Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response typically displayed in victims of kidnapping, hostage situations, and abuse. Though Stockholm syndrome is still being heavily studied and is not yet officially considered a disorder, most psychologists and other medical professionals agree that it is likely an emotional and behavioral coping mechanism victims develop to adapt to and survive the trauma they are living through by trying to appease their captors to avoid violence.
This behavior is often deeply rooted in the victim’s fear of their abuser. Due to the extended time the victim and abuser spend together and the extreme isolation the victim experiences, Stockholm syndrome is also often categorized as a form of brainwashing. Over time, perpetrators may use tactics like “acts of kindness” to manipulate their captives into feelings such as gratitude.
Whatever the exact science behind it may be, victims experiencing Stockholm syndrome feel bonded to their abuser and may even harbor positive or amicable feelings toward them, despite the trauma they have been through. In extreme cases, victims can even begin to feel affection and/or sympathy for their captors and may try to protect them out of a sense of loyalty. In these instances, victims can feel heartbroken when they are separated from their abusers and may resent or be afraid of law enforcement, their rescuers, and anyone else who has tried to help them escape.
Signs of Stockholm syndrome can include confusion, depression, posttraumatic stress, phobias, flashbacks, nightmares, and insomnia. Victims suffering from Stockholm syndrome may also startle easily and have difficulty trusting others.
There is still more to learn about Stockholm syndrome, and it continues to fascinate both professionals and the masses, even working its way into entertainment media and fiction. That said, here are 11 true famous cases of Stockholm syndrome.
1973: The Norrmalmstorg Robbery
The phrase “Stockholm syndrome” was coined by criminologist and psychologist Nils Bejerot. It originated with the Norrmalmstorg robbery, which took place in Stockholm, Sweden on August 23, 1973. Jan-Erik Olsson, a 32-year-old convict, attempted to rob Sveriges Kreditbank (Kreditbanken) in Norrmalmstorg square and took four hostages: Birgitta Lundblad, Elisabeth Oldgren, Kristin Ehnmark, and Sven Safstrom. Shortly after taking the hostages, Olsson demanded that his friend Clark Olofsson, 26, be brought there, and authorities complied in an attempt to keep the peace.
The four hostages were held captive in a bank vault for six days, but it quickly became evident that they were bonding with their captors. They were reportedly on a first-name basis by day two and were even hostile toward law enforcement officers who attempted to check on them. When they were finally able to escape, reports indicate that the hostages hugged the robbers goodbye and blocked police from being able to shoot at them.
During the hostage crisis, on a phone call with Prime Minister Olof Palme, Kristin Ehnmark, who reportedly developed the closest bond with Olsson, relayed her “disappointment” that Olsson’s demands were not being met and even told Palme, “I fully trust Clark and the robber.” In fact, according to multiple accounts, the hostages were more afraid of being killed in a police assault than by Olsson or Olofsson.
After the crime, both Olsson and Olofsson were charged and convicted, but Olofsson’s charges were ultimately dropped due to claims that he was only there to save the hostages and help control Olsson. The victims raised money for their captors’ court fees, refused to testify against them, and even visited them after the fact. In a later interview with journalist Daniel Lang, the hostages insisted that they were treated well and felt indebted to their captors for sparing their lives.
Most notably, Elisabeth Oldgren shared that Olsson was “very kind” to her when she was suffering from severe claustrophobia. According to her, she was allowed to exit the vault for a time with a rope around her neck so she could walk around.
1972: Steven Stayner
Kidnapped less than a year before Stockholm syndrome was first conceptualized, Steven Stayner is another early case of the phenomenon. On December 4, 1972, 7-year-old Stayner was taken by Ervin Edward Murphy and Kenneth Parnell. For the next seven years, Stayner was held captive and sexually abused by Parnell.
