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The terrifying tale of Josef Fritzl and his bunker of horrors

You never know what goes on at the homes of your neighbors. If you don’t know about the case of Josef Fritzl, here's what you need to know.

The terrifying tale of Josef Fritzl and his bunker of horrors

You never know what goes on at the homes of your neighbors. It’s pretty much the premise for every small town mystery series ever. It’s just as chillingly true in real life. The BTK participated in his church. Bundy was considered charming by his neighbors. Not all monsters live in the woods or in the dark, which brings us to Josef Fritzl.

Fritzl preyed and horrifically abused his own daughter for decades until she was able to escape. The story made international headlines back in 2008 and remains horrifying for those who like true crime. If you don’t know about the case of Josef Fritzl, then be warned we’re going to get pretty dark here.

What did Josef Fritzl do? 

For 24 years, Fritzl kept his daughter Elisabeth captive. When she turned 18 and after sexually abusing her since age 11, Fritzl lured his daughter down to the basement, knocked her out with ether, and locked her into a chamber that he built himself. He forced Elisabeth to pen a letter saying that she went to live with a friend and told his wife and the police that she possibly joined a cult. 

Fritzl would then visit the chamber either daily or three times a week. During this time, he raped Elisabeth repeatedly and subjected her to abuse. Elisabeth would give birth to seven children from her father. One died shortly after birth. Three were registered as “foundlings” and raised by Fritzl and his wife. He apparently gave a plausible story as to how they showed up on their doorstep. 

 

The other three lived with Elisabeth in the chamber, which they had to expand themselves, digging with their hands to make more room. Fritzl would bring them food and entertainment, but would also withhold food or turn off power to the chamber if he felt they needed to be punished. He also threatened to gas the children if Elisabeth ever tried to escape. 

During this time, Fritzl allowed people to believe that his frequent trips for the basement were due to work, not even allowing his wife down there. They even had a tenant on the ground floor of the building, who did hear noises, but accepted Fritzl’s explanation of it being the pipes.

How was Fritzl caught?

Of the three children that remained with Elisabeth, the eldest, Kerstin, became very ill to the point that Fritzl agreed to take her to the hospital on April 19, 2008. Kerstin was admitted to the Landesklinikum Amstetten with life-threatening kidney failure. Fritzl, as he had with social services and the police in the past, attempted to spin a story for the doctors there.

Medical staff, however, weren’t buying his story. On April 21, 2008, they contacted authorities with their concerns along with making a public appeal for Kerstin’s mother to come forward in order to fill in her medical history. During this time, the police reopened the case of Elisabeth’s disappearance. An expert on cults said that the one Elisabeth supposedly went to did not exist and others noted that her letter seemed dictated.

During this time, Elisabeth begged Fritzl to let her go to Kerstin. On April 26, he released her and her two other children, sons Stefan and Felix. The pair went to the hospital where they were detained by police upon their arrival. When police promised Elisabeth that she never had to see her father again, she told them everything about her 24 year captivity and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father.

Fritzl was arrested with Elisabeth, her children, and her mother taken into care. Her mother never suspected a thing. Fritzl, meanwhile, was taken into custody to live in a cell of his very own. Fritzl was charged with murder for the first born infant along with charges of rape, incest, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and slavery. 

What happened after the arrest?

You will be pleased to learn that Josef Fritzl has been sentenced to life imprisonment with a possibility of parole after 15 years. He has indicated that he plans on serving out his life term. Fritzl currently serves his sentence at Garsten Abbey, a former monastery in Upper Austria that has been converted into a prison. His health, as of 2019, was in decline.

Elisabeth and her children, meanwhile, have apparently recovered with a lot of time and attention. Psychiatric and medical help was taken as the family slowly began to heal with the “upstairs” and “downstairs” children getting to know each other. In 2010, it was reported that things were getting better. Elisabeth and her mother, who grew estranged, were starting to get back on better terms.

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Bec Heim is a freelance writer who has contributed and edited for sites like NetflixLife, ScreenRant, and 4 Your Excitement. When not talking and writing about pop culture (especially superheroes or any show with a paranormal bent), she is usually tackling her mountain of books, writing scripts or stories, or listening to podcasts.

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