What is Helsinki syndrome?

You’ve probably heard of Stockholm syndrome. But what the heck is Helsinki syndrome?

Helsinki syndrome is named after Finland's capital Helsinki
Pedro Szekely (CC)

If you’ve just watched the Die Hard movie, you’re probably wondering where the term came from, and whether it’s a real thing.

Helsinki and Stockholm are both cities, but only one of these Nordic capitals has a syndrome named after it. Here’s the full story!

Helsinki syndrome or Stockholm syndrome?

Before we talk about Helsinki syndrome, let’s look at what Stockholm syndrome is.

Stockholm syndrome is when captives in a hostage situation begin to develop feelings of sympathy for their captors. 

It’s a psychological response to a stressful situation whereby the hostages begin to identify with their captors and their aims. 

Stockholm syndrome has been a recognised syndrome since the 1970s, when a bank raid in Sweden’s capital Stockholm went wrong.

Four of the bank’s employees were held hostage in the bank’s vaults for six days, and when the police managed to free them they were surprised at how much sympathy the hostages felt with their captors.

Ever since, the term has been used to identify a recognised coping measure whereby abused people feel sympathy with, and sometimes even defend, their abusers to help them deal with their situation.

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So is Helsinki syndrome the same as Stockholm syndrome?

The short answer is yes.

Helsinki syndrome is named after the capital of Finland, of course, rather than the capital of Sweden, but essentially they are the same thing.

There’s just one catch: Helsinki syndrome doesn’t really exist.

So why is it called Helsinki syndrome?

To get to the bottom of where the term Helsinki syndrome came from, we need to look – perhaps surprisingly – at the film Die Hard.

During the film, an expert in terrorism and hostage situations, Dr Hasseldorf, is being interviewed on TV about an on-going siege. 

He says that the hostages are likely to be going through “Helsinki syndrome”.

News anchor, Harvey Johnson, says “As in Helsinki, Sweden”, to which Dr Hasseldorf replies “Finland”. Check out the full clip below.

Why do they say Helsinki syndrome in Die Hard?

There are several theories about why they say Helsinki syndrome in Die Hard instead of Stockholm syndrome. The first is that it was a simple mistake.

The fact that the producer in the clip is seen rolling his eyes in exasperation could refer to Harvey Johnson’s mistake in saying that Helsinki was in Sweden rather than Finland. 

Alternatively, it could refer to Dr Hasseldorf confusing the name of the syndrome, in which case the producers of Die Hard were clearly aware that the wrong term was being used, and were poking fun at the US media and so-called experts!

Helsinki is the capital of Finland, not Sweden
Helsinki waterfront / Bin im Garten (CC)

It’s also possible that it comes from a previous reference in left-wing magazine The Nation, whereby captives begin to question the gung-ho attitude of the US in a war or hostage situation. 

Given how many rewrites, edits and viewings the film would have had before its release, it’s unlikely to be a mistake and is more likely to be a tongue-in-cheek parody of the US media, American foreign policy, or even the perceived lack of geographic knowledge among the adult American population. 

Helsinki syndrome vs Stockholm syndrome – which is correct?

Stockholm syndrome is the original and correct term.

But since its outing in Die Hard, which gets played around the world every Christmas, Helsinki syndrome has come into common usage.

Even popular petrol-head TV series Top Gear used Helsinki syndrome in one of its programmes in 2011, when TV presenter Richard Hammond described it as “when people are being kidnapped, when they’re released, [they] miss their kidnappers”. 

Helsinki syndrome is an alternative name for Stockholm syndrome
Helsinki tram / Tyg728 (CC)

Hammond is picked up on his mistake when Jeremy Clarkson asks him if he meant Stockholm syndrome instead, and Hammond replies that he did.

When asked what Helsinki syndrome is, fellow presenter James May responds, “I think it’s when you’re an idiot and get your syndromes mixed up.”

Other possible examples of Stockholm or Helsinki syndrome include Beauty and the Beast, the popular fairy tale and Disney movie, though some argue that it’s more a case of Lima syndrome (see below), since the beast begins to show feelings for Belle first.

Lima syndrome vs Helsinki syndrome

Lima syndrome is pretty much the opposite of Helsinki, or Stockholm, syndrome.

It’s where the captors begin to develop feelings and sympathy for their hostages.

It was named after a siege at the Japanese embassy in Lima, when the captors began to feel a bond with the captive diplomats, even expressing a wish to travel to Japan for school once the siege was over.

Is Helsinki syndrome real?

As a psychological and medical condition, Helsinki syndrome is definitely not real. It’s just a mistaken version of the term Stockholm syndrome.

However, if you check the Helsinki syndrome definition in the Urban Dictionary, then you will find that it has a different meaning. 

Is Helsinki syndrome real?
Ninara (CC)

In popular usage Helsinki syndrome has come to mean a mental condition whereby someone is unable to distinguish between the countries of Sweden and Finland, usually when trying to convey the meaning of Stockholm syndrome to others (see Richard Hammond, above). 

This condition has come to be used in a wider context to describe someone who has a general lack of geographic knowledge and awareness.

And if you think you’re in danger of suffering from a spot of Helsinki syndrome (the Urban Dictionary variety), then you need to get reading some of our Routes North posts about Stockholm and Helsinki!

You’ll never get the two cities confused again!

See also:
110 cheap and free things to do in Stockholm
Stockholm Archipelago: six of the best islands to visit
33 cheap and free things to do in Helsinki

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2 months ago

It’s also used in X Fies, and a search brought me here.

Routes North
2 months ago
Reply to  Andy

We had no idea! Do you happen to know which episode it was? We can add it to the article 🙂

20 days ago
Reply to  Routes North

The X Files S5:E19 Folie a Deux
Fox Mulder tells Dana Scully that he isn’t experiencing ‘Helsinki Syndrome’ after being held hostage.
I was the same. I heard him say ‘Helsinki Syndrome’ and I looked it up online because I was sure the writers were mixing it up with ‘Stockholm Syndrome’.

Joseph Biehn
Joseph Biehn
1 year ago

Lol! I swear with everything in me that “Die Hard” IS EXACTLY THE SOLE reason I am here right now wanting to learn about Helsinki Syndrome;)! I’m seriously watching “Die Hard” at this VERY MOMENT & I just paused the movie at this VERY MOMENT(Direct TV) because I wanted to learn more about Helsinki Syndrome after hearing the guest on the news channel talking about it lol! What are the odds;)?