Insecurity in the modern world is a prevalent theme in most urban legends. Urban maniacs, be they invented or inspired by real facts, make up a gallery of evil portraits: the maniac who places AIDS-infected needles in cinemas or stalks his victims in the shadow, foully attacking them, the maniac who kidnaps children and steal their organs for clandestine transplants, or the serial killer who murders helpless young women. Legends suggest that delinquents are to be found everywhere in our social environment and are all the more dangerous as nothing distinguishes them from the ordinary man. On the other hand, the ‘accidental cannibal’ legends (as the American researcher Jan Harold Brunvand calls them) have also a xenophobic feature, that is to say, the fear of foreigners or hatred towards the other. These are the anti-Semitic legends in which Jews abduct Christian children and use their blood to prepare the Easter bread.
Keywords: Accidental cannibalismurban legendblood libel legendsfear of foreignershuman meat pie
Fear is inherent to human nature. Fear, as Jean Delumeau once said, is “an essential rampart, a guarantee against dangers, an indispensable reflex which allows the organism to temporarily escape death” (Delumeau, 1986, p. 19). Therefore, the need for security is vital for the human being. Security is the equivalent of life while insecurity is the symbol of death. Urban legends reflect this fear of the immediate, human evil, fear of behavioural deviation, our anxieties about external forces that infiltrate into our familial or familiar universe, destroying its balance.
Insecurity in the modern world is a prevalent theme in most urban legends. Urban maniacs, be they invented or inspired by real facts, make up a gallery of evil portraits. Legends suggest that delinquents are to be found everywhere in our social environment and are all the more dangerous as nothing distinguishes them from the ordinary man. The ‘accidental cannibal’ legends (as the American researcher Jan Harold Brunvand calls them) have also a xenophobic feature, i.e. the fear of foreigners, hatred towards the other. These are the anti-Semitic legends in which Jews abduct Christian children and use their blood to prepare the Easter bread.
A few questions underlie the following analysis: How come a legend such as that describing the ritual killing of a child could have emerged? And, furthermore, if this allegation was so ‘successful’ during the Dark Ages as to lead to mass expulsions or even massacres, why is it still being perpetuated even in our modern times? In what way is social, political or religious background relevant to the emergence and dissemination of xenophobic accounts?
The Canadian researcher Gail de Vos speaks about the so-called
Purpose of the Study
What lies behind this study, which is a small part of a more extensive analysis of Romanian urban legends, is our view that folklore can be so powerful as to influence history and people’s way of thinking. In our endeavour, we have relied on a number of texts selected from the media, intending to illustrate how xenophobic legends have developed in time and what started them in the first place. In addition, legends about accidental cannibalism must also be understood in terms of the social and political context in which they (re-)emerged. They circulated in the communist era, in which the keyword was “lack” – the lack of food, of expedient commodities, of those things that were supposed to make up a normal living.
Such an approach has been deemed of interest to a very heterogeneous audience made up of students, teachers or urban legend researchers equally, in that it provides a starting point for further discussions on the topic. We truly believe that, in some form or another, contemporary, modern legends will always be told, retold, reshaped, especially for the mere reason that they are fun to tell and discuss.
The comparative approach employed in this study relies on the analysis of several variants of the same legend, which we have put into relation to other similar narratives, thus aiming to establish the constant and variable elements of them. Starting from the assumption that a text can also be grasped if the context of both narrators and audiences is examined and understood, we have employed a sociological method of analysis with emphasis on the social and economic conditions of society.
