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Travel

The strange tale of the Highgate vampire

@SamWKemp

In March 1969, the British Psychic and Occult Society began receiving reports of a tall black apparition stalking the tombs of London’s Highgate Cemetery. Most of the accounts turned out to be regurgitations of local gossip, but it wasn’t long before investigators traced a man claiming to have had a first-hand experience with what came to be known as “The Highgate Vampire”. The witness recalled having been “hypnotized” by something lurking in the shadows. He began to make his way for the exit, but soon found himself lost and disoriented.

As he stumbled around in the night, he began to feel the presence of something behind him. Spinning around, he saw a tall black figure, which abruptly vanished. Not long after, two teenage girls who had been walking home along Swain Lane claimed to have witnessed the spirits of the dead rising from their graves. An elderly woman also claimed she had been frightened by a “tall dark man” with “glaring eyes” while walking her dog inside the cemetery gates. Then, the foxes started dying.

All of this was promptly picked by local newspapers such as the Hampstead and Highgate Express, which, in February 1970, ran an article with the headline ‘Why Do The Foxes Die?’ in which they suggested the local sightings were proof of a vampire and evidence of occult activity in Highgate cemetery. The suggestion was, of course, that the foxes, which had been found with deep lacerations to the throat, had been killed by the Vampire. Although David Farrant, British Occult Society Investigator and eventual vampire hunter, dismissed such claims. He did not rule out the possibility that the animals had been trapped and used as sacrifices in Black Magic rituals, however.

After embarking on an extensive investigation of the local sightings, during which he and his colleagues supposedly spotted the apparition, Farrant wrote to the Hampstead and Highgate Express, claiming that he had evidence of the vampire and of Satanic activity in the cemetery. Shortly after, Farrant’s team was invited to give a personal account of the investigation for an independent television programme. The Society denied this request as it forbade any release of information about ongoing investigations. Farrant, on the other hand, was happy to recount his own personal encounter with the vampire.

In his book Beyond The Highgate Vampire, Farrant claims that he was careful to avoid using sensationalist terms like “vampire” during the interview. However, another interviewee, “a somewhat theatrical character who had been pestering local newspapers looking for publicity since he had first become aware of the investigation, claimed that the phenomenon was in fact ‘King Vampire’, and, after producing a crucifix and home-made wooden stake, announced that to exorcise a vampire one must ‘…first drive a stake through its heart with one blow, chop off its head with a gravedigger’s shovel, and burn what remains.'”

This was Sean Manchester, a self-proclaimed exorcist, vampire hunter and bishop of the Old Catholic Church. Unlike Farrant, he was convinced that the phenomenon was indeed a vampire of the Bram Stoker tradition and vowed to dispatch the creature once and for all. Manchester went on to claim that Farrant – who had previously told an over-zealous reporter that he was “prepared to take any means necessary” to rid Highgate of the creature – would be joining him on this dangerous mission.

If Manchester’s comments were designed to create maximum publicity then he certainly succeeded. The night following the TV broadcast, hundreds of people armed with wooden stakes and shovels converged on Highgate Cemetery to take part in a “vampire hunt”. After breaching the police cordon and storming the cemetery, several of the vampire hunters scrambled back to safety, having spotted something “crawling in the dark.” In an interview with The London Evening News, one Mr Anthony Robinson recalled: “I walked past the place and heard a high pitched noise, then I saw something grey moving slowly across the road. It terrified me…I’ve never believed in anything like this, now I’m sure there’s something evil lurking in Highgate.”

Farrant, on the other hand, remained unconvinced, blaming the sightings on mass hysteria generated by the press. Indeed, over the next few months, there were no significant developments and sightings seemed to drop off. What followed, however, more than made up for this period of inactivity. In the August of 1970, two schoolgirls stumbled across the 100-year-old corpse of a woman who had been dragged from her coffin, decapitated, staked through the heart, and left in the middle of the pathway. This gruesome discovery sparked a police investigation and a resurgence in vampire sightings, with one woman claiming that she had been thrown to the ground by a tall, pallid figure cloaked in black. Farrant was troubled by this development. Past sightings had led only to frightening encounters; this was an act of aggression. The incident seemed to prove that the creature posed a real threat, so the Society agreed to conduct a psychic seance in Highgate Cemetery. “If successful, a rite of exorcism could then be performed to banish the entity from the earthly pane,” Farrant later wrote.

On August 17th, 1970, Farrant and other Society members entered the Cemetery and walked to the site of the initial sighting. They drew a large circle upon the ground, which they sealed with protective symbols, salt and holy water. A second circle adorned with burning candles and incense was laid around where the demon was expected to appear. No sooner had the seance commenced than human voices were heard in the distance: it was the police. The occult paraphernalia was quickly bundled together and Farrant made a dash for the nearest exit. Unfortunately, he was quickly spotted and arrested.

Though belief in the Highgate Vampire waxed and waned over the years, the animosity between Farrant and Manchester remained at fever pitch until the former’s death in 2019. In 1973, just a year before Farrant was jailed for grave desecration, the pair decided to settle the score with a “magical duel” on Parliament Hill, Hampstead. The melee was eventually called off, however, and the pair set about putting their efforts into writing, contemplation and the odd political project. In 1978, for example, Farrant ran in Hornsey as the sole candidate for his Wicca Workers Party, which advocated nudity, free sex, the restoration of the Wiccan creed, the establishment of state brothels, outlawing communism and leaving the EU Common Market.