The events of the new film Room, a screenplay Emma Donoghue adapted from her best-selling 2010 novel of the same name, have echos of the Cleveland kidnappings (which came to light after the book was published) and the Jaycee Dugard case, but the main story that loosely inspired this emotional film happened in Austria. Although, as Donoghue has said, the book and film are not directly “based on,” but instead inspired, by the Fritzl case, there are many chilling details about the story of Elisabeth Fritzl and her children that deeply inform Room‘s story.

In 2008, Elisabeth Fritzl emerged from an underground dungeon after 24 years of captivity at the hands of her father. Several years before she disappeared, her father Josef got permits and even received a government grant to build an underground cellar. He rigged it with electricity, plumbing, and a secure door. Josef lured his 18-year-old daughter in this underground bunker by asking her to help him install the door. Once it was in place, he put a rag soaked in ether on her face and chained her to a bed.

According to Elisabeth, he raped her the next day, and about six to nine months later he unchained her, not for her own comfort, but to get better access to her. He told his wife and anyone who asked where Elisabeth had gone that she’d run away with a religious group, supporting his lies by forcing Elisabeth to write letters to the family describing a fictional reality where she was seeking spiritual enlightenment.

Soon, children started appearing on the family’s doorstep along with letters from Elisabeth asking her parents to take care of them because she couldn’t. In all, Elisabeth gave birth to 7 of her father’s children. One, a twin boy, died soon after birth, and Josef disposed of his body in the incinerator. Three of her children went “upstairs” to be raised, while the other three, the “downstairs family” never saw the light of day. Josef told them if they tried to escape they would be shocked by electricity and poison gas would kill them instantly.

The chance for freedom came when Elisabeth’s first born Kerstin became seriously ill. Elisabeth pleaded with Josef to get Kerstin, who’s organs were shutting down, to a hospital before she died, and he complied, dropping her off anonymously.

What Josef didn’t know was that Elisabeth had slipped a note into the girl’s pocket which read: “Please, please help her. Kerstin is really terrified of other people. She was never in a hospital. Kerstin, please stay strong until we see each other again.”

The doctors, alarmed both by the note and the state of the 19-year-old’s body (besides being serious ill she was incredibly pale and malnourisehd, and had horribly rotted teeth,) alerted the media. Elisabeth and her two “cellar” children watched news reports about Kersten on the television Josef had supplied them with several years before. The doctors were asking Kerstin’s mother to come forward, and, amazingly, Elisabeth convinced Josef to let her go to the hospital under the condition that she would stick to a story he concocted for her. He was surprised as how quickly she told the truth (or “betrayed” him, according to Josef.)

During his trial, Josef maintained a delusional narcissistic view of his situation, arguing that he had done his daughter a service by keeping her underground. She had been going out drinking and hanging out with a “bad crowd,” and he was saving her from these destructive influences, he said. He also claimed that he never intended to have sex with her, but couldn’t resist the taboo temptation. After Elisabeth had started having children, he said having two separate families was “nice” for him. He seemed to think it made sense to paint the picture of himself as a run-of-the-mill cheater or a bigamist who simply had a double life. After he watched his daughter’s recorded testimony, Josef said he had not understood how cruel he had been.

After their rescue, Elisabeth and her six living children received care in a psychiatric unit. The “cellar children (Kerstin, Stefan, and Felix)” and “upstairs children (Lisa, Monika and Alexander)” were able to meet and get to know each other. After taping video accounts for the trial, Elisabeth and her children were set up with housing and a government stipend in a town known only as “Village X” to the media, where they were all given new identities.

They’re receiving education, sometimes with the help of private tutors, dating, and trying to go about normal lives despite their ordeal. Felix, who was only five at the time of his release, barely remembers his time in the cellar. According to some reports the two sets of children had a bit of difficulty adjusting to each other. The upstairs children felt guilt and bewilderment over their relatively normal lives compared to their hidden siblings, and Elisabeth struggled with the fact that they considered their grandmother their mother.

Josef’s wife and Elisabeth’s mother Rosemarie claims to have had no knowledge of the horrific events happening below her feet. She divorced Josef, who’s serving a life sentence, but had a rocky relationship with her daughter, who couldn’t believe that she didn’t know what was going on.

Other stories of interest:

In her own words: Who was the real Lili Elbe?

The real woman behind Joy


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