What happens when you develop an emotional bond with a person that has deprived you of your basic needs?
In 1973 Jan-Erik Olsson, an ex-convict Swedish man, attempted to rob a bank. The police were automatically informed and officers arrived at the bank almost immediately, but Olsson wouldn’t let them capture him so easily. He opened fire and took four hostages with him. Soon, he demanded the officers to let his friend Clark Olofsson bring him ammunition and money, which they allowed. The story was followed nationally, not only because of the robbery itself, but due to the unbelievable attitude of the hostages towards the police. They weren’t happy with how authorities were handling the situation, whom they believed were only making things worse, and one of them, Kristin Enmark, declared that she felt safe with her captors and was more afraid of how things would develop with the police’s intervention. This case became so famous that criminologist Nils Bejerot coined the term "Stockholm syndrome" after the case, based on the uncanny behavior of the hostages.
This is a term we’re all familiar with and have even used at some point in our lives when we have a sort of love-hate situation. However, it isn’t a proper or accepted diagnostic term in the psychology field. What Bejerot and many psychologists and psychiatrists believe is that the so-famous term refers to a survival mechanism triggered by a traumatic experience. So, this becomes a sort of regression where the subjects that are deprived of their basic needs (freedom, food, water, or even being allowed to go to the bathroom whenever they want to) learn that in order to achieve them they have to ask for permission. Then, when those in power decide to grant them these traits, they experience a sort of gratitude towards them that can evolve into a sickly relationship of dominance-submission.
Naturally, this has become a subject that has been widely explored in media, being films the ones that have depicted it the most. So, if you are into the subject and wish to see some examples of this fascinating subject, take a look at these films.
3096 Days (2013) Dir. Sherry Hormann
This movie, based on real events, tells the tough story of Natascha Kampusch, a ten-year-old girl who was kept in a cell for eight years. Through all this time, her captor was the only person she was in contact with, and despite the fact that he tortured and mistreated her, she developed a strong attachment to him. One day she managed to escape from the cellar. Wolfgang, her captor, killed himself after realizing that his treasure escaped. Now, the impressive thing about this story is how despite being safe, she never really escapes from the horrors she experienced. More importantly, she realizes that, even when this man hurt her so much, she had a huge attachment to him and starts missing his company. This is a truly scary and heartbreaking movie.
Three Days of the Condor (1974) Dir. Sydney Pollack
Joe Turner, a worker in an intelligence agency, goes back to the office after a lunch break and finds all his co-workers lying dead on the ground. Scared, he tells his superiors about the massacre, and instead of being supported and helped, he discovers that it was all planned by them and that his life is also in danger. Seeing that no one is willing to help him, and in a despair breakdown, he decides to kidnap a woman he has just met to force her to help him. Soon, although she has been deprived from her freedom by this man, she realizes that he means no real harm to her and what started as fear soon evolves into a strange fascination towards this man. After spending some time together, and despite the fact that their relationship follows a captor-captive pattern, she soon starts having feelings for him, and they begin a strange romantic relationship.
V for Vendetta (2005) Dir. James McTeigue
The movie is widely known as a great and quite popular example of how terrible it would be to live in a dystopian conservative reality. However, besides all the political comments and the appealing character behind a Guy Fawkes’ mask, another important theme explored in the film is precisely the Stockholm Syndrome Evey develops when she’s kidnapped by this head of the resistance. Again, like in the previous movie, the story presents a desperate character who decides to kidnap someone to fight for the right thing, although he isn’t evil nor wants to harm his hostage. In that way, Evey soon starts to see the real man behind the mask (literally), and at the end of the day falls for him, even when he’s clearly a manipulative man willing to do anything to fulfill his mission.
Buffalo ‘66 (1998) Dir. Vincent Gallo
A man convicted for a crime he didn’t commit goes out of jail determined to kill the man he blames for his sentence. Not having anything worth fighting for but his revenge, he decides to go to his parents' house to prepare everything for his quest. However, on the way he decides to kidnap a woman and force her to pretend to be his girlfriend before his parents. The girl falls in love with her captor and somehow starts believing all the charade is actually true. Besides the fact that he treats her horribly and even cruelly, she thinks that behind all his rudeness lies a noble and kind man who was hurt in life. She believes that she’s actually the only one that can save him and bring him back to his real self.
Now, these movies present the classic kidnapping scenario in which the victim develops an emotional attachment to their captors. However, the Stockholm syndrome not only refers or is applied to these situations. It can also develop in circumstances like extremely dominant relationships, in which despite the abuse and ill-treatment, the submissive ones still have an emotional bond with their abusers. Then again, not being a widely accepted term in psychology, the situations and patterns aren’t so well established.
For more movies inspired by psychology take a look at these: