Running through walls, becoming invisible, and seeing distant places with the power of your mind may seem like purely fantastical – and fictional – abilities. But they are very real for many characters of The men who watch the goats.

In the 2009 film, journalist Bob Wilton travels to war-torn Iraq to follow an intriguing lead. He learns from a source that there is a secret US military program designed to create “super soldiers” who can harness the power of extrasensory perception (ESP) and wield a range of supernatural abilities.

Warning: spoilers!

Sure enough, Wilton meets the program’s central characters, such as “psychic spy” Lyn Cassady and Lt. Bill Django, who leads the New Earth Army’s experiment. They give Wilton the scoop on their psychic powers – which includes a case where Cassady killed a goat just by looking at it.

While the film itself was meant to be a satirical comedy, the makers flash a statement onscreen just minutes into the film: “More is true than you think.”

Sure enough, The men who watch the goats is based on an actual US military program that took place in the 1970s and 80s. But was that enough to bring out the psychic powers of ordinary people?

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War and peace

The men who watch the goats is based on a book of the same title, written by journalist and filmmaker Jon Ronson. Ronson investigated the US military’s foray into the supernatural in the 1970s and 1980s, following devastating losses in the Vietnam War.

Meanwhile, “California’s New Age human potential movement was in full swing,” Ronson told NPR in a 2009 interview. “And the military, being extreme thinkers and out-of-the-box thinkers anyway, took the craziest New Age ideas and tried to adopt them for the soldier.”

In the film, fictional Lieutenant Bill Django organizes a group of soldiers called the New Earth Army. Their guiding principle is to bring peace, not war, by harnessing the supernatural powers of the mind.

There is no real-life New Earth army, but there was once a manual written for a proposed group of soldiers called the First Earth Battalion. Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Channon, who inspired the character of Django, is the author of the manual in the 1970s.

Through illustrations and philosophical writings, the manual described his vision of a non-lethal organization of “warrior monks” who could use their physical and spiritual forces to restore peace to Earth.

“The battalion ‘mythology’ I developed was a creative thinking tool designed to encourage young army leaders to think in new ways, with the goal of changing the nature of warfare and improving the chance of survival for all involved.” Channon wrote in a 2009 article for The Guardian.

But that wasn’t the Army’s only foray into New Age concepts. Around the same time, the intelligence community got wind that the Soviet Union was working on parapsychology research. Fears that they could use psychic soldiers to steal information, subliminally influence behavior, or even psychologically harm soldiers began to escalate.

Cold War Rivalry

Of course, whatever the Soviets were capable of, the United States wanted to do better. So they invested money in their own parapsychology experiments.

It started with investigations of psychokinesis and ESP at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in California. Then, in 1978, the Defense Intelligence Agency, in partnership with the SRI, began conducting top secret research at Fort Meade in Maryland.

Today, these efforts are known as Project Star Gate (or the Stargate Project). The CIA has since declassified thousands of documents on research – although at the time government officials often denied what was happening.

Project Star Gate was primarily concerned with whether the military could use remote viewing for intelligence gathering. Remote viewing is the ability to see or sense things happening from a distance.

A group of psychics and psychics were tested to complete missions without leaving Fort Meade. In one instance, medium Angela Ford was asked to track down a fugitive in the 1980s using remote viewing.

“My boss asked me, ‘Where is Charles Jordan?’ I said, ‘The man is in Lowell, Wyoming.’ And I spelled it: LOWELL,” Ford said CBS News in a 2018 interview. The man was 100 miles west of LovellWyoming (with a V), although Ford recounts the attempt as a success.

Research for the Star Gate project continued until 1995, when an independent report by the American Institutes for Research concluded that there was no concrete evidence that remote viewing worked and that it added no real benefit in guiding intelligence operations.

However, the government did not completely stop looking at ESP after the Star Gate project ended. Navy Researchers in 2014 looked at premonition and intuitionor the idea that people have a “sixth sense” about something before it happens.

And outside of government research, ESP has long been a topic of interest — and debate — in the academic community. While some claim to have evidence for its existence, many cite flawed study designs and the inability to replicate results as reasons for skepticism.

A controversial area

Today, ESP research typically takes place within the field of parapsychology. Parapsychology is widely considered a pseudoscience, but there are still a few labs and academic groups that actively probing questions of the supernatural.

“The consensus within parapsychology, I think, ranges from totally convinced [the paranormal] exists…to mild skepticism, open-mindedness, and just not knowing,” Susan Blackmorean author and former parapsychologist who now considers herself a skeptic, says Reverse.

For skeptics to believe that ESP is real, there would have to be convincing evidence. As it stands, Blackmore says studies that attempt to demonstrate its existence are often riddled with with statistical errors. And when experiments are replicated, researchers often don’t get the same results each time, casting scientific doubt on the weight of supernatural claims.

If parapsychologists ever find compelling evidence for ESP, it would also pose a challenge to many fundamental theories posed in physics and psychology that are based on centuries of research, Blackmore says. That’s why many scientists outside of parapsychology just don’t touch it.

The current problem is that the paranormal cannot be reliably explained in scientific terms. This poses a challenge to many researchers – but is not necessarily a problem for ESP believers.

“There are a million reasons why people keep believing,” Blackmore says. “We skeptics aren’t even going to try to persuade people that it doesn’t exist.”

However, if a paranormal theory were ever proposed, and had preliminary evidence to prove it was viable, that could change things. It would have to be not just a plausible idea, but also testable, says Blackmore. In that scenario, “I think a lot of scientists would jump back to it,” she says.

The men who watch the goats is currently streaming on HBO Max.