Room Stockholm Syndrome

In Room, the TV interviewer references Stockholm Syndrome when talking to Ma, a syndrome which Ma stridently denies having. We will take a closer look at this syndrome, discussing the origins of the term and how it affects people.

The incident that led to the coinage of the term took place in August 1973 in Stockholm, Sweden. Four bank workers were taken hostage during a robbery of the Kreditbanken spearheaded by a career criminal, Jan-Erik Olsson. The standoff lasted for six days and, at its end, there seemed to be a peculiar sort of relationship formed between the captors and the hostages. Criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot reputedly coined the phrase "Stockholm Syndrome" to describe this fascinating phenomenon.

Stockholm Syndrome was further taken up by Dr. Frank Ochberg, who worked on defining it for the FBI and Scotland Yard. Ochberg explains his criteria: "First people would experience something terrifying that just comes at them out of the blue. They are certain they are going to die… Then they experience a type of infantilization—where, like a child, they are unable to eat, speak, or go to the toilet without permission… [Small acts of kindness—such as being given food—prompt a] primitive gratitude for the gift of life… The hostages experience a powerful, primitive positive feeling towards their captor. They are in denial that this is the person who put them in that situation. In their mind, they think this is the person who is going to let them live."

Studies of the syndrome reveal that the captors also often feel their sentiments towards the hostages change. Olsson explained years after, “It was the hostages' fault. They did everything I told them to do. If they hadn't, I might not be here now. Why didn't any of them attack me? They made it hard to kill. They made us go on living together day after day, like goats, in that filth. There was nothing to do but get to know each other." This phenomenon has also been given the name “Lima Syndrome” after a 1996 situation in Peru.

Psychologists and law enforcement often dispute the frequency with which the syndrome is said to occur, not to mention various aspects of its definition. An article from the BBC explains, “There are no widely accepted diagnostic criteria to identify the syndrome, which is also known as terror-bonding or trauma bonding, and it is not in either of the two main psychiatric manuals, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD).”

Nevertheless, Stockholm Syndrome has been applied to several significant cases within the decades following its origins as a term. It is associated with the kidnapping of Patty Hearst in 1974 as well as the more current case of Natasha Kampusch, held for eight years in a basement by her captor.