Earlier this year picked up in 2015’s heart-wrenching gut-puncher Room, an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel of the same name. Ma’s story is a harrowing one; after being kidnapped as a teenager by a vicious stranger, she spends the following seven years confined between four walls. She is repeatedly raped by her captor and bears his child, Jack ( ), who’s born into a boxed world. He talks of bed, wardrobe and lamp as his friends and knows nothing further than the space within which their existence is defined. Ma, who’s real name is Joy Newsome, then hatches a plan to get him out.
Although thankfully the novel and script are fictional works, there’s a reason its narrative is too close for comfort. The true story that inspired Donoghue to pen Room is more disturbing than any movie could be. She explained to The Guardian in 2014:
“Back in 2008 when I heard about Elizabeth Fritzl and her children emerging from their Austrian dungeon, our kids were four and one. My first thought was: How did she do that, how did she manage to mother – and mother well – in a locked room? But my second thought was: Aren’t there moments for every parent, and every child too, when that intimate bond feels like a locked room?”
A Room Without A View: The Case Of Elisabeth Fritzl
Elisabeth was 18 years old when she was kidnapped, held captive and repeatedly raped by her own father, Joseph Fritzl. In 1984, he asked her to help him carry a door down to their basement, yet unbeknownst to her this door was the final addition to the secret prison he’d been building for her since she was 12. After she helped him install it, he rendered her unconscious by smothering her with an ether-soaked towel, chained her to a bed and locked the door. This is where she stayed for 24 years.
According to reports, he began sexually assaulting his daughter the next day, unchaining her six to nine months later to get “better access.” Anyone who asked of Elizabeth’s disappearance was given the same spiel: She’d run away with a religious cult, lies he’d support by forcing her to write letters to her family describing spiritual enlightenment.
His repeated raping resulted in seven children, one of whom died shortly after birth and his body was disposed of in the incinerator; three were confined — like Jack in Room — to the bunker, and three more who were sent upstairs to live with Josef and his family in their house. He explained the children’s existence to his wife and social workers by claiming Elizabeth had sent them to him from the cult because she couldn’t provide adequate care. Thus, Fritzl was able to legally adopt them without raising suspicion. His wife was never allowed in the basement, which was hidden behind several electrically sealed doors.
Based on a report in The Guardian from back in 2008, we can see the decorations in Elizabeth’s prison draw similarities to Ma’s. Her attempts to desperately decorate their drab surroundings were documented by police: small painted snails, a purple octopus, child’s drawings of flowers, fish, stickers of stars and the sun — all things her “downstairs” children had never seen with their own eyes, only via the TV.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Elizabeth’s chance for freedom came. Her first born, Kerstin, was seriously ill and she demanded the girl be taken to the hospital. Grabbing the opportunity to communicate with the outside world, she slipped a secret note into her daughter’s pocket that 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.”
Although Josef recounted his fiction of how the child came into his possession, the hospital immediately became suspicious and made a TV appeal for the mother to come forward. Somehow, Elizabeth ordered Fritzl to take her, and he obliged — a move that finally foiled his monstrous plan, resulted in his arrest and marked the end of her nightmare.
A Child’s Perspective
It was the conclusion to this tale that struck a chord with Donoghue and inspired her to tell Room from the perspective of Felix, Elizabeth Fritzl’s son who was just 5 years old when he was released into the world. It’s this narrational approach that made the story of Room so simultaneously simple — its childlike eye adding a devastating innocence — and multifaceted, with its posing of deeper, existential questions — after all:
“Jack has to cope with the dizzying revelation that there’s a world outside the door. But don’t all our childhoods have moments like that, on a smaller scale?”
Share your thoughts on Room‘s inspiration in the comments below.
Staff Writer at MP. Lover of bad puns, nostalgic feels and all things Winona.