Stranger Things is about a secret government conspiracy involving psychotropic drugs that never actually happened in the real world. Wormwood, on the other hand, a new Netflix series that comes out this Friday, is based on a secret government conspiracy that absolutely exists. The individuals who have been deeply affected by the conspiracy have devoted their lives to uncovering the truth — and you’ll get to see their findings in the six-part limited series.
On November 28, 1953, Frank Olson fell to his death from the 13th floor of the Hotel Statler in New York City. His wife and three children back home in were told Olson had taken his life, a side-effect of work-related stress. It’s true: Olson had been under pressure in his job as a research scientist working for the CIA (not the Army, as his family had thought). Olson had experienced something akin to a nervous breakdown. He’d attempted to resign days before his death, and was told to travel to New York for a psychological evaluation.
Olson’s family accepted this explanation as fact until 1975, when details of the CIA’s Project MKUltra — enacting mind control and brainwashing through psychedelic drugs and torture — were uncovered. The government had to fess up: Olson had been given a dose of LSD nine days before he plunged from the hotel window. The CIA reclassified Olson’s death as a drug-induced suicide, and has maintained that label ever since.
Here’s what we do know. Olson had been recruited to work for the army’s biological lab in 1950. His task was to develop aerosol weapons that could be transmitted through air particles; his particular specialty was in aerosolized anthrax. In Wormwood, Olson's son, Eric, recalled that his father was always somber the days his experiments worked, and all of the monkeys died.
Though his job never quite sat well with him, Olson’s moral doubts grew even more extreme after a trip to Europe the year of is death. He visited warfare research centers in the U.K., Paris, Norway, and West Germany. While there, he "witnessed extreme interrogations in which the CIA committed murder using biological agents that Dr Olson had developed.” He returned home so perturbed that he confided to his wife he was planning to resign.
Then came the fateful three-day mandatory retreat to Deep Creek, Maryland. On November 19, 1953, Robert Lashbrook, a CIA employee, gave Olson a glass of Cointreau dosed with LSD, which Olson drank. The officials wanted to see whether, under such pressure, Olson would give up details of his classified scientific research. Essentially, the CIA was evaluating whether Olson was a security risk.
Olson returned from this trip changed. Alice, his wife, “sensed something was wrong the moment he walked in the door. There was a stiffness in the way he kissed her hello and held her. Like he was doing something mechanical, devoid of any meaning or affection,” H.P. Albarelli wrote in his book about Olson, A Terrible Mistake.
All of Olson's doubts about working for the CIA, which had been growing since he saw the awful application of his bioweapons research, were confirmed. On Monday, November 24, he told his division chief, Vincent Ruwet, he was resigning. Later, Ruwet said Olson "appeared to be greatly agitated and in his own words, 'all mixed up'."
Ruwet and Lashbrook convinced him to go to New York for psychological treatment. What he received, however, was far from “official” science. Olson spoke with an allergist named Harold Ambronson, who was also experimenting with LSD and did nothing more than put Olson to sleep with bourbon. Olson also saw John Mulholland, a magician who tried to hypnotize him.
The day after Thanksgiving, Olson called home. He told Alice he was feeling better. He folded his laundry in Room 1018A. And later that night, his body was found on Seventh Avenue.
Given the details of what actually happened in New York, Olson’s family was less than satisfied with the explanation of a "drug-induced suicide." The family sued the government in 1975. In 1976, they received $750,000 in a settlement that also prevented the Olsons from pursuing further civil or criminal suits against the government. But that didn’t stop Eric from investigating his father’s death himself. In 1984, Eric returned to the hotel room in which his father died. He realized, looking at the dimensions of the window and the room, there was no way his father could have run and plunged out of the window. There, Eric concluded that his father had to have been dropped from the window. As in — he was murdered.
In order to prove his hunch, Eric actually had Olson’s body exhumed in 1994. His body was embalmed, and still in good condition. A forensic team had concluded that Olson had suffered a blow to the head before the fall. Since then, Eric has devoted himself to finding who really killed his father in that hotel room.
Wormwood combines interviews with Eric and other experts, with recreations of the events leading up to Olson's death. This new "fictionalized documentary" genre is the perfect mode to explain a story pieced together only through declassified files and recollection. Wormwood can't be a straight documentary because, for every fact we know about Frank Olson, there are many more details kept classified. Only the CIA knows everything there is to know — and they won't be making a documentary anytime soon.