Father Holds Daughter Hostage in Basement for 24 Years: The Story of a Teen’s Terrifying Captivity

By: Vanessa Hunt | Last updated: Nov 19, 2023

Be warned – this is a tale of the girl thrust into darkness for 24 years by her father. Elisabeth Fritzl was only 18 when she went missing in August 1984. Her mother, Rosemarie, distraught over her daughter’s sudden disappearance, filed a missing person’s report.

Unknown to them, her father held the girl captive in the basement. Her decades-long ordeal had just begun.

Nowhere to Be Found

The days turned to weeks, and there was still no sign of Elisabeth. Everyone, including the cops, had no information except for her father Josef’s claims that she had run away probably to join a cult she had been talking about. No one knew where she had run away to either.


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All this while, she was under their feet, 20 feet underground. Only her father knew the truth, but he pretended to be concerned.


Started With a Simple Request

The horrific saga for the innocent girl started with a seemingly simple request from her father on the fateful day of August 28, 1984. He asked her help fixing up the final door on its frame to the cellar he had been renovating for months.


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It wasn’t such an odd request considering Elisabeth always helped her parents around the house. She followed him down the stairs without realizing it would be decades before she saw the outside world again.

Shut Down Into the World of Darkness

Once she helped her father fix the door to the dingy confines of the cellar, he pushed her into it. Josef then covered her mouth and nose with the ether-soaked cloth until she passed out.


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When Elisabeth regained consciousness, she realized her whereabouts. The cellar her father had painstakingly built under their garden was dark and dirty, with no windows, shutting out natural sunlight. She was stuck in a place where no one could hear her screams.

A Father's Twisted Plans

Josef had planned this elaborate scheme to imprison his daughter for years. Living in Lower Austria, where nuclear bunkers were necessary, helped his plans. In the early 1970s, he received permission from the city council to build a cellar.


Source: SID Lower Austria/Getty Images

He even received a grant of two thousand euros for the construction costs. The neighbors watched as the electrical engineer built what appeared to be a perfect bunker for emergencies. The cellar has good plumbing with showers and electricity.

No Way Out of the Dungeon

The cellar was a dungeon with no way out. There were only two ways one could access the cellar: a metal door operated with a remote control and another a heavy-hinged door. As if that wasn’t enough, you had to pass through eight doors to reach the final one Elisabeth had helped install.

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It was impossible for anyone without the keys or the remote control to escape the tomb-like enclosure. The teenager was truly trapped.


Her Disappearance Was Easy to Cover Up

Meanwhile, Elisabeth’s mom, who had no clue what her husband had done, was worried sick about her. Josef stayed by her side all along – pretending to be equally distraught – but he knew something had to be done.

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He forced his daughter to write a letter stating she ran away because she was tired of family life. Once her mom received the letter, she quickly believed it since Elisabeth had frequently threatened to flee.


History of Running Away From Home

Over the years, Elisabeth had habitually run away from home so many times she had to be forcibly dragged back by her father or the cops. So, this time, when Josef claimed she had run away to join a cult, people believed his words without a doubt.

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The letter further confirmed his suspicions. With all the evidence pointing to her voluntarily leaving home, the cops had no choice but to abandon the search for her.


His Daily Mechanical Routine

The case ran cold with no leads in sight, and for all intents and purposes, the world had abandoned her. This was precisely what Josef wanted – he could execute his twisted plans without suspicion or interruption. Like clockwork, he would head down to the basement at nine every morning to work on his machine drawings.

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To the outside world, he was a hard-working man who sometimes had to spend nights in the basement working. His wife suspected nothing.


The Twisted Reality of His Routine

While everyone believed Elisabeth was leading a life elsewhere, she was living a nightmare under the family home. Josef visited her almost daily, at least thrice a week, and had left her alone for the first two years, satisfied with keeping her captive.

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That soon changed; he began forcibly abusing her. His nightly stays increased over time. He had initially kept her chained, but after six months, the chains came off to accommodate his abuse.


