Henrik Frederiksen

What is Helsinki Syndrome?

The strange history of Helsinki Syndrome, a made-up condition that isn’t Stockholm Syndrome but kind of is.

The holiday season has come and gone, and along with it countless, interminable viewings of favorite holiday films and TV specials. (I swear to God, if that kid with the drum comes pa-rum-pa-pum-pumming around here one more damn time…)

For a lot of people, the original Die Hard movie starring Bruce Willis is a must-see over the holidays. That tradition has continued since the film’s 1988 release, despite the ongoing, low-key controversy as to whether it should even count as a Christmas movie, or if it’s just an action movie that happens to take place over Christmas.

But if you’re a die-hard viewer of Die Hard—regardless of what time of year you watch it—you’ll probably remember the odd phrase “Helsinki Syndrome.”

During the siege of the Nakatomi tower, there are several scenes in which a pair of newscasters weigh in on the unfolding hostage crisis, and at one point they interview an expert author about his book on the “Helsinki Syndrome.”

The scene is memorable in part because it’s so odd: the phrase is clearly a sideways reference to Stockholm Syndrome, a condition in which hostages come to identify with and even defend their captors. 

The “Helsinki Syndrome” scene also sticks out because the smug, douchey newscaster makes himself look like even more of an idiot when he tries to join in the conversation by adding, “Helsinki, Sweden” after the expert mentions the syndrome by name.

“Finland,” the expert replies after a long, awkward pause, then continues with his explanation while the newscaster’s smug grin fades away and his producer rolls his eyes.

For such a short, throwaway scene, it’s kind of amazing that it has resonated so strongly in the larger culture for so long now. The phrase “Die Hard Helsinki Syndrome” has sparked countless internet searches, and the “syndrome” was even mentioned in an episode of The X-Files

But what is Helsinki Syndrome? Is it a real thing? How is Helsinki Syndrome related to Stockholm Syndrome? Inquiring minds want to know!

Helsinki Syndrome

What is Helsinki Syndrome?

Well, right off the bat, we can say that “Helsinki Syndrome” is not a real thing. Despite the way the phrase Helsinki Syndrome has captured even a minor slice of the zeitgeist and continues to come up in searches and other pop culture mentions, Die Hard would appear to be where it originated, at least in terms of reaching a wide audience. 

The original script for Die Hard, written by Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza has the author of a book titled “Hostage Terrorist/Terrorist Hostage” citing the condition as something that could happen to Holly McClane and her co-workers as the hostage crisis continues.

But while Die Hard might be where the phrase “Helsinki Syndrome” first entered the broader world of pop culture, it was actually mentioned in a 1985 article in The Nation a few years before the film came out. In that piece the author references a “Helsinki Syndrome” to satirize U.S. foreign policy assumptions and arrogance in reference to an airline hijacking:

“Most feared of all Scandinavian disorders is Helsinki Syndrome, in which positively charged particles of information afflict the victim’s central ideological system, causing him to question America’s absolute moral superiority in the cold war. Specialists in the field refer to victims of the syndrome as being ‘Finlandized,’ thus beyond recuperation.” (The Nation, vol.241, 1985, p.8).  

So, it’s certainly possible that the script writers saw this obscure phrase in a relatively obscure left-wing political magazine three years before they wrote the movie, and incorporated it into the script in order to provide a subtle tongue-in-cheek mockery of the way Americans view terrorism as a whole and hostage crises in particular. 

Given the film’s other subtle digs at tired, familiar movie tropes and beliefs on terrorism, hostage situations, the police, the FBI, and a general American superiority complex, that’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. Not only that, having the news anchor look even more stupid and show his ignorance of geography in this way fits nicely with the film’s general tone of disdain for the news media in regard to covering the crisis.

On the other hand, it might just be that the writers wanted to reference Stockholm Syndrome without actually mentioning it, perhaps for some legal concern or desire to avoid bringing real world facts into the world of Die Hard

Much like the terrorist mastermind Hans Gruber’s (Alan Rickman) fictional revolutionary group the Volksfrei Movement” has a lot of parallels with the actual German revolutionaries, Baader-Meinhoff, perhaps the writers and the studio’s legal team thought it best to avoid the real world in the case of “Helsinki Syndrome” as well. 

Either way, it appears that the writers deliberately chose to use a phrase close to Stockholm Syndrome, but not the actual one, for reasons that they haven’t shared. Given that the script went through nearly a dozen rewrites and revisions, it’s unlikely that the phrase Helsinki Syndrome was used accidentally, and not one of the dozens or hundreds of executives and studio flacks who pored over every word before they ever shot the first scene of the film caught the error.

And it’s also clear that the fictional Helsinki Syndrome is meant to correlate pretty much exactly with Stockholm Syndrome, a phenomenon that many experts credit as a genuine condition in which long-term hostages can come to identify with the people holding them hostage, sometimes coming to their defense — or even joining their cause.

Helsinki Syndrome

Okay, then. So what is Stockholm Syndrome?

