Stockholm Syndrome: The True Story of Hostages Loyal to Their Captor

Stockholm Syndrome: The True Story of Hostages Loyal to Their Captor

On the morning of August 23, 1973, an escaped convict crossed the streets of Sweden’s capital city and entered a bustling bank, the Sveriges Kreditbanken, on Stockholm’s upscale Norrmalmstorg square. From underneath the folded jacket he carried in his arms, Jan-Erik Olsson pulled a loaded submachine gun, fired at the ceiling and, disguising his voice to sound like an American, cried out in English, “The party has just begun!”

After wounding a policeman who had responded to a silent alarm, the robber took four bank employees hostage. Olsson, a safe-cracker who failed to return to prison after a furlough from his three-year sentence for grand larceny, demanded more than $700,000 in Swedish and foreign currency, a getaway car and the release of Clark Olofsson, who was serving time for armed robbery and acting as an accessory in the 1966 murder of a police officer. Within hours, the police delivered Olsson’s fellow convict, the ransom and even a blue Ford Mustang with a full tank of gas. However, authorities refused the robber’s demand to leave with the hostages in tow to ensure safe passage.

The unfolding drama captured headlines around the world and played out on television screens across Sweden. The public flooded police headquarters with suggestions for ending the standoff that ranged from a concert of religious tunes by a Salvation Army band to sending in a swarm of angry bees to sting the perpetrators into submission.

Holed up inside a cramped bank vault, the captives quickly forged a strange bond with their abductors. Olsson draped a wool jacket over the shoulders of hostage Kristin Enmark when she began to shiver, soothed her when she had a bad dream and gave her a bullet from his gun as a keepsake. The gunman consoled captive Birgitta Lundblad when she couldn’t reach her family by phone and told her, “Try again; don’t give up.”

When hostage Elisabeth Oldgren complained of claustrophobia, he allowed her to walk outside the vault attached to a 30-foot rope, and Oldgren told The New Yorker a year later that although leashed, “I remember thinking he was very kind to allow me to leave the vault.” Olsson’s benevolent acts curried the sympathy of his hostages. “When he treated us well,” said lone male hostage Sven Safstrom, “we could think of him as an emergency God.”

READ MORE: Looking Back at the Iran Hostage Crisis

By the second day, the hostages were on a first-name basis with their captors, and they started to fear the police more than their abductors. When the police commissioner was allowed inside to inspect the hostages’ health, he noticed that the captives appeared hostile to him but relaxed and jovial with the gunmen. The police chief told the press that he doubted the gunmen would harm the hostages because they had developed a “rather relaxed relationship.”

Enmark even phoned Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, already preoccupied with looming national elections and a deathbed vigil for the country’s revered 90-year-old King Gustaf VI Adolf, and pleaded with him to let the robbers take her with them in the escape car. “I fully trust Clark and the robber,” she assured Palme. “I am not desperate. They haven’t done a thing to us. On the contrary, they have been very nice. But, you know, Olof, what I am scared of is that the police will attack and cause us to die.”

Even when threatened with physical harm, the hostages still saw compassion in their abductors. After Olsson threatened to shoot Safstrom in the leg to shake up the police, the hostage recounted to The New Yorker, “How kind I thought he was for saying it was just my leg he would shoot.” Enmark tried to convince her fellow hostage to take the bullet: “But Sven, it’s just in the leg.”

Ultimately, the convicts did no physical harm to the hostages, and on the night of August 28, after more than 130 hours, the police pumped teargas into the vault, and the perpetrators quickly surrendered. The police called for the hostages to come out first, but the four captives, protecting their abductors to the very end, refused. Enmark yelled, “No, Jan and Clark go first—you’ll gun them down if we do!”

In the doorway of the vault, the convicts and hostages embraced, kissed and shook hands. As the police seized the gunmen, two female hostages cried, “Don’t hurt them—they didn’t harm us.” While Enmark was wheeled away in a stretcher, she shouted to the handcuffed Olofsson, “Clark, I will see you again.”

