Every year at Christmas I enjoy a viewing of Die Hard (1988), usually as the wife decorates the tree, but this year we had a staff screening at work. Such a good film. Anyway, every time I see it I notice another detail, and this time it was the odd phrase ‘Helsinki syndrome’. Everyone knows that the psychological phenomenon of hostages identifying with and even sympathising with their captors is called ‘Stockholm syndrome‘ after a specific bank robbery that took place in that Swedish city in 1973. I naturally wondered whether ‘Helsinki syndrome’ was a silly mistake, a continuation of an existing mistake (as in, the movie reflecting popular misconception), or part of the movie’s poking fun at the media (the news anchor shows his ignorance by immediately trying to clarify for the audience that Helsinki is in Sweden, only to be corrected by the expert guest). I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t an existing misconception that the writers were referencing, unlike the infamous ceramic ‘Glock 7’ of Die Hard 2 (which was based on an existing media scare; one for another post). The movie seems to have started a meme of sorts, to the point where some people today actually think that ‘Helsinki syndrome’ is a real thing. There is no mention that I can find of it prior to the film. ‘Helsinki’ was definitely in the original script by Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza. As to why the writers didn’t just call it Stockholm syndrome and have the presenter mistakenly say that Stockholm was in Finland, I can’t be sure. It may just have been deliberately changed to distance the movie from real-life events, just as Hans Gruber’s ‘Volksfrei movement’ never really existed but had parallels in groups like the Red Army Faction aka Baader-Meinhof Gang. Viewers in the know would realise what was being referenced and would find the ensuing gag extra funny. For those not familiar with the real-life syndrome, the movie explains it and we can all laugh at the daft anchorman together. However, there may be a more specific origin. I did find one reference to Helsinki syndrome as a political comment in The Nation magazine (vol.241, 1985, p.8) made in reference to this 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.’
It seems plausible, given the amount of satire present in Die Hard, that the writers were referencing this wry comment, which is using its suggestion that Helsinki Syndrome is a variant of Stockholm Syndrome to satirise US foreign policy and, I believe, Allyn B. Conwell. This incident produced two radically opposed views from the hostages; Conwell, who responded with hatred for his captors, and Peter W. Hill, who defended them in the press. Hence whereas sympathy for terrorists would be medicalised as effectively a mental illness (which is the popular understanding of Stockholm Syndrome, implying that the sufferer’s aberrant views can be disregarded), the magazine is suggesting that such people might label any critic of the US government as having a case of ‘Helsinki Syndrome’. It does fit, although I have no direct evidence for this one. I did once manage to get in touch with de Souza about another piece of Die Hard trivia, so perhaps I could find out if anyone is sufficiently interested. Anyway, just in case there is any doubt, there is no such thing as Helsinki Syndrome.