True Love vs. Stockholm Syndrome: Does Hollywood Know the Difference?


By Amy Swanson, Contributing Writer

A friend of mine shocked me recently when she pinpointed the exact moment when she “fell in love” with Sandor “The Hound” Clegane from HBO’s GAME OF THRONES. “He grabbed a man by the throat and lifted him off the ground with one hand and with the other hand reached into the man’s stomach and pulled out his guts!”

That’s nice. . . wait. . . what?  When did that become romantic?

Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, women fell for the men in show business with nice eyes and a velvet voice like Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra. As if that alone wasn’t intimidating enough, when did alluring take a turn for the dark and violent? How seriously should we take it?

Today, some of the best writing is on television. Rather than introduce, deepen and arc a character over the course of a two hour movie, television allows a beloved character to evolve or devolve over the course of many years. More like real life. Real life characters in impossible or unthinkable circumstances, that is.

Hollywood’s devolution into gritty realism has churned out several TV series with dark yet moral undertones. MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD, GAME OF THRONES, THE WALKING DEAD, and THE BATES MOTEL, to name a few, tell morality stories by putting their characters in situations where all moral authority, save the divine, has been removed or the stakes are so high that morality seemingly no longer matters. With obstacles of authority removed we are now granted secret access into the true soul of a human being. If you don’t have to face immediate consequences for your actions, what would you do? Who are you versus who are you really?

These story themes can open up some great discussion about morality, redemption and human nature, but extreme caution must be exercised as we examine these complex characters in moral flux. We all love our anti-heroes and tragic villains, but, if we are going to practice wise discernment, we first need to understand why we like these characters as much as we do.

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological condition usually associated with victims of prolonged kidnapping or domestic abuse. It is a form of traumatic bonding where emotional ties develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats or threatens the other. Moviegoers seek to empathize with characters in this exact kind of scenario. Therefore viewers are just as subject to succumbing to this moral confusion as the character in the movie.

The positive emotional connection occurs when after prolonged negative treatment the abuser makes a turn. He does something positive or the victim learns something they didn’t previously know that makes them pity him or see him in a different light. It doesn’t have to be much, no more than a bread crust of kindness after a feast of cruelty. The victim is so shocked by this crumb of mercy they erase all feelings of hatred for their abuser and replace them with feelings of compassion, admiration and sometimes even romantic or sexual attraction. Full on Stockholm Syndrome is a form of mental slavery that involves physical abuse, so to say that Hollywood is intentionally inflicting this abuse on America would be stretching the point. Still, the earmarks are there and should be taken into consideration.

In a world of positive and negative charge, human beings naturally gravitate towards the positive. Therefore, if we increase the psychological negative pressure, the positive charge seems more positive without actually being increased itself. This psychological sleight of hand makes it easier for the writer to employ the Save the Cat technique.

Factual or fictional, Stockholm Syndrome has its positive effects. It keeps the victim and the character alive. It shines a ray of hope into an otherwise dark character’s story. Perhaps, even someone such as this can be redeemed or even saved! The odds are usually an even 50/50 he could go either way so any moviegoer will wait with baited breath to see how his story turns out. This is positive.

However, there is also negative. If the character has to do something positive to turn our hearts towards him, he must then go back to doing something negative to keep us guessing. If extreme negative makes the positive seem more positive, then exaggerated positive makes the negative seem less negative. As Hollywood Stockholm Syndrome engages, we make excuses for bad behavior and pathetically justify human vices. This can ultimately lead to us rationalizing away the sin lurking inside us. The Culture-Wise Christian must know the difference between God’s sanctifying love and Stockholm Syndrome.

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