The hostages’ seemingly irrational attachment to their captors perplexed the public and the police, who even investigated whether Enmark had plotted the robbery with Olofsson. The captives were confused, too. The day following her release, Oldgren asked a psychiatrist, “Is there something wrong with me? Why don’t I hate them?”

Psychiatrists compared the behavior to the wartime shell shock exhibited by soldiers and explained that the hostages became emotionally indebted to their abductors, and not the police, for being spared death. Within months of the siege, psychiatrists dubbed the strange phenomenon “Stockholm Syndrome,” which became part of the popular lexicon in 1974 when it was used as a defense for the kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, who assisted her radical Symbionese Liberation Army captors in a series of bank robberies.

Even after Olofsson and Olsson returned to prison, the hostages made jailhouse visits to their former captors. An appeals court overturned Olofsson’s conviction, but Olsson spent years behind bars before being released in 1980. Once freed, he married one of the many women who sent him admiring letters while incarcerated, moved to Thailand and in 2009 released his autobiography, entitled Stockholm Syndrome.

READ MORE: PTSD and Shell Shock

The Six-Day Hostage Standoff That Gave Rise to ‘Stockholm Syndrome’

It’s become a familiar pop culture reference–but the roots of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ were anything but entertaining.

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On this day in 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson took four bank workers hostage at the Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm, Sweden. Olsson had intended only to rob the bank at gunpoint and make off with his takings, but the situation turned into a six-day standoff. During that time, the four hostages he took developed a bond that took a long time to unravel.

The hostage-taking must have been terrifying: Olsson walked into the bank with a jacket over his arm, looking like a normal customer. But underneath that jacket was a loaded submachine gun, writes Christopher Klein for He “fired at the ceiling and, disguising his voice to sound like an American, cried out in English, ‘The party has just begun!’” Klein writes.

After he took four hostages, he made his demands: more than $700,000, a getaway car and the release of his imprisoned "colleague" Clark Olofsson. “Within hours, the police delivered Olsson’s fellow convict, the ransom and even a blue Ford Mustang with a full tank of gas,” Klein writes. But they wouldn’t allow the robber to leave with the hostages, sparking a standoff. The police got a phone in so the hostages and their captors could communicate with the outside world.

In the days that followed, the world watched as police tried to figure out what to do. By the second day, The New York  Times reported, at least one hostage “was more critical of the authorities than of the robbers and accused the Government of ‘playing with our lives.’”

“We are more afraid of the policemen than these two boys,” said Kristin Ehnmark, according to the Times. “We are discussing, and, believe it or not, having a rather good time here. Why can’t they let the boys drive off with us in the car.”

When Olsson treated the captives well, “we could think of him as an emergency God,” said Sven Safstrom, the only male hostage, writes the BBC. He and the three other hostages–Ehnmark and two women named Birgitta Lundblad and Elisabeth Oldgren–sat down with The New Yorker  a year later to talk about their experience. "The hostages spoke of being well treated by Olsson, and at the time it appeared that they believed they owed their lives to the criminal pair,” the BBC reports. 

But none of this was yet known when police drilled a hole in the vault where the hostages and their captors were on August 29, dropping tear gas in and ending the standoff. On August 30, the Times reported that the hostages were “in shock” and being treated at a psychiatric clinic. “A bulletin read by the physician in charge, Dr. Lennart Ljonggren, described their condition as similar to victims of the shock of war,” Times reporter Henry Kamm wrote. The hostages–in particular Ehnmark–were continuing to display “a bond of friendship” with their captors. Later, a psychologist who had worked with the police during the kidnapping coined the term “Stockholm Syndrome,” although it didn’t come into wide use until the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1975.

