Advertisement

I visited an abandoned Air Force base in New York that inspired 'Stranger Things,' and it was even creepier than I imagined

I visited an abandoned Air Force base in New York that inspired 'Stranger Things,' and it was even creepier than I imagined
  • Camp Hero is a state park in Montauk, the easternmost tip of Long Island, New York.

  • It used to be Montauk Air Force Station, which reportedly inspired Netflix's "Stranger Things."

  • I visited the eerie state park and understood why it's become the subject of conspiracy theories.

Fans of "Stranger Things" know that all the interdimensional problems that have befallen our friends in Hawkins, Indiana, are because of the secret government facility known as the Hawkins Lab.

But did you know that Netflix's "Stranger Things" was originally called "Montauk," named after the real-life New York town that's at the center of multiple conspiracy theories?

Camp Hero, formerly known as the Montauk Air Force Station, has been plagued with conspiracy theories since the book "The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time," written by Preston Nichols, was published in 1992. Its unsubstantiated claims included that researchers at the base had repressed the memories of employees who'd been subjected to experiments throughout the '70s and '80s.

Today, it's possible to visit Camp Hero, which opened to the public as a state park in 2002. As someone who has been to Montauk dozens of times, but never to Camp Hero — and as someone going through "Stranger Things" withdrawal as we await a release date for season five — I jumped at the chance to check out the base, which is now abandoned.

I came away from my visit understanding where the Duffer brothers, who created "Stranger Things," got their inspiration. Camp Hero would certainly be on my list of the creepiest places I've visited.

Take a look inside the park, from its beautiful views of the ocean to the mysterious 90-foot radar tower that still stands today.

If you've seen an episode of the Netflix smash-hit "Stranger Things," the creepiness of Hawkins Lab has probably stuck with you.

hawkins lab stranger things
The inside of the mysterious and sinister Hawkins Lab in "Stranger Things."Netflix

"Stranger Things," which dropped its first season in July 2016 and has become a pop-culture juggernaut in the years since, began as the story of a group of pre-teens who, after one of their best friends goes missing, become tangled in a dangerous web of government conspiracies, alternate dimensions, the Cold War, and more.

One of the show's breakout characters is Eleven (played by Millie Bobby Brown), a young girl born with telekinesis. Immediately after she was born, she was abducted by a scientist who she calls Papa (Matthew Modine) and taken to Hawkins Lab, where she and other children were experimented on.

The upcoming fifth season will also be its last.

The show's creators, the Duffer brothers, were inspired by a real-life government base in Montauk, New York, called Camp Hero.

Creators and Executive Producers Ross Duffer and Matt Duffer attend the premiere of "Stranger Things" at Mack Sennett Studios on July 11, 2016 in Los Angeles, California
Ross Duffer and Matt Duffer in 2016.Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty Images

In 2016, Matt and Ross Duffer confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that "Stranger Things" was originally sold as "Montauk" before they decided to switch the name and the location to the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana.

"We liked Montauk, because we liked the coastal setting," Matt Duffer said, adding that Montauk is the basis for Amity Island, the fictional location of "Jaws," which is one of their favorite movies.

But the setting changed when they realized "it was really going to be impossible to shoot in or around Long Island in the wintertime," Matt Duffer continued.

A filmmaker, Charlie Kessler, sued the brothers in 2018, claiming they stole the idea of "Stranger Things" from his script "The Montauk Project," Thrillist reported. The Duffers denied his claims, and Kessler dropped the lawsuit in 2019, The Hollywood Reporter reported.

The base shut down in 1982 and reopened to the public as Camp Hero State Park in 2002.

camp hero sign
A sign welcoming visitors to Camp Hero.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

According to signs in the park outlining Camp Hero's history, the US Army commissioned Camp Hero in May 1942 — five months after the US joined World War II in December 1941 — to defend against German submarines and boats.

The Army deactivated the base in 1947 and turned it over to the US Air Force in 1951, which remained there until 1982.

The New York Times reported following a 2006 visit that Camp Hero, named for Major General Andrew Hero Jr. — who served as the chief of coast artillery from 1926 to 1930, according to Arlington National Cemetery — opened to the public in 2002.

Naturally, I had to check it out.

me in front of the radar tower
Outside the radar tower.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

As a huge fan of "Stranger Things" with a mild interest in secret governmental conspiracy theories, I figured I'd drive out east and laugh with my mom (who made the trek with me) about the wildest things we'd learn about Camp Hero.

Instead, I came away feeling like "Stranger Things" got the atmosphere of this place exactly right.

