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6 Chilling Cases of Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is as tragic as it is complex. Victims suffer both the physical abuse of imprisonment and the severe emotional manipulation that locks them in place.


Stockholm syndrome is a condition in which a hostage or person in captivity develops a bond with their aggressor. This bond can range from simple feelings of empathy to the illusion of romantic interest. The name derives from the August 1973 Norrmalmstorg robbery of Kreditbanken at Norrmalmstorg in Stockholm, Sweden, in which gunmen held bank employees captive for six days. Over these days, the hostages formed an alliance with the criminals.

Psychologists have described Stockholm syndrome as an extreme coping or survival mechanism against a hostile situation. Those rescued are said to be in a trance-like state wherein the concept of right and wrong was so muddled that captivity became comforting. In cases where a person is held for years, it is the outside world that represents danger or uncertainty; sealed doors signify safety.

Here are six documented cases of Stockholm syndrome.

6. Shawn Hornbeck

Eleven-year-old Missouri resident Shawn Hornbeck was riding his bike to a friend’s house on October 6, 2002 when he was intentionally struck by an automobile. The driver, Michael John Devlin, jumped out, loaded Shawn into his car, and took off. Police, firefighters, and volunteers combed the area for the missing child without success. Four and a half years later, another missing child, 13-year-old William Benjamin Ownby was found in Devlin’s apartment, along with a now-teenaged Shawn Hornbeck. Devlin was arrested and charged with abduction. After his rescue, Shawn told law enforcement that he freely went shopping in public, had a girlfriend, and browsed the internet, all while remaining under Devlin’s watchful eye. Asked why he never attempted to escape, Shawn revealed that Devlin had instilled deep fear and threatened violence repeatedly, creating psychological barriers that kept him prisoner.

Related: 13 “Disappeared” Episodes That Will Make You Lock Your Doors Forever

5. Patty Hearst

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  • Security footage of Patty Hearst. 

    Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty

One of the most infamous kidnapping cases in history is that of 19-year-old Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of publishing giant William Randolph Hearst. On the morning of February 4, 1974, a group of gun-wielding domestic terrorists broke into Hearst’s apartment at 2603 Benvenue Street in Berkeley, California. Hearst’s fiancé was beaten up, and Hearst was thrown into the trunk of a car and driven away. The FBI soon learned that Hearst’s abductors identified themselves as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), and that they were attempting to wage war with the United States. The group had already left carnage in their wake, and by their own admission, abducted the heiress for financial and political leverage.

News of the kidnapping dominated headlines. Then, in April 1974, the case took an unexpected twist: Patty Hearst had joined her captors and announced her intention to be a revolutionary. She even assisted in a bank robbery, and started traveling around the country after a shootout between the SLA and Los Angeles Police left SLA leader Donald DeFreeze dead. She was finally captured in San Francisco on September 18, 1975, charged with robbery, and sentenced to seven years in prison. In her defense, Hearst claimed to have been brainwashed. She served only two years before her sentence was commuted; she was later pardoned. Hearst’s sensational tale is the subject of numerous films, documentaries, studies, and books, including Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.

Want to read American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst? Download it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.

4. Mary McElroy

On the evening of May 27, 1933, 25-year old Mary McElroy was taking a bubble bath in her father’s house when she was abducted by four men, including brothers George and Walter McGee. The men had broken into the house with a sawed off shotgun, and then waited for Mary to get dressed before taking her to an old farmhouse and chaining her to a wall in the basement. Mary, the daughter of Kansas City Manager Henry F. McElroy, was a potential goldmine in ransom money. Realizing this, the men demanded $60,000 for Mary’s release but eventually settled for $30,000. The sum was paid on May 29, 1933, and Mary was released unharmed near Millburn Golf Course. Three of the men were captured less than a month later and sent to trial. However, Mary said that she was well cared for during 29 hours in captivity; apparently, one of the men even gave her flowers. When the trial concluded and all three men were given harsh sentences, Mary was riddled with guilt. She publicly sympathized with her abductors and called upon Governor Guy Brasfield Park to reverse the sentence. Mary remained friends with the McGee brothers throughout their incarceration, visiting them in prison and bringing gifts.

The ordeal led to multiple nervous breakdowns in Mary. After her father died in 1939, Mary’s mental state collapsed. On January 21, 1940, she committed suicide with a pistol shot to the head. Part of her suicide note read: “My four kidnappers are probably the four people on earth who don’t consider me an utter fool.”

Related: She Fell in Love with Her Fiance’s Killer

3. Elizabeth Smart

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  • Photo Credit: Mauricio Menjivar / Getty

In the early morning hours of June 5, 2002, 14-year old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her abductor, Brian David Mitchell, forced her onto a seemingly random hike for hours until they eventually stopped at a campsite. There, Smart was met by Mitchell’s “wife,” Wanda Barzee, who made her undress. Mitchell performed a rudimentary marriage ceremony between himself and Smart, and then raped the young girl. Afterwards, she was chained to a tree and abused. Over the next nine months, Smart was repeatedly raped and psychologically molded into a submissive prisoner. Any instance of disobedience was met with threats of violence. Smart soon became a model captive and followed orders. Along with Mitchell and Barzee, Smart went on many outings—sometimes to shop, and other times to scavenge. During a trip to the library, Smart was even questioned by a police officer and chose not to reveal her identity, or to scream for help. The trio moved 750 miles away to California, but Mitchell decided to uproot them once more and move across the country to the East Coast. Smart 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. Seven years after the ordeal, she testified against Mitchell and Barzee. Mitchell was sentenced to life in prison; Barzee is serving 15 years.

Want to read Elizabeth Smart’s autobiography My Story? Download it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.

2. 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.

Related: 3 Horrifying Couples Who Will Make You Glad You’re Single

1. Natascha Kampusch

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  • Wolfgang Přiklopil’s house.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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 at 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.

Feature photo of Patty Hearst: Archive Photos / Getty