Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Did a vampire really haunt Highgate Cemetery? No. Of course it didn't.


If you have the sort of memory that retains the details of two year old blog posts, then you may recall that back here I wrote of how my attempts to get on a Highgate Cemetery walking tour, in order to see the parts of the site that were used for location filming in Taste the Blood of Dracula, were thoroughly rebuffed by the stuffy chap at the gate.

Taken out of context, there's something a bit silly about the phrase Taste the Blood of Dracula, and saying it in public on a sunny Sunday morning in Highgate when there are people about walking their dogs and throwing bread to the ducks only makes it seem even sillier.
So I had initially said that I had wanted to see the grounds because they were used in "a film".

That's all the guy needs to know, right? I'm a film enthusiast, soaking up my country's artistic heritage. He probably doesn't know anything about that side of things anyway.
"Which one?" he asked, immediately zeroing in on my embarrassed evasion, his eyes darting across my face, as if looking for an exposed point through which to bore into my brain.
"Taste the Blood of Dracula," I said.
Perhaps I should have said "Taste the Blood of Dracula, sir," because at that moment his face hardened and I felt like I'd just gone into George Woodbridge's pub and asked him if he knew the way to the castle.
"Oh," he said, "We don't mention that."
And that was that.

At the time I put his attitude down to distaste at the idea of this splendid London landmark being recalled purely for its use in a tawdry 'orror movie. But an interesting comment I received a little while ago from a chap called Anthony Hogg suggests an alternative explanation:

The likely reason why the tour guide didn't want to speak about the movie is because of the vampire association.
The Friends of Highgate Cemetery aren't keen on 'exploiting' that aspect of the cemetery's history, because of the vandals the Highgate Vampire media coverage attracted. Indeed, the FoHC was formed to clean up the mess they left behind.

I followed the link to Mr Hogg's name and found myself being dragged, stage by jaw-dragging stage, into one of the weirdest and most embarrassing sagas of mass-crankery I had ever encountered: the strange case of The Highgate Vampire.

How could it have been that I had never heard all this before?
I had lived in the area involved for over five years. I knew that Stoker had set the vampirised Lucy loose on nearby Hampstead Heath in Dracula, and had name-checked The Spaniard's Inn, one of my locals. (As, incidentally, does Dickens in The Pickwick Papers and Dennis Wheatley in The Forbidden Territory.) I knew of Lizzie Siddal and her ghostly hair that supposedly still grew after death, filling her Highgate Coffin.
Come to think of it, I was even familiar with one of the actual protagonists in the Highgate Vampire affair, the eccentric fantasist and Van Helsing-for-hire Bishop Sean Manchester. I remember reading a review of one of his books in which it was pointed out that what he described as a "remarkable photograph of a vampire in the final stages of dissolution" was in fact a shot of the special effects make-up created for a tv movie version of The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

But somehow I had completely missed the fact that my neighbourhood, in the early 1970s, had become the focus of national media attention over a fabricated mass-delusion whipped up from literally nothing that did considerable damage to the historic cemetery and resulted in criminal prosecutions over grave violations and lifelong feuds between the main protagonists.
It's one of those utterly compulsive stories of human folly, like the Hitler Diaries, or the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? coughing scandal.

Another scoop for 'Sun Reporter'

It all kick-started in 1970 when a paranormal investigator called David Farrant (the other key player in the story besides Manchester) wrote a letter to the Hampstead and Highgate Express saying that he had been passing by the cemetery and seen a grey, supernatural figure. He ended his letter by asking if any of the newspaper's readers had seen anything similar.
The request brought forth a plethora of earnest first hand accounts,  all telling totally different stories of totally different otherworldly encounters with totally different spectral entities, no two letters alike. According to Wikipedia, they included "a tall man in a hat, a spectral cyclist, a woman in white, a face glaring through the bars of a gate, a figure wading into a pond, a pale gliding form, bells ringing and voices calling."
So either Highgate Cemetery was a sort of nightclub for ghouls of all nations, a bit like in the film The Monster Club, or it was obvious from the get-go that this was a story with no foundation but a potentially hazardous appeal to exhibitionists and oddballs.

