The Black Ambulance and other urban legends

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Did you know there was a black ambulance riding around Czechoslovakia during the 1980s, kidnapping children for their organs? Ask any Czech who lived at that time and they’ll confirm it to you. In fact, however, it’s unlikely that anything like that ever happened. It’s just a legend created by oral tradition; in other words, it’s an urban myth. Ethnographer Petr Janecek recently published what is his second collection of such stories, proving that folklore is definitely not a matter of history. Its title - Cerna Sanitka or The Black Ambulance - refers to one of the most popular stories of its kind.

“I think people all over the world love stories. It starts with fairy tales in childhood. People like to listen or watch fairytales. They like to joke and to listen to jokes. And these urban legends are very similar to jokes. But the main difference is that joke has to be funny to be passed on in oral tradition. Urban legend can be funny - we have some legends that are very close to jokes - but most are like warnings. You have a feeling that our society is endangered by someone or something and people like to warn others. That’s the main message of urban legends.”

The following urban myth is one I myself have known for many years.

When I was at primary school, teachers and parents told us to pull off the tip of a banana before eating it. Why? Because a child once died after eating a banana. Doctors found out that it was snake poisoning! Later, the police discovered that the tip of the banana was poisoned by a South American snake that lives in banana trees. When they pick bananas they have to shake the trees. The snakes feel endangered and they instinctively bite – that’s how their poison ends up in bananas. It’s a well-known fact in South America but Czechs didn’t know anything about it!

This popular cautionary tale was recorded by ethnologists in 1970s and 1980s all over Europe in many different variations, featuring spiders, scorpions or snakes. In one Czechoslovak version the myth has been turned into propaganda, claiming that the bananas sent to the socialist markets were poisoned by western capitalists.

In his collection, Petr Janecek divided the myths according to their most common themes. Besides food, modern folklore frequently deals with murders, accidents, alcohol or sex. A whole chapter is dedicated to domestic animals:

A friend told me he was travelling on the underground and saw a woman getting on the train with a dog on a leash. But the door was already closing and the dog stayed outside! When the train started moving, the dog trotted along. But as it got faster, the dog was pulled by the leash and at the end of the platform it smashed against the wall!

Photo: CTK
“People are fascinated by animals. We have fifty or sixty internationally distributed legends of this kind. These legends are not about wild animals but they focus on pets. Typically they are about small dogs meeting a bad end. Many people find it funny that a small dog is crushed by someone or it falls out of the window. We folklorist think that it is a kind of critique of these pets that have no use in our society. We think that the collective oral tradition criticizes this kind of hobby.”

This is a story that happened to my friend’s friend, who works in a hospital. A police officer once brought in a man, who had put a light-bulb in his mouth but then he couldn’t take it out. In the end, the doctor had to break it. Two hours later the police officer came again with a light-bulb in his own mouth. He had been trying to prove to his colleagues that once you put it in your mouth you really can’t take it out!

While ancient legends took place in castles or convents and their heroes were knights on horses, contemporary legends reflect modern-day society. They take place in public transport, dormitories or offices, and they usually happen to friends of friends. However, the essence of the legends has remained more or less unchanged over the years. They typically contain an element of fear, horror, mystery or humour. Interestingly, the most ancient motives survive thanks to children.

“The tales told by small children at summer camps and schools use motives typical for very old fairy tales, myths and legends. Urban legends narrated by adults are modern. But children’s legends are about vampires, werewolves, skeletons, which is typical for the ancient folklore. Actually many stories collected in Czech Republic, Europe and the U.S. narrated by children are very old; centuries old. We have stories that have been recorded in Middle Ages.”

One of the aims of ethnographers is to trace how individual myths came into being. However, there are only very few myths where they actually discovered the original source. They also study how myths are passed among people and what features they need to survive in the oral tradition. Petr Janecek says that so far, they have not quite grasped the essence of a successful myth:

“We have some urban legends that were invented by the folklorists, psychologists and sociologists, to trace the oral tradition, to trace how the story was spread, but none of them had lived for long. The collective oral tradition somehow recognizes the artificial urban legend.”

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Since people all over the world essentially deal with the same issues, there are only a few myths restricted to a single place or period of time. One of the few exceptions is the legend of a mysterious spring-heeled fighter against the Nazis.

“The Perak or Springman of Prague is a very interesting legend. It was widespread in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during the Nazi occupation. Perak was some kind of a national hero. You have old national heroes, like knights in the Blanik Hill or Janosik in Slovakia. You can compare Perak to Captain America, Superman or Spiderman, but there is a big difference. The superheroes like Captain America were invented by someone but Perak or Sprigman originated in oral tradition. People invented this mystical fighter against the Nazis. It was a widespread legend and almost everyone during the war in Czechoslovakia heard about him.”

When I was a kid, in the 1980s, there was a Black Ambulance driving around Prague. It was kidnapping children and stealing their organs. Once I went from school late in the evening and a black car was following me. I though it was the Black Ambulance!

Another popular Czech legend is the Black Ambulance. The myth became so widespread in the 1980s Czechoslovakia that it had to be officially debunked on Czech television. The myth appeared in different variations in the whole Soviet Block. Polish children, for instance, were threatened by a Black Volga car.

“It’s hard to say if for example Czechoslovak urban legends are specific. I think they are very similar to the Polish and Hungarian ones. But there are some local differences. For example Czechoslovak urban legends from the communist era are more comical. Czechs liked to joke about party members, executives and policemen. Polish legends are grim.”

As Petr Janecek points out, democracy is not an ideal environment for the emergence of new legends. Contemporary Czech myths resemble more and more the global repertoire. It is an unquestionable sign that Czechs are more or less satisfied and they don’t have any serious political or economic problems to deal with.

My colleague told me a story that he heard from his friend, who works as a computer specialist in a big company. Sometimes the employees drive him mad. One of them called him the other day complaining that his coffee holder was broken, asking if he could come and fix it. My colleague’s friend didn’t understand what he was talking about so in the end he went to have a look. The man wanted him to repair his CD drive but he thought it was a coffee holder!