Sadly the legend of the Highgate Vampire is just that. It was invented by two adventurers out to make a name, and stirred up by local and national press coverage.
Disappointing I know, but as Robert Louis Stevenson said, ‘It is better to travel hopefully than arrive’. At least I think it was him, and not George Stephenson who made the Rocket locomotive for the first passenger railway service from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830. Although it makes more sense coming from George, I imagine he would have said, ‘It is better to arrive than travel hopefully’… a motto British Rail are still trying to fulfill.
The 1960s saw a huge occult resurgence. By 1970 the Sunday scandal sheets, News of the World and People (think National Inquirer) were regularly running sensational stories about UFOs, poltergeists, Wicca and Black Magic. Every month there was something on Alistair Crowley; a black magician they called ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’.
Considering the News of the World’s scandalous activities, which forced the paper to fold, I should think that title surely belonged to the incumbent editor.
On the western edge of London the Victorian necropolis of Highgate Cemetery was famous for its ornate tombs. By 1960 it was overgrown and neglected. Tombs were vandalised, coffins and even human remains were exposed. No surprise it was thought haunted, probably with good reason given it looked like something from a gothic horror movie.
Despite it being the vampire Lucy Westenra’s burial place, (she was one of Dracula’s victims in Bram Stoker’s book), the spectres were not vampires, but vague dark or pale forms: a man in a hat, a ghostly cyclist, a woman in white, calling voices and strange noises. Some of which might be explained by the fact the place was a gay cruising ground according to actor Kenneth Williams and the playwright Joe Orton.
The vampire stories started with David Farrant who took it upon himself to dispose of the ghoul after claiming he had reports:
- In 1963 a couple walking in Swain’s Lane, near the cemetery’s north gate came face to face with a tall, dark figure with a ghoulish face contorted in horror, floating behind the railings.
- While walking his dog, a man saw a figure sliding like ‘black treacle’ over the cemetery wall in Swain’s Lane.
- An old woman was frightened by a ‘tall dark man with glaring eyes’ who floated at her from the cemetery gates before vanishing.
Farrant’s fabulous claims, reported in the local paper, attracted the interest of occultist Sean Manchester, who not to be eclipsed, asserted the creature was a ‘King Vampire’, using Stoker’s term, revived by Satanists. Like Dracula, he was a 15th century Romanian nobleman from Wallachia, who practised black magic. After travelling to England, he was somehow buried in the cemetery.
March 1970 saw the now bitter rivals challenging each other to seek and destroy the undead fiend. A crowd gathered in Highgate Cemetery to witness their antics, while the newspapers gleefully reported the whole fiasco.
In August, Police found a charred headless exhumed female corpse. They believed black magic was involved. Later that month Farrant was arrested in the cemetery carrying a crucifix and stake. Charges were dismissed.
Meanwhile, in true Van Helsing style, Manchester told a lurid tale of destroying the vampire in the cellar of a nearby house, adding the creature’s malevolent spirit possessed his girlfriend, until he successfully exorcised it.
Claims and counter claims escalated, until in a blaze of publicity they challenged each other to a magicians’ duel in April ‘73. The only people who didn’t turn up were the two protagonists. A year later Farrant was arrested again for vandalism and desecration in Highgate Cemetery, and this time imprisoned.
The men’s fevered rivalry continues to this day, leading many investigators to conclude the real story is not the Highgate Vampire but their long bitter feud.