As if to prove the point, it was at this stage that Manchester stepped in. He told the Hampstead and Highgate Express, without any cited evidence, that a Romanian nobleman-occultist had come to England 150 years before, been buried on the site of Highgate Cemetery and was now "a King Vampire of the Undead", operating from the grounds of the cemetery.
Lest readers might begin to worry that Manchester might be a few shillings shy of the grand total, he showed his reasonable side by explaining that he would like to solve the borough's vampire problems in "the traditional and approved manner: drive a stake through its heart with one blow just after dawn, chop off the head with a gravedigger's shovel and burn what remains." The only snag in the plan, he acknowledged sadly, was that it would be illegal. Bloody red tape.

Despite the fact that a Romanian nobleman-occultist in fact hadn't come to England 150 years before or been buried on the site of Highgate Cemetery, and therefore was in all likelihood not now "a King Vampire of the Undead" operating from the grounds of the cemetery, the story began to attract interest outside of the normal circle of bored North Londoners who made up the general readership of the Hampstead and Highgate Express. 
Further confirmation came when the paper reported that a number of dead foxes had been found in the area. "This was puzzling," Farrant later wrote, "because there were no outward signs betraying the cause of death."
This just about clinched it. As everyone who has ever read their Bram Stoker or watched a Hammer film knows, the first sign that there might be vampires in the vicinity is all the dead foxes they leave lying around.

The stage was set for The Mass Vampire Hunt of 1970.

Why do the foxes die? Let me guess. Vampires?
David Farrant investigating the case of the mysterious 30 mile an hour sign
Sean Manchester: Is that a skull on your altar or are you just pleased to see me?

Already by this time, a territorial rivalry was growing between Farrant and Manchester, who each considered themselves the Peter Cushing of the hour, and resented losing any of the spotlight in favour of some little pipsqueak Michael Gough. (Farrant later described Manchester as "a somewhat theatrical character dressed in undertakers' clothes who had been pestering local newspapers looking for publicity".)
The first sign that the two protagonists were splintering into rival factions came when Manchester announced  an "official" vampire hunt at the cemetery on a forthcoming Friday the 13th and didn't send Farrant an invite.
Friday the 13th was carefully chosen as the ideal night for a vampire hunt because it was an especially spooky night of the year, making it therefore more likely that the vampire would appear. Even a widely-publicised vampire hunt wouldn't keep him indoors: the date was just too spooky for him to miss.
That evening, ITV broadcast interviews with both men, along with some of the other whackos who had attached themselves to the saga, and by nightfall a seething mob of nutters had assembled from all over London intent on ransacking the cemetery and staking the vampire. Police had to be called in an effort to contain them.

According to his later account, Manchester managed to slip past the police in all the confusion and enter the cemetery, where he made straight for a tomb he considered an especially likely location for the king vampire of the undead, having previously been led there by "a psychic sleepwalking girl". Manchester was all for entering the cursed chamber and confronting its hellish occupant, but unfortunately the door was stuck, so he did the next best thing and dropped some onions through a hole in the roof.
A few months later, police discovered a burned and decapitated corpse not far from the same tomb that had so fixated Manchester, and shortly after that discovered Farrant prowling around the cemetery in the night with a crucifix and a wooden stake. He was arrested but let off with a caution by a magistrate called Christopher Lea.
Farrant insists that what was described as a stake was in fact "merely a pointed piece of wood used with string to cast or measure out a magical circle." (I love that 'merely'.)

