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Fringe and Mind Control

on Mon, 05/14/2012 - 00:00

Although the FOX drama Fringe follows a centralized storyline about a parallel universe that is at war with our own, the original roots of the series reside in an X-Files-like exploration of “fringe science.” Just as Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigated weekly occurrences of the supernatural, FBI Agent Olivia Dunham and cohorts Dr. Walter Bishop and his son Peter embark on “mystery of the week” assignments that border the fine line between the possible and impossible from a modern technological standpoint. Genetic mutation, teleportation and psychokinesis thus all find their way into the narrative alongside the overarching mythology of an alternative universe. One subject matter, however, seeped into the storyline on at least three occasions and directly relates to real world experimentation by the United States government.

“Mind control?” Walter Bishop replies when faced with the possibility during the second season of Fringe. “Wouldn’t be the first time someone’s attempted it. I told you about my work with the MK-Ultra Project. Of course at that time we supposed that we could do it with LSD and hypnotic suggestion.” Dr. Bishop’s background as a trendsetting genius in the field of fringe science allowed him to perform cutting-edge research in the 1970s—a large percentage of which was at the bequest of the US military and intelligence agencies—and his reference to MK-Ultra correlates to an actual clandestine program of the CIA that goes as far back as the early 1950s.

The heightened state of the Cold War during that era led to the United States “thinking outside the box” in regards to potential weapons and espionage techniques, especially since the government believed that the Soviet Union was conducting similar experiments, and mind control was one such area of interest. In the 1940s, various liberation leaders in communist countries were televised confessing to manufactured crimes against the state. Exhibiting no visible signs of torture or duress, speculation focused on the prospect that the Soviets had succeeded in developing a form of mind control to keep their disruptive citizens in line. Fearing a “mind control gap,” the CIA launched project Bluebird in 1950, which morphed into MK-Ultra in 1953.

As Walter Bishop mentioned, LSD indeed played a key role within MK-Ultra. In his book Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control (St. Martin’s Press, 2008), British documentarian Dominic Streatfeild traces both the CIA and Great Britain’s interest in manipulating the minds of its Cold War adversaries, examining the many techniques studied by the clandestine organizations. The use of drugs was of specific interest from the very beginning and only became greater when Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman accidentally stumbled upon a synthetic hallucinogenic in the early 1940s. Hoffman named his discovery “lysergic acid diethylamide,” or LSD for short, and the CIA began testing the effects of the drug a few years later.

“In July 1954 an officer was given a series of ‘secrets,’ told not to reveal them and dosed with LSD,” Dominic Streatfeild reveals. “In no time at all ‘he gave all the details.’ The Agency concluded that the drug had real potential in the field of ‘eliciting true and accurate statements from subjects under its influence during interrogation.’ Such was the CIA’s zeal for experimentation that a security memo in December 1954 specifically warned that ‘Testing in the Christmas punch bowls usually present at the Christmas office parties’ was not to be encouraged.” While Dr. Bishop would no doubt have found that last comment discouraging, the CIA still continued to use LSD on not only its own agents but unsuspecting civilians throughout the United States as well.

Although the CIA was initially optimistic that it had found a means of controlling the mind and eliciting truths from foreign spies, further investigation demonstrated that LSD was far less reliable as a truth serum than originally believed when various test subjects began reacting differently to the drug. Rather than become discouraged, however, the MK-Ultra masterminds formulated an alternative use for the chemical. “In the mid-1950s, the CIA did a swift about-turn and decided that, rather than a truth drug, LSD might be an anti-truth drug: people on it were incoherent and completely out of control,” Streatfeild explains in Brainwash. “Mightn’t it be a good idea to give agents a small supply of the drug in case they were captured? Soviet interrogators wouldn’t know what to make of that!”

Drugs likewise play a key role in the mind control narratives of the FOX drama Fringe. In the episode “The Dreamscape,” for instance, scientific research conglomerate Massive Dynamic discovers a hallucinogenic even more powerful than LSD that finds its way onto the black market. “The drug can easily be mass produced as a cheap street drug or worse, in its potent form, used as a chemical weapon,” FBI Agent Olivia Dunham explains. “Apparently it can literally scare you to death.”

During another installment, meanwhile, a Seattle sleep disorder physician constructs a biochip that is capable of inducing a deeper rest state in patients suffering from chronic insomnia. The Fringe Division initially believes that the chip is also capable of sending commands to those who have had the device installed in their brain and thus control their actions. In reality, however, the opposite is true—instead of sending signals to the brain, the biochip siphons off dreams and transmits them to another location. “What’s more, I believe the chips have the ability to turn on a dreaming state while the patient is awake,” Dr. Bishop clarifies. “Which would lead to paranoia, hallucinations and a complete inability to differentiate between reality and dreams.” Given the real-world CIA’s fascination with wreaking havoc on unsuspecting minds, the end-results of both Fringe episodes would no doubt have been of great interest to MK-Ultra.

While there is no documented proof that the CIA ever discovered an effective means of mind control, the same cannot be said of Massive Dynamic on Fringe. “This is our flight simulation deck,” chief operating officer Nina Sharp explains to Olivia Dunham and Walter Bishop. “What you’re watching is a live test of our prototype hands-free guidance system. Electrodes in the pilot’s helmet are picking up on his thought patterns, which send commands to an onboard computer. The pilot has been given a pharmaceutical enhancement, a drug to amplify his brainwaves, which makes it easier for the electrodes in the helmet to read them.”

In the episode “Of Human Action,” the son of the experiment’s main scientist takes the drug in question, giving him the ability to control another person’s actions. Although the father insists that such a side effect is impossible, Walter Bishop believes otherwise. “The brain is a computer,” he unhesitatingly states. “It’s an organic computer. It can be hijacked like any other.”

According to Dominic Streatfeild in Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control, the CIA created a number of charitable organizations in the 1950s in order to secretly fund pharmaceutical research within civilian hospitals and universities. At the height of its LSD experimentation, MK-Ultra had “deals with eighty separate institutions including forty-four colleges or universities, fifteen research facilities or private companies, twelve hospitals or clinics and three penal institutions.” Although Fringe is a fictitious television series, its delving into the scientific potential of mind control coincides with the factual CIA’s own investigation into such possibilities. It is therefore not a stretch to believe that MK-Ultra would have indeed recruited Walter Bishop into its ranks, or even funded the research of Massive Dynamic, if the two worlds had somehow intersected.

Fringe is science fiction at its best in that not only does it entertain but likewise acts as a warning in regards to the dangers of real-world scientific experimentation. That was ultimately the moralistic message of the earliest entry to the genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and has remained a primary driving force within the field ever since. Although Fringe explores many aspects of science fiction, its narratives border on the “fringes” of modern exploration nonetheless—an observation that becomes even more apparent during the FOX drama’s brief entries into the realm of mind control and the actual secret investigations conducted by the CIA for well over two decades.

Anthony Letizia (May 14, 2012)

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