According to Variety, the director of a six-minute short called Montauk has accused Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer of stealing the idea behind his short to create their hit Netflix series, claiming he once pitched the idea to them at the Tribeca Film Festival. The short, created in 2012 as a teaser for a feature film that that the director—Charlie Kessler—hoped to make someday, is about “paranormal phenomena” happening in a town near a government facility, which happens to be the same basic premise of Stranger Things. Thus, Kessler believes the Duffers stole his pitch and used it to create their show.
There are some layers to this that go beyond the basic premise, though. For starters, Montauk was actually the working title for Stranger Things a year or so before it premiered on Netflix, with the story originally taking place in the eponymous Long Island town before the setting was moved to Indiana. That may seem like a point in Kessler’s favor, but fans of conspiracy theories know that he didn’t exactly invent the idea of spooky things happening in and around Montauk.
Possibly thanks to a series of books by Preston B. Nichols and Peter Moon that begin with 1992's The Montauk Project: Experiments In Time, a lot of aspiring Fox Mulders have claimed that Montauk’s now-defunct Camp Hero military base was once the site of a number of successful experiments on things like time travel, teleportation, and mind control that supposedly messed with our reality in all sorts of mysterious ways. Even Camp Hero itself is kind of an oddity, as it has an enormous radar dish and buildings designed to look like regular civilian structures. It’s the kind of government installation that seems built for secrets, because it sort of was back during World War II and the Cold War when it was still in use.
Naturally, the government kept all of this stuff about supernatural experiments under wraps, which is why you only ever hear about time travel and teleportation experiments in fiction (or “fiction”) and not textbooks. However, believers trust Nichols’ claims because he supposedly worked on The Montauk Project (and its Pennsylvanian cousin, The Philadelphia Experiment). He says recollections about what happened at Camp Hero come to him as repressed memories, and even though he openly talks about this stuff in his books, he has admitted that the shadowy figures who ran these experiments don’t seem to care—probably because it all sounds so crazy that nobody would believe it.
The Montauk Project even crossed over into the mainstream in 2008 when a bizarre animal carcass washed up on a beach in Montauk. Referred to as “the Montauk Monster,” the dead thing appeared to have a beak, sharp teeth, a tail, and disproportionately long legs, leading onlookers to believe it was some kind of alien or mutant. It seemed so weird that aspiring Dana Scullys dismissed it as an outright hoax, but Snopes explains that various animal experts agreed that the ugly bastard was just a fucked-up raccoon that died in the water. Of course, the body of the Montauk Monster did mysteriously disappear, with Snopes noting that an unidentified “local resident” let it decompose in their backyard before any definitive tests could be done. (It’s unclear if the local resident was actually a government agent who simply tossed the monster back into its home dimension.)
Going back to Kessler and his Montauk short, this just means that even if he did meet the Duffers and tell them about his idea, the basic concept is really just a slightly more obscure version of the Bermuda Triangle or Area 51. In other words, it’s a thing that already exists and already has spooky fiction surrounding it, and Stranger Things’ Gaten Matarazzo has even acknowledged that the show’s mysterious lab was inspired by Camp Hero in Montauk. This doesn’t necessarily negate Kessler’s claims, but it does mean the connections between his short and Stranger Things aren’t quite as damning as they may seem.
Update: The Duffers’ lawyer has now issued a statement on the lawsuit (via Variety), denying that his clients knew anything about Kessler’s Montauk and saying that Kessler “had no connection to the creation or development of Stranger Things.” He also denies that the Duffers ever “discussed any project with him” or saw his short film, dismissing the lawsuit as “an attempt to profit from other people’s creativity and hard work.”