Alexandra Vega calls her four pet leeches “the Squish Squad.” They eat once every six months; yes, they drink blood; and yes, she lets them feed on her body. They’re her friends! The leeches, named Chungus, Burrito, Wormitha, and Chocolate Chip, live in a fishbowl, but they’re curious about the world. “They each have their own personalities,” Vega, a 22-year-old biology student, told me. “Which a lot of people don’t expect from a leech.”
Leeches were a common medical treatment 400 years ago, which is why Vega owns them now. She’s part of a Tumblr community in which people dress up like 17th-century plague doctors and post pictures and videos of themselves online. The plague doctors, the real ones, were amateur physicians who tried to help people suffering from the bubonic plague. They wore enormous, beak-like masks that were usually filled with herbs to prevent them from smelling the “poisonous air” that caused disease. (They didn’t know about viruses.) In most images, they’re depicted wearing black robes and carrying sticks, which were used in part to keep the ill at least several feet away.
Today’s plague doctors look similar, though their masks are sometimes filled with snacks such as M&Ms or popcorn. The plague-doctor look emerged on Tumblr in the middle of 2019, Vega said, but it blew up this year after the pandemic hit. According to Tumblr, engagement with the “plague doctor” tag spiked 446 percent from January to March of this year. In the spring and summer, fashion “inspo” posts showing leather gloves, black capes, wide-brimmed hats, and, of course, beaked masks made the rounds, racking up tens of thousands of likes. Some teens have even reimagined the plague-doctor ensemble to work for a burlesque routine, or a Valentine’s Day dinner. The plague doctor appeared on Tumblr’s year-end list of the site’s biggest memes, and “plaguecore”—the name given to the whole aesthetic—is now popular on Instagram and TikTok as well.