Origins of "rape van"?
January 18, 2017 10:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm a woman in my late 40s, and the first thing I think when I see an older van without windows is that it's a "rape van." My immediate first thought is that it's a dangerous thing. Literally all of the (female) friends I ask about this agree with me: these vans are used for crimes. And yet none of us really know why that's our visceral reaction. What's the origin?

What confuses me is this:
-- I don't know anybody who was ever raped in such a van, nor can I remember hearing anything anecdotally about it happening in real life.
-- I do remember the part in Silence of the Lambs where the woman is kidnapped via a similar van (but I'm not totally sure I'm remembering that correctly). But I know I didn't see that until I was in my 20s, and I'm not sure this is the origin of my discomfort with such vans.
-- Are there other or more famous incidences of such a van being used in a movie or TV show? Or a famous real-life crime? Perhaps this is the origin of my thinking.

Some questions:
-- Do men look at this type of van and also think of it as malevolent? (I understand that men may automatically not consider it a threat to themselves, but as a threat to women?)
-- Do women older or younger than me have this same reaction?
-- Do people outside of the US have this same reaction?

I see some very basic listings for "rape van" in the Urban Dictionary and the like, but none provide any sort of etymology.
posted by BlahLaLa to Grab Bag (57 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Never heard of them being referred to as "rape vans" but have consistently heard "must be free candy inside" implying that it's seen as a pedophile van.
posted by I-baLL at 10:45 AM on January 18, 2017 [6 favorites]


Oh, "candy van". That's what I remember them being called. Doing a google image search for "seems legit" brings up this photo which has been on the web for at least a few years.
posted by I-baLL at 10:46 AM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'm of an age with you, and growing up there were always stories, acknowledged at the time to be the stuff of urban legend, about white vans (or panel trucks as my father would correct me) being used to abduct and assault children.
posted by cardboard at 10:46 AM on January 18, 2017 [4 favorites]


This page takes on the subject of the "rape van" urban legend. And that's what it seems to me to be: an urban legend/meme that has some basis in historical incident, and then gets amplified by retelling.

Here's some info about an Illinois urban legend about a rapist clown driving a van. (Scroll down or search on the page for "Illinois.")
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:47 AM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


As a kid in the 80s I remember having some sort of Stranger Danger type of book with black and white photos of kids in compromising situations, and I swear one of them was a creepy lecherous dude standing next to such a van, trying to get a boy to get inside. That's what I trace my "rape van" association back to.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:51 AM on January 18, 2017


They've always been "kidnapper vans" in my social circles. I always assumed there was some After School Special behind it since it was such a firm shared reference.
posted by janell at 10:52 AM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


I can definitely remember the trope, in the late 70s/early 80s US, of the white van as "strangers with candy" vans. And the mural-painted vans of the 70s were definitely for men who wanted to have sex in them, with consent being somewhat unclear.

I can also remember getting the messaging that a) never get in a car with a stranger b) but especially watch out for vans like that with no windows or covered windows because there could be an entire team of rape kidnappers in there who would jump out and grab you. Or a team of surveillance agents. Or prisoners. Whatever it was, those vans were full of stuff you didn't want to get involved in.

Certainly, if you were wanting to transport any sort of unwilling human, it's much easier to accomplish in a pre-mini van or box truck than a Pinto or one of those little Toyota pickups. Vans had more potential for ill deeds.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:53 AM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


I am a decade younger than you, living in Illinois, and I definitely call them rape vans. I have even gone so far as to memorize the license plate of my friendly neighborhood rusted out rape van, just for my own paranoid amusement.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 10:57 AM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'm 28 and have a similar reaction to them. I think it was emphasized for being a danger because they are common for non nefarious reasons, windowless which means that someone who may be kidnapped inside can't get the attention of a passerby (like being thrown in a trunk), it's moveable (common Oprah-style advice of 'park by a streetlight, walk with your keys between your knuckles, and never let a kidnapper bring you to a second location.'). The combo of those things makes it a kind of perfect storm of "stranger danger."
posted by raccoon409 at 10:58 AM on January 18, 2017


We called them "creeper vans," and yes, I'd say everyone has a similar perception.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 11:06 AM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


UK male, mid 30s. It's definitely a thing over here, as a threat to mainly women and children.
posted by derbs at 11:10 AM on January 18, 2017


I wouldn't be surprised if the highly publicized serial killings by William Bonin in the late 70s / early 80s played some role in this. Bonin killed all but one of his victims in a windowless Econoline in which the handles had been removed from the passenger side and back doors to prevent escape.

