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The 17-year old opened her eyes in the pitch black. Her head was spinning like the wheels on the bus she had hopped to Vienna some time ago. Pain coursed through every vein, muscle and neuron as she attempted to steady herself and get off the cold concrete floor; it’s grit soiling her beautiful rust-colored hair.
She could not see in the dark, humid cellar. When she blindly tried to get up she was yanked back down with a tremendous force and the cacophonous clank of chains attached to a metal loop in the floor, the dripping of water in another room, and the scurry of rats and roaches somewhere close.
The cellar’s lock slowly started to turn: the sound of heavy steps on the creaking wooden stairs, then a flash light beam blinding her… causing her adrenaline to pump 100 miles an hour, not knowing exactly what to expect.
Little did Elisabeth know what happened next was but the start of her almost-quarter century personal hell at the hands of the man she loathed most in the whole world: her own father, the Monster of Amstetten, Josef Fritzl.
I. The Monster is Born.
Josef Fritzl was born in 1935 in the small city of Amstetten in lower Austria. His mother, Maria, was the illegitimate child of a miller and Fritzl’s grandmother (who also was very authoritarian over the young Josef) who was sterile. The miller began many sexual liaisons with the maids in their home for the express purpose of having children. Maria was one of these. That is to say, she was technically an illegitimate child.
Maria met a penniless drifter in 1934 named Josef Fritzl and had the Josef Fritzl who is the subject of this profile (Josef Fritzl Jr.) by him. They lived at 40 Ybbstraße (pronounced EEB-strassuh) in Amstetten at this time, about 90 miles from where Hitler was born.
Fast forward to Anschluss in March of 1938, when the Nazis annexed Austria — this would bring a lot of trouble for the Fritzls and not just for Josef Sr. who was fighting on the Eastern Front during the War and who, at any rate, was booted by Maria from 40 Ybbstraße at the War’s beginning in 1939. Josef Jr. saw Hitler on March 7 of ’38 and would go on to blame him and Nazism (among many other things) for his deranged behavior towards his daughter.
Josef Sr. would come back after being a POW in a Soviet gulag until 1948. Upon returning to Amstetten, he was essentially shunned by his wife and son as a gutless and shameful man. Fritzl’s hatred of his father would simmer below the surface for the rest of his miserable life.
II. Mother Dearest.
Maria was rather off-balance before WWII — with many who knew her saying she wanted a child but not the associated responsibilities of having one. She would often beat, berate, and neglect her son.
Her fiery temper got her arrested by the Third Reich in Austria in 1945 and sent to a concentration camp where she was freed by the Allies after the war.
Fritzl was essentially left alone for this huge stretch of time (for a 10-year old). It is truly astounding how the symbolism of this episode in his then young life will become very relevant later on in our story; but, more on that below.
Fritzl ended up in an orphanage (where he was told his mother was dead) after this brief episode alone, when Maria got him back after the war.
The abuse didn’t stop. It only got more intense with her stint in a concentration camp. Fritzl stood up to her when he was 15.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally considering the huge amount of pathological symbolism in this case), it was at age 15 that Fritzl also began developing a few deviant sexual habits (paraphilias).
He began with voyeurism in wandering around his corner of Amstetten listening for the noises of young couples having sex.
Fritzl would ultimately lock the bedridden Maria up in her own attic with the windows bricked up, where she died in 1980. The motivation, Fritzl said in an interview with a forensic psychiatrist, was simple: revenge for all she’d done to him.
That voyeurism would escalate — as they always do in the case of sexual psychopaths like Josef Fritzl — from “nuisance” type behaviors to more serious ones like exposing himself to young women and getting violent with the prostitutes in the red light district of nearby Linz later in life when he would visit.
III. The Monster Marries.
In 1951, at the age of 16, Fritzl heads to Linz and begins his studies and on-the-job learning to become an engineer; engineers were in very high demand after the War.
Five years later, he would meet his wife — 17-year old Rosemarie Byers — in the firm where he was working as a technical assistant. Her father also worked there.
Fritzl told his friends he was very impressed by her and that she would make an exceptional housewife because she shows incredible “obedience.” Indeed, obedience is a quality rather prized by many in the German-speaking world (and was one reason Fritzl got away with what he was doing for 24 years — Austrians don’t like to meddle in what’s perceived as someone else’s business), but Fritzl took it to pathological levels, as we will see.
By 1963, Josef and Rosemarie were married with three children: two daughters and one son. That year he is sent by his employer on what turns out to be a two year business trip to Ghana. He doesn’t return until 1965.
