In the early 1970s, a wave of panic spread around the north London suburb of Highgate. There was a vampire on the loose.
Tales of the sinister ghostly figure and bizarre occult rituals at the famous local cemetery had led many residents to fear for their safety
Although Highgate cemetery had long been a hotspot for ghost sightings, the local and national media would soon come to seize on this particular apparition.
The first sightings of the figure came in the early 1960s. Highgate cemetery was by then over 100 years old and had fallen into disrepair and decay.
Overgrown and sprawling, the gothic Victorian graveyard seemed the perfect setting for the strange and sinister events that would follow.
One night in 1963, a couple were walking home down Swain’s Lane, which passed along cemetery’s north gate. What they encountered was so terrible they were frozen to the spot, transfixed with fear.
They had come face to face with what would later become known as the Highgate vampire. A tall, dark figure, floating behind the railings. Its face was the worst thing — a ghoulish nightmare contorted in horror.
More sightings would follow. A man walking his dog saw the same tall dark figure sliding over the wall along Swain’s Lane like ‘black treacle’.
By 1969, the reports from Highgate would pique the interest of David Farrant, a young Wicca enthusiast and member of the British Occult Society.
Farrant, along with ‘Bishop’ Sean Manchester, would become the 2 figures most associated with the case. The pair’s antics over the next few years are now infamous, and the ensuing feud sparked between them lasts to this day.
David Farrant had first heard about the sightings in the late 60s and decided to investigate for himself. One winter’s night in December 1969 Farrant camped out in the graveyard. He immediately hit ghostly pay dirt.
Farrant witnessed a very tall, dark figure, with piercing hypnotic eyes. The air around him had suddenly turned icy cold. This seemed to be the same entity he had heard about.
The local newspaper in Highgate — the Hampstead and Highgate Express, had become interested in the sightings. In particular, the reports of Satanists performing black magic and sacrificing animals at the cemetery.
The publicity attracted the attention of Sean Manchester, an eccentric and flamboyant figure that claimed to be a bishop in an obscure church. Not only was he a bishop, according to Manchester, he was also a vampire hunter.
In an interview with the Hampstead and Highgate Express in February 1970, Manchester claimed the figure was a ‘King Vampire’, an undead 15th century Romanian nobleman who had practised black magic in Wallachia — the home of Dracula himself.
Travelling to England, he had somehow ended up buried in what would become Highgate. Manchester told the paper that the vampire had been revived by the activity of the Satanists that were said to operate at the cemetery.
Here then, was born the legend of the Highgate Vampire.
On March 1970, Farrant and Manchester would both be interviewed about the sightings by the ITV News on the fitting date of Friday the 13th.
Manchester repeated his florid account of the King Vampire, and after goading Farrant, said he would personally be leading a vampire hunt at Highgate that very night.
A mob of people, in scenes reminiscent of a Hammer Horror film, soon descended on the cemetery. Hundreds of people climbed over the gates and walls to witness the hunt.
It turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. The hunt failed to find, least of all stake, a vampire. Several of those that took part did, however, report seeing a strange dark figure in the grounds of the cemetery.
Farrant and Manchester continued to investigate Highgate and its supposed Vampire. Farrant was even arrested later in 1970 near the cemetery carrying a crucifix and wooden stake.
In the years that followed, the pair would publish numerous books about the affair and their rivalry would grow more bitter.
In 1985, Manchester self-published his book ‘The Highgate Vampire’. In it, he sensationally claimed to have hunted the vampire for a further 13 years, before finally staking, beheading and burning it.
Manchester had consigned the ungodly being to hell. He even had the photos to prove it.
Did a vampire really stalk Highgate Cemetery?
Legacy of Blood
Legends and myths of blood drinking demons go back for millennia in nearly all cultures.
Lilitu in Babylonia, a female demon who drank the blood of babies, Vetālas in India and Empusa in ancient Greece all bore vampire-like qualities.