“The survival instinct is at the heart of Stockholm syndrome,” writes Encyclopedia Britannica. “Victims live in enforced dependence and interpret rare or small acts of kindness in the midst of horrible conditions as good treatment.” However, even though Stockholm syndrome is a widely understood cultural term and one that is used (at least casually) by psychologists, it isn't part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or other important texts establishing known psychiatric ailments.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.

The aftermath

Both of the criminals were arrested, charged, and sentenced to prison for robbery. Clark tried to argue that he hadn’t helped Jan-Erik and, in fact, had tried to save the hostages and keep the situation calm, but the court didn’t buy his story.

After Clark was released, he met back up with Kristin Enmark on several occasions to the point where both of their families knew each other intimately. Unfortunately, he also continued to commit more crimes.

Jan-Erik, on the other hand, was sentenced and served ten years in prison. During that time, many women wrote him letters because they thought he was handsome and misunderstood.

After he was released, he was thought to have committed more crimes, but he also got married. The woman he married wasn’t one of the hostages, as some people try to claim.

In 2006, Jan-Erik surrendered to the Swedish police for financial crimes but was told that the charges weren’t being pursued.

Interestingly enough, the entire ordeal is set to become a Netflix Original in 2021. Clark will be played by actor Bill Skarsgård, the man who portrayed “Pennywise” in Stephen King’s It.

The Bank Robbery Behind Stockholm Syndrome

Most people associate Stockholm Syndrome, a situation in which people being held captive feel sympathy toward their captors, with Patty Hearst and her ordeal with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. But the term Stockholm Syndrome was actually coined a year before in—you guessed it—Sweden.

The Robbery

The whole thing went down over a period of six days, from August 23 through August 28, 1973. On the first day, Jan-Erik Olsson strolled into Kreditbanken in central Stockholm, Sweden, and single-handedly held the place up. Of the two policemen who responded to the call, Olsson shot one in the hand and made the other sit in a chair, ordering him to sing something. (The policeman chose “Lonesome Cowboy,” in case you’re interested.) Olsson then took four hostages and started making demands: He wanted his friend and expert bank robber Clark Olofsson brought to the bank. He wanted 3 million Swedish Kronor. And he wanted a couple of guns, some bulletproof vests, some helmets, and a fast car.

His friend was delivered. While they waited for the other items and planned their escape over the course of the next few days, the bank-robbing duo kept their captives locked inside of the bank vault. They had a few phone exchanges with Prime Minister Olof Palme, including one where they allowed hostage Kristin Ehnemark to speak. It was during this phone call that it became clear that the hostages were starting to sympathize with their captors. Ehnemark told the Prime Minister, “I think you are sitting there playing chequers with our lives. I fully trust Clark and the robber. I am not desperate. They haven't done a thing to us. On the contrary, they have been very nice. But you know, Olof, what I'm scared of is that the police will attack and cause us to die."

Other hostages turned sympathetic as well, later saying that they thought Olofsson and Olsson were perfectly lovely. One claustrophobic expressed gratitude that the men allowed her to leave the vault as long as she had a rope tied around her neck like a dog, and another hostage who was told he was going to be shot was grateful that Olsson was going to let him get drunk first.

On August 28, police finally decided to gas everyone out via a hole they had drilled through the ceiling of the bank vault. The ploy worked, and everyone eventually left the bank unharmed. Both Olofsson and Olsson were captured.

The Aftermath

Olsson received 10 years in prison and has had a spotless record ever since. Olofsson, on the other hand, was released after appealing his sentence, managing to convince a judge that he had only showed up at the scene of the crime to help ensure the safety of the hostages. He became friendly with his captives over the years, even getting chummy with Ehnemark’s whole family when he wasn’t in and out of prison on various charges for the next few decades.

Some reports say that each captor even eventually married two of their hostages. While that’s not true, Olsson did marry one of the many women he corresponded with while in prison—apparently his hostages weren’t the only ones in whom he inspired sympathy.