Camp Hero — and Montauk — are on the easternmost tip of Long Island, New York.

montauk on long island
New York City, Long Island, and Montauk.Google Maps

Montauk is commonly known as The End. It's the last town on Long Island, making it the perfect spot for an Army base scanning the oceans for submarines hiding in the depths below.

The park is 123 miles outside of New York City. I'm from a town on Long Island that's 99 miles west of Montauk, so it took me around two hours to drive out there.

another camp hero sign
Signs led the way to Camp Hero.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

When there's no traffic, it can be a fun drive. You pass through picturesque towns that are worth a stop, like Amagansett, East Hampton, Southampton, Wainscott, and more.

Camp Hero is located past the town center of Montauk, a favorite of celebrities and locals alike.

montauk downtown area
A store in Montauk's bustling center.Molly O'Brien

Curbed reported that celebrities including Julianne Moore, Ralph Lauren, and Robert De Niro have owned real estate in the town.

I grew up on Long Island and have been to Montauk dozens of times, but I've never really explored Camp Hero before.

When you turn off the highway to drive into the park, you have a good view of the Montauk Lighthouse, which is a Long Island landmark and part of the adjacent Montauk Point State Park.

camp hero entrance
The lighthouse and the sign for Camp Hero.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

Montauk Lighthouse, according to the Montauk Historical Society, was the first lighthouse to be built in New York after George Washington commissioned it in 1792.

It's also the fourth-oldest working lighthouse in the US and just one of 12 lighthouses to be named a National Historic Landmark.

There are plenty of signs, so you won't get lost on your way in.

camp hero sign
Another sign.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

If the park hadn't been so clearly marked, it would've been easy to blow by the main entrance.

The park is open every day from sunrise to sunset, and costs $8 to get in — or, if you're a New York resident with an Empire Pass like I am, it's free.

a road in camp hero
The entrance to Camp Hero.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

According to New York State's parks department, the Empire Pass "permits unlimited vehicle access to most facilities operated by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation."

Essentially, it gets you into most New York state parks for free. It costs $80 per year for a card (or $72 a year for a digital card), or you can purchase a lifetime pass for $750 (or $742 for a digital card). There are three-season and five-season passes available too, as shown on the parks' website.

As my family are big fans of Jones Beach, another state park, we've had an Empire Pass for as long as I can remember.

When you pull in, you're greeted with a map of the park, which covers 754 acres of land.

a map of the park
A map of the park.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

I was surprised to learn that a decent chunk of land is off-limits to visitors and is a wildlife and plant sanctuary.

One of the first places to park puts you right in front of some of Montauk's famous bluffs and a view of the Atlantic Ocean.

the bluffs
One of the first areas you see in Camp Hero.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

There are a few parks in the Montauk area that give you a good look at the bluffs, including Shadmoor State Park. Montauk Point State Park, and Ditch Plains Beach.

And just to the right of the water is one of the many trails throughout the park — along with a caution sign warning people to stay away from the cliffs.

one of the trails
A caution sign next to a trail.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

This wouldn't be the last warning sign I'd see that day.

There were plenty of signs about the steep edges of the bluffs posted throughout the park. Erosion is also a huge problem on Long Island's beaches, so I opted to stay as far back as I could.

stay back from the cliffs
Another caution sign.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

The Patch reported that the town of East Hampton, which includes Montauk, was given a $350,000 federal grant to address the erosion issues along the coastline in December 2022.

Officials told The Patch that, according to measurements by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Montauk's shoreline "eroded more than 44 feet inland between 2000 and 2012."

In the years since, the erosion has only continued — so I heeded the sign's warnings.

When I turned around to go back to my car, I spotted the base's defunct radar tower, which is at the center of many of the conspiracy theories about the camp.

the radar tower in the distance
The radar tower from a distance.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

The radar tower looms over Camp Hero. I knew I needed to make my way over there to get a good look.

We hopped in our car to find the radio tower. Along the way, we saw signs for picnic areas, bathrooms, and places to park.

a sign to the picnic tables
Signs pointing out various places to picnic, park, and pee.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

I didn't realize there would be so many areas to picnic and enjoy the wilderness inside the base.

One of the first remnants of the base we saw was this concrete battery, built for artillery when the US Army commissioned the base in the '40s.

a weird concrete structure
One of the batteries.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

According to signs in the park, the Army built batteries throughout the base. Batteries 112 and 113, which are both still standing, contained two 16-inch guns each. The artillery was removed in 1947.

We drove around for a while encountering many roads that were closed to vehicles.

no vehicles allowed
No vehicles allowed.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

Many of these trails were actually paved roads that are no longer open to cars, although it wasn't clear why.

We eventually reached a parking lot adjacent to the radar tower — but we couldn't get too close.

do not enter
The radar tower.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

Even from a distance, you can see just how big it is.

