11 Famous And Terrifying Cases Of Stockholm Syndrome And Hostage Brainwashing

Whenever terrible cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking come to light, people ask, why didn't they try to escape? Tragically, in many cases, hostages, kidnapping victims, or members of cults cooperated with their tormentors and even resisted the police sent to rescue them, even though they faced unimaginable horrors.

Through torture, dehumanization, and disconnection from the outside world, many of these victims have been labeled "brainwashed" by the people who turned their world upside down. Victims of Stockholm syndrome will later explain that they felt completely unable to resist the criminals who kidnapped them.

Cult leaders have also been known to exact similar brainwashing methods on their followers to gain complete control over their subjects, even to the point of inciting them to murder or mass suicide.

Read some of the most shocking stories of people being brainwashed, where the men and women who were victimized lost not only their free will, but their humanity entirely.

  • Patty Hearst
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Perhaps the most famous case of Stockholm syndrome – in which individuals who are kidnapped or taken hostage form feelings of trust and affection for their captors – is certainly the case of Patty Hearst. The granddaughter of former newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, Patty was kidnapped in 1974 by the radical Symbionese Liberation Army.

    Hearst stayed with the SLA for over a year, and after being put into isolation and tortured by the group, she shockingly grew sympathetic to their cause. Nineteen months after her capture, she was found to have joined the left-wing terrorist group, participating in robberies, propaganda announcements, and other illegal activities.

    Eventually, she was captured by the FBI and charged just like her captors. At the time of her arrest, Hearst weighed only 87 pounds and was described by Dr. Margaret Singer as a “low IQ, low affect zombie.” She was given an IQ test, and it revealed that her IQ had dropped a massive 18 points within the 19 months of her captivity, and Dr. Louis Jolyon West, a brainwashing theorist, stated after a 15-hour interview with Hearst, that she was a “classic case” of brainwashing. Nonetheless, she was found guilty of her crimes sentenced to 35 years in prison in 1975, only to be pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

    • Age: 69
    • Birthplace: USA, California, San Francisco
    • Credits: Cry-Baby, Bio-Dome, Serial Mom, Cecil B. Demented, Pecker
  • Elizabeth Smart

    The tragic story of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart captured the fears and sympathy of America after she was taken from her Salt Lake City home one night and wasn’t found until nine months later, as her captor, Brian Mitchell, moved her all over the country, torturing and raping her.

    While Mitchell may not have purposefully taken lengths to brainwash Smart, the level of torture and neglect she faced certainly had an impact. After her rescue, and during her testimony, she stated that she had opportunities to escape while held captive, but chose not to take them.

    At one point, "Smart was questioned by a police officer who had received a tip that she had been spotted, but she chose not to scream for help or try to run away." When questioned about this incident in interviews later, she said,

    I was under threat of my life, I was under threat of my family's life. And those two threats right there are stronger than chains for me. It is wrong for any person to ever judge someone in any situation saying, "Well, why didn’t you try to run? Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you try to do something?" That is so wrong and, frankly, offensive to even ask that question.

    • Age: 35
    • Birthplace: Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
  • The Manson Family
    Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    A man blamed with putting an end to the idealism and hope of the 1960s, Charles Manson stands out in this list because he did not kidnap people. Nor did he did brainwash his followers into killing themselves, but instead, he convinced them to murder others, in what became known as the Manson Family Killings.

    Following two prison stints for lesser crimes, Manson began collecting his followers, mostly women with troubled pasts. He asked his followers to give up their ego, to demonstrate self-sacrifice, and he told them about the future of the family, living in an underground paradise and then reappearing to seize control of the nation. He sought to keep his group’s gender ratio at 5:1, so that the women could take care of the men’s every desire.

    Manson would hammer his ideas into his followers' heads, then consolidate his control by dosing them with LSD and then performing sermons to his drug-addled audience, preaching his racist, misogynist, and ultimately, murderous beliefs.

