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Picture this: It’s Christmas Eve, and you’re a New York City cop trapped in a high-rise building, fighting terrorists to save your wife and other hostages. 

Sound familiar? Yes, we’re talking about the iconic movie Die Hard. 

And if you’re a diehard (pun intended!) fan, you may remember the reference to “Helsinki Syndrome” in the movie. 

But what is it? And how do you compare Helsinki Syndrome to Stockholm Syndrome…or any of the syndromes named after cities?

Well, grab your popcorn and let’s explore what the movie was actually getting at here.

city of Helsinki like Helsinki syndrome that was mistaken in a movie

What is Helsinki Syndrome?

The term Helsinki Syndrome was used in the movie Die Hard instead of the correct term, Stockholm Syndrome. During the movie, there’s a scene where newscasters are discussing the hostage crisis, and a so-called expert is interviewed about his book on the “Helsinki Syndrome”. 

The scene in Die Hard where “Helsinki Syndrome” is mentioned takes place during the siege of Nakatomi Plaza. Two 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 jumps out because the phrase is clearly a sideways reference to Stockholm Syndrome, while also showcasing just how…lacking in intelligence (if we’re being diplomatic) news anchors can be during times of crisis like this. 

Check out the full scene below

Is Helsinki Syndrome real?

No, Helsinki Syndrome isn’t real. Instead, it’s clearly used in Die Hard as a replacement for the real condition, Stockholm Syndrome. You can tell this by the symptoms described for this (fake) syndrome as well as a throwaway reference to Sweden in the movie.

However, in real life, it doesn’t actually exist. Yep, that’s right – it’s a total misnomer. 

Instead, the phrase is just a sideways reference to Stockholm Syndrome, a real condition where hostages come to identify with their captors.

And it’s not only Die Hard where it’s appeared! Richard Hammond also mentioned it on Top Gear – and got suitably roasted for it by his co-hosts.

a meme about Helsinki syndrome
Source: maternation

However, he’s also said on a number of other occasions that he’s a huge Die Hard fan, so we can perhaps be generous and take this as a reference to the movie rather than being an actual mistake.

You may also be interested in: Is Finland Part of Scandinavia?

Why did they say Helsinki Syndrome in Die Hard?

While there are several theories, the most likely one is that the writers wanted to satirize so-called experts. The movie takes a number of jabs at typical scenes during crisis situations and showing the media similarly mishandling this with completely false information aligns well with this.

This is even more likely when we’re shown the news anchor confidently claiming that Helsinki is in Sweden. While this can be seen as a slight wink at the fact that they’re actually talking about Stockholm Syndrome, the producer rolling his eyes and the presenter’s quickly fading grin shows that we, the audience, are also meant to think that this guy just isn’t that smart.

Another possibility is that the writers wanted to indirectly refer to Stockholm Syndrome while not actually using the term, maybe due to legal concerns or to avoid bringing real-world details into John McClane’s world. That said, they didn’t shy away from including other facts in the film (Hans Gruber is from West Germany, for example, with a backstory that could, theoretically, be real at that point in history) so it’s a bit odd that they’d choose this specific point to avoid some actual facts.

church in Helsinki, Finland
Source: flrnt (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There’s also the chance that the scriptwriters saw the term in a left-wing political magazine called The Nation in 1985, a few years before they wrote the movie. In that article, the author used “Helsinki Syndrome” to satirize US foreign policy assumptions and arrogance in reference to an airline hijacking.

But whatever the case may be, the fictional Helsinki Syndrome is pretty much the same as Stockholm Syndrome. 

What is Stockholm Syndrome?

Stockholm Syndrome is when people who are taken hostage develop feelings of sympathy and even friendship for their captors. It’s a psychological response to a stressful situation where the hostages start to identify with their captors and their aims.

The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was coined by a Swedish criminologist named Nils Bejerot, and it quickly became known outside of Sweden. 

In the original case in Stockholm in 1973, which was featured in the movie “Dog Day Afternoon” starring Al Pacino, two robbers took four bank employees hostage and held them in a vault for six days. After they were released, the former hostages expressed feelings of empathy and even gratitude towards their captors.

buildings in Stockholm
Source: Isabelle Puaut (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

One hostage even said that when the captors treated them well, they could think of them as an “emergency God.” 

That might sound extreme, but it’s actually a recognized coping mechanism for people in abusive situations. It appears when victims of abuse start to feel sympathy for and even defend their abusers to help them deal with their situation.

Nowadays, the term Stockholm Syndrome is often used to describe abusive relationships, despite that not being the original meaning of the term. 

Stockholm Syndrome examples

Patty Hearst

The case of Patty Hearst, granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, is one of the most famous examples of Stockholm Syndrome in modern history. 

In 1974, she was kidnapped by a group of militants called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Over the course of several months, she was held in isolation, physically and psychologically abused, and repeatedly threatened with death.

Patty Hearst a kidnapped victim suffered from Stockholm syndrome not Helsinki syndrome
Source: John Mathew Smith & (CC BY-SA 2.0)

During this time, the SLA indoctrinated her with their radical political ideology, which Patty began to espouse in public statements. She participated in bank robberies and other crimes with the SLA, including the murder of a school superintendent.