More a Monster Than a Human

Abusing her was nothing new; he had been doing it since she turned 11. The girl knew he was pure evil. She was merely a child, scared and alone. His repeated threats if she spoke up about the abuse stopped her from confiding in anyone.

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In light of what she had to endure, it was no wonder that the girl had repeatedly tried to get away from him and her home. This time, she had no escape. 


Pregnancy, Miscarriage, and Kids

Even though time stood still for Elisabeth, she had to bear the consequences of her father’s actions. Within four years of captivity, she became pregnant twice; the first one resulted in a miscarriage. The second time, she gave birth to a daughter named Kerstin in 1988.

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Two years later, her son Stefan was born. Despite being terrified of bearing children of her father, that too in captivity, she loved her two kids dearly, trying her best to protect them.


More Than Two Kids

Josef provided the three of them with weekly rations. She tried to give her two children a normal life, teaching them whatever she knew. Sadly, the dingy underground cellar became their entire world. Unfortunately, her father continued to abuse her, which resulted in her having five more children.

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Of the five, one passed away shortly after birth, one was allowed to stay with her, and he took the other three to live with him and his wife upstairs.


Her Mom Received Another Letter

Bringing three kids into their home needed another plan that involved Elisabeth writing another letter. Even though she was devastated that he was taking her children away, she had no choice but to do as instructed.

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No one suspected Josef’s involvement. The letters stated her sad plight and inability to care for her children. One by one, her mother received them, and they would find the babies left in the bush or at the doorstep.


Raising the Kids as Their Own

Interestingly, no one suspected anything amiss with the mysterious arrival of the children, not Rosemarie, not even the social services. The people assumed they were raising their runaway daughter’s children and treated them as devoted grandparents.

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In the cellar, with only two children by her side, Elisabeth had no choice but to feel relieved that her other three kids were at least having a better life than them. She did not know how they were doing.


Without Any Medical Help

Pregnancies are challenging; women need as much medical help as possible to ride them out smoothly. Unfortunately, Elisabeth had to endure all her pregnancy woes without any medical assistance. All she had at her disposal was a pair of dirty scissors, disinfectant, and a book on childbirth.

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It’s a miracle she survived her multiple pregnancies and childbirth. The silver lining was that she found a new purpose with the arrival of her children.


The Terrible Life in Captivity

No matter how many items such as television, cassette player, and radio he provided them with for entertainment, the living conditions remained terrible. They had a place to cook and store food, but the entire cellar turned into a scorching oven during summer.

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At times, water poured out of the cracks in the walls, and Elisabeth had to soak them with towels. He made them dig up the soil with bare hands for years to make more space.


The World Did Not Stop Spinning

As Elisabeth and her kids led a horrific life 20 feet below ground, unknown to them, the world kept spinning. So many things happened, and they had no clue about it. Time stood stagnant for the captive souls as the world witnessed the Chernobyl disaster, the LA riots, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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She remained imprisoned throughout the genocide in Rwanda and the OJ Simpson trial. She missed the way the world mourned the demise of Princess Diana.


24 Years of Captivity

Josef had kept her hidden from the world for 24 years without anyone even suspecting him of her disappearance. No one knows how long he meant to keep her captive, but a day came in 2008 when the poor girl had a chance to escape.

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Her firstborn, the 19-year-old Kerstin, fell awfully sick, needing hospitalization. After repeated pleas from her mother, Josef agreed to take her to the hospital.


The Trip to the Hospital

Josef took her to the city hospital in an ambulance. He showed the attending doctors her mother’s note that explained her rapidly deteriorating condition. When they looked at him suspiciously, he said that the mother could not afford to care for Kerstin and asked him for help.

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Not convinced by his story, the doctors and the police started questioning the teen about her mother. She looked pale and had terrible teeth, which further raised red flags.


