There can’t be many people with an interest in the paranormal and Forteana who have not heard of the well-publicised case of the Highgate ‘vampire’, which supposedly haunts Highgate Cemetery, North London. The popular press, at least, seemed hell-bent on foisting this alleged phenomenon upon an awed public throughout the early 1970s. So how much veracity did this press coverage really have, and why do people still care?
Highgate is probably more famous for its sprawling nineteenth century cemetery than it is for its alleged ‘vampire’. The gothic beauty of Highgate Cemetery certainly presents a suitable backdrop for ghost stories and rumours of supernatural activity. However, the mansion-estate upon which the 1830s cemetery was built was reputed to be haunted for many years prior to the latter’s opening in 1839. Indeed, according to local published sources dating as far back as 1923, as Della Farrant has noted in Haunted Highgate (2014), local opinion held that the land ‘was purchased advantageously as the house, having a reputation for being haunted, had stood empty for many years.’
Highgate’s paranormal reputation can traced even further back than this, and in written form as early as 1808. That one of the cemetery’s most famous ghosts is known to sport a top hat has encouraged the preconception that the entity or entities haunting the locale are of Victorian origin. This may well be erroneous in context not only of published historical references but in view of the habits and dress of the spectral incursions themselves. It is quite probable that some of Highgate’s ‘ghosts’ – including the so-called ‘Highgate Vampire’ – have origins in the Jacobean period if not as far back as the Romano-Celtic era or earlier.
The late 1960s and early 1970s
By the late 1960s, reports of mysterious figures sighted in or near Highgate Cemetery seemed to be increasing. From February 1970, some of these were printed in the Hampstead and Highgate Express, better known as the Ham & High. Within weeks a local ghost which was commonly accepted to haunt Swains Lane and Highgate Cemetery West became exaggerated out of all proportion, with the ‘helpful’ influence of headlines such as Does a Wampyr Walk in Highgate? and Why do the Foxes Die? . Throughout this period the British [Psychic and] Occult Society and its founder David Farrant, had been actively collating and investigating reports of a tall dark figure in the vicinity, which seemed despite its unusually aggressive nature to be as fangless as one’s average common or garden ghost.
The vampire myth
Prior to the spring of 1970 no one in Highgate had ever claimed to have seen a vampire in the area – ghosts, yes – but not bloodsucking vampires. Popular fascination with vampires has always ebbed and flowed, from the oeuvre of the 19th century gothic novel onwards. The Ham and High’s readiness to publish claims of the existence of such a creature in Highgate Cemetery [“for laughs” as the then editor later recalled] came at a time when the public were again rediscovering a fascination with ‘the undead’ – largely influenced by popular movies of the day. This was also an era when Witchcraft and the occult were hot topics in the press, and evidence of magical rituals in the incredibly neglected cemetery certainly helped set the scene for these nonsensical rumours – rumours which culminated in the ‘mass vampire hunt’ of Friday 13th March 1970 during which hundreds of people descended upon the cemetery with homemade stakes, causing incredible damage.
The influence of Hammer Horror films
In the digital age it may seem incredible that a whole generation could be influenced by films made with no CGI effects and no IMAX screens or laptops to watch them on. But the impact of the romance proffered by the silver screen upon teenagers and young adults in post war Britain cannot be underestimated.
Many popular horror films shot on location in Highgate Cemetery, such as Tales from the Crypt, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Dracula A.D. 1972 for some made the vampire mythos feel all too real and close to home. The latter film was even inspired directly by coverage within the popular press of the alleged activities of David Farrant, who was represented by the actor Christopher Neame in the role of the vampiric guru Johnny Alucard. Little wonder that fact and fantasy continued to blur as the 1970s progressed, and increasing numbers of celebrities (aspiring and established) jumped on the bandwagon.
These included such eccentric personalities as the late Screaming Lord Sutch. In August 1970 Sutch even announced his intention to film a vampire movie within the catacombs of Highgate Cemetery, starring the actress Carmen du Sautoy, needless to say without the permission of the London Cemetery Company. This ill-fated film was to be titled Daughter of Dracula and Jack the Ripper – which perhaps indicated just how quickly the Highgate situation was deteriorating into farce.
David Farrant’s arrests and imprisonment
If you are interested in the Highgate ‘vampire’, you have probably read many, many accounts in books and online which make reference to David Farrant’s imprisonment in relation to this case.
In 1970 David was arrested for ‘vampire hunting’ in Highgate Cemetery – a case dismissed by Judge Christopher Lea. Rare BBC archive footage now viewable on YouTube shows David re-enacting what the police alleged he was doing that night; but his only explanation – and the one which the magistrate believed – was that he and his coven were conducting a séance in an attempt to make contact with the entity which in 1969 he claimed to have also witnessed. The whole saga is extremely complicated, but in essence David Farrant was convicted in 1974 of various charges relating to the practice of Witchcraft and acts of desecration at Highgate Cemetery – with a few irrelevant charges bundled in for good measure.
What you may not be aware of is that many of these charges were dropped, and very few contributed to his incredibly harsh prison sentence of nearly five years. These matters are discussed in detail elsewhere on this site, not least here, and we encourage you to familiarise yourself with the facts behind what David still maintains were contrived and wrongful convictions – and allegations. There is also an excellent summary over at ‘The Fox’ ‘s Rebel Without a Soul. That a Witchcraft trial should have taken place at all in 1970s Britain hopefully in itself suggests further research is required by the discerning truth seeker.