The modern vampire mythos originated in Eastern Europe in the 16th and 17th century. Jure Grando, a Croatian peasant, died in 1656 and became one of the first historical figures to be described as a vampire.
Grando was said to have come back to life as a blood-sucking undead corpse to terrorise the residents of his village. He was eventually put to rest after a plucky village cut his head off, a stake through the heart having failed to stop his rampage.
During the 18th century, a number of supposed vampire outbreaks caused widespread panic in Prussia and Serbia. Exhumations and stakings became common.
News of this vampire hysteria filtered through to Germany and England and inspired some of the earliest vampire fiction, such as Heinrich August Ossenfelder’s poem ‘The Vampire’ and Elizabeth Caroline Grey novel ‘The Skeleton Count, or The Vampire Mistress’.
In 1897, Irish author Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ was published and would become the definitive account of the modern vampire legend.
Stoker’s book established many of the common tropes we recognise today — his vampire had no reflection, he could change shape into an animal, he spawned vampire brides and he would have an archenemy — Van Helsing.
Dracula would go on to inspire innumerable films, books, tv shows and other media, and it seems, the principal players in the Highgate vampire saga.
Beyond fiction, many attempts have been made to find real world explanations for ‘vampires’.
In 1985, Canadian biochemist David Dolphin suggested a rare blood disease called porphyria may be the real source behind vampire legends.
Porphyria sufferers lack a vital pigment in their blood, and Dolphin suggested the ingestion of blood in vampire lore may be an attempt to replace this.
Furthermore, porphyria sufferers can be acutely sensitivity to light, to the extent that their skin can blister and burn in sunlight.
Spanish neurologist Juan Gomez-Alonso had an alternative explanation. In 1998, he noted that the symptoms of vampirism bore a striking resemblance to rabies.
Rabies sufferers can become hypersensitive to light, water and strong odours such as garlic. The disease attacks the central nervous system often leading to the victim becoming demented, nocturnal, and even hypersexual — all qualities associated with vampires.
Rabies can also cause spasming that forces the victims to cough up blood. Rather than undead demons, could vampires simply be rabies sufferers?
Gomez-Alonso found another interesting coincidence to back up his theory. Many of the famous vampire panics of 17th-century Eastern Europe coincided with rabies outbreaks.
Other suggested medical causes for vampirism are pellagra, a chronic shortage of niacin that causes the victims to blister in sunlight, and tuberculosis, which causes pale skin and red swollen eyes and lips.
Perhaps the most compelling real-world explanation for vampirism isn’t physical though, but psychological.
Blood drinking and other vampiric rituals are a feature of many psychopathic and serial murderers. Richard Trenton Chase was nicknamed ‘The Vampire Killer’ because he drank his victims blood and ate their remains.
Fritz Haarmann — ‘The Vampire of Hanover’, murdered 24 boys in Germany in the years following WW1. His preferred killing method was biting into their necks and throats.
90-year-old Mabel Leyshon was stabbed to death at her home in Anglesey, Wales, in November 2001. Her killer, 17 yr old Matthew Hardman, cut out her heart and drank her blood from a saucepan.
If the Highgate Vampire really existed, could he be a psychopath who believed himself to be a vampire? Or, as some suspected, were the psychopaths the ones doing the hunting?
A Toothless Monster
Whilst there were many sightings of ghostly apparitions in and around Highgate cemetery dating back to its construction, most of them were decidedly un-vampiric in nature.
Reports were diverse and inconsistent — a man in a hat, a white lady, a phantom cyclist, a paddling figure in a pond, a woman pushed over in the dark and noises such as bells and voices.
It wasn’t until the two central characters in the story — David Farrant and Sean Manchester, entered the fray that there was any suggestion of vampires.
Between them, they have written numerous books about the affair, and developed a bitter rivalry that continues into the age of the internet. But perhaps the thing they have most in common is the complete lack of evidence they provide for their claims.
There is and remains nothing, beyond the theatrical antics of the two men to suggest there was ever any kind of vampire prowling the decaying tombs of Highgate.
