The Revival of a Bloodthirsty Obsession
Leeches were once a popular medical treatment for everything from headaches to hemorrhages. Now a subculture of true believers is reclaiming this ancient practice.
Illustrations by Hayden Maynard| Edited by Dave Odegard
Blood covered the hotel room where Tsetsi Stoyanova had checked in for the night. It stained the sheets and the towels and trailed over the bed. The mess dribbled out from a wound on Stoyanova’s back. It smelled. Not like sweat or iron but something else — something strong.
“The bleeding wouldn’t stop. It just kept on going and going and going,” Stoyanova says. “I made everything red and bloody.”
But Stoyanova, then in her 30s, wasn’t nervous about losing blood. She was excited. It was why she’d journeyed across her home country of Bulgaria.
Earlier that day, she and her boyfriend had clambered up a remote hilltop outside the city of Kardzhali, searching for a special lake renowned among certain locals. When they came across a stand of trees covered in ribbons, they knew they’d found it.
It was the peak of summer and the sun had turned the usually wide lake into a dried-up swamp. Stoyanova wiggled her toes in the muddy shore to entice…