Paranormal and Occult Explanations for the Highgate Entity
Despite spending two years and eight months in prison, upon his release David Farrant remained dedicated not only to the practice of Wicca but to exploring and researching possible explanations for the Highgate entity. He is certainly not alone in this pursuit, and over the proceeding four decades hundreds of independent researchers have mooted ‘explanations’ as to the entity’s origins. One theory put forward by David Farrant as early as 1971 was that the increase in encounters with this tall dark figure could have been connected with the use of the cemetery by black magical groups. Farrant proposed that necromantic rites could have ‘re-awakened’ a dark energy which rapidly became beyond the control of the group which had wittingly or otherwise invoked it. Related theories suggest that the entity could be or have been a ‘servitor’ – the occult concept of a visible thought-form created with a specific purpose. In this case, the suggested raison d’être of this ‘being’ was to keep people away from the vaults in which ceremonies were being carried out by its creators.
The entity’s tall, dark appearance coupled with its apparent ability to appear in both a cowled and top-hatted manner have indicated to some that it may be a ‘shadow person’ – an inter-dimensional species of as-yet unexplained phenomena, much like the Mothman of West Virginia.
The rather flimsy idea that the entity is a ‘graveyard guardian’ has also been bandied about on online forums, but this explanation is entirely at odds with the modernity of the cemetery vs. the antiquity of the site. The psycho-geography of Highgate may, however, hold the key to understanding at least some of the entity’s nature and motives. The proposal put forward by David Farrant that the tall dark figure – which has been reported at several other locations in Highgate such as The Gatehouse public house and Highgate Wood – could be moving along a ley line has gathered increasing support in recent years. One easily mappable ley appears to run south to north through the village and beyond, from the Circle of Lebanon in Highgate Cemetery, and this is intersected by at least two more which run west to east or vice versa. If the entity is genuinely demonstrating an attunement with these ancient paths of energy then attempts to ‘pin it down’ to one period in history may be utterly irrelevant. Indeed, if it is some kind of elemental or early Celtic godform which is triggered by ancestral memories then there is little hope of ever analysing it in detail – let alone ‘exorcising’ it.
The very fact that this entity is so difficult to categorise probably helps explain the public’s enduring fascination with its mysterious nature.
Whatever this apparently sentient and somewhat aggressive entity’s true nature, one fact seems indisputable – it is not, and never was a vampire. Not one victim has ever been identified, and a serial killer at large in Highgate – even a supernatural one – would surely by now have come to the attention of the Metropolitan Police if not MI6. But no cigar for that fairytale. Indeed, the continuing testimonies of those who have claim to have witnessed the Highgate entity’s brief but disturbing appearances in Swains Lane certainly contradict the fictional statements disguised as fact by one publicity seeker that it was ‘staked and incinerated’ in the back garden of a house in nearby Avenue Road! The Highgate entity is no more a ‘vampire’ than the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall – or for that matter, the Phantom Bus of Ladbroke Grove!
Something which singles out the Highgate case from the majority of other ongoing Fortean mysteries is the bizarre behaviour exhibited by some people who adopt it as a personal hobby horse. People from all over the world, many of whom have never been to Highgate let alone met anyone who claims to have seen the entity, seem prone to becoming unhealthily obsessed with the case. Largely their fixation seems narrowed to discussing personalities involved in genuinely researching the case (or claiming to do so), and not actually debating its paranormal aspects at all. Which surely are what it is all about – or what it began as. The Highgate ‘vampire’ seems rather unique in this regard, with the exception of the cross-pond raging arguments which take place about yetis and the sasquatch. Online debate about Highgate differs from the latter in that cryptozoologists seem more interested in the actual subject matter than they are in stalking, defaming and causing damage to high profile ‘players’ involved in the furtherance of education of the topic. Whatever, the occult and the paranormal will always attract phonies and oddballs with nothing sincere to contribute. Our advice to anyone with a genuine interest in the supernatural conundrum of the Highgate phenomenon is to keep their own council, read, retain and distil the vast source material which is out there, and – if you inadvertently stumble into one of the feeble corners of the internet where such pettiness as described above is manifest – play Highgate Vampire Bingo for an hour or so before seeking out more mature company 😉
Many primary sources including videos of witness testimony and original news reports can be found around this site. The Highgate Vampire has even found its way onto Wikipedia and RationalWiki in recent years, and both sites are worth a visit as independent reference points.
In case any of the above does not help make The B.P.O.S.’s approach to this complicated case clear enough –
- David Farrant believes that an unexplained phenomenon does manifest at Highgate Cemetery, and yes he did see it himself – once – in 1969
- David Farrant does not believe in vampires. Full stop.
- David Farrant has no interest in online spite, arguments, stalking or petty behaviour. Life is too short, and there are too many mysteries to debate and unravel which have greater significance.
- David Farrant IS interested in hearing from people who believe that they have experienced paranormal phenomena (except vampires!), or have theories which could help identify the nature of the Highgate entity.
We really hope you enjoy the rest of this site, if this is the first page you landed on.
The British Psychic and Occult Society, 2014