Record-breaking vampires at Whitby Abbey mark 125 years of Dracula

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Nigel Roddis/PA</span>
Photograph: Nigel Roddis/PA

It was, English Heritage of course said afterwards, a fangtastic effort. But there had been a lot at stake. After months of meticulous preparation, the idea was to set a world record for the most people dressed as a vampire at a place Dracula would surely call his spiritual home.

He would be less than pleased at how happy and carefree everyone looked as they filed into the Gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey on Thursday evening. The grey clouds and drizzle of the afternoon even made way for blue skies and glorious sunshine.

It was also incredibly windy, which ensured a maximum billowing of capes.

A participant at the vampire gathering in cape and fangs
The gathering marked the 125th anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“These are just things I’ve got in my wardrobe,” said Kit Robson, 24, in full vampire garb. She was there with her siblings Christine, 29, Nick, 27, and William, 23, from Cockfield in County Durham.

Christine was the driving force behind them going because she loves the Bram Stoker novel so much. “The prose is just so different to anything written now, it was such a different way at looking at the world.” It had so many layers and meanings, she said. For Nick, meanwhile, it was “just a great way to freak people out””.

At the head of the queue to get in was retired photographer Chris Martin from Beer in Devon. “As soon as I heard about it. I knew I had to come up.

“This is the very first time I’ve dressed up and I’ve spent about a week learning how to put the make up on … how does it look?”

Two vampires at the gathering
Stewards checked people’s fangs before letting them enter. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Another couple, Bob Trainer and Christine Brown from Stockton-on-Tees, were there for fun to celebrate the local connections of Stoker to Whitby; the author found his initial inspiration for the story while on holiday in the Yorkshire coastal town in 1890 and it provided atmospheric locations in the book. Trainer said he worked in a bodybuilding factory. “Not real bodies,” said Brown. “No, Luton Box vans,” said Trainer.

The aim was to gather at least 1,040 people in the Abbey dressed as vampires, thus breaking a record set in 2011 at an amusement park in Doswell, Virginia. The Whitby effort was timed to mark the precise 125th anniversary of the publication of Dracula.

It was a daft event, yes, but one they were taking deadly seriously, said the abbey’s site manager, Mark Williamson, wearing a magnificent Victorian cape and suit made in the 1840s. “I live with a costume historian,” he explained.

“We have to take it seriously because we have a lot of respect for the people who set the record. We want to honour those people. It would be bad if we allowed people in trainers all of a sudden.”

Previous attempts to break the record have failed over silly things like the wrong shoes, so organisers tried to make it as simple as possible on the invite: black shoes, black trousers or skirt, black cape, shirt, waistcoat and pointy fangs.

More than 3,000 people registered their interest but registering an interest and turning up are, of course, two different things.

There were frayed nerves ahead of the event. Williamson said he genuinely had no idea how many people would come.

But turn up they did, including many who hadn’t registered but just heard about the event at the last minute. There were entry requirements. “Can I see your fangs, please,” said stewards at the entrance. At just after 9pm on Thursday the news came through – efforts had not been in vein, the record had been broken with 1,369 vampires gathered in one place.

Mark Brown dressed as a vampire
Guardian journalist Mark Brown gets his teeth into the action. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Whitby Abbey was the obvious place to attempt the record. It was in Whitby that Stoker soaked up the atmosphere that would be a key part of the novel’s success – the abbey ruins, the innocent tourists, the beautiful harbour and the salty tales from gnarled local folk.

The names of several victims were taken from headstones found in the church, and Stoker found the name “Dracula” looking at a book in Whitby’s public library.

A gothic canine accomplice.
A gothic canine accomplice. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Williamson said: “When you look at the legacy of that book, which hasn’t been out of print since 1897 and has been adapted hundreds of times … it means so much to so many different people. So actually, having a mass of people dressed as vampires, it just feels right.”

He unquestionably looked the real deal, although he seemed uncertain. “I don’t know what my team will think of me parading about the place looking like Darth Vader.”

His colleague, Joe Savage, a senior interpretation manager at English Heritage, also looked rather fine. “I’m afraid I look like a fat middle-aged bat rather than a suave vampire,” he said.

Unlike Williamson, he didn’t have a cape to hand in his wardrobe. “My daughter has made mine. She cannibalised a prom dress. But I’ve got fangs and I’ve got Fixadent, I’m ready to go.”

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