    In the end, Manson successfully convinced his followers that the only way to bring about “Helter Skelter,” the eventual apocalyptic race war that he believed would lead to his world takeover, was to kill innocent people. The "Family," as they were called, carried out seven murders, including the murder of up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate (who was pregnant at the time). As a result, Manson was sentenced to death, later reduced to life imprisonment after the death penalty was abolished in California.

    • Age: 88
    • Birthplace: USA, Cincinnati, Ohio
    • Credits: Citizen Shane, Charles Manson Superstar, The Manson Family, Helter Skelter
  • Jaycee Lee Dugard
    Photo: Unknown / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped in 1991, when she was 11 years old, and wasn't released until 2009. Dugard’s captor, Phillip Greg Garrido, filled Dugard’s head with his own insanity, telling her of the “demon angels” who let him take Dugard so that she could help him with his sexual problems that society condemned - those being child molestation and rape. He would also make Dugard listen for the voices that he himself heard speaking to him from within his house’s walls. While Garrido was already married, many psychiatrists believe that in Jaycee’s mind, her relationship with her twisted captor was similar to marriage, in part because the pair had two children together.

    Dugard was so controlled by Garrido that when police arrived to investigate and arrest Garrido, they were met by Jaycee, who introduced herself with her false identity, “Alissa.” Police noted that while Dugard was aware that Garrido was a sex offender she said that he was a “changed man,” and was “a great person and good with her kids.”

    When pressed for details, Dugard became "extremely defensive" and "agitated," demanding to know why she was being "interrogated," even lying to protect Garrido. She claimed to be a formerly abused wife who was in hiding from her violent husband at Garrido's house. Police officer Ally Jacobs noted that Dugard’s two children, aged 11 and 15, appeared to be brainwashed by Garrido as well, as they stared at their father “like God,” adding, “They had this weird look in their eyes, like brainwashed zombies.”

    It was only after Garrido’s arrest that Jaycee admitted, “I adapted to survive my circumstance."

    • Age: 43
    • Birthplace: Anaheim, California, USA
  • Kurdish Teens Kidnapped By ISIS

    In 2014, 148 Kurdish boys were held hostage by the terrorist group knows as ISIS for five months in Syria. While Kurds and the Sunni ISIS are sworn enemies, the boys were subjected to such extreme brainwashing that even after their release, they still believe many of the teachings they received from their captors.  Following his return, one boy (who gave himself the pseudonym Jan) said, "I must speak the truth. The Islamic State are right, and all the things they taught me are true.” He then added, "I am convinced they are right."

    The boys were brainwashed with constant forced education about the ISIS belief system paired with brutal torture, including being tied up and having members of ISIS “practice karate and kick-boxing” on the children. They were also forced to watch videos of the infamous ISIS massacre videos.

    Jan explains that his liberal upbringing has kept him from joining ISIS now voluntarily, but admits that he still holds the beliefs he was taught to be true. "Sometimes I am confused in my mind," he said. "But everything they said they proved using passages from the Koran."

  • Colleen Stan

    In a case that the FBI described as unparalleled in its brutality, Colleen Stan was subjected to such an unfathomable level of physical and mental torture that a mental break was likely the only thing her body and mind could do to protect itself.

    After Cameron Hooker kidnapped Stan in 1977, he kept her in a coffin-sized box beneath his bed for seven years.  Hooker kept Stan inside that box for 23 hours a day during the majority of her captivity, forcing her into sex slavery.  Hooker had such control over Stan that she “signed” herself into sex slavery voluntarily in 1978.  She was referred to as “K,” which served as her slave name, and was only allowed to call Hooker “Master.”

    The root of Hooker’s control over Stan was his invention of “The Company,” which he convinced Stan was an evil organization that was watching her and would torture and kill her family if she should go against Hooker’s wishes or try to escape.

    Stan was so afraid to go against Hooker that even when he brought her back to visit her family, she didn't tell them the truth;

    He left her alone with her family, but she never said a word about her ordeal. She claimed Cameron was her boyfriend and that she was happy. She spent the night, and the next morning posed for a picture with her abuser before leaving with him again.

    Finally, Hooker's wife (who had been a willing accomplice in Stan's kidnapping) grew guilty and helped Stan escape.