Why would such a thing happen, though? How could anyone feel sympathy for their would-be murderers to the point that they would befriend them? There are a lot of steps in the process, but one of them is a psychological survival tactic: To make the situation less stressful and more manageable, the captive comes to believe that the captor is their friend, that he or she is a good person deep down, and they can get out of this predicament together.

What Are the Symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome?

At this point, it’s clear that Stockholm Syndrome is situational, which means that it’s something a person develops in a certain set of very traumatic circumstances. (Namely, the victim has been taken hostage by a stranger and is being held captive.)

Now let’s take a look at the four major symptoms someone with Stockholm Syndrome experiences.

Symptom 1: The Victim Has Positive Feelings Toward the Captor

Like we’ve mentioned before, this is the hallmark of Stockholm Syndrome. Despite being in a terrifying situation, someone developing Stockholm Syndrome will start to sympathize, care about, or feel positively about the person (or people) who are holding them hostage. These positive feelings make the victim more likely to comply with their captors’ demands and feel guilty when they don’t. This was certainly true for the hostages in the Kreditbanken robbery. After her release, Kristin Ehnmark—one of the hostages—would tell reporters that she “felt like a traitor” when she gave the police information behind Olsson’s back.

Additionally, these feelings come from a perception that the captors are treating them kindly. Another of the Kreditbanken victims, Sven Safström, remembers his reaction to Olsson’s threats. “All that comes back to me [now],” he would tell reporters later, “is how kind I thought [Olsson] was for saying it was just my leg he would shoot.” These perceived acts of kindness make victims feel like their captors are caring for or protecting them, even in a bad situation. This can make victims think of their captors as good people in a bad situation, rather than criminals who are breaking the law.

And remember: for the victim, these positive feelings develop subconsciously and is completely outside of their control. This reaction is their instinctual reaction to a dangerous and traumatic situation, and it’s a survival tactic.

Symptom 2: The Victim Has Negative Feelings Toward Family, Friends, or Authorities

Because the victim is aligning with their captor, victims also begin to adopt their way of thinking. Since the captors are afraid of being caught and prosecuted, the victims often take on the same anxiety as well.

Additionally, some kidnappers also convince their victims that they are protecting them from a dangerous world, not the other way around. This was the case in the Kreditbanken case, where the hostages became afraid that the police—not Olsson—were the real threat. In a phone call with Sweden’s Prime Minister, Kristin Ehnmark explained that while she was being treated well, she was afraid “the police will attack and kill us” instead.

Experts explain that the phenomenon of sympathizing with the captor is a type of hypervigilance, where victims believe that the happiness of their captors is critical to their own wellbeing and safety. In other words, when the captor feels happy and safe, the victims are, too. That’s why victims displaying symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome turn on people who threaten the captor-captive relationship, including the authorities.

Symptom 3: The Captor Has Positive Feelings Toward the Victim

There are two ways this works. In one aspect, the victim perceives that their captor actually cares about them. This has a lot to do with the “kindness” we mentioned earlier. When captors don’t act on their threats—or when they do small, seemingly nice things for their victims—it can seem like they actually care about the people they’re holding captive.

For example, during her time as a hostage in the Kreditbanken robbery, Elizabeth Oldgren was used by Olsson as a human shield. But he also gave her his jacket when she got cold, which Elizabeth saw as a sign of Olsson’s goodness. She would later tell reporters that although she had “known him a day when I felt his coat around” her, she was also “sure [Olsson] had always been that way.” Despite Olsson’s threats and posturing, his one act of compassion made Elizabeth think that he cared about her well-being, too.

The second way this works is when authorities, like FBI or police negotiators, use tactics to get captors to see their victims as humans. By doing things like asking captors to call their hostages by their first names, the authorities work to humanize the victims. Doing so makes captors less likely to kill their victims because they’re afraid of getting caught, and the FBI trains its members to use this tactic to “help preserve life.”

