People have told vampire stories for at least as long as civilization as existed. While the popular image of vampires today is of well coiffed, moody young people who spend more time brooding over romance than draining the living of their lifeblood, the vampires of ancient times were fearsome monsters. The closest a modern vampire story gets to the ancient archetype is the blood sucker who started it all: Dracula, the titular monster of Bram Stoker’s classic gothic novel.
While there are few today who believe that vampires – brooding teenage or the more traditional style nosferatu – are real, the fascination remains. There is no room in the modern world for beasts of that bygone age, who are no restrained to popular culture. But despite the modern skepticism toward creatures of the night, an odd episode took place in 1954 that illustrated the hold vampires have over the imagination, even in a time of expanding technological and scientific knowledge. Pint-sized vampire hunters, carrying improvised weapons and their parents in tow, turned out in the Gorbals district of Glasgow, Scotland. They scoured the Necropolis, a vast cemetery housing 250,000 of Glasgow’s former citizens, looking for an iron toothed vampire they claimed had killed two children.
Iron toothed vampire on the prowl
The strange story began the evening of September 23, 1954. Constable Alex Deeprose responded to a call telling him of trouble in the Southern Necropolis in Gorbals. This was not the first time the constable had been called about mischief in the old cemetery. The ancient monuments were often the targets of vandals.
But Constable Deeprose didn’t find vandals when he arrived that evening. Instead, he found hundreds of children between the ages of five and fourteen, many of them armed with anything that could be remotely called a weapon. Many had brought dogs to aid them in their search. The constable was shocked to find out what had brought the crowd to the home of the dead. The children told him that a vampire with iron teeth lived in the cemetery, and the fiend was responsible for the deaths of two children.
The constable was understandably perplexed by the story. If two children had been killed anywhere in Gorbals, he would have known about it. In fact, no child murders were reported that year. Luckily for the Constable, cooler heads prevailed before the situation could get out of control. The headmaster of a nearby primary school managed to convince the crowd that the entire story was ludicrous and that no iron toothed vampire existed anywhere, let alone inside the Necropolis.
The crowd dispersed at sunset, but like clockwork the next night (and the night after), the crowds gathered again to hunt for an elusive creature with a macabre appetite.
The playground rumor mill
The bizarre panic began not in the cemetery, but on the playgrounds and classrooms of Gorbals. At the time, the causes for the panic were not entirely clear. But one look at the Necropolis and it is easy to see how impressionable children could believe that a vampire could take up residence there. It was a gloomy bone yard of looming headstones and Gothic architecture. Nearby, the furnaces of the iron works at Dixon Blazes cast eerie shadows over the tombs.
But as to why exactly the children believed a vampire had taken up residence among the ancient tombs, parents and officials both were at a loss. It wasn’t long though before they came up with a scape goat: American comic books. Specifically, horror comics like EC Comics and Tales from the script, both comics that are infamous for their lurid and graphic subject matter. Members of Parliament were so convinced by this explanation that they passed the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955, which prohibited horror comics or any other type of medium that was deemed harmful to children.
However, some free speech advocates were quick to point out that none of the stories in horror comics at the time featured a child-eating vampire with iron teeth. What parents, officials, and priests all seemed to miss in the outbreak of hand-wringing that followed the Gorbals vampire panic was that well known local folklore stories contained a vampiric beast with iron teeth.
Her name was Jenny with the Iron Teeth, and she was the subject of a Scottish dialect poem called “Jenny wi the airn teeth.” The poem was told from the perspective of a mother who was trying to get her restless child to sleep. She tells the poor kid that Jenny would come after him and bite a chunk out of his side with her iron teeth before carting him off to her lair if he would not get to sleep. This poem was commonly recited in schools in the Gorbals area.
This use of scary bogeys to control children’s behavior is pretty common. It is a good way for parents to keep children away from dangerous places or behaviors without having to resort to the tired cliche: “because I said so.” An example of another, more common, urban legend that had its origins in the same era as the Gorbals vampire panic is the legend of the Hookman. The story is about a pair of teenagers who go off to a local Lover’s Lane. On the way, they hear a radio broadcast about a madman with a hook for a hand who escaped from a local insane asylum. The girl is afraid, but the boy has his mind on what’s going to happen when they park. After they reach their destination and start to make out, the girl hears a noise and convinces her irritated boyfriend to turn the car around. When they arrive home, the boy gets out to let his girlfriend out of the car, only to find a hook hanging from the door handle.
The story was meant to scare teenagers away from the practice of parking. Whether it was effective or not was anyone’s guess. Jenny with the Iron Teeth and another local bogey, the Iron Man, performed much the same function. Children were warned that if they misbehaved, the Iron Man would come for them. They were also warned to stay away from the cemetery, because the Iron Man lurked there. Mostly likely the real reason was due to how close the cemetery was to the iron works, not to mention that the place was regularly vandalized so unsavory characters likely hung out in the area.
The origin of the panic
The local folklore and parental warnings to stay out of the cemetery provided fertile ground for a panic. It is difficult to say exactly what caused the panic to start with. Perhaps one of the school children sneaked into the cemetery against his parent’s will, and saw someone lurking among the headstones which he interpreted as the legendary Iron Man. Then, when he returned to school and told his friends of the event, it spread from his group of friends to other students through the process of Chinese Whispers, changing with each retelling.
Then, by the end of the day, the story morphed from a sighting of the Iron Man to that of an iron toothed vampire who ate children. The collective delusion caused enough excitement that hundreds of children (and a few of their no doubt bewildered parents) turned out to the cemetery to investigate.
What is interesting about this case is that two types of collective delusions were at work. The first was an immediate community threat panic. The playground community felt that they were under direct threat of an enemy they themselves invented out of the folklore they all shared. This initial panic was the catalyst for another type of collective delusion that swept all the way to Parliament: a moral panic. The belief that the traditional values were under threat from something authorities found distasteful – horror comics in this case – brought about a panicky action to address the threat. In this case, the action was to ban those comics entirely.
It goes to show that anyone–child, adult, or member of Parliament–can fall victim of a collective delusion.
Westwood, Jennifer. Kinsghill, Sophia. The Lore of Scotland: A Guide to Scottish Legends. Random House. 2012. Pgs 186-187
Nicolson, Stuart. “Child Vampire Hunters Sparked Comic Crackdown.” BBC.co.uk. March 22, 2010. BBC News. March 1, 2014 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/8574484.stm>
English, Paul. “Before Hollywood Went Vampire Crazy, Scots Kids Hunted Them In Graveyward.” DailyRecord.co.uk. March 27, 2010. Daily Record and Sunday Mail. March 1, 2014 <http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/before-hollywood-went-vampire-crazy-1054391>
Hobbs, Sandy. “The Gorbals Vampire Hunt.” HeraldScotland.com June 23, 1989. Herald Scotland. March 1, 2014. <http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/spl/aberdeen/the-gorbals-vampire-hunt-1.623152>
“Hundreds in Grim Hunt for ‘Monster.’” The Sydney Morning Herald. September 26, 1954