Over time, Parnell convinced Stayner that his parents did not want him anymore and that Parnell would be his father going forward. He went so far as to make Stayner call him “dad.” Eventually, Parnell publicly posed as Stayner’s father and enrolled him in school as Dennis Gregory Parnell. Parnell is reported to have often supplied Stayner with alcohol, and he ultimately was given the freedom to go about his life. Stayner never tried to escape, though he later shared that he did wonder whether or not Parnell was telling the truth about his parents.
When Stayner was 14, Parnell kidnapped 5-year-old Timothy White in February 1980. This prompted Stayner to escape with White and finally go to the police. In his statement, Stayner famously wrote: “I know my first name is Steven, I’m pretty sure my last name is Stainer [sic], and if I have a middle name, I don’t know it.” Both Murphy and Parnell were arrested and convicted, but they shockingly only served two- and five-year sentences, respectively.
Sadly, Stayner’s survival story is not a happy one. He was bullied for being molested, never received proper counseling and recovery help, and struggled with alcohol abuse to cope with his trauma. He was killed in a motorcycle accident on September 16, 1989.
1974: Patricia Hearst
The case of 19-year-old Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of publisher William Randolph Hearst, is likely the most well-known and infamous example of Stockholm syndrome.
On February 4, 1974, armed men broke into Hearst’s apartment, attacked her fiancé, and kidnapped Hearst. They later identified themselves as part of a terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), and they reportedly abducted Hearst for political and financial leverage.
Hearst lived with her captors for over a year, and though she was raped, tortured, and isolated, she eventually announced that she was joining her kidnappers and becoming a revolutionary. She took part in bank robberies, traveled around the country with her captors, promoted their propaganda, and more. On September 18, 1975, Hearst was finally captured by the FBI. She was charged along with her captors and was ultimately sentenced to 35 years in prison for her crimes, though it was later dropped to seven years.
As her defense, Hearst claimed she had been brainwashed by her kidnappers. When arrested, she only weighed 87 pounds. She also took an IQ test, and the results displayed a shocking 18-point drop in the 19 months she was held captive. Dr. Margaret Singer went so far as to describe Hearst as a “low IQ, low affect zombie.” Another doctor and brainwashing specialist, Louis Jolyon West, conducted a 15-hour interview with Hearst, after which he concluded that she suffered from a “classic case” of brainwashing.
Hearst remained in prison for two years until President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence, freeing her. She was able to recover and went on to marry, have children, and even act in several movies.
1977: Colleen Stan
Just three years after Patty Hearst was kidnapped, 20-year-old Colleen Stan underwent a horrifically brutal ordeal, resulting in another infamous case of Stockholm syndrome.
On May 19, 1977, Stan set out to hitchhike to a friend’s party close to Red Bluff, California. Soon, Cameron Hooker and his wife, Jan, offered her a ride. Since the couple had a young child, Stan assumed she would be safe. However, aided by Jan, Hooker kidnapped Stan to be his sex slave.
Stan was held captive for seven years, during which time she was raped, tortured, and kept in a coffin-like box for 22–23 hours a day. In 1978, Hooker forced her to “sign herself” into sex slavery. Her name became “K,” and Hooker even referred to her as a piece of furniture, only allowing her to call him “Master.”
Hooker convinced Stan that he was part of an organization known as “The Company,” and that they would hurt Stan and kill her family if she did not obey his every command. Stan was so deeply influenced by Hooker that when he told her to put a gun in her mouth and pull the trigger, she complied. However, the act was said to be a test of loyalty because there were no bullets in the gun.
Four years after the kidnapping, in 1981, Hooker took Stan to visit her family and even left her alone with them overnight. Her family was unaware of the circumstances, and Stan never told them. Instead, she said Hooker was her boyfriend and claimed to be happy with him, even taking a picture the next day when he picked her up.
Stan remained with the Hookers for another three and a half years. In 1985, consumed by guilt, Jan finally helped Stan escape. Hooker was convicted of torture and kidnapping and sentenced to 104 years in prison. The FBI later said Stan’s case was “unparalleled in its brutality.” The mental and physical torture she was subjected to caused her to mentally break in order to cope and survive.