In true narcissistic psychopath form, Fritzl would divorce Rosemarie in 2012 for “failing to see… [him] in prison”.
IV. Elisabeth is Born.
Upon coming back to Linz and Amstetten, Fritzl’s authoritarianism over his family hit a new fevered pitch; likely as a reaction to his children growing and having to manage the resultant stress. On April 8, 1966, his fourth child, Elisabeth, is born.
The birth of Elisabeth only added more stress to Fritzl’s life. So, he reverts to his old, predatory sexual habits which were dormant when he was overseas, likely because he had intense direction in his work.
Fritzl would escape to Linz, where he worked, to get away from the “small town scrutiny” of Amstetten. No one in Linz would question him or view him with suspicion; he would not have to worry there about anything getting back to his wife’s ears (although there are real questions regarding what she knew when her daughter was enslaved in the cellar) or the prying eyes of law enforcement in his hometown.
V. The Monster Escalates to Violent Crime for the First Time.
Fritzl was still escalating in Linz in 1967 when he followed a mother home from the grocery store and raped her at knife point in her bed while her infant child slept in a cot next to it. A court gave him 18 months in prison for the crime.
Another bonus Fritzl got, besides this feather-light sentence for a heinous crime, was the Austrian justice system effectively expunging his rape conviction from his record after 10 years — something that was done with most all crime, regardless of severity.
It was the Fritzl case and the Kampusch case which happened before Fritzl’s (where Natascha Kampusch was imprisoned by a sexual psychopath in a cellar for eight years) — both in Austria — that would finally get the legislature to change this patently absurd law in 2008 after Fritzl’s trial.
By the time 1972 comes around, the Fritzl’s have their seventh and last child, for a final tally of three girls and four boys. Fritzl’s reputation as an engineer — and independent wealth — were also growing. So, Fritzl decides to invest in property by buying guesthouses, restaurants, and a 40 bedroom three story hotel.
Fritzl turned a profit for a while. When things went south the hotel mysteriously caught fire. Authorities could never prove it was arson to collect the insurance money.
This would make news again in 2017 when the new owner of one of Fritzl’s old properties found a “staircase to nowhere” and various “hidden rooms” in the structure. There’s nothing definitive linking Fritzl and his property to the 1986 murder of 17-year old “Martina P.” (essentially all the information local authorities have released) that came next, though.
Her body was found that year wrapped in plastic and dumped on the beach at nearby Lake Mondsee. Martina P. did look astonishingly like Elisabeth Fritzl and was her age. Still, short of a deathbed confession from Josef Fritzl himself, we will likely never know with certainty if the Monster was involved in her death too.
During this time, Fritzl very much exemplified the “family man” in the minds of the people of Amstetten — like other socially-competent killers like BTK or Ted Bundy. Ian Brady aptly called this phenomenon “a house divided.” In my correspondence with him from prison Dennis Rader (BTK) called this “compartmentalization”.
VI. 40 Ybbstraße Expands.
Six years later, Fritzl starts a massive expansion to 40 Ybbstraße, including a huge, labyrinthine cellar under the outside rear of the house. Several flats to be rented out were to be built on top — these had a very high turnover rate, which, in turn contributed to the unquestioning demeanor of the folks in that part of Amstetten. DIY building also came naturally with being an engineer, so no one in Amstetten thought twice about it.
Around this time, Fritzl began showing extraordinarily-obsessive tendencies around the then-twelve-year old Elisabeth. He demanded to know where she was at all times, and often spied on her. These behaviors would ultimately escalate, just as the ones earlier in Fritzl’s psychosexual life.
In 1981, Elisabeth started a gastronomy and tourism course out of town and begun waiting tables to support herself. This only got under her dad’s skin and added fuel to the fire of his obsession. It was also the figurative straw that broke the camel’s back: Fritzl escalated starting that year by exposing himself to Elisabeth, leaving pornographic literature under her pillow, and all-around sexually abusing her.
Her friends during this time report an intensely-introverted girl at school who they knew liked school better than home but none ever inquired why that was the case.
In 1983 Fritzl finished his cellar, which he said was to be used for storage and as a workshop. Fritzl being the controlling-psychopath that he was, built the space to give him maximum-possible physical control of it (see a map of it below); it had lighting and many interconnected rooms.
Elisabeth ran away to Vienna on January 28. Vienna police picked her up and held her until Fritzl made the drive to pick her up himself, as she was technically still a minor.
On the drive back to Amstetten, Fritzl ominously said, “I’ll never let you run away again.” Elisabeth could have had no idea just how terrifyingly-true that statement would turn out to be a little over a year later.