The 90-foot tower and its 40-foot-wide dish are visible throughout the park, and they gave me the eerie feeling I was being watched. But being up close was somehow even more unsettling.

outside the radar tower
The radar tower.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

According to signs in the park, the "giant" radar, specifically an AN/FPS-35, was built in 1960, and it remained operational until 1980.

Its radar dish was built to detect an attack on the US. As The New York Times reported in 2006, it was once "able to detect airborne objects more than 200 miles from shore."

The tower was built when the Air Force took over the base in the 1950s. At the peak of the Cold War, there were multiple towers like it throughout the eastern US, but now, the Montauk tower is the only one left.

radar tower and abandoned structure
The dish behind an abandoned building.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

The radar tower is at the center of many of the conspiracy theories surrounding Camp Hero.

Filmmaker Christopher Garetano, who directed a docudrama about Camp Hero called "Montauk Chronicles" in 2014, spoke about the radar dish during a History Channel documentary called "The Dark Files."

"Every 12 seconds the radar tower would rotate and there would be animals freaking out and people getting headaches and bad dreams," says Garetano in "The Dark Files," claiming "people's electronic equipment would go haywire" when the dish rotated.

"I don't want to add fuel to the fire because I don't believe all the zombie stuff," one resident of 40 years told The New York Post in 2020. "But the impact that tower had on the town was real. I don't know if it affected our thoughts like some people say, but it was a force."

There seemed to be unofficial trails along the fence protecting the tower, but a sign warning about the dangers of ticks put me off getting any closer.

a sign warning about ticks
Ticks everywhere.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

Ticks are frequent carriers of Lyme disease. That was more than enough to keep me away from any heavily wooded areas.

According to the map and a sign, one road led to another overlook of the bluffs. But we weren't heartened by this writing on the path that declared we were in a "hazardous area."

a sign on the ground that says no trespassing hazardous area
Apparently we were in a hazardous area.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

The New York Times reported in 2006 that visitors to Camp Hero were given pamphlets about what to do in case they spotted an undetonated grenade or other unexploded ammunition — it did used to be an active military base, after all.

We barely saw anyone else while we explored Camp Hero, but my mom told me she couldn't shake the feeling that people were watching us from the woods. At first I scoffed, but as the day went on, I started to see what she meant.

the road path turned into a less paved trail
An empty path.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

It was spookily silent as we walked through the woods, even though we weren't too far from the beach or a busy highway. I felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.

We came across another sign pointing to the overlook, so we knew we were headed in the right direction.

bluff overlook sign
Another sign pointing us in the right way.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

But as you can see, it looks like we were just about to walk in a heavily wooded forest.

These woods really reminded me of the woods where Eleven was discovered during the "Stranger Things" pilot episode, and later the place she'd call home.

then the trail turned into a dirt road
The woods.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

In the first episode of "Stranger Things," Mike, Lucas, and Dustin search the woods for their friend Will after he goes missing while biking home. The trio are searching on a rainy night when they suddenly come across Eleven, who had just escaped Hawkins Lab.

At the end of season one, Eleven returns to the woods to stay out of the Lab's clutches.

After about a mile, we glimpsed the ocean and a treacherous path that seemed to lead down to the water.

one of the less marked trails
A path.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

I've read one too many stories about tourists falling to their deaths while trying to take the perfect selfie. Staying on the flat path was enough for me.

I was content to sit on this rock and take in the views from a safe distance.

made it to the bluffs
The view.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

This rock was helpfully in the perfect place for me to pose for a photo.

And the views were, admittedly, pretty great.

the bluffs view
The bluffs.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

Fishing is one of the biggest draws of Camp Hero, and I saw a few fishermen on the beach casting their lines.

On our walk back to the car, a dog came running out of the woods and scared both of us — but he was just a friendly pet running back to his owner. Safe to say, we were both on edge.

one of the roads
The road.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

I didn't even have the presence of mind to take a picture of this dog — that's how you know my mom and I were truly freaked out.

Our next stop was what was known as "downtown Camp Hero." This building used to be a gymnasium.

the gymnasium at camp hero
The gymnasium.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

The sign in front of this roped-off structure explained more about downtown Camp Hero. When the base was built in 1947, 600 men and 37 officers lived in this area and the structures were disguised as a "seaside fishing village," with artificial wood siding and fake windows.

This structure, the gym, was designed to look like a church. It's the only structure left from the original "downtown" Camp Hero, though other newer buildings are still standing.

Here's one of the buildings that housed barracks. It's seen better days.

barracks at camp hero
The barracks.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

I was half-convinced that someone was just going to pop out of the windows if I got too close.