1991: Jaycee Dugard
On June 10, 1991, 11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard was kidnapped by Phillip Greg Garrido in front of her stepfather’s eyes. Though he tried to save her, he could not keep up with Garrido’s car as it sped away.
Dugard was held captive for nearly 18 years until 2009. Garrido and his wife, Nancy, abused and imprisoned Dugard, forcing her to live in a shed in their yard. Garrido told Dugard that “demon angels” let him kidnap her because she was supposed to “help” him with his society-condemned “sexual problems” (child molestation and rape).
During her captivity, Dugard had two daughters fathered by Garrido. They were both born with no medical care and never had the opportunity to go to school. Instead, they were educated at home by Dugard and educational TV shows. Many psychiatrists believe that because they had children together, in Dugard’s mind (at least during her captivity), her relationship with Garrido was a type of marriage-like relationship.
Eventually, Dugard began helping Garrido with his business by answering calls and emails. Some people later claimed they had seen her off the property, but Dugard insisted she had never left. She also seemingly never tried to escape or share her true identity.
Eventually, suspicions arose, and police showed up to investigate Garrido. Dugard met with them and introduced herself as “Alissa,” the false identity Garrido gave her. She defended Garrido and acknowledged that while he was a known sex offender, he was “good with her kids” and was a “changed man.” Dugard was defensive when being questioned and lied to protect Garrido, stating that she was staying with Garrido while hiding from her abusive husband. One officer at the scene, Ally Jacobs, observed that Dugard’s daughters, then 15 and 11, seemed to be “brainwashed zombies.”
Dugard eventually revealed her identity, Garrido was arrested, and Dugard was reunited with her family. She shared that she felt a deep emotional connection with Garrido but later denounced his actions and stated, “I adapted to survive my circumstances.” Dugard has never spoken about Stockholm syndrome specifically, but experts believe it was her means of survival.
1996: Mariano Querol
The case of Mariano Querol is one of the more fascinating cases of Stockholm Syndrome, as Querol, a Peruvian psychiatrist, analyzed the situation himself after the fact.
In 1996, the 71-year-old was kidnapped and held captive for 18 days by a group of four middle-class men led by Gonzalo Higueras, a 43-year-old businessman who was the neighbor of one of Querol’s children. Higueras was in financial trouble and wanted to use ransom money for Querol to pay his rent and the boarding school tuition of his children.
Querol quickly bonded with his captors, eventually asking them to let him listen to music, allow him to eat more vegetables, and bring him books to read, all of which the kidnappers complied with. They even watched TV and began reading books together, most notably “News of a Kidnapping” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which centered on a kidnapping much like the one they were currently partaking in.
Additionally, Querol began giving his captors counseling sessions, building sympathy for them. His main captor, who he called “mi amigo” even confided in Querol about his anxiety regarding the kidnapping. Querol’s family paid the $150,000 ransom, and Querol was released unharmed. When they left him in the street, “mi amigo” gave him money for a taxi.
Higueras was captured almost immediately (though he did have time to settle his debts). Querol admitted to being scared for his life before he was released, but he still asked for reduced sentences for all his captors. He admitted to knowing he had Stockholm syndrome but felt like there was an extra layer in his particular case: His captors also felt bonded to him, something Querol suggested should be called “Lima syndrome.”
Experts believe Querol’s bond with his captors saved his life. He knew their identities, yet they let him live, which is atypical for ransom situations.
1998: Natascha Kampusch
On March 2, 1998, 10-year-old Natascha Kampusch was kidnapped by two men, beginning a severe case of Stockholm syndrome. For the next eight years, she lived in a cellar under Wolfgang Přiklopil’s garage. It was soundproof and windowless, and Kampusch was starved, mentally abused, and beaten to keep her too weak to escape.