Literally all of the (female) friends I ask about this agree with me: these vans are used for crimes.

For quite a while, I believe, side windows were an optional feature on some cargo vans (e.g. the Econoline - some 80s models appear to have areas on the frame where they could be punched out if required, for example) typically used as work vehicles. My guess is if you didn't need them, and didn't want to make it more obvious that you were carrying tools and other stealables around, you'd just opt not to pay for them.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:13 AM on January 18, 2017 [8 favorites]


I'm 37. I have no specific slang for them, but I definitely make the kidnappers-with-candy association. Only the white vans, though, for some reason. A red or blue van? Probably someone's painting business or something.

The odd thing is I only associate those vans with danger to children and not grown women, but I was at least in my late teens before I started making any association at all.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:15 AM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


I'm younger (30) and yes, my friends and I always have that kind of association with those vans. Less so rape vans, but more "free candy" vans or pedo vans, like people above said. I think mainly my association comes from tv shows where people were snatched with those, or memes on the internet. If you google "free candy van" it's a pretty widely disseminated meme.
posted by sprezzy at 11:15 AM on January 18, 2017


Rape van/candy van/kidnapper van/pedophile van. 29. Heard the terms used by all my teachers and a lot of parents when I was a little kid in Los Angeles. I have a very visceral negative reaction to them, too, even as an adult.
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:16 AM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


Do men look at this type of van and also think of it as malevolent? (I understand that men may automatically not consider it a threat to themselves, but as a threat to women?)

Absolutely. We called them 'candy vans'. As a young boy, it was definitely a threat to us. As we got older, it became a shared joke.

I am now in my early 40s. I too would guess there was some afterschool special or such, given its ubiquity. I can't think of anything actually based in fact.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:16 AM on January 18, 2017


I'm 42, female, in UK, have never heard of this being a thing and wouldn't have occurred to me it was a threat (until now, cheers for that...)
posted by penguin pie at 11:20 AM on January 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


I'm a late 40s American woman living in the U.K., and when I used the term "rape van" to my British husband, he immediately asked, "white panel truck?"
posted by skybluepink at 11:25 AM on January 18, 2017 [6 favorites]


I wouldn't be surprised if the highly publicized serial killings by William Bonin in the late 70s / early 80s played some role in this. Bonin killed all but one of his victims in a windowless Econoline in which the handles had been removed from the passenger side and back doors to prevent escape.

This sounds pretty likely to me. There's also Ted Bundy, who didn't use a van but did coerce people into getting into his car to help him get things, and then hit them over the head and kidnapped them. He was also active in the 70s.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:26 AM on January 18, 2017


My dad was a self-employed refrigeration mechanic for many years, so growing up we had a variety of unmarked windowless white vans parked in our driveway. As a kid, whenever I saw one passing by I would get excited and look in the driver's side window to see if it was my dad!

I first heard the term in high school ('00s) when I overheard one of my friends giving directions to my house, "oh yah it's the one with the creepy rape van parked outside..." (for the record, this is an awful way to find out about the term, even when used as a straightforward descriptor)
posted by btfreek at 11:30 AM on January 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


Also, the Tool Box Killers used a GMC van - same timeframe and location as Bonin (and Randy Steven Kraft, who shared the "Freeway Killer" moniker with Bonin, but did not, as it turned out, use a van). Circa 1980 was a sort of apogee of auto/highway-assisted serial murder in California, and this may be a social echo.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:31 AM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


I am 37 and definitely have this association, and in fact remember when I was learning to drive being told not to park next to one bc someone could leap out and grab me and no one would know! I still to this day avoid parking anywhere near one.
posted by leesh at 11:34 AM on January 18, 2017


I'm female, late 50s, grew up in Illinois, and have never heard the term "rape van" until now. We did watch a child molester movie in fourth grade, but the molester drove a regular car (The move is called "The Child Molester" - I think it's available on youtube - it is famous for traumatizing people my age because the end of the movie featured footage of the actual bodies of two girls who were murdered.)

