IN A SHOCKING example of life imitating art, 18-year-old Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the telekinetic, Eggo-scarfing, nosebleed-prone Eleven in the Indiana-set Netflix hit Stranger Things, recently revealed in an interview with Allure she is now an online student at Purdue University, studying human services. But even though she’s only attending virtually, some of the darker, weirder, or just downright peculiar corners of the university’s West Lafayette campus would make the sci-fi/horror veteran feel right at home. Here are 11 (see what we did there?) Boilermaker oddities.
There’s an on-campus nuke. Purdue is home to Indiana’s first and only nuclear reactor. Named PUR-1, it lurks at the bottom of a circular cooling pool in the basement of the School of Nuclear Engineering, humming and emitting an otherworldly blue glow. Those desiring a really close look can arrange a tour of the facility, which ends with guests standing in a circle around the reactor containment vessel, with their private parts pressed against its metal sides. But you needn’t worry about producing irradiated offspring that look like demogorgons. Designed as a training tool for students, it produces roughly enough energy to power a toaster.
You can study how bugs eat dead bodies. The College of Agriculture offers a Forensics Concentration in Insect Biology, so eager scholars can learn to use insect activity to determine, say, how long a human or animal corpse has been lying around, based on which bugs are eating/living in/laying eggs on it. Described as “where the study of insects meets the law,” forensic entomology students tackle everything from crime scene management to a forbiddingly named course called Carrion Ecology. The weak of stomach should know that this particular class features “fieldwork with carrion,” and like most of the program’s offerings is very “hands on.” If looking at Barb’s vined-up corpse made you queasy, this probably isn’t for you.
The campus is the epicenter of the Amelia Earhart disappearance mystery. While attempting to circumnavigate the globe in 1937, famous aviatrix (a fancy name for a female pilot) Amelia Earhart pulled a Will Byers while flying over the Pacific and vanished without a trace. Almost a century later, we’re still looking for her and her plane, a shiny silver Lockheed Electra. But if the plane ever is located, Purdue would have a strong claim to the wreckage. At the time she went missing, Earhart was a member of the university’s Department of Aeronautics faculty as a “Consultant in Careers for Women,” and the Electra (which cost $80,000) was bankrolled by the Purdue Research Foundation. The school also possesses many of Earhart’s personal papers, which have been pored over by everyone from scholars to conspiracy theorists.
The school’s unofficial mascot is creepy AF. In 2021, a national survey by the Quality Logo Products Blog crowned Purdue Pete the creepiest mascot in America. There’s just something about his gigantic plastic head; soulless, staring eyes; and weirdly neutral facial expression that unsettles adults and terrifies children. Things got so bad that in 2010 the school redesigned him. “Look, I’m the one who gets the phone calls from parents who say that big face scares their 3-year-old,” then-Purdue Athletic Director Morgan Burke told The Indianapolis Star at the time. “It’s been 25 to 30 years since he got a makeover. At some point, the poor old guy has to come into the 21st century.” It was a nice sentiment, but when fans got a load of the kinder, gentler Pete, they booed him off the court. Next year, the old, scary mascot head returned, and remains to this day. But joke’s on his detractors, because Purdue Pete isn’t even the school’s official mascot.
The school’s real mascot is metal AF. That honor belongs to the Boilermaker Special VII, the latest iteration in a long line of ersatz locomotives that have appeared at Purdue football games since 1939. But this isn’t your usual golf cart covered with painted cardboard. Far from it. The Boilermaker Special VII has more in common with Mad Max than Thomas the Tank Engine, and is claimed by The Reamer Club (the student group that drives and maintains it) to be the largest, fastest, heaviest, and loudest of all the nation’s collegiate mascots. The “fastest” part isn’t open for debate. Boilermaker Special VII has been clocked north of 75 mph on the open highway. Yes, it’s street legal, even though the driver needs someone to ride shotgun, in order to see around the train’s fake smokestack.
You can take your picture with a statue of the world’s most famous self-identified nerd. It’s easy to imagine the Stranger Things kids, with their polyester pants and unironic bowl cuts, fawning over this campus landmark–a statue of Purdue grad (and first man on the moon) Neil Armstrong. Every commencement day it sports a long line of newly minted grads, still in their robes, who queue up to have their picture taken with the bronze edifice, which sits (literally sits) in front of the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering. Instead of posing heroically in a spacesuit, a college-age representation of Neil rests on a bench, wearing a crew cut and carrying a slide rule. A pretty accurate ensemble for a man who once described himself as “a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer.”
There’s also a collection of space trees. Purdue has graduated a lot of astronauts. So is it any wonder that some of the on-campus flora boasts otherworldly origins? For instance, several sweetgum trees were grown from seeds that germinated while aboard a 1984 space shuttle Discovery mission. There’s also a sycamore tree on the south side of Lilly Hall that germinated during a flight by space shuttle Atlantis in 1988. All are perfectly normal and have (so far) made no attempts to develop vast underground root systems that link them to the Upside Down.
The school made a LOT of psychedelic drugs. If you were a scientist who needed, say, some LSD for a study, for many decades it was Purdue chemist Dave Nichols–and only him–who could legally hook you up. For more than 40 years Nichols possessed that rarest of rarities–a government license to produce such Schedule 1 drugs as LSD, DMT, and psilocybin (a synthetic version of the psychedelic compound in some mushrooms). He started work in 1969 and retired in 2012. His “users” were typically other academic institutions who had a Schedule 1 license that allowed them to conduct experiments with the hallucinogens Nichols made. Some were also produced for his own investigations into how the chemicals interacted with human biology. The DEA constantly harassed him, worried that the synthetic analogues he developed (which were written up in academic journals) would be duplicated and sold on the street as designer drugs. So far, however, none of his compounds have produced kids with psychic powers (that we know of).
The school’s founder is buried on campus. Probably. During Purdue’s more than 150 years, only three luminaries have earned the honor of an on-campus burial. First and foremost was John Purdue, the rich philanthropist who donated roughly $150,000 to the school, and after whom the entire place is named. Born on Halloween 219 years ago, he died in 1876, after spending much of his last day patrolling Purdue’s nascent campus and watching the construction of its main building, University Hall. Purdue was laid to rest in front of that building, which still stands today. Perhaps not surprisingly, a macabre, decades-old legend holds that the grave is empty, because the body was exhumed and absconded with by dastardly Indiana University students.
The football stadium’s goalposts are indestructible. It’s always been a tradition in college football to tear down the goalposts after your team wins a big game, but leave it to Purdue to dial this frenzied mob action up to 11. In 1992, after a particularly memorable Boilermaker victory over the University of California, elated fans stormed the field, tore down the metal goal posts, carried them across campus, and threw them into the Wabash River. When the same thing happened after Purdue upset the University of Michigan in 1996, the school purchased replacement goalposts from a Chicago company that said their design was indestructible. So far that’s proven true–though other measures such as greasing the central support pole to make it harder to climb were also instituted.
The popcorn a lot of people eat while watching Stranger Things was developed by a Boilermaker. After graduating from Purdue in 1928, Orville Redenbacher (who played tuba in the marching band) set about crossbreeding various strains of popping corn until he developed what he considered to be the perfect strain. So perfect, in fact, that when placed in a hot pan, almost every kernel popped. He launched Orville Redenbacher Popcorn in 1970, which became an immediate and enduring success, mostly thanks to its creator’s unusual name, and the fact that the reedy-voiced, bespectacled Redenbacher served for decades as his company’s pitchman.