Does a secretive underground Pittsboro facility serve as inspiration for the ‘Stranger Things’ lab?

Thanks for reading Chatham County’s leading news source! Making high quality community journalism isn’t free — please consider supporting our journalism by subscribing to the News + Record today.

Unlimited Digital Access begins at $4.67/month

Print + Digital begins at $6.58/month

Posted

PITTSBORO — At first glance, Big Hole Road appears to be an ordinary, dusty country road — the kind of dead-end street a wrong turn might lead you down if you’re lost in Pittsboro.

But if that wrong turn takes you farther down Big Hole Road, you might notice that some of the houses along the road seem a little out of place — mismatched and clashing in a world of homeowners associations and uniform suburbia. You might also wonder why the road is empty, despite it being the middle of the day.

The lure of this place, though, doesn’t lie along the road but at the end of it, where you’ll be met with an empty guard box, a warning sign in blaring red font and a tall barbed-wire gate adorned with the AT&T logo. Dig a little deeper — seven stories deep, even — and you might find a giant, secretive underground bunker that stretches somewhere below the site’s 191 acres of property. You might need a pretty big shovel.

Like Nancy Wheeler, one of the characters in the wildly popular Netflix show “Stranger Things,” I’m an intern at a local paper trying to get a start in the world of journalism. Unlike Nancy Wheeler, though, my editors actually give me the chance to explore stories.

Stranger Things is the creative brainchild of identical twins Matt and Ross Duffer, who were born and raised in Durham. If you pay careful attention through the show’s four seasons, the Duffer brothers have hidden North Carolina Easter eggs throughout the entire show, including the layout of the show’s fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana with identical streets to Durham like Kerley and Cornwallis; bodies of water named Jordan Lake and Eno River; and a direct reference to Durham in Season 4.

The brothers have confirmed many of these details as being influenced by their childhood — but have provided little information on the inspiration behind Hawkins Lab, the creepy government building at the center of the plot.

That’s where this assignment on Big Hole — an underground facility located in Chatham County — comes in. Named after the not-so-subtle 75-foot hole dug in the ground during its construction, it is rumored to be several stories deep, while atop its grassy surface sit a few oddly shaped buildings, huge security cameras and antennae. The entirety of the facility is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and “no trespassing” signs.

The site dates back to the 1960s when AT&T built five central facilities as part of the Project Offices program. Within this confidential program, AT&T built and maintained several structurally sound facilities along the East Coast of the United States in the mid-20th century for an ongoing non-public project. In addition to Big Hole, these facilities were also constructed inside various northeastern mountains.

AT&T has never disclosed the purpose of these bases, besides a vague assertion of “communications,” but according to a 2008 Raleigh News & Observer article, the sites were originally intended as nuclear bunkers for government and military officials during the height of the Cold War. With the rise of the nuclear age in the 1960s, the federal government contracted with AT&T to run classified communication networks at secret sites around the country. Project Offices was one such classified program — the five facilities were linked by a troposcatter radio system so that government officials inside one site could still communicate with the other four facilities and maintain a skeletal national system for “continuity of government” (COG) in the case of a nuclear attack.

The most publicly known COG facility is the Greenbrier Bunker, a presidential relocation facility in West Virginia that now lies under a luxurious hotel after being exposed in a 1992 article and decommissioned, leaving little evidence behind — except for a telephone switchboard with the words “CHATAM” and “HGRSTOWN” on it, linking it to Big Hole and the Project Office in Hagerstown, Maryland.

But even among the specialized Project Offices, Chatham County’s sticks out like a sore thumb. The locations of the other four facilities, which are all Washington, DC–adjacent, are more logical. The Chatham County facility makes the least sense. It’s all the way in the remote woods of North Carolina, removed from the other four neighboring Project Offices — what makes Big Hole so special?

In a 2000 INDY Week piece about the site, former Pittsboro mayor — and former AT&T employee — Chuck Devinney had this to say about his time at Big Hole: “I wiped it all out of my head. When I went out the door, I never looked back.” Reached over email, current mayor Cindy Perry didn’t offer much more: “I don’t know any details about the Big Hole,” she wrote.

AT&T media contacts did not respond to INDY requests for comment.

Rebecca Kastleman, an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, grew up in Chatham County and published a scholarly article called “Big Hole: Excavating Intimate Histories of a Nuclear Homefront” in 2020. She said it’s the site’s very remoteness that may have given it a leg up as a nuclear bunker for military or government officials.

“Its distance from DC might have been seen as an advantage in certain nuclear scenarios,” Kastleman said over the phone. “I think the real question to ask is, why is there a direct line to the Chatham station from the Greenbrier Hotel? Who would the president need to communicate with at Chatham?”

If you’re befuddled by the site’s history, its present-day state guarantees still more questions. The facility was rumored to close in 2008, and it’s unclear whether it’s still active. When I visited this week, I noticed that the pavement was fresh and the grass had just been mowed. Validating my suspicions, longtime Chatham resident Daniel Fields says Big Hole Road has remained surprisingly busy over the years, despite its apparent abandonment.