Symptom 4: The Victim Supports or Helps the Captor

The final symptom of Stockholm Syndrome comes when a victim, instead of trying to escape, tries to help their captor rather than the authorities. In this case, the victim is putting the needs of their captor above their own freedom in order to survive.

By this point, someone displaying the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome already believes that their captor might hurt them or people they care about if they don’t comply with their demands. But more importantly, the victim has started to see the world from their captor’s point of view. Helping their captor isn’t something they’re forced to do—people with Stockholm Syndrome do so out of their own free will and their survival instinct.

This last symptom can be particularly confusing for authorities, especially when they don’t realize that the victim has Stockholm Syndrome. During the Kreditbanken incident, Kristin Ehnmark was allowed to speak the then-Prime Minister, Olof Palme, on the phone. Not only did she express a distrust of the police, she also demanded that the victims be allowed to escape with Olsson, not from him!

To make things more complicated, this symptom can also manifest itself in a desire to help captors even after the victim has been freed. In fact, Kristen and the other victims of the Kreditbanken robbery visited Olsson in prison for years after the incident.

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Stockholm syndrome is a term that had been coined to explain the apparently irrational feelings of some captives for their captors.

The name of the syndrome was derived from the 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden.

Jan-Erik Olsson entered Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm, carrying a loaded machine gun, declared a robbery, and took four bank employees as hostages.

The hostages were held at gunpoint, and taken into the bank’s main vault.

Olsson demanded more than $700,000 in Swedish and foreign currency, a getaway car and the release of Clark Olofsson, who was serving time for robbery and murder. The police delivered Olofsson and then, there were two of them holding the hostages.

Amidst their ordeal, and even when threatened with physical harm, the hostages appeared to develop sympathy and compassion towards their captors, and formed a strange and very unlikely bond with them.

The standoff lasted for six (6) days. The police drilled a hole into the vault and managed to launch a gas attack. The robbers had no choice but to surrender after more than 130 hours.

In the end, the convicts and hostages embraced, kissed and shook hands. When the police arrested the gunmen, two female hostages cried, “Don’t hurt them—they didn’t harm us”

Olofsson and Olsson were imprisoned, and their hostages made jailhouse visits to them.

Within months of the siege, psychiatrists dubbed the strange phenomenon “Stockholm Syndrome.”

Psychologists who have studied the syndrome believe that the bond is initially created when a captor threatens a captive’s life, deliberates, and then chooses not to kill the captive. The captive’s relief at the removal of the death threat is transposed into feelings of gratitude toward the captor for giving him or her life.

Another case of the “Stockholm Syndrome” was that of the heiress Patty Hearst, who was only 19 years old when she was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California by Symbionese Liberation Army, a group of revolutionary militants. Hearst not only developed emotional attachment to her captors, she even joined them in a series of robberies. She was eventually arrested and charged. Hearst used the “Stockholm Syndrome as her defense to the charges against her.

She was eventually convicted and received a prison sentence. After almost two years in prison Hearst, was granted a full Presidential Pardon by President Clinton in January 2001.

According to Steven Norton, a forensic psychologist, the symptoms of Stockhold Syndrome could overlap with those associated with other diagnoses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and “learned helplessness.”

He also said that it is a survival strategy and coping mechanism that is based on the level of fear, dependency and trauma of the situation.

Klein, Christopher. Stockholm Syndrome: The True Story of Hostages Loyal to Their Captor retrieved from

Burton, Neel, M.D. (March 24, 2012) What Underlies Stockholm Syndrome? Psychology Today

Westcott, Kathryn. (August 22, 2013) What is Stockholm syndrome? BBC News Magazine

Nierenberg, Cari (June 27, 2019) What is Stockholm syndrome? Retrieved from

Stockholm Syndrome: The True Story of Hostages Loyal to Their Captor - HISTORY

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The Stockholm Syndrome Relationship

Real life stories of Stockholm syndrome show us how some kidnap victims develop empathy with a captor or captors, particularly after a long spell in captivity. Also known as capture-bonding, the hostage begins to identify with the kidnapper to the point of showing loyalty and compassion. This phenomenon so captivated me, I decided to write a thriller about it. But firstly, I had to conduct some research into what Stockholm syndrome is about.

