On the evening of September 23, 1954, Glasgow police were alerted to a disturbance at the Southern Necropolis, an enormous cemetery in an infamous area known as “the Gorbals.” Constables made their way to the graveyard, expecting to find vandals—not an uncommon occurrence in the Necropolis, which is said to hold the remains of more than a quarter of a million people. They weren’t prepared for what they would find: a cacophonous assembly of several hundred local children, ranging from 4-year-olds to teenagers, on the hunt for a vampire. The kids were armed with knives, sharpened sticks, and homemade tomahawks. Many had brought their dogs.
According to a local newspaper, the children had scaled the cemetery walls shortly after school let out. (Contemporary reports are quiet as to why they didn’t just go in through the gates.) Word on the playground was that a 7-foot vampire with iron teeth had eaten two local boys—no one seemed to know which two—and the children of the Gorbals were not having it.
Adults who lived nearby took note when the kids began flooding the cemetery, but likely didn’t think much about it at first. Greenspace was scarce in the densely populated industrial district, so the graveyards of the Gorbals served as parks and playgrounds. As the local papers reported, eventually, the children’s “excited shouts and screams” grew so loud that “normal conversation was impossible,” and somebody called the police.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened next, but all agree that the officers who answered the call were in over their heads. Some sources maintain that the kids gave up and went home only after it started raining, while others say a local school headmaster was summoned to the cemetery to scold the children into submission. Whichever is the case, it was only a temporary reprieve: The kids returned for the next two nights, intent on finding and killing the Gorbals Vampire.
They never did, of course. But the incident added fuel to a growing controversy that found its way to Parliament and sparked a censorship law that, while rarely enforced, is still in effect today.
Comic Books and Communists
According to a paper published in 1985 by researchers Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwell [PDF], the Gorbals incident wasn’t the only one of its kind. Children in Glasgow had gathered for several hunts throughout the 1930s, with targets that included a banshee, a ghostly “white lady,” and the creature known as Springheeled Jack. It wasn’t even the sole incident of Glasgow children forming a potentially dangerous mob that autumn. Exactly one week after the Gorbals Vampire hunt, a Scottish daily newspaper reported [PDF] that several hundred Glasgow children surrounded a caravan of Travellers and attempted to stone the family inside, nearly injuring a 5-month-old infant. The incident took place several miles from the Gorbals and would have involved an entirely different group of children, but it bears a striking resemblance to what happened in the Southern Necropolis: the kids ranged from toddlers to teenagers, the siege lasted for several hours, police struggled to gain control, and no one knows how the whole thing got started.
The reason the Gorbals hunt was so widely reported is that it happened to align with a strange moral panic that, having burned through the United States only a few months earlier, had made its way across the Atlantic.
Just months before the Gorbals hunt, the U.S. had seen the culmination of a years-long effort to ban horror and crime comics. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held a pair of devastating hearings on comic books in April and June of 1954, spurring the creation of the incredibly restrictive Comics Code that essentially censored horror comics out of existence. Once the Code went into effect, no comic book could make it to American newsstands if it included vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghouls, or “any scene of horror.”
There was a contingency that very much wanted to eliminate horror comics in the UK as well. According to British comics historian Martin Barker, the books had found their way into the country mostly via American soldiers stationed in the UK and were then randomly reprinted by a few opportunistic British publishers. In the 1999 book Pulp Demons, Barker writes that an alliance of parents, teachers, and clergy had tried to get the comics banned in the early 1950s and managed to get their case taken up by Parliament. Their effort ended in frustration when some of their more sensational claims, including allegations that a Kent man who died in a shootout with police had surrounded himself with “gunman comic books,” were debunked by the UK’s Home Secretary. It didn’t help that several of the campaigners were exposed as members of the British Communist Party.
Activists tried again in 1953 with the creation of the Comics Campaign Council (CCC), led by a respected pediatrician (who was also a member of the Communist Party). The CCC recruited people like deputy school headmaster George H. Pumphrey, who authored a 1954 pamphlet for the CCC called Comics and Your Children, alleging that “[s]adism and violence are basic themes throughout the American type comics.”
The CCC began to make some headway as other organizations, including the British Medical Association, took up the cause of vilifying horror comics. In September 1954, they were handed a gift in the form of an account of mass hysteria and frightened Scottish children primed for violence that could credibly be blamed on horror comics.
