THE HIGHGATE VAMPIRE
Posted November 7, 2011on:
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I once made a vow that I would never write about this case. I thought that the main protaganists in it had already had enough attention, and had probably bored everybody witless with their endless feuding over the years. But it is a curious case nonetheless. I am always interested in areas that are gripped by a sudden outbreak of Weirdness, and this one is a particularly fascinating one. Highgate Cemetery, London, is a place of gothic magnificence, crammed with extravagent Victorian tombs and mausoleums. It is the burial-place of many famous people, from Karl Marx, to more recent showbusiness personalities like Max Wall, Jeremy Beadle and Malcolm McLaren. It looks exactly like a haunt of ghosts and vampires, and in the latter half of the 20th century that is what some people would have us believe it was. BUT when I did the first draft of this blog-piece I concentrated on the events of the early 1970s, thinking that was mainly all there was, a brief spell of vampire-mania as it were. Seems that wasn’t quite the case though.
THE ‘VAMPIRE ATTACKS’ OF THE 1920s
I stumbled upon the Strange Days website, which listed weird events in the area going back to the 1920s. On 22 April 1922 an office-clerk was on his way to work in the West End, when he felt an invisible assailant grab him as he turned into Coventry Street. The mystery attacker pierced his neck and drew blood. The clerk fainted. He was taken to Charing Cross Hospital, where it was concluded that he had been stabbed with a thin, tubular object. The clerk was adament that there had been no one near enough to him at the time to inflict such a wound.
This was all very odd enough, but just over 2 hours later somebody else turned up at the hospital with neck injuries, also citing an unknown assailent. Incredibly, a THIRD victim appeared later on. Both people had been attacked in exactly the same location as the office-clerk.
Rumours that a vampire was on the loose in the area became rife. The gossip-machine even had it that the police had hired a professional vampire-hunter (something which the police emphatically denied) to stalk the creature. One policeman though said he did believe that a vampire was buried in Highgate Cemetary, with (appropriately enough) a stake through its heart.
THE SWINGING SIXTIES
By the 1960s the cemetery was in a sorry state, neglected and overgrown. It had become a favourite hang-out of young people all looking for an alternative thrill. Tales about a monstrous creature on the loose were about to be resurrected, and become even more terrifying. In 1963 two girls were walking along Swain’s Lane in the area. On passing the North Gate, they said they were petrified by the sight of bodies rising en-masse from the graves!!
A few weeks later a couple saw a hideous phantom, with a “face of unspeakable evil” [insert an appropriate joke of your choice here] beyond the cemetery railings. At around the same time animal corpses, drained of blood, began to appear in the cemetery. All this was quite exciting enough, and frankly I’m surprised anyone wanted to exacerbate the spooky events. But late in 1969 a group of Occultists gathered to enact a voodoo raising-of-the-dead ceremony in the area. If they are to be believed it worked quite spectacularly, with a tall, black-clad creature suddenly looming up and chasing them. One said that, as he climbed the railings to escape, he looked back and saw a bony arm reaching out to grab him.
The sinister black-clad figure was out and about in January 1970 as well. A motorist driving along Swains Lane suddenly found his car stalling on him. He got out to investigate the trouble, and found himself being stared at by a Nosferatu-esque figure on the other side of the railings. The hapless motorist abandoned his vehicle and fled the scene.
THE SEVENTIES – AND THINGS GET VERY EXCITING INDEED
In February 1970, a local resident, David Farrant (who had also been known to spend the odd night in the cemetery), wrote a letter to the ‘Hampstead and Highgate Express’, saying that he had been going past the cemetery the previous Christmas Eve, when he had sighted a “grey figure”. He assumed it was a ghost, and asked if anyone else had had any spectral sightings in the area. This opened the floodgates. A week later the paper was inundated with reports from locals of strange phantoms they had seen, these included:
. a tall man in a hat
. a phantom cyclist
. a woman in white
. a face glaring through the bars of a gate [probably the hideously evil one]
. a figure wading into a pond
. a vague, pale form
People also reported hearing the sound of bells ringing, and voices calling.
ENTER SEAN MANCHESTER
All that should have been plenty to keep any self-respecting psychic investigator contented for the time being. Highgate Cemetery would seem to be a very haunted and atmospheric place. Marvellous. But clearly that was not enough for some. A couple of weeks later another local man, Sean Manchester, wrote to the paper saying that he believed A Medieval King Vampire Of The Undead (no less) was buried in the area in the 18th century, after having been brought over from Romania in a coffin. Modern Satanists practising their dastardly arts in the area had roused this forbidding character, who was now at large in Highgate. (Cripes). Manchester went on to say that the only solution was to do the right thing, and put a stake through this creature, and then behead and burn it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the local press loved all this, and came up with the wonderful headline ‘DOES A VAMPYR WALK IN HIGHGATE?’ (Manchester was to claim later that the Romanian vampire story was all a journalistic embellishment, even though he has written about it himself). All this was a bit of fun of course, perhaps something to liven up the end of a long, dreary London winter. And as Manchester could offer no evidence for his startling claims, the story would probably have died a quick and natural death. But Manchester and Farrant had the bit between their teeth by now (in these early days they were united in their belief in a vampire), and weren’t going to let it fade in a hurry.
A week later, on 6 March, Farrant told the press that he had seen dead foxes in the cemetery, and it wasn’t clear how they had died. On hearing this, Manchester said it all tied in with his fantastical theory. Both men were to later claim that they had seen the corpses of dead foxes, which had been mysteriously drained of blood. Farrant (a less colourful character than the flamboyant Manchester) didn’t seem at ease with the Vampire legend that was starting to grow, and at first stuck to his initial statement that what he had seen in the cemetery was a common-or-garden ghost.