One remarkable investigator of this genre, Gillian Bennett, mentions a
In Romania, alongside such narratives, there are versions in which the object of the criminal act is not exploitation of organs for medicinal purposes, but food consumption, therefore
“In 1981-1982, in Bucharest everyone was talking about sectarians. They would catch people that lingered in dark deserted places and murder them, then they would slice them and throw the parts all over the place. Some swore they had seen with their own eyes when the police had arrested the manager of Budapesta restaurant who was a sectarian as well and who had served homo sapiens liver as stew with
The story of the “delicacies” prepared from human meat has circulated in Romania ever since the early 20th century. Legend has it that, in the 1920’s, around Manuc’s Inn, there was a pie shop famous for a particular specialty: meat pie. The recipe was a secret. But the macabre truth behind the mystery was the main ingredient, human flesh obtained through diabolical methods. In the toilet of the pastry shop, some kind of trap had been made in the floor, through which customers would end up in the basement, where they were minced, turned into paste and ultimately served as … pie. The more famous the pie shop, the greater the number of missing persons. The story is a faithful copy of a legend that circulated in England in the Victorian age, that of Sweeney Todd. There is still debate over whether he really existed or not. The fact is that he emerged as a fictional character in a so-called
In addition to the 1920’s story, we learn from the Romanian folklorist Constantin Eretescu, a similar rumour spread in the 1950’s, after a long food crisis, according to which the Ciocârlia restaurant in Bucharest served grilled minced meat rolls (the famous Romanian
“I was very young back then, but I know that I saw freight vehicles parking behind the restaurant. I could not see what kind of meat it was, but my neighbours and I thought they were bringing liver and kidneys from the Institute of Forensic Medicine, located on the quay of the Dambovita river, for, in those times, there was a great famine and everybody was wondering why, at that restaurant, there was always meat, particularly organs. I would have never dared enter that place!” (See the article “Misterele Bucureştiului: Ficat de om în meniul restaurantului Budapesta din Capitală” , published in Adevărul newspaper, available at: http://www.adevarul.ro/locale/bucuresti/MISTERELE_BUCURESTIULUI_Ficat_prajit_de_om_in_meniul_restaurantului_Budapesta_din_Capitala_0_347365342.html (accessed on 23 February, 2012).)
The source of the Romanian versions of this legend seems to be, according to Eretescu, the real case of the German killer Fritz Haarmann (Also known as the Butcher or the Vampire of Hanover, Friedrich Heinrich Karl “Fritz” Haarmann started his killings in 1918, in a time when Germany was going through an economic crisis and acute famine. He was arrested in 1924 and convicted of 24 murders, though he is believed to have been responsible for the death of more than 40 people. Haarmann would kill his victims by biting their trachea and then sell their personal objects or body parts as smuggled goods (see the article “Fritz Haarmann: The Butcher of Hannover”, available at http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/history/haarman/5b.html). Following these revelations, the entire population of the city adopted a vegetarian diet (Eretescu, 2007, p. 189).) , who, at the beginning of the 20th century, murdered several boys and young men, dismembered them and later sold them as pork on the black market (Eretescu, 2007, p. 189).
Cannibalism was also used as a tool to denigrate minorities, to compromise the
“In Iași, in the 50’s or the 60’s, people say there lived a Jewish butcher whose shop was in the centre of the city. Rumour has it that, once in a while, the butcher would kill some (Christian) Romanian, usually a child, and mixed his meat with that of the animals and sold it. My father told me that the butcher was still alive when he came to Iași in the early 70’s and that some children knew this story and would run for it whenever they passed the butchery. I’m sure there are people who know many details about this myth.” (http://mituriurbane.vira.ro/mituri-urbane/111/macelarul-evreu/ (accessed on 23 February, 2012).)
“Jehovah’s Witnesses are devils without horns. Whenever you hear about Jehovah’s Witnesses, beware that this is a sect funded by Jews in America with billions of dollars to separate the world from Christ and the Church. In some parts, Jehovah’s Witnesses are said to eat children for Easter. This information spread in the early 90’s.” (http://mituriurbane.vira.ro/mituri-urbane/87/dracii-fara-coarne/comment-page-1/#comment-48700 (accessed on 23 February, 2012).)
Such narratives are survivors of the blood libel legend according to which, around Easter, the Jews would kidnap a child, most often a boy, kill him on Good Friday, ritually reproducing the tortures that Jesus was put through before crucifixion, and use his blood to prepare the Easter bread.