A Story of Traumatic Bonding

Named after the Swedish capital, Stockholm syndrome was coined by criminal psychologist, Nils Bererot after a news story of a bank robbery in August 1973, where two robbers held four bank employees within a vault at gunpoint. On their release, the captives exhibited affection for their perpetrators and viewed the police as the enemy.

Such victim-captor relationships are a repeating theme within other cases of kidnapping, such as Jaycee Lee Dugard who was snatched at aged 11 in 1991, but remained in ‘captivity’ for 18 years. During this time, she failed to make a run for it when she clearly had the chance. On her release, her relationship with her kidnapper, Phillip Garrido had become almost like a marriage – where she helped organize his business affairs for him.

Capture-Bonding Psychology

Other cases of traumatic bonding can be seen in the famous cases of Patty Hearst who in 1974 helped her captors (the Symbionese Liberation Army) rob a San Francisco bank with a carbine and arguably Elizabeth Smart, who was snatched at the age of 14 in 2002. Speculations abound that Smart could have escaped before she was found with her captors wearing a disguise 9 months later.

Mechanics of Terror Bonding

An inverted version of Stockholm syndrome, Lima syndrome, describes the captor’s growing empathy with the hostage. According to the Farlax Medical Dictionary (2013), the circumstances that bring about such a bizarre human relationship have been found to be the following:

How a Botched Bank Heist Created the Term ‘Stockholm Syndrome’

A bank in a tony Stockholm neighborhood would seem an unlikely place for a hostage drama. But when a gunman stormed into the Swedish bank in 1973, demanding money and the release of a prisoner, it gave rise to the idea of &ldquoStockholm Syndrome.&rdquo

The story is documented in the true crime caper that&rsquos the subject of David King&rsquos new book, &ldquoSix Days in August.&rdquo

On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 23, 1973, the bank had just opened when a tall, muscular man, wearing a wig, makeup and a pair of sunglasses, walked into the bank. He ripped out a sub-machine gun, fired it into the ceiling, and shouted, "The party starts. Down on the floor."

Jan-Erik Olsson was a master safe cracker and when he entered the bank, he took four hostages. Olsson made his demands. He wanted 3 million Swedish crowns and the release of a prisoner named Clark Olofsson.

&ldquoClark Olofsson was one of the most notorious criminals in Sweden at the time. He was a bank robber, a celebrity. He was a media star. He was known for these daring bank robberies, these breaks out of prison, leading police on manhunts,&rdquo King told Inside Edition Digital.

He and Olsson were close friends and remarkably, the police conceded to one of Olsson&rsquos demands, and brought Olofsson to the bank. But the standoff continued.

Olsson, Olofsson and the hostages retreated into the bank vault. And what developed was a surprising relationship between the captives and the captors. That bond between the hostages and the hostage-takers would eventually be called &ldquoStockholm Syndrome.&rdquo

&ldquoThe Stockholm Syndrome is traditionally viewed as a psychological phenomenon that develops between a captor and a captive. Under this extreme stress, a hostage can, according to the theory, develop sympathy with the captor, can identify with the captor and form powerful bonds with the captor,&rdquo King said.

&ldquoSo they're in the vault, and the police decide to lock them in the vault,&rdquo he continued. &ldquoThey lock the hostages in with the gunman. So again, they'd better hope. They're gambling that this guy is not going to kill them, so they'd better hope they're right, because they just locked them with him.&rdquo

Days went by without any progress made.

&ldquoPolice have to come up with something else," King said. "All these ideas are proposed on &lsquohow we're going to end this?&rsquo And eventually they come up with the idea, just drill holes. &lsquoWe're going to drill holes in the vault and gas them.&rsquo&rdquo

As police began to drill into the vault, Olsson crafted a bomb that ruins their plans and drill. And he's got another trick up his sleeve.

