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“Mare Köiva reports many stories of human bloodsuckers. An old lady told Köiva, ‘After the war there had been blood takers, blood-suckers in Tartu. They had been dark men, but they had also some Estonians in their company. A blonde girl danced with a young man at a party and started to try how her ring would fit on his finger. And finally she left it there. But later she phoned and asked him to bring her ring back. The boy went but did not come back. His family started to search for him and found him when half of his blood had been removed from his body and he had fainted. But he still survived’. Köiva also reported that when she was a schoolgirl, she and her friends were terrified by rumors that people were driving black cars (supposedly Russian Pobedas) round the country, kidnapping people and sucking their blood. The drained bodies were later thrown out and left by the roadside.” -Mare Köiva, Estonia, 1950’s (Bennett 189-190)3.
We all know the image: a sharp toothed, pale monster, bending down to suck the blood from a helpless victim’s neck. Less known, however, is the folk legends of black vans patrolling the countryside, looking for victims to steal blood from to sell on the black market. These legends, called “blood theft legends,” are most popularly circulated in Eastern Europe, where they reflect the real circumstances of organ theft that are common there. Blood theft has a long and varied history throughout the urban legends of Eastern Europe, from religious monsters to vampires to blood-stealing legends that are popular today. But what is this history? And what can it tell us about society today?
The earliest tales of blood-snatching come from anti-semitic sentiments; gory and persistent rumors of Jews murdering young Christian children for ritualistic purposes date all the way back to the Middle Ages1. Referred to as “Blood Libel legends”, they paint Jews as cannibals that terrorize and consume their Christian neighbors. The idea that a sacrilegious figure on the fringe of society would drink the blood of an innocent child or established member of society manifested later in the development of the vampiric myth. According to folklorist Kathryn Morris2, “In late seventeenth century, strange stories began to emerge out of eastern Europe. They typically described some person who, having died under unusual circumstances, returned to terrorize his family and neighbors. These revenants would often suck the blood of their victims before returning to their graves. When exhumed, their bodies would be uncorrupted and their veins full.”
These tales of blood libels, vampires, and “bloodsuckers” are some of origins of blood stealing myths in Eastern Europe, and appear strongly similar to tales of blood/organ theft where victims are found with the blood removed and the body left behind, such as in the folk legend at the beginning of this essay3. These legends offer the preliminary reason for blood-snatching, which is to obtain the power of life which blood carries. Blood libel narratives that accuse Jews of drinking blood even include “consuming it in matzo,” a traditional Jewish soup known for its comfort-food nature and curative properties1. Reasons given for vampires to drink blood is as sustenance that keeps their undead bodies uncorrupted and veins full, implying that blood has restorative nature2. This idea of blood as healing is seen later, with blood snatching in organ-theft legends offering the thief medical benefits as blood is tied to medical cures such as being able to cure leukaemia3.
But despite their obvious influences and similarities, blood theft legends have taken on contexts that are far from the religious tensions and mystical superstitions of their predecessors. While vampiric and blood libel legends help us to understand the origin of blood-snatching legends in Eastern Europe, a closer examination of differences and patterns in contemporary blood-snatching urban legends reveals how modern anxieties have changed these classic tales into the terrifying narratives we see today.
Contemporary blood-snatching began to circulate at the end of the 19th through mid-to-late 20th century, as medical advancements and the demand for organs changed blood libel and vampiric legends into blood-stealing ones3. The victims remained the same: general members of society, with a focus on children as victims. But contemporary legend lessens the importance of the consumption of blood that abounds in Blood Libel and vampire narratives, favoring instead the implication of medical benefit from transmutation. For example, take this folk legend:
“Czubala said, ‘Do you know what has happened in Bedzin? Staska told us yesterday. Near the castle there was a black Volga. Some guests were visiting the castle, the hill, and maybe the church. There was a nun with them. They are building a new road and the place looks ruined. Not far from there a group of children were playing. The nun took one of them by the hand and went to an empty house. The men followed her. They came out without the child. They got into the Volga and went away. When the mother learned about that they started to look for the child and found it dead. The blood had been removed and the body left behind.’
‘I heard that the blood is taken to West Germany to cure leukaemia,’ said Teresa.
‘Yes, it is true. It is similar to a story from Czeladz. A child was kidnapped and dustmen found it in a garbage site somewhere in Katowice.’” -Czubala, 1977 (Bennett 191-192)3.