As time passed, she was eventually allowed to leave the room and go into other parts of the house, but she was told the windows and doors were rigged with explosives that would go off if she tried to escape. Kampusch often had breakfast in the morning with Přiklopil, but he continued to rape and beat her.
According to Kampusch’s account, “One of the worst scenes during my captivity was when he shoved me, wearing only a pair of panties, half-starved, covered in bruises and with my head completely shorn, in front of the front door and said, ‘Come on now, run. Let’s see how far you get.'” Kampusch recalled being too humiliated to run. She did occasionally try to get the attention of passersby, but she was never able to.
Finally, in August 2006, 18-year-old Natascha had her chance to run. Přiklopil answered a phone call while Kampusch was cleaning his car and left her unattended. She ran to a neighbor, who contacted authorities. Shortly after Kampusch was safely under police protection, Přiklopil jumped in front of a train, choosing to kill himself rather than face conviction.
Kampusch was deeply affected by Přiklopil’s passing, weeping and ultimately spending hours alone with his coffin. For years after the event, she carried a photograph of him in her wallet and openly admitted to grieving over his passing. Though she wanted to escape, Kampusch still developed strong feelings toward him during her captivity.
2002: Elizabeth Smart
One of the most well-known kidnappings in recent times is that of Elizabeth Smart. It is widely debated whether Smart truly suffered from Stockholm syndrome regarding her feelings toward her captors or only operated out of sheer terror. Nonetheless, her harrowing case is worth noting.
Early in the morning on June 5, 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom by Brian David Mitchell in Salk Lake City, Utah. They hiked to a campsite, and Mitchell introduced Smart to Wanda Barzee, his “wife.” Barzee forced Smart to undress, and then Mitchell performed a “marriage” ceremony for himself and Smart before raping her. She was then chained to a tree and abused repeatedly.
As time went on, Mitchell turned Smart into a submissive and obedient prisoner through psychological abuse, violence, and threats against her and her family. Eventually, she began going on outings with Mitchell and Barzee. At one point, she was questioned by the police, but she did not reveal her identity or ask for help. During all these outings, Smart never once tried to escape.
Mitchell moved them 750 miles away to California for a while before moving them to the East Coast. However, Smart was able to convince Mitchell to move back to Utah for “spiritual” reasons, making him think it was his idea.
Finally, after nine months, the three were recognized in Utah. Smart was rescued and returned to her family. Seven years later, Smart testified against Mitchell and Barzee, during which she admitted to having opportunities to escape but not taking them. Mitchell was sentenced to life in prison, while Barzee received 15 years.
In a later interview, Smart revealed that she was terrified due to Mitchell’s threats against her life and her family’s lives. She stated, “Those two threats right there are stronger than chains for me.” She also defended herself and spoke out against those who questioned her about why she never ran, saying “That is so wrong and, frankly, offensive to even ask that question.”
2002: Shawn Hornbeck
Shawn Hornbeck was kidnapped mere months after Elizabeth Smart, and his four-year ordeal is a prominent case of Stockholm syndrome.
At 11 years old, Hornbeck was abducted on October 6, 2002. While riding his bike to a friend’s house, Hornback was purposefully hit with a car by Michael John Devlin. Devlin grabbed Hornback and drove off, leaving no trace of the boy. Police and volunteers searched extensively for Hornbeck to no avail.
For four years, he lived with Devlin and was abused and molested. Reportedly, Hornback made an agreement with Devlin soon after being kidnapped that he would do whatever Devlin wanted if Devlin did not kill him. Devlin’s extensive threats of violence instilled deep-rooted fear in Hornbeck. At one point after seeing his parents on TV, Hornbeck anonymously emailed his father asking how long he planned on looking for his son, but he never tried to contact authorities or escape.
Hornbeck was often seen playing outside with Devlin and with friends, and neighbors believed he was Devlin’s son. Hornbeck also went shopping, was out in public, had phone and internet access, and even had friends and a girlfriend.