My association with vans of all types is friendly hippies and the 1975 Sammy Johns song Chevy Van. My "scary stranger" thoughts tend to focus on the Manson family, and I don't associate them with vans. When I see a van of this sort now, I do not associate it with crimes.
posted by FencingGal at 11:36 AM on January 18, 2017


The move is called "The Child Molester" - I think it's available on youtube - it is famous for traumatizing people my age because the end of the movie featured footage of the actual bodies of two girls who were murdered.

Derail, but:

Man, one of the Highway Safety Foundation's films - I saw a number in elementary school, and again in drivers' ed. in the late 1980s. Their shorts from the 60s like "Highway of Agony" and "Mechanized Death" (like the better known "Red Asphalt") include surprisingly gruesome footage of real accidents and really stuck in your head. They were regular features at screening nights of punk / underground film collectors when I was living in Boston in the 90s, too.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:51 AM on January 18, 2017


Also, the Tool Box Killers used a GMC van

I very seriously advise everyone to not look up the details of these crimes. If they aren't in your head, keep it that way.
posted by thelonius at 12:42 PM on January 18, 2017 [5 favorites]


There was a serial killer in Delaware, Steven Pennell, who picked up and killed his victims in a van. A blue Ford panel van. I'm not linking to an article because it's awful. It's just easier to use a van.
posted by interplanetjanet at 12:55 PM on January 18, 2017


Seems like every movie, tv show and CSI is always looking for a white panel van.
posted by dripdripdrop at 12:59 PM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


Grew up in the Northeast, 32, and I have always called them rape vans. I don't like to park near them or walk by them.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 1:12 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


Do men look at this type of van and also think of it as malevolent?

This one doesn't. Early 60s, bi-coastal, to me a windowless van says 'tradesman'.

Maybe 20 years ago, I had a co-worker who'd always belittle vehicles painted white, saying they looked like rentals. Even though my own experience with rental cars is that they're always red, or gray, because of this opinion I now share that prejudice, to some degree. But for crimes? No, the vehicles criminals use aren't that predictable. Especially if this is now a common conclusion people come to, concerning windowless white vans.
posted by Rash at 1:22 PM on January 18, 2017


I have never used or heard the term "rape van," but the concept is instantly familiar to me. I'm 29 and I was taught in (IIRC??) health class in public high school to never park my car adjacent to a panel truck because someone could grab me and pull me into the van while I was locking or unlocking my car door.
posted by telegraph at 1:29 PM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


36 M, and yes. Pedo vans or creeper vans. As a dude, my male friends and I definitely see them as a threat (real or imagined) to women. And honestly, I don't think they're particularly friendly to guys, either. I mean, the driver of a creeper van probably isn't going to rape *me*, but you just stay away from some people, you know?

I don't know if there's any factual basis for this, but the perception is so widespread that, at this point, I assume anyone driving one is either a legitimate rapist/pedophile, or a troll who finds it amusing that other people would think that. Kind of like how goths drive hearses, I guess.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:33 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


"Child molester vans" was what everyone I've known has called them, and I have lived all over the US. I know a lot of them are tradesmen, but I have always, always stayed the hell away from them and did once encounter someone who had one on my college campus who did sexually assault a classmate.

They're also featured in many pieces of media about kidnapping and serial killers.
posted by bile and syntax at 1:44 PM on January 18, 2017


Early 30s male in the south.