VII. The Imprisonment Begins.
In May of 1984 Elisabeth made the mistake of telling her father she was moving to Linz to live with her sister. This percolated in the psychopath’s mind: increasing his obsession and fertilizing the seed of desperation in his unconscious.
He would not let it happen again. He COULD NOT let it happen again. He would NOT be left alone again by the woman who got the entirety of his psychosexual mental energy; not after what his mother did by leaving him alone so many years earlier. Fritzl would later admit to the psychiatrist from prison that he often fantasized about sexual intercourse (and domination) of his mother.
So, yes, this is very Oedipal: arguably a replaying of the abuse and being left alone for months during the War. It’s as if Fritzl is displacing that anger and loneliness into total control over his daughter; all in a vain, unconscious attempt to right his own sordid past history. More on the Oedipal root of rape/murder fantasies can be found in the sources from Erik Erikson, Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and Erich Fromm (who also argued for the importance of psychic necrophilia — or “love of death and death of love” — as a vital causative agent there) in the “further reading” below.
VIII. August 28.
He had to do something.
On August 28, 1984 Fritzl calls Elisabeth to the garage of 40 Ybbstraße with the seemingly-innocuous request of helping him lift a door. After this is done, he asks her to join him in his study for a private talk. She does, and when her back is to him, he knocks her out with an ether-soaked rag to her face, then carries her into the cellar, handcuffing her and chaining her to a ring in the floor. Elisabeth had no way of knowing she would be in that dank, humid, bug and rodent-infested place — with just a bed, toilet, and TV — for over two decades.
Fritzl then made her write a letter to the family saying she ran away and joined a (satanic) cult; he then drove 100 miles away to post the letter.
Elisabeth would be raped an estimated 3,000 times by her father over 24 years in that cellar. With that frequency of coitus happening, it was impossible to avoid pregnancy. Her first was a miscarriage.
Her first live birth was in 1988: a girl named Kerstin. From here on out when the births occurred, her father gave her a book on child birth, a rag, a pair of scissors, and a few wet wipes.
She gave birth a total of seven times while being totally alone in that place, devoid of any sunlight.
IX. The Children in the Cellar.
Elisabeth’s second child, Stefan, is born in 1990 — he would go on to have horrible back pain and misalignment because he was 5’8” and had to always lean in the cellar.
In August of 1992, her third child, Lisa, is born with a heart defect. Fritzl does not want to take the gamble of his upstairs family hearing a constantly-crying, in-pain baby coming from downstairs — thus far they haven’t noticed a thing, and won’t until 2008 when this case breaks wide open.
So, Fritzl takes Lisa, puts her in a basket and literally leaves her on the doorstep of 40 Ybbstraße with another phony note from Elisabeth. The infant got emergency surgery and by all accounts lived a (somewhat) normal life with the upstairs family she thought were just her grandparents.
Meanwhile downstairs is getting cramped. So Fritzl opens up more space among the rooms and brings in things like a refrigerator (which he keeps stocked), toys the children would like, and even a pet goldfish and canary. In short: he tries to normalize the hellish situation he’s created.
Elisabeth attempts her own normalcy for her kids as well: getting them up at the same time every day, cooking them breakfast in the tiny kitchen, and even teaching them how to read. All this while her dad is still brutally abusing and raping her in front of them.
December 16, 1994 sees the arrival of Monika. She is taken upstairs in the same manner as Lisa with another bogus note Elisabeth was forced to write.
Ybbstraße is a main thoroughfare in Amstetten, so it kind of defies belief that Fritzl was able to drop all these infants off with absolutely no one noticing. Throughout all this, by the way, Fritzl was getting financial assistance from Austrian social services because they never thought to probe deeper as his 1967 rape conviction was no longer on his record.
XI. The Monster Murders One.
In April of 1996, Elisabeth gives birth to twins Michael and Alexander. Michael has horrible breathing problems, so Fritzl allows the infant to die and hurls his corpse into 40 Ybbstraße’s furnace. Alexander is taken upstairs in the manner of his older sisters, likely because Fritzl thought it too risky to kill him too. Michael would later constitute Fritzl’s only murder conviction.
Around this time, Fritzl starts going on a lot of business trips for weeks at a time. He would leave plenty of food, water, and vitamin supplements for his “downstairs family” when he would be gone.
In 2002, Elisabeth gives birth to her seventh and last child by her father: a boy named Felix.
Number seven effectively made his “downstairs family” a grotesque mirrored image of his upstairs family, which is interesting again from a symbolic point of view.
