I ran across an Atlas Obscura video about one of my favorite oddball tourist attractions—Highgate Cemetery in London. The video was about a “vampire panic” in 1970 with rampaging teenagers, armed with stakes and crosses, hunting for vampires in the famous, Victorian graveyard. The story was wild and I couldn’t help but wonder how contemporary social media—known for both accelerating the spread of rumors and disseminating calls to action—would have raised the panic to a volcanic frenzy.
The video described the teens’ motivation as ‘Legend Tripping.’ It’s an interesting phenomenon, a self-fulfilling, self-fueling, game of telephone in which rational thoughts and brakes on outrageous behavior crumble in the midst of a group’s devotion to a story.
Everyone remembers ghost stories shared around campfires or at sleepover parties. Sometimes they feature a local haunted house, an abandoned insane asylum or a defunct prison once filled with incorrigible criminally insane convicts.
The stories build over years of retelling and when believers visit the site associated with their story, they leave something behind (pentagrams, burnt offerings, etc.) that subsequent teen visitors interpret as evidence of black magic, hauntings, possessions or un-dead activity.
The kids who accept a dare and visit the legendary site contribute to its power and the legend grows, taking on a life beyond the initial spooky story.
While the teens rampaging through Highgate in 1970 were responding to a classic ‘this is a spooky place’ story about a vampire in the beautiful cemetery, the 13-year-old girls who stabbed their friend and left her for dead (she survived) in Wisconsin in 2014 were legend tripping on the ‘Slender Man’ myth that began as an Internet meme. Slender Man—a completely fictional character—has devotees enamored with the idea of meeting him and some are obviously willing to do horrible things to get his attention.
I’m taken with the notion of Legend Tripping—but, even as an impressionable teen, I never did more than visit a spooky, old graveyard in the moonlight. Yes, I did that once. Didn’t you? Admit it if you dare.
Atlas Obscura Vampire Panic Article…