Throughout history, not only Jews were accused of practising such fierce rituals. It was a way to defame and compromise the ‘other’, i.e. any religious opponent, be they Christians (in the Roman Empire), witches (accused by the Inquisition of murdering their own children in order to ritually consume their flesh and blood) or various heretic Christian sects (persecuted by the Church in the 18th-19th centuries on the grounds that they were killing children to use their body fat to manufacture candles (Oișteanu, 2012, p. 465). However, the legend about the ritual infanticide practised by Jews had the longest existence and the bloodiest consequences for this community. To the European mind, the Jew was the prototype of the
Analyzing the origin, evolution and survival of the clichés that make up the portrait of what he calls the
One of the first documents attesting a blood accusation dates from 1144, at Norwich (England). In the hagiographic work
In Romania, ritual infanticide accusations are recorded in the 18th and the 19th centuries. Andrei Oișteanu chronologically follows these moments and the impact they had on the Romanian traditional mentality (Oișteanu, 2012, pp. 470-492). For instance, in Transylvania, the oldest document attesting it dates from 1714: a Saxon was accused of murdering a handmaid and selling her blood to the Jews; in 1791, four Jews were blamed for the killing, for ritual purposes, of a 13-year-old, but they were eventually acquitted. Furthermore, in Moldavia in 1710, five Jewish people were lynched and 22 others were chained for having kidnapped and killed a Christian child because they needed his blood for Easter. The charge was dismissed by the envoys of Prince Dimitrie Cantemir and the Jews released. In the 19th century, most allegations of this kind are attested in Moldavian towns, followed by violent turbulences (such as those of Galați in 1859 and 1868), with people killed or wounded, shops and synagogues destroyed or plundered.
Blood libel rumours also circulated in post-war Romania, such as in Iași, 1946 (see the above-mentioned legend). Also in 1946, this time in Budapest, a rumour emerged of several people getting sick after eating sausages allegedly made of the flesh of Christian children. The state of penury and famine after the war was thus speculated in order to accuse the Jews of cannibalism and of making money from the sale of products prepared from human meat. It is possible that remnants of these events should have survived in the collective unconscious and re-surfaced in the form of the legend about the Budapesta restaurant.
The social and economic context favoured the emergence of the legend. Here we are, in the 1980’s, a period marked by terrible austerity in which food shortages are chronic. Supplies are rationalized based on ration books but they are never enough. Food crisis, along with the interruption of electricity, water or heat, force the population to live below the poverty line, create physical and mental discomfort to the ordinary citizen who leads a life of continuous incertitude. As the restaurant was well-stocked, served excellent specialties and, according to witnesses, was frequented by the high society of Bucharest, it fuelled rumours on the origin of merchandise and stirred the imagination of the hungry Romanian for whom staying in line, which provided him with the daily food, was a way of life. Furthermore, Eretescu states, the location – the Budapesta restaurant – probably alludes to the relationships between Romania and Hungary at the time (Eretescu, 2007, p. 189).
It is also in such times characterized by shortages that the legends about the so-called “accidental cannibals” appear. The American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand identifies such a narrative in Romania as well, a legend that had circulated ever since the 1940’s (Brunvand, 2001, p. 357). Immediately after World War II, a family receives from America a package containing some black powder. They assume it is some instant drink or food or maybe some spice. After much of it is consumed, a letter arrives from the States in which they learn that the powder was actually the ashes of their grandmother who had emigrated and died during the war, but insisted, as a last wish, to be buried in the Romanian ground. There is, of course, a version circulating in the communist period, which the film director Cristian Mungiu collected and included in his extremely successful movie,
According to Eretescu, the origin of these narratives is to be identified in the story “La viande séchée”, published in 1878, in
So, why do such legends continue to appear and reappear? What drives one to perpetuate them? The answer would be: fear. Such fear was once expressed in supernatural terms: ghost, devil, demon, who punished the unworthy that broke social taboos or created discord within the community. In modern-day society, to most of us, the “demon” has taken human form, being portrayed as the
“Modern” aliens can easily infiltrate into the community and, as the media often report, can launch violent, chaotic, meaningless attacks, thus emphasizing, in the collective mentality, the idea that aliens are to be feared. “For each modern legend type, the principal question is seldom, ‘
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18 December 2019
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Voichici*, O. (2019). Anyone For A Meat Pie? Accidental Cannibalism In Romanian Urban Legends. In A. Sandu, T. Ciulei, & A. Frunza (Eds.), Multidimensional Education and Professional Development: Ethical Values, vol 27. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 873-879). Future Academy. https://doi.org/10.15405/epsbs.2017.07.03.103