Telling the story of the Highgate Vampire. As well as growing up in the local area, I have a vested interest in north London occult strangeness, read about my family connection to the Hampstead-based exorcist Christopher Neil Smith here.
The initial commission came from Burgh House in 2017. I had no idea what a lot of trouble this story would cause for me or how difficulat and fraught with confusion, pitfalls and even death-threats it would become. To kick off the research, I visited Highgate cemetery. Here is the grave of Douglas Adams. I left a pen, I shed a tear.
The main events of the Vampire story happened during 1970 so I also leafed through 50 yellowing copies of the Ham and High and scrolled through reams of old microfiche in the local studies library. Fascinating!
(while doing this I found an old mis-filed cutting about London Zoo. The aquarium is supposed to be haunted by murderous whistling elephant keeper after gruesome murder in 1928. Stand by for that story in the new year!)
But the story.
For those who don’t know, Highgate Cemetery was at the centre of a blood-soaked media frenzy in the early 1970s. It built up slowly with reports of hauntings, disturbed graves, evidence of black masses and general weirdness…
On Friday 13th March 1970 around 100 people stormed the gates at night with stakes, crucifixes and bibles and had to be fought back by the police.
For me the most difficult and fascinating part of the Vampire story are the two rival protagonists, a witch who was also a tobacconist… and an exorcist who also ran a photographic studio. Both wanted to be the hero of the story.
David Farrant and Sean Manchester would like to think they are completely different to one and other, but of course, like most rivals, they were far more similar than they could ever admit. At the time of the Vampire attacks, they were young men in their early 20s with strong personalities, exhibitionist tendencies, charismatic personalities and a passionate belief in the supernatural. They absolutely loathed each other back then and their rivalry defines them to this day.
As I researched the story I listened to literally hours of audio recordings of the two men. Separately of course! They hate each other so much they wont even consent to be on the same thread in an online chat forum let alone be together for an actual interview. As I listened to them talk, their personalities started to emerge. I realised that their magical antagonism is at the heart of the Vampire phenomenon– it has, in a weird way, fuelled it.
The more eye-witness accounts I read, the more I realised that memory- and even truth itself- can be nebulous and difficult to pin down. Almost every so called ‘fact’ in the case is contested by one or other of the people involved.
This is a story about two big egos, about the exuberent character of 1970s North London. It’s about the naure of truth, the falibility of memory- and the compelling gothic beauty of an extraordinary and ancient location.
Update 2021: This story absolutely refuses to die. I expect I will be telling it again before long.
(Above: Swains Lane)