The Gorbals Vampire: A Tale of Mass Hysteria and Comic Book Censorship
In the autumn of 1954, a strange phenomenon occurred in the Gorbals, a notorious slum area in Glasgow, Scotland. Hundreds of children, armed with makeshift weapons, stormed the Southern Necropolis, a vast cemetery that housed the remains of over 250,000 people. Their mission: to hunt down and kill a 7-foot tall vampire with iron teeth that had allegedly devoured two of their classmates.
The Gorbals Vampire hunt was a remarkable example of mass hysteria, urban legend, and moral panic. It also sparked a debate about the influence of American horror comics on the young minds of Britain, leading to a censorship law that is still in effect today.
The Origins of the Gorbals Vampire
The Gorbals was a densely populated and impoverished district in the south of Glasgow, where overcrowding, poverty, and crime were rampant. The area was dominated by tenement buildings, factories, and graveyards. The Southern Necropolis, opened in 1840, was one of the largest cemeteries in the city, covering 21 acres and containing over 3,000 monuments.
The children of the Gorbals often used the cemetery as a playground, as there was little green space elsewhere. They also had access to a variety of cheap and sensational literature, such as penny dreadfuls, pulp magazines, and comic books. Among these were the American horror comics, imported from across the Atlantic, that featured gruesome tales of monsters, zombies, and vampires. Titles such as Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear were popular among the kids, who traded and shared them among themselves.
It is not clear how exactly the legend of the Gorbals Vampire emerged, but some possible sources have been suggested. One is a story called “The Vampire with the Iron Teeth” that appeared in a British comic book called The Dark Mysteries in 1953. The story was about a vampire that preyed on children in London, and had a panel showing the vampire’s iron teeth. Another piece of possible origin is from the folktale about a local boogieman named Jenny wi’ the Airn Teeth, who was said to have iron teeth and nails, and who would consume and bite children who misbehaved.
Whatever the origin, the rumor of the Gorbals Vampire spread like wildfire among the schoolchildren, who became convinced that the monster was hiding in the Necropolis, and that it had already claimed two victims. The names and identities of the supposed victims were never confirmed, and no missing children were reported in the area. But that did not stop the children from taking matters into their own hands.
The Hunt for the Gorbals Vampire
On the evening of September 23, 1954, hundreds of children, ranging from 4 to 14 years old, gathered outside the gates of the Southern Necropolis, ready to face the vampire. They brought with them knives, sticks, stones, crosses, and dogs. Some of them had even fashioned wooden stakes, following the lore of vampire slaying. They poured through the front gate of the cemetery, shouting and screaming, looking for the beast.
The noise and commotion attracted the attention of several adults who reported the commotion to the police, who tried to disperse the crowd and calm the hysteria. But the children were determined to find and kill the vampire, and resisted the authorities. They searched the graveyard for hours, checking behind every tombstone and tree, hoping to catch a glimpse of the iron teeth. Some of them claimed to have seen the vampire in the fog, and chased after it. But the vampire remained elusive, and the hunt was unsuccessful.
The children returned home only when it started to rain, but they were not discouraged. They came back the next night, and the night after that, hoping to finish the job. But by the third night, the interest and excitement had faded, and the Gorbals Vampire hunt was over.
The Aftermath of the Gorbals Vampire Hunt
The Gorbals Vampire hunt made headlines in the local and national newspapers, and sparked a public outcry. Many blamed the American horror comics for corrupting the children and inciting them to violence. A campaign was launched to ban the comics, and a petition was signed by over 200,000 people. The issue was raised in the Parliament, where some MPs denounced the comics as “depraved” and “harmful”. In 1955, the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act was passed, which prohibited the publication and sale of any material that depicted “incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature” that were “calculated to injure the morality of children and young persons”. The act is still in force today, although it is rarely invoked.
The Gorbals Vampire hunt also inspired some academic and artistic works, such as a sociological study by Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwell, a novel by Louise Welsh, a play by Johnny McKnight, and a graphic novel by Craig Collins and Mark Brady. The hunt has been interpreted as a manifestation of the fears and frustrations of the children living in a harsh and bleak environment, as well as a reflection of the cultural and social changes that were taking place in post-war Britain.
The Gorbals Vampire remains one of the most fascinating and bizarre episodes in the history of Glasgow, and a testament to the power of imagination, folklore, and mass hysteria.