be surprised to learn that much of the inspiration for the hit series was found in our own backyard.

Matt and Ross Duffer, the producers of the show, originally sold it to Netflix under the title Montauk, because back in the 1960s and 1970s, the sleepy seaside hamlet at the far end of East Hampton Town was supposedly home to some real-life stranger things. We are among those desperate to get another dose of 1980s supernaturalism, so we thought this was an opportune moment to take a look at a few of the similarities between the show and the folklore of the End.

Let’s start with the sinister laboratory at the center of the plot. 

The idea for the Hawkins National Lab was siphoned from the wellspring of rumors surrounding the Air Force base just west of the Montauk Light. If you haven’t seen the place, you’ve probably heard the stories. The isolated tract of land, high on the bluffs, had been used by the military as long ago as World War I, an era when dirigibles flew over the Atlantic and eyes were trained on the sea for enemy ships.

In 1942, the location was refashioned into a coastal-defense fort, with huge, 16-inch gun batteries connected by underground tunnels. As the saying went, the guns were never “fired in anger,” but the tremendous booming sound of fire practice would rattle dishes in kitchen cabinets as far away as Amagansett. 

During the war, men from the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard were all garrisoned there, living in what appeared to be charming shingled Cape Cod cottages. In fact, the whole camp was styled to look like a fishing village from the air; the soldiers’ gym was disguised inside a church. The camp remained under Army command until the 1950s, when it was turned over to the Air Force for use as a radar and NORAD air-defense facility (see: giant satellite dish), before eventually being decommissioned in 1980.


The radar tower in 1958, when it was installed.

In 1984, the federal government tried to sell the base at auction, with the highest bid coming in at a measly $1.9 million for about 300 oceanside acres. The town, though, had a different vision for the site. Hoping to turn it into affordable housing and parkland, they blocked the sale. However, with no funds immediately available for the project, the land sat vacant for more than a decade, a ghost town haunted by teenagers — and who knows what else — after dark. The abandoned property was understandably irresistible to kids, who would creep through the surrounding underbrush to explore the underground gun-emplacement bunkers.  The ultimate secret clubhouses, these bunkers looked from the outside like grass-covered hills, but on the inside were in fact damp, dark caverns, with eerie remnants of a bygone era: empty filing cabinets, broken bottles, and heavy chains whose purpose invited bug-eyed fantasy. Over it all loomed the shadow of the 150-foot-high Cold War radar tower, with an oblong screen that had once scanned the skies for a radius of 200 miles, seeking Russian aircraft or incoming missiles. 

Odd theories began to surface about what had taken place there, including whispers about something called “the Montauk Project,” a top-secret program in which — so said the conspiracy theorists — techniques were developed for psy-ops, teleportation, time-travel, extraterrestrial communication, and . . .  insert your own sci-fi cliché here.

An Air Force guide to Camp Hero and Montauk, for servicemen, from the early 1960s is among the many primary sources in the archive of The East Hampton Star.

Fringe websites dedicated to the Montauk Project conspiracy, and there are more than a few, claim to have proof that everything from mind control to alien contact took place at the spooky bluff-top compound. Walking around the old base it is not difficult to see how these fantastic stories came about. The beautiful but desolate landscape has every requisite feature of an RKO set, complete with foggy cliffs, a murky governmental and military history, broken-down bits of old equipment decaying in the woods and dells, and a giant Orwellian radar tower to boot. The only thing missing is the shark-filled moat. 

As far as what believers think went on inside Camp Hero’s buildings, most of which are now gone, the story gets even murkier. In 1992, a man named Preston Nichols published a book in which he claimed to reveal hidden accounts of subjects who had been experimented on in Montauk. Most notable among these subjects was Al Bielek, a supposed survivor of “the Philadelphia Project.” Bielek claimed he and his brother Duncan had been the subject of Camp Hero experiments in the 1970s. In the book, Bielek explained that Duncan possessed “extreme psychic powers” that researchers attempted to exploit and strengthen through electromagnetic conduction in a piece of furniture called the “Montauk Chair.”

It is an established fact that the U.S. Army attempted to harness psychic powers with a wild, laughable, top-secret training program launched around 1979 (see: Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats), but it is unknown if the Air Force participated in any such endeavors or if anything of the sort ever happened in Montauk. In the archives of The East Hampton Star a half-dozen thick manila folders hold clippings and primary-source material relating to the base, dating back to W.W. II, but the information is disappointingly unsupernatural. Apart from a single reference to the psychedelic décor on the walls of an officers’ clubhouse mentioned in one late-1960 news clipping, there is little evidence that anything mind-bending took place at Camp Hero. There is, however, a letter from an archaeologist to the Town of East Hampton, imploring that the land be preserved because it was littered with artifacts left behind by the ancient Montaukett tribe.

Putting aside these comparatively mundane realities, Nichols’s tall tales bear remarkable similarity to the plot of season one of Stranger Things, in which we see flashbacks of Eleven developing her powers through mind experiments and sensory-deprivation training. The book also claims that Duncan “let loose a monster from his subconscious” that ran amok in Montauk, leaving a wake of destruction. Sound familiar?

A Monster unleashed at Montauk was a stock character in the ghost stories and nightmares of Long Island youth in the 1980s and 1990s.

Depending on who was doing the telling, it took a number of forms: some say an alien, some say a mutant, some say a tall, pinheaded ghost. One rumor described covens of witches convened under the full moon, drawn by the camp’s easternmost location, surrounded by water. Another rumor claimed that quantities of blood had been found in one of the empty cottages — evidence, the overexcitable said, of human sacrifice.

The legends were hyped up even more in 2008 when the Montauk Monster, a super-gross dog-like creature with a beak, claws, and purplish translucent skin, washed ashore not far from Ditch Plain. Though not quite as horrific as the Demogorgon, the mystery beast became an internet sensation, with its own Facebook page. Was it a “reptoid,” a paranormal hybrid, offspring of unspeakable Camp Hero experiments? Was it an escapee from the research facility on Plum Island? While several biologists came to the consensus that the creature was, in fact, a raccoon carcass that had been in the water too long, enthusiasts will never be convince. For all we know, it may well have slipped out of the Upside Down.

Many of the stories surrounding Camp Hero are a little woo-woo, to say the least. However, if you’re the type who binge watches The X-files, we advise that you run don’t walk to Martell’s of Montauk to pick up a copy of Nichols’s Montauk Project: Experiments in Time. Full of farfetched but juicy stories about telekinesis, abductions, and elaborate governmental cover-ups, it should tide you over until October. • 

 

Illustration at top: Bryan the Girl.
Nina Channing

Our associate editor at EAST, Nina has written this year about yoga studios, Grey Gardens, and Trump helicopters. Born and raised in Bridgehampton, she is a high-school dropout, a Wesleyan graduate, and now an MFA candidate at Stony Brook Southampton. When she’s not working, she can almost always be found with a book and a stack of blueberry pancakes in the back booth at Candy Kitchen.