Beauty and the Bank Robbery

It seems that Stockholm Syndrome is something that everyone knows a little about but no one knows heaps about. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably nodded along without truly understanding what the heck this syndrome is when it comes up in conversation. After doing some research, I found some interesting information that kind of changed how I see the meaning of the syndrome. But it also made me think about how terms and titles are created and then brought to the public’s attention. The definition of the syndrome according to is “an emotional attachment to a captor formed by a hostage as a result of continuous stress, dependence, and a need to cooperate for survival.”

So, how did the term come to be? I’m gonna keep it simplified and I encourage you to do some further research if you feel so inclined. The first incident that was labelled as Stockholm Syndrome happened in 1973 in, yep you guessed it, Stockholm. There was a robbery and hostage situation in a bank where a number of civilians were kept captive by the robbers for about five days. These victims had contact with not only the police but also the Prime Minister of Sweden during their time in captivity. When talking to the police and Prime Minister it became evident that the hostages had started to side with their captors. For example, the victims didn’t want the police to harm the captors at all because a friendship of sorts had formed. The hostages were not physically harmed at all, and, besides the fact that they were trapped, little hostility was evident. This incident was written about in the New Yorker which ultimately led to the term ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ being coined. The main inspiration for this term was that the captives sided with their captors over the police. 

BUT, and this is where I think it gets quite interesting, the term was further popularised by a ‘similar’ situation that happened in the US in 1974. A  19 year old girl named Patty Hearst, with a very rich family, was kidnapped for ransom by a terrorist group. She was raped, trapped in small spaces, and repeatedly physically abused. She then publically robbed a bank with this group and stated that she agreed with their views and ideologies. This whole incident was seen as an example of Stockholm syndrome.  (This is obviously a simplified version of what happened and I encourage you to read more if you’re interested.)

What shocked me was how different these two situations were. The first, and the original, had little to no hostility, the second had a huge amount of abuse and hostility. 

In the first situation the captives, to an extent, consensually became friends, or at least friendly, with their captors. But in Patty Hearst’s situation, she was being abused and tormented, and I don’t think she really had any choice but to side with her captors. I think it’s interesting to think about what you would do in that situation because for me, whether it was sincere or not, I would probably tell my captors that I agreed with them if it meant staying alive. 

And then there’s Beauty and the Beast. The smart alec of every friend group always mentions Stockholm Syndrome when this movie comes up just to assert their superior intelligence.  As you probably know, Belle actually falls in love with the Beast when she’s being held captive by him. Definitely more like the first situation but the time period is extended and instead of siding with the captor over the police, the victim falls in love. Which, let’s be honest, is what you want in a kids’ movie. This story is framed so that the audience is encouraged to sympathise with the Beast and then the oh so beautiful power of loooove transforms him into a traditionally handsome male. 

A more recent occurrence of Stockholm Syndrome was in 2002 when a 14 year old girl was taken on a hike in the woods and a male stranger. She was forced to strip her clothing and partake in a wedding ceremony between herself and her male captor, (whose female partner was present.) She was continually raped and abused over 9 months and violence was threatened at any sign of disobedience. After all this, she became part of their ‘family’ and was obedient. You can see that this is similar to the second example with Patty Hearst where the captive really had no choice but to side with their abuser. Again, would you not do that in order to stay alive?

These situations are all quite obviously extremely different. It’s kinda like there’s an apple, orange, and banana, and someone says they all taste like fruit. Yeah technically they are all fruit, but that doesn’t mean they all taste the same. And of course coming up with the term can simplify the situations to help people understand them, but why do they need to be simplified? These are all very complex and morally questionable events which ultimately means that a lot of thought needs to go into understanding them, and pushing them under one umbrella term doesn’t help with that. 

Most of this information came from an episode of the podcast ‘You’re Wrong About’ titled Stockholm Syndrome. I hope you’ve learnt something here but this is of course laced with my opinion so take this with a little sprinkle of salt.