Stockholm Syndrome is perhaps one of human nature’s oddest quirks. A case in which the victim of a brutal beating or kidnapping ends up identifying closely with his or her oppressor, the syndrome appears surprisingly often in news headlines. The term first made its way into the popular lexicon in 1973, derived from a highly publicized hostage situation that took place in Stockholm.
An escaped convict went to a bank and took four employees hostage. His plan slowly unraveled, and he had to keep his victims in a vault for more than 5 days. But soon enough, something strange happened. The hostages got to be on a first name basis with the convict, and even seemed hostile to law enforcement officials concerned about their plight. In the subsequent trial, the hostages collected money for their captor’s defense team, and did their best to protect him.
The baffling turn of events led psychologists to deem this behavior as Stockholm Syndrome, and it is now a benchmark of sorts for all kinds of tragic and terrifying behavior involving kidnappers.
Here are a few of the worst cases ever known of the syndrome – moving beyond the infamous Patty Hearst and similarly poor little rich girl memes.
1. Mary McElroy
In 1933, Mary was an attractive, 25-year old socialite with her whole life ahead of her when things took a dark turn. One evening in May, she was taking a luxurious bubble bath in her father’s house when she was abducted by four mean, including two brothers, George and Walter McGee. She was the daughter of Kansas City Manager Henry F. McElroy, whom the abductors felt could be a goldmine in ransom money. The men broke into the house with – oddly enough – a sawed-off shotgun, and waited for Mary to get dressed before taking her to an old farmhouse in which she was chained to a wall in the cold basement.
The men demanded $60,000 for her safe return, but eventually settled for half that amount. They released Mary safe and unharmed near a golf course for Henry to collect his daughter. Soon after, three of the men were captured and less than a month later sent to trial.
But, much to the surprise of both her prestigious social circle and her dad, Mary came to her captors’ defense. She mentioned that during the 29 hours she was held in the basement, she was treated extremely well, and was even given flowers by one of the men.
Regardless, the trial concluded with harsh sentences for the men, which left Mary riddled with guilt. She even called the governor and pleaded with him to reverse the sentence, but to no avail. Instead, Mary would do her best to visit them in prison and bring gifts.
The stress and what could be now seen as a volcanic mix of conflicting emotions led to multiple nervous breakdowns in Mary. Things worsened for her after her father passed away in 1939, as her mental state completely collapsed. Sadly, in 1940, she shot herself to death with a bullet to the head. The suicide note she left behind read: “My four kidnappers are probably the four people on earth who don’t consider me an utter fool.”
2. Elizabeth Smart
The brutal case of Elizabeth Smart rocked the headlines when she was finally found a few years ago.
Her haunting ordeal began in 2002, when then 14-year old Elizabeth was kidnapped from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her abductor, Brian David Mitchell, forced her into a seemingly random hike for hours until they eventually stopped at a campsite. There, Smart was met by Mitchell’s “wife,” Wanda Barzee, who forced her to undress.
Mitchell performed an odd “marriage ceremony” between himself and Smart, and then proceeded to horrifically rape the young girl. Afterwards, she was chained to a tree and further abused.
During the next nine months, Smart was repeatedly raped and psychologically abused to turn into a completely submissive partner. She followed orders and did her best to not upset the terrible couple who kidnapped her. The odd thing is that the three of them went on numerous outings in public spaces, such as the library and local stores – even when Smart was question by a police officer, she chose not to run away or reveal her true identity.
The trio had moved to California, but then Mitchell decided to uproot them once more and move to the East Coast. Smart, perhaps seeing her last opportunity to flee, appealed to Mitchell’s self-proclaimed godliness and told him that they should return to Utah – for spiritual reasons. Mitchell agreed, with the understanding that the idea had been his alone. Back in Utah, all three were recognized from the torrent of news broadcasts. Smart was pulled from her abductors and returned to her family.
While perhaps not the most clear-cut instance of Stockholm Syndrome, Smart did display a kind of empathy to her brutal kidnappers at first – perhaps both a mixture of fear and some small bit of understanding for those who had acted as her only family unit for a brief time: albeit an entirely harmful and dysfunctional one.
3. Colleen Stan
In 1977, 20-year old Colleen Stan was hitchhiking to a friend’s party near Red Bluff, California. She was picked up by a couple driving a blue van with a child in the backseat. The presence of the child made the couple appear safe. But soon, the husband, Cameron Hooker, put a knife to Colleen’s throat, drove her to a deserted area, and then raped and tortured her. Hooker’s plan was to turn Colleen into a sex slave with the help of his wife, Jan. To make matters worse, Hooker built a coffin-sized box, in which he held Colleen captive for 22 to 23 hours a day for the next seven years. Colleen was subjected to cruel torture throughout her imprisonment. She was renamed “K” and called a “piece of furniture.” Hooker told Colleen that he worked for an organization called “The Company” that would hurt her if she disobeyed him. Ironically, the Hookers were loving and affectionate to their young daughter, and used this extreme contrast in their behavior to further manipulate Colleen. At one point, Hooker handed Colleen a gun and told her to stick it in her mouth and pull the trigger. Colleen complied, but the gun contained no bullets. It was a test of loyalty.
In 1981, after nearly four years, Hooker took Colleen home to visit her family and left her there overnight. The Stans knew nothing of the abuse their daughter suffered, and Colleen did not inform them. Instead, when Hooker returned the following day, Colleen left with him and resumed her life in the box for another three and a half years. Thankfully, Jan Hooker eventually had a change in conscience and helped Colleen escape. Cameron Hooker was apprehended by police, convicted of kidnapping and torture, and was sentenced to 104 years in prison on November 22, 1985.
4. Natascha Kampusch
While walking to school on March 2, 1998, 10-year-old Natascha Kampusch was grabbed by two men and thrown into a white van. Despite an exhaustive search of the area, police could find no trace of Natascha or her reputed kidnappers. For the next eight years, Natascha was held prisoner in a cellar beneath the garage of a man named Wolfgang Přiklopil. The cellar was 54 square feet, windowless, soundproof, and closed in by a concrete and steel door. Initially, Natascha was not permitted to leave the room. But as time went on, she was invited to spend time in other parts of the house. She was left alone in the cellar during the day while Přiklopil worked. In the following years, Natascha was given additional freedoms as part of a pact that she would stay silent about her captivity.
Each morning, Natascha and Přiklopil ate breakfast together, living in a distorted version of normalcy. But Přiklopil countered his niceties by beating and raping Natascha, all the while maintaining that the doors and windows of the house were rigged with explosives. On random occasions, Natascha tried to attract the attention of outsiders but was unsuccessful. Finally, on August 23, 2006, she managed to slip away. She had been vacuuming Přiklopil’s BMW under his supervision when the phone rang. Přiklopil left Natascha unattended while he took the call. Leaving the vacuum running, she took off into the streets and found a neighbor who called the police. Once Natascha had been in police protection, Přiklopil realized that he would likely be convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison. To avoid this, he jumped in front of a moving train near the Wien Nord station in Vienna. When Natascha was informed of Přiklopil’s death, she wept and even demanded to sit alone with his coffin for hours. Years after the escape, she still carried a photo of him in her wallet.
It is not entirely clear what generates a level of sympathy for one’s oppressors. Perhaps there’s a level of identification with them; an empathy for the underdog or people living on the margins of society; a sentiment most of us possess. But in extreme cases of terrifying abuse, things become more mysterious. Perhaps Stockholm Syndrome is a kind of coping mechanism – the brain’s desire to make sense of a particularly fearful and gruesome situation. And a willful example of our desire to survive even the most traumatic ordeals.