Highgate Cemetery sits atop a tall unassuming hill in the London borough of Islington. Red, double-decker buses stop on Highgate Hill Street, pubs offer an open, friendly door, and families play in the quiet Waterlow Park that brushes against the cemetery. Clean paths split by thick grass cut only in patches lead walkers through the park to the black metal gates of the cemetery, the last resting place of author Douglas Adams, physicist Michael Faraday, political philosopher Karl Marx, and many British artists, entertainers, architects, and military heroes.
And maybe something dark. Highgate Cemetery is also known for a vampire.
The popularization of the haunting of Highgate Cemetery began in 1970 when David Farrant wrote this letter to The Hampstead and Highgate Express published 6 February 1970:
“Some nights I walk home past the gates of Highgate Cemetery.”
“On three occasions I have seen what appeared to be a ghost-like figure inside the gates at the top of Swains Lane.
“The first occasion was on Christmas Eve. I saw a grey figure for a few seconds before it disappeared into the darkness. The second sighting, a week later, was also brief.
“Last week the figure appeared, only a few yards inside the gates. This time it was there long enough for me to see it much more clearly, and now I can think of no other explanation than this apparition being supernatural.
“I have no knowledge in the field and I would be interested to hear if any other readers have seen anything of this nature.”
– David Farrant, Priestwood Mansions
Farrant apparently spent Christmas Eve 1969 in the cemetery.
After his initial report, letters began to flow into The Express:
“With reference to the letter in last week’s Ham and High, many local people have seen Mr. Farrant’s ghost in Highgate Cemetery.
“The ghost will sometimes appear nightly for about a week, and then not be seen again for perhaps a month.
“To my knowledge the ghost always takes the form of a pale figure and has been reappearing for several years.”
– K. Frewin, North Hill
“There is without a doubt a ghost. Of when and how he originated I do not know. Many tales are told, however, about a tall man in a hat who walks across Swain’s Lane and just disappears through a wall into the cemetery.
“Local superstition also has it that the bells in the old disused chapel inside the cemetery toll mysteriously whenever he walks.”
– R. Docherty, Highgate west Hill
“A frightening experience occurred on the Heath. I was passing beside the viaduct pond when a figure on the far side beckoned me.
“As I approached, the figure started wading into the water, staring at me with a horrific look. It continued into the pond, motioning me to follow.
“I knew that what I was looking at was not human, as there were no ripples in the water around it. With a terrible cry the head disappeared beneath the still water, leaving me trembling.”
-J. McKennar, Muswell Hill Road
Unfortunately some letters, such as Docherty and McKennar’s, have been labeled frauds. However, the story gained traction when another area man, Seán Manchester, claimed in The Hampsted and Highgate Express also in February 1970, that the dark figure was a medieval Romanian nobleman buried in secret in Highgate Cemetery in the 1800s, woken by modern-day Satanists, and rose from the grave as a vampire.
The cemetery looks the part. New tombstones alongside ancient ones crowd the paved and dirt paths that weave through Highgate. Thick vines obscure the oldest stones that jut at angles from the ground deeper into the trees. Many of the stone lids to gravesites are broken, or twisted open by encroaching tree roots, giving the impression something has crawled from the grave.
However, there is no evidence of Manchester’s Romanian nobleman, and an attempt at an organized vampire hunt on 13 March 1970 proved disastrous. Crowds of people armed with garlic, crosses, holy water, and stakes pushed through a line of policemen to become part of the hunt. Nothing paranormal was found that night.
In his book “The Highgate Vampire,” Manchester, who claims to be a bishop with the Old Catholic Church, said he tracked down the vampire years later and killed it.
David Farrant, who started the reports, has written many books on the paranormal, including “Beyond the Highgate Vampire.”
During my visit to the cemetery, volunteer Eileen Brown (“Please don’t use my name. I’m just a volunteer”) told me the legend of the Highgate vampire is just that.
“That’s what it is,” she said. “A legend. A story.”
And a fun one at that.