His Actions Fuelled Further Investigation

Concerned about the plight of the girl who looked to have escaped from a near death experience, the cops asked the public for any information on the mother. They requested the mother and the relatives of Kerstin to come forward.

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Elisabeth felt helpless watching this unfold on television. Alas, she had grown up cut off from the rest of the world except her mother, and so, expectedly, no one came through. The cops soon widened their investigation.


Finally, Out Into the Real World

While the police began digging into Elisabeth’s letters, she began pleading with Josef to allow her to visit her sick daughter in the hospital. The cops found inconsistencies with the letters, finding them odd and dictated.

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They also contacted the church officer Manfred Wolhfahrt, an expert on cults, who dismissed the existence of such a group. Meanwhile, on 26th April 2008, Elisabeth stepped out of the cellar for the first time in 24 years.


Sharing Her Story With the World

When Elisabeth visited the hospital, the cops looked at her suspiciously, threatening her with arrest for child abuse for neglecting her daughter. She started recounting the ordeal she had been through, shocking them with the gory details of her captivity.

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Hearing her speak of her father’s 24 years of abuse, even in front of her children, and other horrific things he had done to her, the investigators believed her and arrested Josef based on her statement.


Confirming Her Story With Evidence

The family, including her mother, were protected as Josef told the police how to enter the cellar. Rosemarie was stunned and devastated at what had been going on right under her nose for several years. She had no clue about it and felt miserable for not protecting her daughter.

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Meanwhile, Elisabeth had told the cops about the seven children Josef fathered, and the DNA evidence confirmed the incest part of her story.


Defense Lawyer's Preposterous Claims

Josef’s defense attorney, Rudolf Mayer, stressed the need for evidence that confirmed the continual abuse and enslavement. He painted the monster as a devoted father who had worked hard to provide for two families.

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The lawyer also claimed that the man had held his daughter captive only to prevent her from going astray. He wasn’t fooling anyone with his elaborate efforts to humanize the perpetrator. In fact, more of Josef’s heinous acts came to light.


The Father's Empty Threats and Terrible Deeds

With Elisabeth’s statement, more of his terrible deeds became public. Her father had threatened them into submission by claiming they may get electrocuted if they touched the doors. He’d release poison into the cellar if they ever tried. It turned out that his empty threats were simply psychological torture.

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In 1996, his son Michael succumbed to breathing difficulties 66 hours after his birth. Josef admitted to using an incinerator to get rid of the evidence.


He Pleaded Guilty to All Charges

Even though evidence kept mounting against him, Josef refused to plead guilty to threatening to gas the captives and for murder. Besides the video testimony of Elisabeth, her older brother revealed he was also a victim of his physical abuse.

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Things changed when she attended the trial on the second day. She and her children were exempt from testifying but seeing her there prompted Josef to change his stand. He pleaded guilty to all charges without exceptions. 


Locked Up After Swift Justice

Within three days of trial, Josef was sentenced to life imprisonment. He showed no remorse and thought what he did was the norm. In fact, he had done this before.

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Growing up, his mother beat him constantly, calling him Satan. She moved in with him when he finally got a house in 1959. He then locked her up in the attic with the windows boarded up until her demise in 1980.


Had Always Been Pure Evil

Some horrific details about the man prove he was nothing but pure evil. He was once put in prison for violating a woman at her home. It was during his time there that he came up with a plan to lock up his daughter. He had wanted to express his ‘sick’ side.

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Josef was diagnosed with a severe combined personality disorder by a forensic psychiatrist. In 2022, he was moved to another unit earmarked for criminally insane.


Life at the End of Captivity

Things were rocky initially, with them being placed in a psychiatric clinic. The “Upstairs” and the “Downstairs” children needed intense therapy. Stefan was hunched over because of low ceilings, and Kerstin had plucked out clumps of hair in captivity.

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Years after the end of captivity, Elisabeth and her kids live under different names in relative privacy in a village out of the media’s glare. We hope the years since the release from the nightmare have been kinder to them.