Every day, tourists in Glasgow pass several locations that represent a story so nightmarish it feels like Halloween-inspired fiction. However, it's true.
The bizarre tale of the Gorbals Vampire is outlandish to the extent that it forced me to pause in the middle of a Scottish street to try and verify it.
I had just spotted a huge mural of this mercurial beast in central Glasgow. After some research, I discovered how in the 1950s, gangs of children roamed the city’s cemeteries hunting a supernatural creature terrorising the city.
While the world brims with stories of infamous monsters – from America's Big Foot and Romania's Dracula to the Himalayan yeti – few people outside of Glasgow would know of the Gorbals Vampire. My unexpected discovery of it was fitting given the curious and eerie experiences I’d been having up until that point in Scotland’s biggest city.
My day had revolved around a controversial skeleton and a miraculous witch's son. The latter is St Mungo, Glasgow’s founder and patron saint, who was thrown from a cliff as a baby but survived to become a revered monk. After visiting historical sites linked to Mungo, I sought out the skeletal remains of St Valentine, though they have never been verified, on display at the Duns Scotus Friary church.
The Gorbals Vampire only leapt into my life because I couldn’t find a taxi after leaving the church. As I walked west along Ballater Street, I saw a big, pale hand stretching towards me. It belonged to a six-metre-tall vampire spray-painted on a railway overpass.
My first thought was to dismiss it as another generic piece of street art. With veiny skin, glowing red eyes and menacing fangs, this figure standing in a graveyard was a classic depiction of a vampire. I wouldn’t even have stopped to ponder it if not for the text beneath.
This explained how, in 1954, Glasgow was spooked by reports of a ghostly figure in the city’s Gorbals district. Some witnesses claimed it was two metres tall. Others described it as having shiny, metallic teeth. More still believed it to be a creature not of this world.
All that wild speculation triggered fear and panic among residents who'd long heard of vampires and stories as part of Scotland's centuries-old mythology. They include the notorious Baobhan Sith, said to haunt the Scottish Highlands, where beautiful women with hooves for feet would prey on nomads and drink their blood.
In the current internet-filtered era, such legends are easily debunked. However, only a few decades ago superstitions and folklore had far greater influence. Glasgow of the 1950s is a case in point. Perhaps out of terror, maybe motivated by fun, or even seeking mischief, Glaswegians circulated the Gorbals Vampire tale so widely that even the city’s children became gripped by it.
Had I heard of such a roaming ghoul when I was a boy growing up in Perth, Australia, I would have been scared to head outdoors at night. The children of Glasgow, however, decided to go on the attack. When word spread that two students had allegedly been devoured by the Gorbals Vampire, children reacted with fury.
News reports from September 1954 state hundreds swarmed out of their homes to seek revenge. Wary of the supposedly lethal powers of this towering beast, they armed themselves. Some wielded sticks, others had knives or rocks. If the vampire showed its head, it would be met with the force of an army of angry boys and girls.
This impromptu child infantry swarmed cemeteries, which they believed to be the home of this shadowy being. Their patrols spread as far as one of the city’s landmarks and tourist sites, the Glasgow Necropolis. While cemeteries aren’t typically attractions, this sprawling burial ground lures many visitors due to being decorated by beautiful gardens and an array of magnificent 19th-century tombs.
It also attracts tourists thanks to being next to the spectacular Glasgow Cathedral, where St Mungo is buried. Eventually, after three nights of furiously searching, this city’s children gave up their hunt. Many adult Glaswegians, meanwhile, were so shocked by what had happened, they began their own hunt.
They pinned the blame on the corrupting influence of eerie tales being told in popular comic books, which ended with the UK enshrining laws restricting the sale of horror-themed material to children.
The strange incident eventually faded from view and became a distant memory, until recently. It has experienced a resurgence in attention on the back of several stage plays based on its story – and a certain wall mural. Now, as Halloween approaches, the Gorbals Vampire may once more haunt the city’s streets.