Newspapers had picked up the Gorbals Vampire story and, after briefly blaming horror movies, directly linked it to horror comics, with dramatic headlines like “Is This the Kind of Comic Your Child Is Reading?” The Gorbals case was cited in a February 1955 debate in the House of Commons, with a Glasgow MP mentioning the vampire hunt and arguing that anti-comics legislation was needed to “free the minds” of UK children “from evil influences.”
This time the crusade was successful, and the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act was passed in the spring of 1955. The terms horror comics and comic books never appear in the law’s text, but it singles out “stories told in pictures” that portray “the commission of crimes,” “acts of violence,” or “incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature.” The law essentially criminalizes the publication, sale, and import of horror comics, and gives police expansive search-and-seizure powers. (It’s an ironic twist of fate that a Glasgow incident would prompt such a dramatic backlash against comic books. Many scholars consider Scotland to be the birthplace of comics, with 1825’s debut issue of The Glasgow Looking Glass often cited as the first comic book.)
The law is rarely enforced and British horror comics have made a forceful comeback, but the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955 remains on the books today. As recently as 2018, a traveler reported seeing horror comics on a list of items possibly banned from entry into the UK, alongside fireworks and certain chemicals. Author and comic book writer Neil Gaiman has tweeted that the law is “said to be the only piece of legislation the UK Communist Party ever managed to get on the books.”
Searching for Answers
But did American horror comics really inspire the hunt for the Gorbals Vampire?
Maybe not. There’s no evidence linking the incident to pre-Code horror comics; in interviews with Glaswegians who participated in the hunt as children, none remembered having read the comics in question.
There was a comic book story called “The Vampire with the Iron Teeth,” which appeared in a 1953 issue of a series called Dark Mysteries. But Glasgow kids didn’t need to turn to American comics for a story about a flesh-eating, iron-toothed monster. Such creatures were already firmly ensconced in local legends such as Jenny with the Iron Teeth, a figure immortalized in a 19th-century poem by Scottish railway worker-turned-poet Alexander Anderson. The poem, used to frighten children who refused to go to sleep, told of a creature that would carry away restless kids, but not before she sank her iron teeth into “his wee plump sides.”
It might also be significant that the Southern Necropolis cemetery was located near an ironworks called Dixon Blazes. One witness remembers hearing his great-grandfather, who lived near the graveyard and probably didn’t read many horror comics, telling stories of an “Iron Man,” while other locals spoke of “the Man with the Iron Teeth.”
And then there were the notorious living conditions in the Gorbals, which might have made children welcome a vampire hunt as a pleasant diversion. According to the Daily Mail, residents of the Gorbals faced some of the “worst conditions of post-war Europe.” The district’s population, which had swelled to 90,000 in the 1930s, had tapered off a bit by the ‘50s, but overcrowding was still an issue, and basic sanitation was a challenge. A single residential bathroom might serve as many as 30 people; some homes had no running water. Families were packed into poorly maintained tenements, with six or eight people often sharing a single room. Children chased rats into the streets, clubbing them to death with sticks and pickaxes. When Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip toured the district in 1961 for a firsthand look at redevelopment efforts, the prince was warned to watch out for crumbling floorboards.
Martin Barker has speculated that children might have welcomed any flight of imagination that would have distracted them from the realities of life in the Gorbals. “It’s a miserable place to live, and you’re looking for something to give you a spark of excitement in your lives,” he said in a 2016 interview with BBC Radio Scotland.
We might never know what truly sparked the Gorbals Vampire scare, but experts such as Barker view the incident as a missed chance to learn about how children communicate.
“It’s a wasted opportunity,” Barker told the BBC. “What you’ve got here is a lovely example of children’s cultures in action. Sometimes they’re complicated, sometimes they get out of control, but there’s a lot to be learnt about the way children talk with each other, share rumors, tell each other stories, and so on.”
Sixty-seven years after the fact, whatever lessons the Gorbals Vampire incident might have held for us are probably lost. All that’s left are hazy memories, an archaic censorship law, and a rather striking mural.
But as tempting as it might be to laugh off the incident as the harmless product of overactive imaginations, there’s reason to believe the children of the Gorbals meant business. If there was indeed a vampire in the Southern Necropolis (there wasn’t, but bear with us), he was smart to keep a low profile.
“We didn’t have Christopher Lee to explain you had to put a stake through the heart to kill him,” said one man who took part in the hunt as a child. “We were just going to cut the head off, end of story.”