The term Stockholm Syndrome was first used in connection with a failed bank robbery in the Swedish capital in 1973 at the Kreditbanken in Stockholm. During the robbery attempt, which was later dramatized, embellished and Americanized in the Al Pacino film Dog Day Afternoon, career criminal Jan-Erik Olsson took four bank workers hostage and held them in the bank’s vault for six days.

After they were released, several of the former hostages expressed feelings of empathy and even friendship for Olsson and his accomplice. Indeed, one bank worker,  Kristin Ehnmark was rumored to have gotten secretly married to Olsson. Although that story was debunked, Ehnmark was made famous due to a phone call she made to then-Prime Minister Olof Palme pleading with him to have police stand down.

“I fully trust Clark and the robber,” Ehnmark said on that call, according to a 2013 BBC article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the robbery. “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.”

Another of the bank hostages, Sven Safstrom said he felt gratitude toward Olsson.

Why? Because Olsson had threatened to shoot him in order to prove to police he wasn’t bluffing. But, Olsson promised, he would be sure not to kill Safstrom, and he would allow him to get drunk before the shooting.

“When he treated us well, we could think of him as an emergency God,” Safstrom said.

Olsson never did shoot Safstrom, but the stories about the hostages and their oddly close bond with their captors circulated and caused a sensation in the media. Criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot first coined the term Stockholm Syndrome, and later Scotland Yard and FBI psychiatrist Frank Ochberg developed the theory further in order to help law enforcement agencies create better strategies for dealing with hostage situations. 

The term subsequently appeared in the report from the U.S. National Task Force on Terrorism and Disorder, and it is still taught in hostage negotiations courses to this day.

Some famous abductions that are widely believed to contain elements of Stockholm Syndrome—not Helsinki Syndrome; sorry Die Hard fans—include the odd case of Patty Hearst, the heiress to the Hearst newspaper fortune who was abducted by a militant group in the early 1970s. She remained with the group for 19 months, but it’s not clear how much of that time she was being held against her will as opposed to choosing to remain with them. 

At one point she was famously photographed via bank security footage wielding an M-1 rifle and seemingly helping with the robbery. She later opened fire on a store manager who was trying to detain one of the group’s members after a shoplifting incident.

Hearst served just under two years of a seven-year sentence in prison, but that sentence was later commuted by President Jimmy Carter, and she was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

Another abduction in which observers believe the victim showed signs of Stockholm Syndrome was the case of Austrian teen Natascha Kampusch who was held in the basement of Wolfgang Priklopil’s house for nearly a decade. 

Following her release, Kampusch is said to have cried when she learned that Priklopil had killed himself, and she told reporters she lit a candle for him and paid her respects to him at the morgue before his burial.

Kampusch reportedly has said she regrets leaving the house where she was held in a 5-foot square basement room for over eight years, and she later actually bought the house. She lives there to this day.

Helsinki Syndrome

No Helsinki Syndrome, but meet Lima and London Syndromes

So while there isn’t any real world condition called Helsinki Syndrome, there are a few others that are somewhat related to the real world Stockholm Syndrome. 

The first of these and perhaps the most interesting is called Lima Syndrome. This condition could be thought of as a sort of an inverse Stockholm Syndrome. This occurs when the captors in a hostage situation come to empathize with their hostages and take pity on them. 

The name and the definition come from a hostage crisis in Lima, Peru in 1996 when a revolutionary group called the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA by its Spanish letters) took control of the Japanese embassy there. 

The 14 MRTA members held several hundred government workers, diplomats and business people hostage for some 126 days, but from the very beginning they took an unusual approach. 

For starters, the MRTA members released all the female hostages the day after they seized the embassy. Then, another 225 hostages were released within the first few days. 

The siege finally ended with a police raid on the embassy on the 126th day, and during that assault one hostage was killed while the rest were released.

The term Lima Syndrome came about because it was later revealed that the hostages had had numerous long conversations with their captors, and over time the gunmen grew closer to the hostages. In fact they were reportedly so bonded with the hostages that they couldn’t bring themselves to execute any of them even when they were ordered to do so. 

The public even sympathized with the MRTA members, and when some of them were later killed extra-judicially, the outcry against the action was immense. 

London Syndrome could be said to be the polar opposite of Stockholm Syndrome. It gets its name from a 1980 hostage crisis in which the Iranian Embassy in London was taken over by Iranian militants demanding the release of some Iranian prisoners. 

Then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to bend to their will, and the crisis was marked by the intransigence of the hostages as well, who refused to do the bidding of their captors and made it as difficult as they could. 

One of the 26 London hostages who was especially non-compliant, press attache Abbas Lavasani fought constantly with the hostage takers, arguing with them on political points, and expressing frustration and rage at them. 

He was killed on the sixth day of the crisis, and tossed out of an embassy window.

So while we have several real world crises to thank for a number of hostage-related syndromes, there’s only one place where we can find a Helsinki Syndrome, and that’s at Nakatomi Plaza. 

Yippe Ki-Yay… well, you know the rest.

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