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The Sinister Saga of the Highgate Vampire

There are few stories quite as strange and sinister as that which concerned a terrifying monster called “The Highgate Vampire” – on account of the name of the old, London, England-based cemetery in which the creature lurked.  It was in the 1960s that Highgate Cemetery found itself inhabited by a most unwelcome visitor: a seven-to-eight-feet-tall monster with bright red eyes, an evil-looking and gaunt face, pale skin, and who wore a flowing black cloak. Amid the old graves, a dangerous parasite roamed by night. As for Highgate Cemetery, it was opened in 1839, is located in north London, and is comprised of the East Cemetery and the West Cemetery. It’s a huge and undeniably atmospheric cemetery which extends close to forty acres in size. Catacombs abound, as do moss-covered, crooked gravestones. The dead are everywhere. Also, the cemetery is dominated by huge trees, endless bushes and a massive variety of plants – not to mention a large fox population, owls, and birds of prey. In fact, so revered are Highgate Cemetery’s wooded areas, it has officially been listed as a “Historic Park and Gardens” by the British Government.

It’s not at all surprising that when the sun has set, when the land is shadowy, and when daylight is gone, the cemetery takes on an eerie air. The hoot of an owl, the creaking of the branches of an old tree, and the sight of many and varied old and battered gravestones all combine to send chills up and down the spine of more than a few who know the legend of the resident vampire. And, in decidedly synchronistic fashion, Hammer Film Productions’ 1970s movie Taste the Blood of Dracula was partly filmed in Highgate Cemetery.

Cemeteries are atmosphere-filled places at the best of times. In the 1960s, however, that atmosphere became distinctly chilled – maybe even freezing. Skulls, and even partial human skeletons, were found strewn around Highgate Cemetery, which at the time was very much overgrown – largely because, at the time, the entire place had been left to fall into rack and ruin, something which only amplified the air of mystery and fear that dominated the area. It should be noted, though, that long before the events of the 1960s began, there was already a vampire tradition at Highgate Cemetery. The story has a connection to none other than the man who brought Count Dracula to life: Bram Stoker.

It’s most intriguing to note that in Dracula, Stoker made mention of the old cemetery being the final resting place of one of the deadly count’s followers. It’s possible that Stoker was inspired by an all too real set of eerie circumstances that occurred in the 1800s. In 1855, a woman named Elizabeth Siddal was buried in the cemetery. She didn’t stay there for too long, though: in 1862 her grave was opened up – the reason being, we’re told, that the family wanted to recover a number of poems which Siddal had written and which were interred with her. To the horror of everyone present, and after seven years spent six-feet-under, Siddal looked exactly as she did in life: her corpse had not decayed and her red-hair looked freshly washed and dried. The implication was that Siddal was one of the undead: a vampire.

As for the latter day affairs, when the fiery-eyed creature in black began to be seen in Highgate Cemetery in the 1960s, it didn’t take long before the legend grew and grew: there were stories of people going missing, of graves allegedly desecrated, and of bodies vanished under mysterious circumstances. The creature was also seen roaming around at night, in the old Swains Lane area; its grim and cruel visage sending people into states of unbridled terror. One of the most significant cases took place in late 1969. The story was both strange and creepy: the man in question was taking a walk through the cemetery when he suddenly became disoriented – which was strange, as he knew the area very well. Suddenly, a black-garbed, red-eyed terror loomed into view – hovering several feet off the ground. The man did his utmost to flee the area, but it was all in vain. The creature got closer as the man got progressively weaker – which, with hindsight, led the man to believe the monster was draining him of his life; of his vital energies. The publicity surrounding the alarming incident prompted others to come forward who had also seen the vampire of Highgate Cemetery. One witness who, while walking her dog through the thick and unkempt trees late one night, encountered a shrieking, banshee-like thing that sailed through the air, after which it suddenly dematerialized.

As a then-new decade dawned – the 1970s – Highgate Cemetery’s resident vampire was still causing terror and mayhem. Numerous people contacted the local Hampstead & Highgate Express newspaper to share their encounters with the thing. One of those, whose story was published in the paper – R. Docherty – stated oif the ghost: “Of when and whom he originated I do not know. Many tales are told, however, about a tall man in a hat who walks across Swains Lane and just disappears through a wall in the cemetery. Local superstition also has it that the bells in the old disused chapel toll whenever he walks.” The above quote can also be found in Neil Arnold’s 2010 book, Paranormal London.

Realizing that tales of monsters and spooky places sell newspapers, the staff of the Hampstead & Highgate Express ran an article in 1970 titled “Does a Wampyr Walk in Highgate?” a wampyr being an old German term for a vampire. The interest in, and intrigue surrounding, Highgate’s cemetery’s resident monster was increasing rapidly. The ongoing publicity prompted a young woman to come forward with her own account of an encounter with the creature as she walked past the old cemetery late one night. The pale-faced thing threw her to the ground and vanished into the darkness. Things got even more bizarre when two young men, James White and Simon Wiles, were arrested by the police: the pair was seen prowling around the cemetery and brandishing nothing less than a wooden stake and a crucifix! The police took an extremely dim view of the attempts of the two to slaughter the vampire, but no charges were ever brought. Certainly, it’s doubtful that killing a vampire could even be considered a crime. By 1971, the sightings came to a mysterious-but-welcome halt.

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Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.
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