In January 2007, when Hornbeck was 15, he was found while authorities were searching for 13-year-old Benjamin Ownby after Devlin kidnapped him, as well. Devlin was arrested and convicted.
In a later interview with People Magazine, Hornbeck opened up about why he did not escape. He admitted to deeply fearing Devlin and said, “You’re brainwashed. It’s as simple as that.” He also spoke about his experience, saying, “It’s like you are on autopilot, only someone else is controlling all the switches.”
2009: Mackenzie Phillips
One of the most shocking cases of Stockholm syndrome is that of Mackenzie Phillips, daughter of “Papa” John Phillips of the musical group The Mamas and The Papas.
In her book, “High on Arrival,” Phillips revealed her decade-long incestuous relationship with her father, which started when she was only 17 or 18 years old. Phillips’ father started doing drugs with her at a young age, and this drug use made Phillips feel very dependent on him, further entrapping her in his abuse.
In her book, Phillips wrote, “I woke up that night from a blackout and found myself having sex with my own father.” In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, she spoke about confronting her father about what had happened. He responded, “Raped you? Don’t you mean we made love?” This incident began a trend of Phillips often waking up from drug-induced blackouts and finding herself naked in bed with her father.
Eventually, the relationship became consensual. Phillips knew it was wrong, but in her words, “It was the Stockholm syndrome, where you begin to love your captor.” John Phillips also filled her head with his ideas that their family was special and, therefore, able to operate outside of the normal realm of behavior. Though many people question why Phillips did not stop the abuse as an adult, her trauma bond was formed out of a need to survive, where she desired the approval of her father to protect herself.
Phillips’ father grew more delusional as time went on, and he eventually spoke to her about running away together to Fiji to raise her siblings as their own. After Phillips found herself pregnant with a child, not sure if the father was her husband or her own father, she finally found the strength to stop the abuse. In her words, “I never let [John Phillips] touch me again.”
1933: Mary McElroy
While the kidnapping of Mary McElroy happened well before the conceptualization of Stockholm syndrome, it has since been recognized as an extreme case.
On May 27, 1933, 25-year-old McElroy was kidnapped from her father’s home by four men, including George and Walter McGee. They broke into the house while she was taking a bubble bath. She was forced at gunpoint to get dressed, then the men took her to a farmhouse, where she was chained up in the basement.
McElroy’s father was Henry F. McElroy, the Kansas City Manager at the time. The kidnappers demanded $60,000 in ransom money, and on May 29, after 29 hours of holding McElroy, they accepted $30,000 and released her unharmed at Millburn Golf Course.
Less than a month later, three of the men were arrested. McElroy spoke out in their defense, saying she was well cared for and that one of them had even given her flowers. The men were sentenced severely, and McElroy felt extreme guilt and publicly asked that Governor Brasfield Park reverse their sentences. McElroy maintained a friendship with the McGee brothers and visited them throughout their time in prison, even bringing them gifts.
Sadly, McElroy suffered many nervous breakdowns after the kidnapping, and her mental state rapidly declined. When her father died in 1939, she was finally pushed over the edge. On January 21, 1940, McElroy shot herself in the head with a pistol. In her suicide note, she wrote: “My four kidnappers are probably the four people on earth who don’t consider me an utter fool.”
When cases like these happen, many people wonder whether or not the victims can ever fully recover from the horrific ordeals they have been through and the psychological effects of Stockholm syndrome.
It is possible for victims to recover, but some cases can take years to work through. Treatments often include a combination of medication therapy and psychotherapy to produce the best results and maximize the help victims receive. These treatments must be carefully designed and monitored by psychiatrists to ensure the safety of individuals in recovery.
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Emily Jane Traub is an editor and writer who works in content creation. She has a BA in Creative Writing and aspires to one day be a published author. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, traveling, and watching movies.