When you’re young, it’s natural to want to take on a big adventure. Starry-eyed kids ready to see the world romanticize cross-country road trips and European backpacking vacations—and for good reason. After all, they’re often very positive, memorable experiences. But not all vacations offer life-changing opportunities—and some end in tragedy.
In 1977, a young woman set out on her own big adventure hitchhiking along the West Coast. The trip started out pleasant, but it didn’t stay that way for long. She had no idea that what she discovered on the road would end up turning into the most horrific experience of her life…
At the age of 20, Colleen Stan was an experienced hitchhiker. So when she left her home in Eugene, Oregon, to hitch a ride to a friend’s place in California on May 19, 1977, she didn’t expect to run into any trouble at all.
With only 100 miles left to go, Colleen needed just one or two more rides to reach her destination. That was when a 23-year-old lumber mill worker, Cameron Hooker, pulled over and let her hop into the backseat of his car. He wasn’t alone.
Cameron drove the car while his 19-year-old wife, Janice, rode shotgun. In the backseat—beside Colleen—sat the couple’s newborn infant in a car seat. By looks alone, Colleen figured, this family would make safe riding companions.
As the ride went on, Colleen experienced a feeling of dread. The feeling was only compounded when Cameron pulled over at a gas station. There, he pulled a small wooden box out of the trunk and set it beside Colleen on the backseat.
Colleen told herself to flee right then. The voice in her head said, “Jump out the window, run, and never look back.” Ultimately, she ignored that gut instinct, which ended up being a big mistake…
Not long after the gas station stop, Cameron—with his wife and infant still in the car—pulled over again, this time to a secluded wooded area. Before Colleen could react, Cameron approached her and held a knife to her throat. He blindfolded and gagged her before placing the 20-pound wooden box over her head and locking it.
Cameron drove Colleen to his house, where he and Janice led her to the basement. That would be her home base of suffering for a very, very long time. “He liked to whip me,” she later told CBS News. And he did so much worse, too.
Colleen continued, “He had electro-shocked me, he had burned me.” Cameron strung her up by the wrists and used her body however he pleased. One of his most sadistic acts, though, later earned Colleen a nickname: the Girl in the Box.
When Colleen’s head wasn’t locked in the small box, she was placed inside a coffin that he slid underneath his and Janice’s waterbed. “He would keep me in there for like 22, 23 hours a day,” Colleen recalled.
“It was just absolutely pitch-black in this box,” she said. “Totally dark. I had claustrophobia so terribly bad. I would get really anxious and focus on being locked up in the box and listening to that fan next to my head just going on and on and on.”
Eight and a half months into her captivity, Colleen was forced to sign a “slavery contract,” which demanded that she participate in any act Cameron wanted. This ranged from performing chores to providing childcare—and even having sex. Trying to escape also carried a heavy punishment…
Cameron told Colleen that he worked for powerful people at “the company,” and if she tried to escape, his goons would kill not just her, but her entire family as well. From then on, even when she had a chance to use a phone or flee, she never took it.
Plenty of occasions proved Colleen had been successfully brainwashed: once, Cameron handed her a gun and told her to shoot herself. She complied, but the command had just been a test: the gun wasn’t loaded.
Another time, after three and a half years into her captivity, Cameron allowed Colleen to visit her dad. She was so afraid of retribution that she didn’t tell him she’d been living in a box under a sadist and his wife’s bed for years.
Colleen didn’t develop an understandable hatred for the man whose contract stated he owned her “body and soul.” Instead, pictures like this let some speculate she developed Stockholm Syndrome, or feelings of empathy for her captor.
Strangest of all, between bouts of torture, Cameron and Janice often did really nice things for Colleen. They baked her a cake for her birthday and even gifted her with a Bible inscribed with their names. That gift changed everything.
Together, Janice and Colleen studied the Bible together, an act that Colleen believed humanized her in Janice’s eyes. Eventually Janice told her the truth: the company wasn’t real. She said they both needed to leave the house.
“I don’t know if [Cameron] was going to kill us and get somebody else to replace us,” Colleen recalled, “but obviously he said or did something to her that made her fear for her life.” For Janice to help Colleen, though, she required one caveát.
Janice thought church and prayer could rehabilitate Cameron. She asked Colleen to keep what happened a secret—and she agreed. It was then that the duo fled the home to Janice’s parent’s house. There, Colleen called her dad (pictured).
“My first feeling was when I was free and reunited with my family was just, I was so filled with joy,” Colleen told PEOPLE. “It was just like my cup was overflowing with joy.” Amazingly, after gaining her freedom, Colleen did very well for herself.
She underwent therapy sessions with Dr. Christopher Hatcher. “He helped me to understand that I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “People will ask you why you didn’t do this or that and they don’t know. They were not in that situation.”
As for Cameron, Janice’s plans for rehabilitation failed. Eventually, at her pastor’s behest, she went to the police. They found the strange boxes and other torture devices at his home, and he left in handcuffs.
Janice testified against Cameron at the trial in exchange for immunity. She, too, authorities concluded, had been psychologically abused into submission by her husband. In the end, the jury sentenced Cameron to 104 years in prison.
Colleen would later write about her time in “the box,” in a book she titled The Simple Gifts of Life. Her story was also turned into the film The Girl In The Box. Both served as a staunch reminder of one particular rule of the road: don’t hitchhike.
The unspeakable ordeal that Colleen Stan endured for so many years is gut-wrenching to think about. Thank goodness she could eventually find some peace and justice.
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