Everyone knows the story of how Orson Wells caused a minor panic with his radio rendition of War of the Worlds. Not everyone is as familiar with the vampire panic of the late 60s and the early 70s, when rumors swirled that there was a “King Vampire of the Undead” living in London’s Highgate Cemetery.
Highgate is one of the great Victorian cemeteries, crammed with examples of incredible funerary architecture. It is home to the remains of everyone from philosopher Karl Marx to science fiction author Douglas Adams.
However in the late 1960s it also became the home of a “King Vampire of the Undead“, at least in the pages of the British Press and the minds of English teenagers. Through the perfect storm of teenage high jinks, yellow journalism, and local dueling occultists, the cemetery became home to a vampire panic that would result in corpses being disinterred, staked through the heart, beheaded, and set on fire.
London’s King Vampire of the Undead
According to Wikipedia, during late 1969 and early 1970 there were numerous reports of supernatural activity in and around Highgate Cemetery, which in those days was in a dilapidated and vandalized state.
Two local amateur ghost-hunters/psychic investigators – David Farrant and Seán Manchester – separately studied the sightings, with Manchester subsequently claiming the graveyard was haunted by a Dracula-like vampire. After this events, fuelled by media interest, got out of hand, with the cemetery overrun on the evening of Friday 13th March 1970 by a mob of “vampire hunters”. Several months later on 1st August (Lammas Day) the charred and headless remains of a woman’s body were found near the catacombs Manchester believed housed the coffin of “a King Vampire of the Undead” (in the words of the Hampstead & Highgate Express).
For reasons now no longer clear, a feud blew up between Farrant and Manchester – a rivalry and enmity that from their respective websites and the postings of their followers clearly continues to this day. Both claim they are exorcists and paranormal researchers – and both pour scorn on the other’s expertise. During the 1970s, they even challenged each other to a Magician’s Duels.
Manchester went on to write a number of books about the incident, including The Vampire Hunter’s Handbook, and is now a bishop of the British Old Catholic Church. Farrant is also still active and has written extensively about the subject however in 1974 he was jailed for damaging memorials and interfering with the remains of the dead in Highgate Cemetery. Farrant claims he was framed and that the desecration was caused by unknown Satanists. Manchester, incidentally, also blamed Satanists for reawakening the vampire at the heart of this story.
And that is it. There undoubtedly were people practising Black Magic in Highgate Cemetery in the late 1960s and early 70s. However since then the cemetery has been extensively renovated and brought back into a more manageable state, reducing the case of the Highgate Vampire to an interesting historical footnote from 40 years ago.
The incident is also a classic example of what folklorists call legend tripping or ostension, whereby real life comes to imitate art, in this case with the story echoing the original Bram Stoker Dracula novel. In fact, in a further twist of art imitating real life imitating art, the Hammer Horror movie Dracula AD 1972, was released in late 1972 starring Christopher Lee as the count and Peter Cushing as a descendant of Van Helsing, was inspired by the Highgate Vampire affair and set in contemporary London.
Many thanks to Bentley Pete for providing me with the Paraphilia Magazine link, and to Atlas Obscura –– one of my favorite sources of fascinating, entertaining stories that consistently prove that truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.