&ldquoHis biggest plan takes everybody by surprise. In this bag that he had when he came into the bank, he pulls out some rope. No one saw when this was done, but the rope is tied in the form of nooses. So he ties nooses around the hostages' neck, fix it to the safety deposit boxes in the wall, makes them stand up, and tells the police, 'Okay. If you send in gas, the hostages will be the first to die. And it will be your fault,'&rdquo King said.

Faced with no good options, the police made a decision and use the gas.

&ldquoSo they pumped in gas, out of three of the holes at the top. They had sharpshooters at two other holes in case they needed to shoot. And they used lights on the others. And the code word was, 'Turn on the lights.' And that's when the gas started coming into the vault. I mean, you could just hear the screams, the cough. You go down to the floor. Because there was also water on the floor, because water from the drill was drilling in. So you had people going down to the floor, coughing, and screaming, and yelling, &lsquoWe give up.&rsquo It's burning their eyes, burning their skin, affecting the nose, their lungs, respiratory systems. It's not pleasant,&rdquo King said.

"At the end, when they do come out of the vault, the police see the hostages . Some women give the captors hugs. They say, &lsquoWe'll write. Take care.&rsquo And another one is saying, &lsquoDon't harm him,&rsquo&rdquo he continued

&ldquoIf someone threatens your life, threatens to kill you, but yet they preserve your life, they end up securing basic things for you like food, drink, other things like that, these simple kindnesses can be magnified under the stress and under violence,&rdquo King added.

Olsson was sentenced to ten years in prison he was released in the early 1980s.

Why hostages fall for their captors: the bank robbery that gave us Stockholm Syndrome

Jan-Erik Olsson's captors during their 121-hour ordeal in 1973 Credit: AFP

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W e all know the term ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. These days it’s used ironically rolled out by people stuck in a Post Office queue for too long, say, and subsequently being addled into a sort of warped loyalty, even attraction, to those keeping them there.

But while the Syndrome has irony at its heart, it’s a much heavier sort, albeit one that is so influential that it continues to inspire popular culture, from V For Vendetta to The Simpsons.

Now a new film, The Captor, starring Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace and Mark Strong, tells the story of the 1973 bank robbery that led to the coining of one of the world's most widely understood psychiatric terms.

Dr Frank Ochberg is a trauma specialist and clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University. He is telling me about the reactions of people who have built up “ironic bonds” or trauma bonds with their captors (“Some of them describe to me a real feeling of loss, a sadness when this trauma bond, this Stockholm Syndrome, vanished. It was like they lost a friend.”) because Ochberg is the man who, 46 years ago, defined “the Stockholm Syndrome” in a memo to the FBI.

As he explains: “You can be captured, threatened with death, seriously abused in captivity, and instead of ending up with anger, you have a very strange attachment.

F irst of all, you are so traumatised and terrified. These people don’t say ‘I thought I was going to die, they say ‘I knew I was going to die’. And they’re not allowed to use a toilet, to eat, to talk, to move without permission. So what are they reexperiencing? Infancy. When that’s how we were! We humans are endowed with a marvellous feeling of attachment to our mothers, and our mothers reciprocate that. So here we are in a state where we’re terrified but we’re attached – and then we have to account for this.”

I n 1973, convicted criminal Jan-Erik Olsson, 32, walked into a bank in central Stockholm wearing sunglasses and a wig, and fired gunshots into the air, yelling, “The party has only just started!” He took four of the young bank tellers hostage in the vault – Birgitta Lundblad, 31, Elisabeth Oldgren, 21, and Sven Safstrom, 25, and Kristin Enmark, 23 – and thus began a six-day siege that would even involve the then Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme.

