By Charles Christian
A few days ago I received an invitation to join The Highgate Cemetery Vampire Appreciation Society on Facebook. This is an online forum for discussing one of the best-known cases of modern vampirism – or at least alleged vampirism – in the UK. Why did I get the invite? Because I’ve written about it before – and I was there. Here’s the inside skinny…
In my short story “Confessions of a Teenage Ghost-Hunter,” (originally published in the 2011 ghost story collection A Dream of Stone & Other Ghost Stories and last year reissued by Apophenia www.paraphiliamagazine.com/adreamofstone.html) the following passage appears…
“I used to belong to this outfit – called The Ghost Club – which used to meet in one of London’s Pall Mall clubs to discuss apparitions and hauntings. It was full of ghost story novellists and Madame Arcati (the Margaret Rutherford version of Blithe Spirits) look-alikes. Anyway, somewhere along the way I found myself on an expedition to look for a nest of vampires in Highgate Cemetery, in north London. This was the spooky, overgrown Western Cemetery with its crumbling family mausoleums and gothic vaults, rather than the smarter, tidier Eastern Cemetery that is the home to Karl Marx’s grave.
“But vampires don’t exist,” says Georgia interrupting me mid-flow.
“I know that and you know that from first-hand experience,” I reply “but that doesn’t stop people believing in them, acting as if they are real and going the whole Van Helsing nine yards with the pointy wooden stakes and everything.”
“So did you find this vampire infestation?”
“We did, there was an underground vault that had been broken into and inside we could see one of the coffins had been prised open and its contents sowed with salt before being set ablaze. All that remained were some gobbets of melted lead, from the coffin lining, embedded with flakes of charred bone. Oh yes, and there were about a dozen bulbs of garlic strewn around the tomb.”
“Well that’s one vampire, who never existed in the first place, who won’t be returning to plague the living,” says Georgia.
“Of course,” I go on, “I was still a feckless youth back then, which is probably why I pulled a lump of the coffin-lead from the grave and took it home as a souvenir. I used it as a paperweight.”
Georgia winces, then pokes her fingers down her throat to simulate retching. “Where is it now?”
“I dumped it years ago. My first serious live-in girlfriend said it was gross, freaked her out and wanted me to get rid of it. As she was providing me with pretty much on-demand sex, as well as catering and laundry services, I certainly wasn’t going to protest.”
“Always the New Man, eh?” says Georgia.
So much for fiction but what’s the real story?
In fact this is a semi-autobiographical tale. I was a member of The Ghost Club (it still exists but has now split into two separate organisations). I did go on a vampire hunting trip to Highgate. There was a vault that had been broken open. There was a burned out coffin strewn with garlic. I did remove a piece of bone-encrusted, melted coffin-lead as a souvenir. I know, I must have been going through a Goth phase. And I did throw it away when it grossed-out my first live-in girlfriend.
The year would have been 1972, just a couple of years after The Highgate Vampire story had been all over the national papers and when I’d first moved down to London. You can find a comprehensive explanation on Wikipedia however in summary during late 1969 and early 1970 there were numerous reports of supernatural activity in and around Highgate Cemetery, which in those days was in a dilapidated and vandalised state.
Two local amateur ghost-hunters/psychic investigators – David Farrant and Seán Manchester – separately studied the sightings, with Manchester subsequently claiming the graveyard was haunted by a Dracula-like vampire. After this events, fuelled by media interest, got out of hand, with the cemetery overrun on the evening of Friday 13th March 1970 by a mob of quote/unquote ‘vampire hunters’. Several months later on 1st August (Lammas Day) the charred and headless remains of a woman’s body were found near the catacombs Manchester believed housed the coffin of “a King Vampire of the Undead.” (These are the words reported by the local Hampstead & Highgate Express newspaper although Manchester denies using this phrase.)
For reasons now no longer clear, a feud blew up between Farrant and Manchester – a rivalry and enmity that from their respective websites and the postings of their followers clearly continues to this day. Both claim they are exorcists and paranormal researchers – and both pour scorn on the other’s expertise. During the 1970s they also both challenged each other to meet for Magician’s Duels but they never did.
Manchester went on to write a number of books about the incident, including The Vampire Hunter’s Handbook, and is now a bishop of the British Old Catholic Church (as distinct from the mainstream Roman Catholic Church). Farrant is also still active and has written extensively about the subject however in 1974 he was jailed for damaging memorials and interfering with the remains of the dead in Highgate Cemetery. Farrant claims he was framed and that the desecration was caused by unknown Satanists. Manchester, incidentally, also blamed Satanists for reawakening the vampire at the heart of this story.
And that is it. There undoubtedly were people practising Black Magic in Highgate Cemetery in the late 1960s and early 70s – and I’ve no doubt the desecrated coffin I encountered was their handiwork. However since then the cemetery has been extensively renovated and brought back into a more manageable state, reducing the case of the Highgate Vampire to an interesting historical footnote from 40 years ago.
The incident is also a classic example of what folklorists call legend tripping or ostension whereby real life comes to imitate art, in this case with the story echoing the original Bram Stoker Dracula novel. In fact, in a further twist of art imitating real life imitating art, the Hammer Horror movie Dracula AD 1972, was released in late 1972 starring Christopher Lee as the count and Peter Cushing as a descendant of Van Helsing, was inspired by the Highgate Vampire affair and set in contemporary London.
Dracula AD 1972 trivia: Although the movie was the seventh Hammer film featuring Dracula, it was only the second to feature both Lee and Cushing playing together in their respective roles as Count Dracula and Van Helsing. The photo shows Christoper Lee surrounded by (anti-clockwise from top-left to top-right) a very young looking Stephanie Beacham (in white): Caroline Munro, who was the queen of the UK horror and fantasy movies (she was also in a James Bond movie scene in the late-1960s to late-1970s; sitting next to her is the late Janet Key; and standing next to her is Marsha Hunt, who at that time was Mick Jagger’s main squeeze. And ‘no’ I don’t know what is going on with the girls’ hands in the bottom r/h corner of the picture!
Charles Christian’s latest book Secret Cargo (a sci-fi, steampunk, GLBT adventure) is out now and available in print and ebook formats from Amazon and directly from www.urbanfantasist.com