Interview: The Gorbals Vampire Playwright Johnny McKnight
Published by Glasgowist.
Over 60 years after the notorious Gorbals vampire was said to be creeping around ‘the gravy’ in the Southern Necropolis, a new play on the dramatic real-life events by Johnny McKnight is set to hit the Citizens Theatre this weekend.
In 1954, the rumour mill churned out the tale of a monster with iron teeth who had supposedly kidnapped and eaten two young Gorbals schoolboys.
As whispers infected the playgrounds in the area, hundreds of children aged between 4-14 took to the graveyard one September night, armed with makeshift chibs, to take down the wean-eating monster.
McKnight’s new play stars a local cast portraying the children who epitomised ‘Scotland the Brave’ and took to the graveyard on a mission to slay the beast.
I caught up with playwright Johnny McKnight to find out more about the comic horror story coming to the Citizens just in time for Halloween.
SOPHIE: How did you first hear the story of The Gorbals Vampire? And what did you think of it when you first heard about it?
JOHNNY: The story was actually brought to me by Guy Holland (Associate Director at Citizens Theatre) and he told me they were working on this project, The Gorbals Vampire, and they were looking for somebody to write it and make an outline of it. And I said I’d need to do some research because I’d never heard of the story.
So, I went away home and did a wee bit of research on it. And growing up I was a mad Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan. Anything about vampires, I was into it. So, I did my research and I thought, I absolutely love this! I mean, if I had been at school and there was a rumour going around that there was a vampire on the loose, I wouldn’t have left the house. I would’ve been terrified.
I loved that these kids in the Gorbals were like, ‘Right, lets grab our chibs and go take it on!’ That was the point when I thought I totally need to write this. I just loved the idea of the story and the fun I could have with it.
At the time, a lot of people blamed things like American horror comic books and local folk stories about vampires. But what do you think caused the hysteria that encouraged kids to go out with weapons to take on this monster?
I think it was a combination of things. It could’ve also been weans that were brought up with the Bible and the idea of a monster appearing. It could’ve been the American comics. Or it literally could’ve just been Chinese whispers.
I mean, I remember being at school and as soon as there was one wee whisper, the playground would become infected with it. It starts with a whisper and builds to a shout. And I think, particularly at that time, there was nothing else to do. It was all word of mouth. Everything was word of mouth. It could’ve been the comics but I also quite like the idea that it possibly could’ve all been true.
Maybe the government were just covering it up like in Stranger Things. For me, it was all about looking at all the different variations of what it could’ve been and not getting too bogged down in making it a historical piece. I wanted it to feel like it was set in that time but that it could still happen now. It’s the exact same thing with the killer clown thing going on just now. It just takes one or two wee voices and a craze can kick off or hysteria can kick off just as easy.
The story was reported around the world. What specifically do you think captured the public’s imagination so much so that people are still talking about it now?
It was such a phenomenon at the time that it got that many kids all assembled in the one place and I think also, what I love about it anyway, is that the kids are refusing to be victims. They just decide they’re going to take it on and stand up to it. And I think that’s quite enduring.
I mean, you’d usually expect parents to put the kids at ease and help them sleep better at night, usually the parents take control. But in this story, I think that’s a phenomenal thing that the kids decide that this is something that only they can take on. And also, everybody loves a good horror story.
Do you think the story is specific to a Scottish setting? Do you think kids in another part of the world would have reacted in the same way or is this just a typical Scottish response?
I don’t know. I mean, I love the idea that it happened. I think it sounds like a really Scottish thing that they went, ‘Right we’re away to get this bam.’ They went to take it on and they weren’t scared that it was a vampire or a monster. I suppose, it’s like years ago when there was the terror attack at Glasgow Airport and someone wrestled the terrorist to the ground and just thought, ‘I’m gonny take that bam doon.’
In some ways, it makes you think maybe it just is something in the Scottish psyche. We’re no feart to stand up for ourselves. I think that’s what makes it so enduring and it’s the reason the story’s lasted. But then I think as well when people’s backs are up against the wall and there’s fear there, it just brings out another side of instinct in people which is what I love about it.
What exactly was involved in writing the play? Did you talk to people who were actually involved when they were kids?
There were quite a few interviews online with people who’d been kids involved at the time. But I decided not to go and interview people because I wanted to make it up so it was still fictional rather than getting too bogged down in making it someone’s life story. I’m also really aware that the show’s going on just before Halloween so I still wanted to keep it scary rather than it becoming a historical piece.
Although it has that historical backdrop, I really loved the idea that maybe it was true and the kids weren’t wrong after all. And if I had started making specifically about someone’s life, I was thinking the story has got 200 kids and I’m very aware the production has a cast of 60, so I really wanted to put in as many different voices across the board as possible and not get too worried about whether that person existed in real life. I wanted it to still be a drama.
This is a big community based project with a local amateur cast. Do you think it was important to keep the spirit of the story very much local to the Gorbals?
Definitely! Definitely. It’s written in a really Scottish dialect and as well I think it’s a really Scottish piece. And I think the whole point of a project like this, well the point of theatre, is to tell stories that haven’t been told. Specifically, there’s not many stories from the Gorbals that get told that don’t involve gangs or gang warfare or extreme poverty. The bigger thing here is you’ve got this horror story right at your backdoor. You had this group of weans who are now grandparents or great-grandparents who genuinely believed there was a vampire stomping around their backdoor at night.
With the show starting this Friday, what specifically are you hoping to achieve with this production?
I think with any kind of production, you want the same thing. You want people to laugh. You want them to feel something. You want them to be transported for an hour into a different time, a different place and a different story. Theatre works brilliantly is when the audience and the cast on the stage all decide to transport each other away from the worries and anxieties or boredom and humdrum of their own lives, to be somewhere different for an hour.
As well, particularly because it’s Halloween, I hope they laugh and are thrilled. As scared as they are, I hope they’re laughing as well. I mean, I’m not going to lie, I was channelling Buffy the entire time. I wanted it to be funny and witty and thrilling and scary, and all that mixed up together.
The Gorbals Vampire opens at Citizens Theatre at 7.30pm on Friday 28th October.
Featured image courtesy of Mark Rowe via Flickr.
What do you think about The Gorbals Vampire? Let me know in the comment section below.