Olsson demanded that the police bring him three million krona and two guns, and to release his friend, the gangster Clark Olofsson, from prison and bring him to the bank to use as an intermediary. Over the course of their incarceration - as Olsson paced the vault singing Killing Me Softly - they bonded with their hostages, who protected their captors despite threats.

K ristin Enmark would become the poster child for trauma bonds. During a phone call with Palme, she begged him to let her leave the vault with her captors, saying, “I’m not one bit afraid of those two. I trust them completely. Can’t you just let us go with them?”

Enmark’s next move was particularly disturbing: she begged her fellow hostage Sven Safstrom to let Olsson shoot him in the legs so the police would take his demands more seriously. Enmark, who eventually retrained as a psychologist and no longer conducts interview, later told Swedish Radio that she had no idea why she had acted in such a way.

“I said, ‘but Sven – it’s just the legs!’ How could you say something like that to someone who is going to be shot? Something strange happens to your morals and values and your sense of right and wrong when you’re locked up like that.”

I asked Ochberg what that is. “Trauma has a profound impact. It can change your sense of justice, and question your sensitivities, sensibilities.”

Elisabeth Oldgren later claimed that Olsson cared for her in the vault, giving her his jacket to wear when when she woke up cold.

Ochberg highlights the concept of “moral injury”, usually seen in extreme breaches of trust. “It’s very hard for people to put that into words. They understand that something has been violated.”

T he situation in Stockholm was particularly extraordinary because it was a media circus like no other. It was the first event of its kind for Swedish police, and interviews were conducted regularly – Olofsson even contributed from inside the bank, after he and Olsson had listened to the live radio coverage.

According to Ochberg, our fascination with psychiatric anomalies is something we are raised to have from birth.

“In journalism, you’re giving the facts when something violent and terrible happened, and the reader responds by saying, ‘Isn’t this awful, tell me more’. We’re raised with fairy tales and myths and tells of ogres eating children. It’s in every culture! There is something in our species that in a Darwinian sense has been selected for a paradoxical pleasure in enjoying horrible things in a particular setting. Once they’re in our minds it means that we’re not unfamiliar with it when, god forbid, it actually happens.”

T hose six days was long enough for Kristin Enmark to develop feelings for her captors, and also, the other way around. Fond feelings from captor to hostage are far more useful for negotiators. In fact, Olsson said later: “They made it hard to kill.” It’s so weird, and so utterly twisted that it makes me shiver.

“Your shivers are appropriate, and one ought to feel that way,” says Ochberg. “We have to protect ourselves. This is an irrational attraction to somebody who is lethal, who doesn’t kill us, and so we become bonded to them. There’s stuff happening all over the world that is irrational, with heads of state who are immoral and authoritation, and who scare and disgust some of us – but not all of us.”

H ow well would the trauma specialist cope with this sort of situation? “I’d probably do a little better than most. I’ve had a couple of tragedies in my life, and I don’t want to say that I handled them all that well. My wife and I suffered the death of a young child at nine months. It’s a long time ago now, and I believe that in some ways it helped me understand, and it didn’t put me on a downward course. There are some people who in a glib way say you get stronger in the broken places, and I don’t think that’s true in general. But I do think some of us have a better than average ability.”

T his might explain why Kristin Enmark responded in such a particular way to her captors. Ochberg finds that some people are genetically more resilient than others, which is why some people develop Stockholm Syndrome and others don't, and men and women in the Special Forces can cope in extreme circumstances (“Their alarm systems, their mental and physical changes at a time of physical danger go way up and then way down to baseline levels much faster than the average person.”)

C ertainly, this ironic bonding can happen in wider situations. And while Ochberg is gently confident in his own capabilities, he had his own experience after open heart surgery to put a cow valve in his aorta.

“I ended up having a terrific relationship with all the nurses and the doctors! One nurse spent the better part of an hour telling me all that was wrong with her life and her supervisor, and came in the next day saying, ‘Oh my god why did I do that!’ But I could have died. I had pain. I had all that stuff. But I think I ended up bonding positively.”

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