A few days after that, according to his own testimony, Manchester returned to the cemetery, and to another vault indicated by the same sleepwalker who had picked out the previous one. Whether she was wrong the last time, or the vampire had moved, or perhaps had a number of desirable properties dotted around the site Manchester does not tell us, but the important point in favour of this one was that the door was easier to open. So in he went, found a coffin that he decided had been supernaturally transferred there from the previous tomb (just say if you want me to go slower), ripped the lid off and prepared to drive a stake through the remains inside. Sadly, he was prompted to desist by his companion at the time, who perhaps feared the legal consequences of a deranged weirdo defiling the dead in an internationally famous burial site. Once again, he was forced to rely on the temporary measure of filling the coffin with bulb plants.
But, undeterred, he rediscovered the fiend three years later in the cellar of a house in Hampstead and this time, he assures us, he really did impale and burn it, which perhaps explains why the number of vampire attacks in the Highgate area have fallen to a reassuring annual average of none, as opposed to the none reported during the peak years of the Highgate Vampire scare in the early 1970s.
And, as a former resident of the area accustomed to the sight of shredded bin bags and rotting food strewn all over the pavements in the morning, I'm pleased to say the local fox population is recovering too.

Farrant, meanwhile, had not given up on his own quest to solve the Highgate mystery, and the increasingly outlandish claims being made by Manchester were hardly helping matters. To settle things once and for all it was announced in 1973 that the two would take part in a 'magicians' duel' on Parliament Hill. Just like in an exciting film, neither man turned up and fuck all happened.
Farrant was, however, still intent on putting an end to the Highgate fiend's reign of terror, and in 1974 was again caught in the cemetery in the middle of the night with his Van Helsing kit, charged with damaging the memorials and disrupting the remains, and imprisoned. Farrant vehemently denied the charge, as he continues to do on his website, claiming the damage was the work of Satanists, and expressing uncertainty as to whether the Highgate apparition actually was a vampire in the first place. I know. Go figure, as they say on Buffy and suchlike.

And still it goes on today.
Farrant and Manchester are still active, still arch-rivals, and safely ensconced in that corner of the internet where literally anything is taken seriously, each earnestly supported by large, arch-rival cliques.
Manchester's take on the affair can be found here, under the banner of his Vampire Research Society. Look no further if you want purple prose, photo-montages of dissolving vampires and nice candids of ethereal-looking women reclining on tombs, all served up on a black screen with cute graphics of flapping bats.
Among the many quotes he has included to show how serious and respectable a fellow he is is this one from Paul Spencer Vickers, from the Department of English literature at University College London: "Sean Manchester's literary style is refreshingly reminiscent of the Gothic genre."
He's not the first to have noticed. Manchester's writings are full of ideas and even whole phrases lifted neat from Stoker's Dracula.
It has also been alleged that he has a framed photograph of Hitler on his wall, along with many more items of Nazi kitsch.

Meanwhile Farrant's Highgate Vampire Society can be visited here, where we are told (presumably by Farrant himself, despite writing in the third person) that "it remains a fact that David Farrant well and truly (albeit inadvertently) put Highgate Cemetery and stories about vampires there 'well and truly on the map'. He regrets that much, but again I suppose he had no choice in the matter."
We also learn that "David Farrant decided to form the Highgate Vampire Society in order that it should become a repository for all the oral history and written data concerning the Highgate Vampire while at the same time take off some of the pressure from the British Psychic and Occult Society who literally had its hands full with dealing with numerous psychic investigations."
Farrant runs both organisations, you see.

David's account: too much to tell in one volume 
Sean's account: 50% Bram Stoker, 100% bats

The most interesting thing about all this from our corner is the revelation that Highgate Cemetery might have links with not one but two Hammer Horrors.
According to Professor Bill Ellis, the furore directly encouraged Hammer to produce Dracula AD 1972, any unease they may have had over audiences swallowing the idea of a vampire in present day London having been thoroughly swept away by the behaviour of the credulous loons making their nightly way to Highgate in the hope of seeing one.

Meanwhile the appalling destruction and desecration caused by vandals and day-tripping occultist nut-jobs to the historic site led directly to the formation of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who helped restore it and now charge for guided tours - on which Hammer freaks are most definitely not welcome.

And quite right too.