It’s as if the upstairs family (properly integrated into their community) just weren’t enough and only stirred Fritzl’s anger, much like how he stirred his mother’s — he was by all accounts a strict, angry man anyway. The unconscious way he saw to remedy this was to have his second family downstairs and controlled exactly how he believes all women and children who act out should be controlled.
XII. A Plan to End the Hell.
Fritzl was very fond of Felix. He wanted to get him upstairs and basically integrate both families.
So to do that, he begins planning to release Elisabeth in 2008, about the time Felix would need to start school. He believed the gas-lighting he did on Elisabeth (telling her there were subterranean gas traps, electrified doors and the like, should she try to escape) was effective enough to where she wouldn’t tell the police.
As tends to happen, reality foiled best laid plans. Before Fritzl could put his plan in motion, 19-year old Kerstin became deathly ill and almost comatose. All they had in the cellar to treat her vague symptoms (profuse sweating, unusually white skin, and all the symptoms of kidney failure) was aspirin.
Elisabeth begs her father to get medical help for her. She stood steadfast and refused to go on herself if Fritzl let Kerstin die.
So, he takes her to the hospital.
The doctors are rather confounded by Kerstin’s constellation of symptoms (which turned out to be severe Vitamin D deficiency, despite the lamps Fritzl installed in the cellar and the vitamin supplements he gave all four of its inhabitants). Kerstin had lost most of her teeth and had developed the habit of tearing her hair out in clumps, shredding her dresses and stuffing them down the toilet in the cellar.
XIII. The Hospital.
Fritzl introduces himself as Kerstin’s grandfather yet the doctors keep asking him to get the mother in there that they may take an even more thorough history and get a handle on what’s happening.
The police search for her and after about a week put out a nationally-televised appeal for Elisabeth to come home. Their plan was to charge her with severe neglect.
Elisabeth ended up seeing the televised appeal on her tiny TV in the cellar. When her dad came back, she said to him, you’re going to take me in there or I will kill myself down here. Fritzl acquiesces.
Upon getting to the hospital, the police immediately arrest and begin interrogating Elisabeth. It is only when they threaten to take her children away that she finally tells them what her father had done to her for 24 years. They immediately arrest Josef Fritzl and free the other children in the cellar.
XIV. The Monster is Arrested.
Fritzl initially pled not guilty to crimes including rape, false imprisonment, and deprivation of liberty.
Elisabeth and the children, meanwhile, start intense therapy and acclimation to the outside world. Elisabeth also prepares a taped deposition at her father’s trial where no press or members of the public are allowed in.
As a final surprise, Elisabeth showed up at the trial and confronted the monster, the terror which lorded over literally every aspect of her life for such a long time. When Fritzl saw his daughter, he allegedly changed his plea to guilty and wept uncontrollably.
He was sentenced to life imprisonment with parole possible after 15 years.
XV. Post Script.
Fritzl is still alive as of this writing and reportedly suffering from dementia behind prison walls.
Elisabeth and the children are still undergoing intensive therapy — they reportedly suffer intense anxiety and panic attacks from the sound of a door closing or the turning of a lock, not to mention Elisabeth’s profound ambivalence toward her mother.
They live in a location designated by Austrians as “Village X” so the family can live a normal life, supported by the Austrian state and relatively-free of public scrutiny.
Elisabeth has also reportedly found love in the bodyguard hired by the government to protect her — if anyone deserves happiness after such a life, it’s her.
Brava Elisabeth! You are a symbol of strength that the devil himself could not break.
Josef Fritzl will not have the last word in this as he rots in hell where he belongs. No, that last word will go to Kerstin, who upon waking from her coma said, “…A new life is starting for all of us. Let us be happy!”
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Erikson, Erik H., and Robert Coles. The Erik Erikson Reader. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Freud, Anna. Normality and Pathology in Childhood: Assessments of Development. London: Karnac Books, 1989.
Freud, Anna. Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence. London: H. Karnac, 1993.
Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York: Norton, 1989.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990.
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Fromm, Erich. The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. New York: H. Holt, 1992.
Holmes, Stephen T., and Ronald M. Holmes. Sex Crimes: Patterns and Behavior. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002.
Stone, Michael H. The Anatomy of Evil. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2017.
Stone, Michael H., and Gary Brucato. The New Evil: Understanding the Emergence of Modern Violent Crime. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2019.
Wess Haubrich is a staff writer at CitizenTruth.org, the former editor of the 405 Film, and half of the weekly True Crime podcast Real Monsters. Follow him on Twitter Wess Haubrich and email him email@example.com.