I am aware of all of the pedo/rapey associations with them and can't help but pair that idea with them. On another hand, I know that is a mighty convenient and secure vehicle for a tradesman who needs to haul a varied or bulky toolset around. On yet another hand I actually have a friend who escaped being abducted into a windowless white by two men who, it turns out when she helped catch them, were serial rapists and murderers.

So... useful for different things I guess.
posted by cmoj at 1:52 PM on January 18, 2017


I'm 29 F, grew up in Southern US.

I haven't heard "rape van" specifically but I would certainly make the connection. For me, the immediate connection is the "free candy"/pedo van. I too have a visceral reaction any time I see one of these windowless vans, although I tend to more so associate this with white windowless vans. I also go out of my way not to park next to them or even walk too near them, even though I know intellectually that the "stranger danger" thing is overblown.

I don't know when or how I made this connection, but I feel like it's the kind of wisdom that various adults passed on and also that as kids we passed on to each other.
posted by litera scripta manet at 1:58 PM on January 18, 2017


The association, but certainly not the term. 37F, grew up on both coasts-- CA/NY/NH.

-Strongest association: kidnapper--heard from adults, safety scare materials.
-Second strongest association: rapist-- picked up from the culture/my friends.
-Third strongest: tradesman-- picked up from reality.
-Fourth: undercover agent-- from X-files and similar TV and movies.
posted by kapers at 2:09 PM on January 18, 2017


Definitely, it stems from being several California serial rapists/killers' vehicle of choice in the '70s. The Hillside Stranglers, not mentioned yet, used a van for at least one of their murders, but I don't know if it was white. Growing up in the '80s, I'd always heard more direct references to child molestation ("kiddie porn van") than to adult rape, though. A (blue) van was an early lead in the Adam Walsh case.
posted by furtive_jackanapes at 2:15 PM on January 18, 2017


I used to do some administrative work for a contractor and he drove one of those white windowless vans. He is a perfectly nice guy, but man I always had to force myself to get into his vehicle when he offered to drive me home.

So as a 40-something woman from the East Coast of the U.S.A., I can say I do have the association of it as a "Pedo-Van" "Stranger with Candy- Van" that should be avoided, but I have no idea where that came from (and I am not looking up those serial killers mentioned above to check).
posted by Julnyes at 2:20 PM on January 18, 2017


In popular/internet culture I associate them with criminals/rapists/murderers/pedophiles but all the people I know with those types of vans in real life had them so full of tools and ladders and paint it would be hard to get anyone in there.
posted by Melsky at 2:28 PM on January 18, 2017 [3 favorites]




Google "rape wagon".
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:49 PM on January 18, 2017


I'm 45 and familar with this term. It is definitely not an urban legend; someone very close to me was gang raped in a blacked out van. Vans have regularly been key features of many, many kidnappings since the 1970s.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:57 PM on January 18, 2017


I am 63, female and raised in NYC; but, apparently I missed the memo on "rape van" and all the many other associations you guys are coming up with (even having gone to John Jay). To me they are just work vans.

However I agree with dripdripdrop about CSI and crime shows always searching for panel vans. It's a thing.
posted by alwayson_slightlyoff at 5:09 PM on January 18, 2017


I am a contemporary of penguin pie and like her, can't remember it being a British thing in my late 70s / early 80s childhood, though "Charley says always tell your mummy" and blokes in estate cars were; I think the van association may have crossed the Atlantic after that time. (Where I am now, it's "creeper van".)
posted by holgate at 5:26 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


Yes, although I specifically associate it with white vans since they appear to be the most common color for commercial vans. A rape van can blend in easily, would be difficult to identify, and leaves the kidnapped individual unable to communicate with others.

I feel like this is very common in movies and TV so I'm surprised I can't find a relevant TVTropes article. The closest thing seems to be Van in Black.
posted by fox problems at 5:39 PM on January 18, 2017


ryanshepard: "For quite a while, I believe, side windows were an optional feature on some cargo vans "

They still are; actually for a short while on the Caravan C/V you paid extra for no rear side windows and people did because they are inherently more secure.

dripdripdrop: "Seems like every movie, tv show and CSI is always looking for a white panel van."