The idea we were being watched turned out to be pretty plausible — we came across a doe and her fawn behind one of the buildings.

deer at camp hero
Two deer behind one of the buildings.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

We didn't want to scare the deer away, so we kept our distance while exploring the buildings.

So what exactly happened at Camp Hero? There's the official version, and then there's the conspiracy-theory version, which was popularized after the publication of "The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time" in 1992.

an abandoned building camp hero
One of the abandoned buildings.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

The events that conspiracy theorists claim happened in Camp Hero were actually pretty similar to what happens in "Stranger Things," according to a comprehensive summary of the conspiracy theories surrounding Camp Hero written by Thrillist in 2016.

Author Preston Nichols brought the theories into the mainstream when he published "The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time," which detailed his reported experiences working at Montauk Air Force Station — he claimed he'd recovered repressed memories of his time at the base in the '70s and '80s.

Nichols claimed he worked with another former employee on something called the "Montauk Chair," which used electromagnets to strengthen psychic powers. In season four of "Stranger Things," Eleven uses something similar to recover her powers.

Nichols also claimed scientists at the base used abducted children (like Eleven and her "siblings") to perform experiments on, and that some were even sent to an unknown dimension (like the Upside Down).

Eventually, these experiments were shut down when one of the children summoned an interdimensional monster, Nichols wrote — just like Eleven bringing the Demogorgon to our world.

A Montauk local once told the New York Post that Camp Hero is "a place that's dominated my life and my nightmares."

the radar tower
The radar tower.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

Joe Loffreno told the Post in 2020 that he believes he's one of the children who was abducted and experimented on and who were mentioned in "The Montauk Project."

"I didn't believe it until two years ago," Loffreno said. "I was hypnotized [by a certified hypnotist] for about 40 minutes and all these memories flooded back. They did a very bad thing to us out there. We were just little kids. They had no right to experiment on us. It was a very dark, very evil thing."

One theory also posits that a vast network of underground tunnels still connects the structures of Camp Hero.

another abandoned building camp hero
Another abandoned structure.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

Garetano, director of "Montauk Chronicles," spoke with Newsday in 2017 about the reported tunnels. He said, when the History Channel was filming for "The Dark Files," they found proof the tunnels exist.

"Something extraordinary was found, which goes against all the official statements that there isn't anything there," Garetano said. "We didn't get into them but we have footage of them that was taken by someone else." He added that they saw something on the "electric resistivity imagery tests" that were conducted.

Another local, Paul Fagan, told the New York Post that he believes a nuclear reactor might've secretly been buried at the base in the '50s, and that any conspiracy theories are actually meant to distract from the reactor's existence.

The New York Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation did not respond to Insider's request for comment. The Army and the Air Force have not ever appeared to go on the record about the claims either, and they did not respond to Insider's requests for comment.

According to the signs at Camp Hero, and other historical sources, the base was actually used as a coastal defense site.

one of the signs at camp hero
One of the signs at Camp Hero.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

When the Army built the base, it was used to surveil the surrounding area for German submarines, and it was also an antiaircraft artillery training station. At the time, according to the sign, all antiaircraft units in New York were sent to Camp Hero for a few weeks to train.

It was also home to other surveillance and height-finding radar that "guarded the New York City area against a surprise attack by Soviet bombers or other missiles," the sign said.

The base was also used "extensively" as a live-fire training range until it was shut down in the '80s.

All I know for sure is that I would never want to walk around Camp Hero alone or at night. There are no lights and very little signage — I could see myself getting hopelessly lost in the woods.

a path at camp hero
One of the trails.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

The lack of lights is why the park closes at sunset.

When we left the park, the road forced us to pass the Montauk Lighthouse, which ended up breaking the tension a little bit.

the lighthouse
The Montauk Lighthouse.Gabbi Shaw/Insider

Even though it was just a few minutes down the road, the atmosphere was completely different. The parking lot was bustling and I could hear kids laughing as they explored the beach. I felt like I had just been to a completely different world.

I'd recommend making the drive if you're already in Montauk or the Hamptons.

I don't think I'll go back to Camp Hero. If I need my conspiracy-theory fix, now I know I can just fire up "Stranger Things" and get the same experience.

stranger things netflix
"Stranger Things."Netflix

Do I really believe that there were scientists using abducted children to contact a different dimension at Camp Hero?

No.

But I understand the fascination with Camp Hero — the fact that the radar tower and other disguised buildings are still standing decades later, the secluded location, and the idea that there could be secret tunnels underground are all compelling fodder for urban legends.

Anyone interested in military history or conspiracy theories would learn a lot at Camp Hero, and I'd recommend visiting — during the day, and not on your own.

Read the original article on Insider