Many people were baffled by Patty’s apparent transformation from a wealthy heiress to a radical militant. But what they didn’t realize was that she was likely suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, in which a hostage develops a psychological bond with their captors.

Her story has been the subject of numerous books, documentaries, and films, and it continues to fascinate people to this day. It’s a powerful reminder of the ways in which captivity and abuse can affect a person’s psyche, and how even the most unexpected people can become victims of this psychological phenomenon.

Mary McElroy

In 1933, Mary McElroy, the daughter of a Kansas City, Missouri mayor, was kidnapped by a notorious criminal named Walter McGee. 

During her captivity, she was allegedly treated well by McGee and began to feel a sense of empathy towards him, despite the fact that she had been kidnapped at gunpoint and chained to a wall. She even defended him in court and spoke out against her own family, which caused a public outcry and put pressure on her to recant her statements.

Despite the apparent kindness of her captor, McElroy’s experience was traumatic and had a lasting impact on her life. She struggled with addiction and mental health issues, and later died by suicide at the age of 49. 

Her story is often cited as an early example of Stockholm Syndrome and has helped to shape our understanding of the psychological effects of long-term captivity and abuse.

Natascha Kampusch

In 1998, 10-year-old Natascha Kampusch was kidnapped in Vienna, Austria by a man named Wolfgang Přiklopil. She was held captive for eight years in a small, windowless room in Přiklopil’s house, during which time she was physically and emotionally abused by her captor.

Despite the horrific conditions of her captivity, Natascha developed a bond with Přiklopil, and even defended him when he was being hunted by police. When she finally escaped in 2006, she expressed sympathy for Přiklopil and said that she missed him.

Natascha Kampusch a kidnapped victim suffered from Stockholm syndrome
Source: C.Stadler/Bwag (CC BY-SA 4.0)

While some have said that this is a classic example of Stockholm Syndrome, Natascha herself has said that this is not the case, that such conclusions are disrespectful of her and that, effectively, she should be allowed to analyze the relationship she had with Přiklopil herself.

Whatever the case, after her escape from captivity, Natascha Kampusch claimed the house in which she was held captive from Přiklopil’s estate. It’s been alleged that she did this because she wanted to protect the property from vandals and demolition, and she still apparently owns the house, although the cellar in which she was imprisoned has been filled in.

Beauty and the Beast

As you probably know if you’re anything like me and watched it 100 times as a kid, Beauty and the Beast is a classic fairy tale in which a young woman named Belle is imprisoned by a beast in his enchanted castle. Over time, Belle begins to see the good in the Beast and develops feelings for him. Eventually, the Beast’s curse is broken, and he is transformed back into a prince.

The story of Beauty and the Beast has been criticized for promoting Stockholm Syndrome, as Belle develops romantic feelings for her captor. 

However, some argue that the story is more about the power of love to transform people and that Belle’s love and compassion help the Beast to become a better person. 

It’s also argued that as the Beast falls in love with her, it doesn’t really meet the criteria for being Stockholm Syndrome. It may, however, be Lima Syndrome, which I’ll discuss a bit further below.

Despite the controversy, Beauty and the Beast remains a beloved tale on screen and stage.

What is Lima Syndrome?

Lima Syndrome is the opposite of Stockholm Syndrome. It occurs when a captor or kidnapper begins to feel empathy and compassion for their captive. This phenomenon is named after an incident that occurred at the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru in 1996.

There, members of a left-wing terrorist group known as the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took hundreds of people hostage.

During the siege, some of the hostages developed a rapport with their captors, who in turn began to sympathize with their plight. When the crisis was resolved, several MRTA members reportedly hugged and even kissed their former hostages, and some even expressed regret for what they had done.

Lima Syndrome is relatively rare and has received much less attention than Stockholm Syndrome, but it has been observed in a few other hostage situations around the world. 

It’s believed to result from the captor’s realization that their actions are causing harm to innocent people and the development of a sense of empathy and responsibility for their well-being.

London Syndrome

London Syndrome refers to a situation where hostage takers develop negative feelings towards their hostages due to the hostages annoying, debating, or challenging their captors, or by trying to escape. The term comes from the 1981 siege of the Iranian Embassy in London, during which one of the hostages repeatedly argued with the captors.

When the captors decided to kill one of the hostages to further their demands, they shot the one they considered the most argumentative, throwing his body out into the street. This, in turn, caused police to storm the Embassy, resulting in the deaths of more of the hostages.

London Syndrome isn’t a widely recognized term in psychology or criminology and it hasn’t been studied or defined in the same way as Stockholm or Lima Syndromes. It’s more of a colloquial term used to describe the behavior of hostages in a specific situation.

bridge in London a city named after London syndrome

Helsinki Syndrome vs Stockholm Syndrome

In brief, there’s no such thing as “Helsinki Syndrome” beyond it being mentioned in Die Hard and by its fans. There, it seems to be a misnomer for Stockholm Syndrome, which is a recognized psychological condition in which hostages develop positive feelings and a sense of loyalty towards their captors.

I know it may be shocking to hear that a Bruce Willis movie isn’t 100% medically accurate, but here we are.

And even if Hans Gruber (or Alan Rickman! A true loss!) is no longer with us, at least we can reminisce every Christmas of the syndrome that he almost introduced all of us too.

…ok, this isn’t the place to argue whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie (because it is, but that’s an article for another day).