True Horror is a quarterly column examining true crime representation and misrepresentation in the genre films. Breanna Lucci looks at how its echoing effects shape public opinion and perception.
[THIS CONTENT CONTAINS DISCUSSIONS OF HUMAN AND SEX TRAFFICKING, KIDNAPPING, AND ABUSE]
Human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry that is estimated to victimize 24.9 million people worldwide. Three main components make up human trafficking. A perpetrator (or trafficker) acts by inducing, recruiting, harboring, or transporting a victim. The trafficker then uses force, fraud, or coercion to influence the victim into action, such as commercial sex or labor. While anyone can be a victim, people living in poverty where housing or other basic needs aren’t met, victims of previous trauma, and people with addictions are incredibly vulnerable.
Trafficking through kidnapping is rare, but it becomes a terrifying reality for Hyun Jae (Jamie Chung) in Eden (2012), directed by Megan Griffiths. When 18-year-old Hyun Jae meets a cute firefighter at a bar, she finds his interest flattering. Enthusiastically, she accepts his offer for a ride home, and by the time she discovers his real intentions, it’s too late. She has been kidnapped and delivered to a sex trafficking ring, but the worst is yet to come.
Of the many heart-wrenching scenes in the film, perhaps the most captivating is Eden’s — Hyun Jae’s trafficked name — struggle to survive. When she realizes that escape is off the table, she adapts. She uses her wit, personality, and counting skills to become an asset to her captor, Vaughan (Matt O’Leary). Through this, she becomes a Madam: an older woman, in this case, an older trafficking victim, who manages trafficked victims, either individually or in collaboration with other traffickers. While it takes a toll on Eden, she must continue to follow directions to survive another day.
She and Vaughan develop a complicated relationship built on fear, everyday needs, and something close to friendship. In one scene, the duo picks up a month’s worth of morphine for use at the compound and makes questionable choices. While high on morphine and methamphetamine, Vaughan teaches Eden how to drive. It doesn’t go as planned, so Eden pulls over and begins chatting. In a strange turn of events, Eden kneels before Vaughan and proposes a sexual encounter. He vehemently denies her, and Eden has no idea how to handle the rejection.
In so many words, Eden portrays the complexities of human trafficking. Eden’s growth into a Madam, and her strange relationship with Vaughan, is a form of Stockholm syndrome, a psychological response to being subject to captivity or long-term abuse. Its name references a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, where the robbers held their hostages captive for six days. These hostages bonded with their captors, raised funds for their legal defenses, and refused to testify at their trials.
Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped at 11 years old and held captive in a sexual predator’s backyard for 18 years, has been (and continues to be) purported to have an emotional bond with her captor. While she displayed the signs of Stockholm syndrome by its definition, she challenges its use in cases of abuse and trauma. In an ABC News interview, she states, “It’s degrading to have my family believe that I fell in love with my captor and want to stay with him. That is so far from the truth.” Dugard says, “I adapted to survive my circumstances; there is no other way to put it.”
In many ways, Dugard’s argument aligns with Eden’s experience — she tried escaping, which made everything worse. She doesn’t want to help victimize others, but if she doesn’t, she risks victimization herself. So, while my first thought centers on Stockholm syndrome, Eden’s reasons are not as cut and dry as the psychological phenomenon makes them seem. She does what she can to survive, and that cannot be simplified into a psychological definition.
It’s insensitive to categorize people into boxes. A “victim” is not just a victim; they’re a human being. They’ve had a past, they have a present, and they have a future. They exist outside themselves through the minds of their loved ones and communities. While the English language serves us well, it certainly does not capture anything to its fullest extent. When we discuss victims and their stories, we must be conscious of our words. Perhaps we should stop labeling victims and start listening to them. Despite Jaycee Dugard’s pleas to stop associating her with Stockholm syndrome, a Google search of “Jaycee Dugard on Stockholm syndrome” only generates articles claiming she is a victim. It’s time to start letting people tell their stories, and Eden is a good start.
Eden is a fictional character, but her story is far from fiction. Eden is based on Chong Kim’s book Broken Silence (2017), which details her experience as a human trafficking victim. Chong Kim describes herself as a “Disabled Asian-American Activist, Author, Speaker, and TV Producer.” For nearly 20 years, she has used her story to speak out and draw attention to human trafficking.
Her openness and vocality about her experience are heartening. In an interview with Antislavery Usable Past, she discusses how she was kidnapped by her boyfriend, a recruiter, and continues to detail the horrors her traffickers subjected her to. She also has a personal blog covering her life outside of trafficking and how the lack of resources and understanding available to sex trafficking victims helped her slip into drug addiction and homelessness. Her resilience is notable, and her story deserves to be read.
Eden gives us a painful look into the life of a sex trafficking survivor. It exposes us to a complicated human experience filled with trauma, abuse, and exploitation and shines a light on a deeply corrupt government allowing it to happen. In a world deafened by voices, elevating those who rarely get to tell their own stories is vital. Survivors like Chong Kim and Jaycee Dugard have so much to say about their experiences. We just need to start listening.
Breanna Lucci is an Ohio-based freelance writer, columnist, and content editor focusing on blog writing and film analysis, particularly in the horror genre.