In legends like this, blood is implied to be stolen for its healing properties. It is only secondarily that the thieves are referred to as “bloodsuckers,” with the primary importance being on them as “blood takers.” While blood is still feared of being “sucked” from bodies, there is a stronger emphasis placed on a “blood taker” or organ trafficker taking the blood for monetary gain in the medical field. Commenting on these legends, folklorist Véronique Campion-Vincent finds that “Variants locate the mishap in various First World cities, and others, mostly European, identify the victims as children who disappear from parking lots, shopping malls, supermarkets, or amusement parks. This set of narratives echoes current themes in popular culture, where the mad scientist and the evil doctor have played major roles since the early 1800s.”4
Fear of organ trafficking, a real and pervasive problem in Eastern Europe, appears to be the primary drive in why blood theft legends have lost their blood-libel and vampiric explanations in favor of expressing social anxieties than better reflect current issues. Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes takes note of this problem, saying “The poor and disadvantaged populations of the world have not remained silent in the face of threats and assaults to their bodily integrity, security, and dignity. For those living in urban shantytowns and hillside favelas, possessing little or no symbolic capital, the circulation of body-stealing and organ-theft rumors allowed people to express their fears.”5
Combined with the chaos of Eastern European revolutions and political turmoil throughout the late 19th century to end of the 20th century, the transition from vampiric to blood-theft legends is logical. In fact, the most recent urban legends of blood theft rose from rumors in the 1980’s that followed the recent history of military regimes, police states, civil wars, and “dirty wars,” where “abductions, disappearances, mutilations, and deaths in detention and under strange circumstances were commonplace.”5
We can also see how religious tensions from blood-libel legends still pervade in the presence of themes such as a nun being used to lure and steal children to take their blood, but they are in the foreground of other details such as black and red cars and the dumping of drained bodies. Blood-theft legends turned away from the fantasy of vampires and cannibal Jews to the reality of organ trafficking throughout Eastern Europe. Folklorist Gillian Bennett observes this, finding that:
“As far as we can tell from the scholarly literature, at that time the stories took the form that children were being abducted in cars (often black Volgas) and their organs taken for spare-part surgery for rich foreigners. This legend first drew attention when it surfaced in Poland in the mid-1970s, and it remained current ten years later not only in Poland but also in Russia, Belorussia, the Ukraine, and Mongolia. Between 1977 and 1989, “the distribution was so intense,” says Dionysius Czubala, “that you could hardly meet a Pole who was not familiar with it. It was a time of panic among children, teachers and parents, intensified by the media”. Common elements included children coaxed into black or red cars or otherwise abducted and their blood drained or their organs taken for spare-part surgery for rich Arabs or Westerners.”3
The cause behind the blood-theft transition lies in these ideas. Essentially, folklore in Eastern Europe changed to accommodate the new problems and issues that society was facing. These legends express terror of bodily harm in an increasingly medicalized and criminal world. Scheper-Hughes comments that “the problem is that markets are by nature indiscriminate and inclined to reduce everything—including human beings, their labor, and their reproductive capacity—to the status of commodity. Nowhere is this more dramatically illustrated than in the current markets for human organs and tissues to supply a medical business driven by supply and demand.”5 In embracing the terror of a black car sweeping away children, blood-theft legends capture the historical fear of bloodsucking in Eastern Europe put into the context of contemporary society.
Elizabeth Vana (Eevee) is a member of RCM's Summer Writing program. Have a question? Just want to say hi? Feel free to leave comments in the thread, tweet her @EeeVeeWrites, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org!
1Weinberg, Robert. “The Blood Libel in Eastern Europe.” Jewish History, vol. 26, no. 3/4, 2012, pp. 275–285. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23352438.
2Morris, K. "Superstition, Testimony, and the Eighteenth-Century Vampire Debates." Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural, vol. 4 no. 2, 2015, pp. 181-202. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/601023.
3Bennett, Gillian. Bodies: Sex, Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2005, pp. 188-246.
4Campion-Vincent, Véronique. "On Organ Theft Narratives." Current Anthropology, vol. 42, no. 4, 2001, pp. 555-58. Accessed 28 Oct. 2016. http://www.journals.uchicago.edu.mutex. ... 086/322543
5Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. "The Global Traffic in Human Organs." Current Anthropology, vol. 41, no. 2, 2000, pp. 191-224.