THINGS GET OUT OF HAND
I think it is safe to say that the whole Highgate Vampire legend was was accelerated by the growing feud between Farrant and Manchester. They were two local men, both seemingly struggling to gain prominent position in the Chief Local Paranormal Authority stakes. Both suddenly decided to set themselves up as Highgate’s answer to Van Helsing. They each announced that they would destroy the creature. Manchester went one further and said that he would hold an “official vampire hunt” on (appropriately enough) Friday The 13th.
Major British news channel ITV got in on the act, and interviewed both Manchester and Farrant, and these interviews were broadcast early that evening. Within a couple of hours the cemetery was mobbed with amateur “vampire-hunters” descending from all over London. In spite of efforts by the police to keep them out, they swarmed over the locked gates and walls into the cemetery. It was an absolute debacle.
Manchester was to claim a few years later that he and his trusty cohorts had managed to get into the cemetery, and went to a particular mausoleum (where he had been directed by a local psychic girl, who had sleepwalkingly led him there on a previous occasion). Unable to get in through the door of the tomb, they had sort of paraglided in down on a rope through a hole in the roof. Finding empty coffins inside, they had put garlic in them, and splashed holy water around.
LAMMAS DAY HORROR
Of course it’s all very easy for me to sneer, and I’m afraid that’s not helped by the whole utter farce of the vampire-hunt. BUT, things did take a very macabre turn a few months later. On 1 August – a significant date in Satanic worship, being the festival of Lammas (it’s also a significant date in the Pagan calendar, but for the wholly harmless reason that it used to be to commemorate the bringing in of the harvest) – the charred and decapitated remains of a woman were found not far from the catacomb. To add to the horror, the police believed she had been a victim of ritual black magic.
Inevitably this would be seized upon by Farrant and Manchester. The police found David Farrant loitering in the churchyard near the cemetery one August night soon after, armed with a crucifix and a wooden stake. He was arrested, but the case was thrown out of court. Manchester returned to the cemetery as well, but in daylight hours this time. He claimed that (led there again by his psychic friend) he managed to prise open the doors of a family vault. Once inside he opened up a coffin, and was about to do his noble deed with the mallet and stake, when a friend asked him to desist (I’m not sure why). With great reluctance, Manchester re-closed the lid, arranged some garlic around the place, and left the tomb.
There were no witnesses to this astonishing event. Nor to the time 3 years later when Manchester claimed he found a vampiric corpse in the cellar of an empty house in the area, and staked and burnt it.
In spite of the increasingly farcical situation between Manchester and Farrant, tales of the Undead creature prowling around continued. In 1971 a girl reported being attacked by it in the lane and thrown to the ground. She said it was dressed in black, and had a deathly-white face. A passing Good Samaritan went to her rescue, and the creature ran off. The girl was taken to the nearest police station, where it was noted that she had abrasions on her arms from where she had fought it off. The police combed the area, but found nothing. Another visitor the cemetery claimed to have been “hypnotised with fear”, when he came face-to-face with the spectre.
Three years later occurred one of the most gruesome events of the whole saga. A man locked his car to take his dog for a walk in the area. He came back to find a freshly-disinterred corpse inside it, even though the doors were still locked. Horrible.
We aren’t done with Messrs Manchester and Farrant yet either. On Friday 13 April 1973 rumours spread that Manchester and Farrant would meet in an “magicians’ duel’ on Parliament Hill. Quite what this would involve is not clear, and in any case it was never to happen.
Things get deeply sad and pathetic in 1974, when Farrant was jailed for vandalism and desecration in the cemetery. Farrant protested that all this had been done by Satanists, not him, but the courts weren’t having it. I think it is safe to say that Farrant cuts the sadder figure in this. From what I’ve heard these days he’s a somewhat frail old man, a compulsive chain-smoker, still carrying on the four decades-long feud with his old foe. Manchester is a self-proclaimed bishop, the country’s leading vampire-hunter, and an exorcist.
Many years ago, in the 1990s, I heard him being interviewed on Radio 1 by Nicky Campbell. Manchester could certainly tell a story, he spoke with great earnestness about encountering an evil black shape in the cemetery. Afterwards the Radio 1 switchboard was lit up with people ringing in to ask “is this guy for real?” I guess the only real answer is … well he thinks he is.
Once again I had to revise my original opinion that the Highgate Vampire was an urban legend belonging to the early 1970s. Only a few years ago apparently, in 2007, a female motorist reported seeing something that looked suspiciously like our old Nosferatu clone in the area. She said it walked through the cemetery wall. A few days later a dog-walker in Highgate Woods saw the creature near an old Roman settlement. It reputedly vanished into the ether.
In spite of some of my joking in this piece, reading up on the Highgate legend has made me even more interested in it. It plainly can’t be just dismissed as a brief spell of local hysteria, whipped up by two men with their own axes to grind. But just what was it? Some of it could be hoaxes of course, and that can’t be ruled out. When a tale like this grips the public imagination, then inevitably some pranksters will seize on it to have a bit of fun. Perhaps some of the sightings of the black-clad figure with the deathly-white face was just somebody dressing up for a laugh, Halloween-style. Also you have the fisherman’s tale syndrome, where somebody stretches out an anecdote until it’s as far-fetched as they can make it. None of that can be ruled out. Maybe, like so many areas of intense paranormal activity, it really is nothing more than a good case-study of mass-hysteria and mass-manipulation for a psychologist to … er … get their teeth into.
But there are also some very sinister aspects of this story that can’t be easily dismissed out of hand. There are the tales of Satanic ritual. I am loath to rule these out as nonsense, as I’m beginning to think these days there is some credibility to them. It has even been acknowledged that the corpses found in the area in the early 1970s had been victims of Satanic ritual. That to me is far more interesting, and far more frightening, than any gothic stories of a vampire stalking about.