White vans are cheap to rent, cheap to buy, basically interchangable visually and studios are unlikely to get angry letters from the the old and busted white van affectionado club.
posted by Mitheral at 6:08 PM on January 18, 2017


One of the vehicles that Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy used to cruise for victims was a 1978 Chevy van registered to his contracting business. He also had a side business as a clown at children's birthday parties.
posted by dustkee at 6:08 PM on January 18, 2017


45 year old woman, grew up in Kansas City. I've heard them called all of the above, but mainly my cohort just said "white van" and that was enough. I still get a visceral fear when I see an unwashed or rusted white or brown cargo van. No reaction at all to any other color or condition of cargo van. NO memory of how this association was created in me or my cohort.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 6:24 PM on January 18, 2017


I'm your age, female, Canadian. I'm generally pretty nervous and non-oblivious about such things. I've never heard the term "rape van" and it had never occurred to me (until now) to be concerned about vans of any kind.
posted by Frenchy67 at 8:21 PM on January 18, 2017


36, a dude, and from Los Angeles. I'm familiar with the "free candy!" cliche when it comes to white vans/panel trucks, but until right now I didn't realize that people actually used/taught it as an actual thing. I always put it in the same place as "watch out for dudes with a hook instead of a hand trying to open your car door while you make out with you girlfriend".

In real life, an white unmarked van says "studio rental" more than anything.
posted by sideshow at 9:18 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


32, female, Midwest. Definitely call it a rape van, rather than a kidnapper van, but that is also common. Mostly if there is no sign of it being a work vehicle as such, especially if it's additionally rusted. Catch me parking next to one, I dare you.
posted by RainyJay at 11:52 PM on January 18, 2017


A couple of years ago, a stranger overheard me asking directions via public transit while waiting in line at a bank and said he was going my way. When he walked me to the panel van in the parking lot, I said "well, you should have warned me that you drive a serial killer van".

I was joking, of course, but I did make a show of checking that the passenger door handle was present and functioning.

Btw, I'm 62, don't remember where I got the association—it just seems so obvious.
posted by she's not there at 3:52 AM on January 19, 2017


My grandparents had a white van like that because they were buyers & sellers. I loved riding in it.

We were also told to ALWAYS STAY AWAY from other vans that looked like that. The very serious reasoning was that because the vans didn't have any windows, it would be easy for someone to snatch us and then nobody would see us if we were snatched. But yeah to this day I still keep my distance from vehicles without windows.
posted by Polychrome at 5:07 AM on January 19, 2017


I've seen one with hand-painted primer gray lettering on the back door:

Don't laugh. Your daughter might be in here.

You have to wonder how often they get stopped by the cops...
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 6:28 AM on January 19, 2017


I'm in my 40s and grew up in Appalachia (and have since lived all over). I've always called them "serial killer vans."
posted by anansi at 6:29 AM on January 19, 2017


45, male, in the UK, and never heard of them called that. If that's the same as a transit van then this idea throws me a little... there are so many of these vans in the UK, used by builders, tradespeople, etc. You'd be thinking every road had dozens of men prowling around looking for women to abduct.

Here, the stereotypical White Van Man is a different kind of driver than a creepy rapist.
posted by fabius at 9:32 AM on January 19, 2017


In one of his sketches, the comedian Demetri Martin said “When the van first came out, creeps must have been like, ’Okay! A room with no windows that moves? Yeah! Definitely!’”
posted by guy72277 at 11:51 PM on January 19, 2017


Thanks for all of the answers. I refrained from clicking on the links, but I bested the true-life stories, since those are probably the root of my experience. I grew up in LA so I definitely remember the Hillside Strangler time, though I was too young to know any details.

And another answer prompted my memory of being taught in any "girls personal safety"-type course or video shown in school that we should never park next to a van.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:59 PM on February 17, 2017


« Older High Velocity AC Tips?   |   How to take a baby to a professional meeting... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.