“I’ve seen people there over the years, turning down that road or turning out of it, trucks working on the lines right near there,” Fields says. Matt Phillips, one of Fields’s childhood friends who lived in the South Chapel Hill–Chatham County area, says he recalls his friend group’s growing curiosity around Big Hole and the mismatched homes along the road.

“You know when you go to a minigolf course and stuff is obviously fake and kind of weirdly proportioned?” Phillips said. “Very similar energy.”

In the INDY Week article about Big Hole, two decades ago, local residents told the paper that they witnessed unexplainable phenomena at the facility over the years, like an isolated dark cloud and sporadic lightning over the site on an otherwise sunny day. Stories like these have given rise to conspiracies about paranormal activity and extraterrestrial communication, which were only expanded on a decade later when Fields says he heard a story about a truck with a Roswell tag parked in a driveway off Big Hole Road.

As teenagers in 2008, Phillips and his friends would often stop by Big Hole Road on their way to or from lunch at Allen & Son Bar-B-Que. These visits normally included gawking at the barbed-wire fence, though one day, he says, they pulled up in his friend’s Subaru hatchback — barbecue in hand — to an open gate. Phillips says the facility appeared to be transitioning to new ownership, as people inside the fence were unloading items out of the ground entrance and cars were driving in and out of the gate — an opportunity his friend group took to drive in.

“We drove into the little parking circle, and I had the distinct feeling that everybody who was there clocked our car, saw it drive in and be a civilian car full of teenagers, and looked directly at us,” Phillips said. “All of the people involved kind of mentally went, ‘Oh sh*t, Code Red, there are people here who shouldn’t be here,’ and watched us make the loop, at which point I remember freaking out and being like, ‘We gotta go right now.’”

“When you drive up, you see that field that’s open at the top, and there was a separate time where I saw a bunch of folks in white lab coats with clipboards walking around,” Phillips says. “I mean, it could have been out of any movie, and I just remember thinking specifically, ‘This doesn’t seem like it has anything to do with communication.’”

Over a decade later, in trying to glean information from locals, I found that this level of secrecy hasn’t changed. When I asked one worker at a nearby store what he knows about Big Hole, he cut me off midsentence — “We don’t talk about it” — adding that, though he had once done a construction job for the facility and descended two stories deep, he’d had to undergo a background check and sign an NDA about his time on-site.

Driving along Big Hole Road, I hopped out of the car and asked one neighbor if she knew anything about the facility. Her answer was automatic: “We don’t know anything. AT&T sold it years ago, and that’s all we know.”

But the giant AT&T logo on the front gate says otherwise. Is Big Hole just that — a big, empty hole, left with only the dust of 20th-century history under its surface? Or is it still a hive of technology and secret governmental affairs, operating under the facade of a decommissioned facility?

The Duffer brothers may have once asked themselves the exact same questions. It’s well known to Stranger Things lovers that the experiments that were done on the children in Hawkins Lab are based on a real CIA project in 1953 called MKUltra, which aimed to develop mind-control techniques that could be used against Russia in the Cold War.

Of course, this dark bit of American history matches up well with Eleven’s telekinetic powers and Dr. Brenner’s use of her as a weapon, as well as Season 3’s plot of a Russian invasion in Hawkins. But despite the Duffer brothers’ transparency about what inspired Brenner’s experiments, there is little information on how they dreamed up the lab itself.

Could two young, curious Duffer brothers have stumbled upon Big Hole growing up or read about it and become fascinated with its mystery and conspiracy? Although the Duffer brothers were unable to provide a comment for this story, the directors have confirmed that they had an obsession with film from an early age, and Phillips says Big Hole is most often explored by people who don’t live right next door.

“I think that specifically that area has kind of been knowingly avoided by people that live in North Chatham just because it seems like there’s nothing good that can come from that,” Phillips said. “So I can see why the Duffers would have that as some sort of exploration point, especially in a TV show that already has so much local respect.”

Just as the show’s fictional Jordan Lake is proximal to Hawkins Lab, Jordan Lake is in the backyard of Big Hole. The facilities in both Hawkins and Chatham are secretive and, despite some curious teenagers poking around, most people in the surrounding towns tend to steer clear of them. But the biggest difference is that while Stranger Things allows us to uncover some of the answers behind the lab’s mysteries one season at a time, Big Hole’s gate remains up and its facility remains, thus far, impenetrable.

Stranger Things inspiration or not, Phillips says the conspiracies and eeriness surrounding Big Hole were easy to believe as a bored teenager — but even into adulthood, as someone who is level-headed and not often gullible, he said his feeling of apprehension hasn’t diminished.

“As I got into the world as an adult and talked to more locals about it, I think everybody has that similar sense of ‘ick’ about it,” Phillips said. “I don’t think that is unjustified, and I don’t think it would happen unless there was something significant to pay attention to out there.”

Kastleman has a broader, and blunter, take on what the facility represents.

“I think it’s really imperative for us to understand the space that military infrastructure occupies in our landscapes,” she said. “One of the things that knowing the existence of this site can do for the community around Big Hole is invite us to ask questions about its use — and to become aware of the fact that the federal government and corporations occupy space in our community which isn’t always known to us.”

You can find more content at www.indyweek.com.

Comments

No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here