Today, Farrant says he does not believe what he refers to as ‘the entity’ was a vampire at all. In fact, he now states he never said it was in the first place.
This would appear to make his 1970 arrest — Farrant was found by police lurking at an adjoining garden to Highgate with a crucifix and wooden stake, all the more puzzling.
But it was Sean Manchester’s book The Highgate Vampire, recounting his incredible quest to hunt down and destroy the creature, that would do most to cement the enduring legend in the minds of the public.
However, after reading it, many would come to wonder why it was in the non-fiction section of the bookstores.
Stepping out of the page
Highgate cemetery has long featured in vampire lore. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lucy Westenra is buried at Highgate before rising as the undead to prey on local children.
Just a year before the events of the Highgate Vampire, Hammer filmed the latest in their series of famous horor films — Taste the Blood of Dracula, at the cemetery.
By the 1960s, Highgate had fallen heavily into disrepair. The foliage was thick and overgrown, tombs and coffins were broken and even some human remains had become exposed.
Replete with many strange and beautiful high gothic monuments, it also featured the Egyptian Avenue with two large obelisks and the foreboding Circle of Lebanon, a ring of vaults and catacombs.
It’s therefore not a surprise that this heady atmosphere would attract both horror filmmakers and those involved in the occult revival of the late 60s and early 70s.
It certainly seems Satanists were operating out of Highgate at the time. Black magic symbols and ritual paraphernalia were found, and even grisly incidents of tomb desecrations were recorded.
In 1971, the charred headless body of a woman with a stake through her chest was found at the cemetery. It was clear some dangerous and disturbed people were letting their imaginations get the better of them.
Indeed, many of the events of the Highgate vampire story appear to come straight from the pages of popular vampire fiction.
The antics of Sean Manchester, recounted in lurid fashion in his books, read like a mish-mash of late night horror films and bad vampire novels.
In his self-published 1985 work, Manchester claims that on the vampire hunt of 1970, his sleepwalking psychic companion, who just happened to be beautiful young blonde girl, led him through the catacombs to the vampire’s lair.
Unable to break into the vault, Manchester says he abseiled in through a hole in the roof, unnoticed by the large number of police in the area. Finding only empty coffins, he placed garlic and holy water around them to ward the monster off from returning.
Having apparently escaped his grasp, the vampire hunter then recounts his 13-year quest to hunt down and destroy the evil creature, eventually tracking it to an eerie, abandoned old house in London’s Crouch End.
Finding the vampire in its coffin, like a real life Van Helsing, Manchester says he kicked the lid off its casket, staked it through the heart and burnt the body, finally condemning the accursed creature to hell.
If this wasn’t enough, Manchester capped his tale with an audacious flourish. His undead sleepwalking companion, who he called Lusia, was now possessed by the evil vampire.
Whilst trying to exorcise her, she turned into a giant spider, which Manchester wrestled with before driving a stake through its heart and releasing Lusia from the evil spell.
Manchester, then, had moved far beyond the improbable into the utterly absurd.
Several aspects of his story are obviously borrowed directly from fiction — the undead sleepwalking Lusia is a thinly veiled facsimile of Lucy from Stoker’s Dracula, and several of the incidents Manchester recounts bear an uncanny resemblance to the work of author Dennis Wheatley.
Like much of the story surrounding the Highgate Vampire, Manchester’s account was a classic example of what folklorists call ostension — essentially life initiating art.
Ostension often revolves around places like Highgate, spooky and thick with legend and atmosphere, it is a location ripe for overactive imaginations to bring to life stories from the pages of fiction.
If then, much of the strange tale of the Highgate Vampire was more Hammer Horror than genuine haunting, the film studio repaid the compliment two years later.
Dracula 1972 A.D, according to author Bill Ellis, was directly inspired by news reports of the events at Highgate. A case of life, imitating art, imitating life.
Cover photo credit: dani0010/flickr