When these Scottish schoolchildren armed to fight a 7-foot vampire, parents started to worry

Stephanie Buck on 2017-11-20

It was a prime example of juvenoia, the fear of younger generations

Children relinquish their comic books for a book burning of “objectionable publications” organized by the Women’s Auxiliary of the American Legion in Norwich, Connecticut, on February 26, 1955. (AP)

Most urban legends elicit only minor panic. Invoke the spirit of Bloody Mary by repeating her name three times in front of a mirror; listen to the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” backwards; forward an email chain to 75 people, or else. But few involve hundreds of children sharpening stakes to fight one giant vampire.

On September 23, 1954, in Glasgow, Scotland, a mob of schoolchildren waited for the final bell then hauled an arsenal of knives and sticks to the massive historic graveyard known as Southern Necropolis. There they expected to meet and fight off a seven-foot vampire with iron teeth. Word was he’d already murdered and eaten two little boys.

A constable eventually shooed them away but after the children returned the following day, and the next, parents and officials began to worry. No children had gone missing, so what had led to the hysteria? And how would they end it once and for all?

As is common now, adults blamed popular entertainment for corrupting the minds of youth. In this case, the target was comic books. But each time a more scandalous and influential form of media — television, video games, instant messenger — burst forth in the coming years, older generations grew afraid of how it might affect, or worse, corrupt young people. Finally, in 2010, University of New Hampshire sociology professor David Finkelhor diagnosed the phenomenon: It wasn’t the children who were dangerous. Adults had manifested a new phobia, their own genre of urban legend — this time starring killer kids.

Finkelhor called the phenomenon “juvenoia,” defined as “an exaggerated fear around the influence of social change on children and youth.” Juvenoia can manifest as both the fear for children and the fear of children, as a result of world events and cultural shifts. For instance, in the backlash against helicopter parents we see an example of juvenoia for children; people worry that the “trophy for every kid” style of parenting will create helpless, self-centered adults. Conversely, in the 1990s, the U.S. was consumed by “predator panic,” when so-called experts predicted a “crime bomb” of juvenile delinquents. And more recently, the viral YouTube stunt called the “knockout game” stoked the fear of children .

Often veiled in patronizing language that claims to know what’s best for kids, juvenoia nevertheless boils down to a fear of modern trends influencing strong, young people to rise up the “wrong” way.

Ironically, the vampire-hunting kids in Glasgow were trying to protect themselves and their community. Ranging in age from four to 14, children banded together by the dozens into a remarkably sophisticated militia. “It all started in the playground — the word was there was a vampire and everyone was going to head out there after school,” recalled Ronnie Sanderson, who was eight at the time. “At three o’clock the school emptied and everyone made a beeline for it. We sat there for ages on the wall waiting and waiting.”

At one point after nightfall, one or two kids saw a figure “wandering about.” That’s when the call went up. “There’s the vampire!” one shouted. Everyone screamed and scattered. Said Sanderson, “I just remember scampering home to my mother: ‘What’s the matter with you?’ ‘I’ve seen a vampire!’ and I got a clout round the ear for my trouble. I didn’t really know what a vampire was.”

However, if not an undead murderer, some parents did worry there may have been a real-life culprit. They demanded answers. Authorities took up an investigation, but unable to pin any such mischief other than a schoolyard rumor, they once again blamed the kids — or rather, what they were reading.

Conveniently, the United States was amid a sweeping comic book crackdown in the 1950s. Frustrated with its own issues of urban crime and rising rates of “juvenile delinquency,” regulators blamed comic book makers for “lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations,” such as those depicted in horror. Vampires, werewolves, and ghosts were banned from publishing. Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror were particular targets. Furthermore, “sexy, wanton comics” were banned from publishing “sex perversions” and “illicit sexual relations,” basically nothing besides traditional, heterosexual courtship with the aim of marriage. Archie comics famously had to cover Betty and Veronica’s cleavage, as well as reduce their “curves.”

In his 2009 book, The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hadju presents a list of hundreds of comic book illustrators who were immediately out of a job and rarely heard from again. A significant portion were women and people of color.

Scotland emulated the U.S. and declared a domestic comic crackdown. Defenders pointed out that there was no seven-foot, iron-toothed vampire in any known comic (though the Bible featured a monster with iron teeth). Nevertheless, the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 banned comics that displayed “incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature” to minors.

The second half of the 20th century, with the rise of youth culture, the counterculture movement, recreational drugs, and loosening sexual norms, meant a series of profound shifts for each generation of young people. Before, children were likened to small adults; the notion of childhood simply did not exist. Kids worked alongside the family and reflected the values of tight-knit tribes. But with the rise of industrialization and globalization, suddenly young people worked less and experimented with different lifestyles.

It’s no wonder adults got defensive. “It is a curious observation that, in spite of all the tremendous resources our advanced societies offer to foster child well-being (schools, medical care, libraries, books), virtually every parent from every station of society sees him or herself as raising their children in opposition to the common culture, or at least wide expanses of it,” wrote Finkelhor. “Common culture in modern society is not seen as an institution that supports parenting, but rather one that undermines it.”

Although most of society has come to accept that adolescence is marked by expressions of individuality, rebellion, and angst, juvenoia is stronger than ever. Finkelhor thinks the internet is a huge part of its persistence. As opposed to small geographic communities that controlled how children were brought up, today’s youth have 24/7 access to virtually any stranger’s value set and way of thinking. In no particular order, the alt-right, pro-ana, bestiality, Goop, Taboola, 4chan, spambots, the DarkNet, snuff porn, Facebook, and PewDiePie are all online. In August of 2017, 18-year-old Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for convincing her boyfriend to commit suicide via a series of texts.

The same basic argument was made for comic books in the 1950s: Something we can’t monitor or control all the time is threatening our kids…or turning them into the threat. Now, of course, the material in midcentury comic books is literally child’s play compared with Marvel movies and Stranger Things.

Nearly 60 years after the young vampire-hunters, BBC interviewed another witness of the Glasgow cemetery hunt. It wasn’t comic books, said Tam Smith. Scottish youngsters were very familiar with local tales of a similar villain. For years, before hundreds of children descended on the cemetery to fight a giant vampire, they feared the Iron Man. Turns out, parents had invoked a beast with iron fangs as a threat when their kids misbehaved. How coincidental.