During the darkest days of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, a strange rumor arose in the capital city; the mysterious Pérák ("Spring-man") was said to be haunting the alleys and rooftops of Prague.
Some reports insisted that Pérák had been seen jumping right over speeding trains and even leaping across the widest point of the Vitava river valley, flying through the air "like a shuttlecock" before disappearing into the night with an unearthly, shrieking whistle. Anti-Nazi graffiti attributed to Pérák began to appear throughout the city, often painted in prominent but seemingly inaccessible spots.
Fearing an encounter with the phantom mystery-man, factory workers became reluctant to undertake night shifts, slowing the production of munitions for the German war machine. Gradually, in an environment of paranoia and suspicion of official media, the "grapevine" transformed the Spring-man into a symbol of Czech resistance and sabotage against the Nazi regime. These stories spread inexorably through outlying towns and rural villages, gaining in magnitude and momentum.
While most people accepted that Pérák was simply a manifestation of Czech fear and resentment against the Nazi invaders - a product of the collective imagination - some insisted that he was a real person, perhaps a defiantly patriotic artist or circus acrobat, perhaps a British paratrooper or American secret agent. Still others believed that he was a ghost.
Shortly after the liberation of Prague by Russian forces in May of 1945, Czech cartoonists Jiří Brdečka and Jiří Trnka produced the 14-minute animated film Pérák a SS ("Springman and the SS"). This innovative, surrealistic film portrays Pérák as a heroic black-clad chimney sweep equipped with spring shoes, defying both the Gestapo and a Hitler-wannabe collaborator:
The same creative team followed up with a popular series of newspaper cartoon strips called Pérákovi další osudy ("The Other Fates of Pérák"):
As pop-culture representations of Pérák were discouraged under the new communist regime in Czechoslovakia, the Spring-man became the subject of academic curiosity. In his 1960s case-study of Pérák as urban folklore, ethnographer Dr. Miloš Pulec discovered that a "leaping ghost" tradition pre-dated the German occupation of Prague, extending at least as far back as the 1920s and possibly into the 19th century.
Curiously, this tradition was first associated with a series of hoaxes rumored to have been carried out by vergers of the Roman Catholic church in northwestern Bohemia. Concerned by an "outbreak of atheism" among mining communities, some vergers were said to have disguised themselves as "jumping devils", or even to have employed "magic lantern" projections of flying demons so as to scare their parishioners into piety and obedience.
Directly paralleling the pop-culture evolution of the mysterious Spring Heeled Jack from urban legend to quasi-superhero, author Jan Weiss wrote the short story Pérový muž ("The Spring-Man", 1961), portraying Pérák as a costumed superhero:
Since that time, and most especially since the fall of communism, Pérák has increasingly inspired Czech writers and comic book artists.
2008 saw the publication of author Petr Stančík's magical realist novel Pérák, connecting the Spring-man with Masonic conspiracies and with the real-life assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich by Czech resistance fighters. The novel also included science fiction elements, including a top-secret Nazi flying saucer piloted by alcoholic Buddhist monks.
More recently, Pérák has made his way to the stage in a 2012 production by the Czech avant-garde theater company, VOSTO5.
In 2013, Pérák was the subject of a short student film by illustrator/director Pavel Soukup. Unfortunately the film is not currently available online, but here's a publicity shot:
It's surely just a matter of time before the evolving legend of Pérák, the Spring-man of Prague, inspires a full-fledged feature film ...