A very few graveyards around the world could compete with the level of paranormal activity happening behind the gothic-style walls of London’s Highgate Cemetery. The 177-year-old resting place has been at the center of some of the world’s most spine-tingling legends, but some of them are even stranger than tales of ghosts. This cemetery has it all, ghosts, cults, banshees, and a resident Vampire, who all call this place home.
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During Victorian-era London, if you were of high-society, there was no better place to be laid to rest, than Highgate Cemetery. Opening in 1839, the Highgate Cemetery was a part of the plan to provide seven large, modern cemeteries. These large and beautiful cemeteries are known as the “Magnificent Seven”, which are located around the outside of central London. Highgate, like the others of the Magnificent Seven, soon became a fashionable place for burials and was much admired and visited. During the Victorian Era, the presentation was a big deal. Leading Highgate to have ornate Gothic-style tombs and buildings. The cemetery grounds are filled with trees, shrubbery, and wildflowers. Most have grown naturally, without human influence or planning. The grounds are also a haven for birds and small animals such as foxes. Which is just lovely.
During the 20th century, the graveyard became so popular that tens of thousands of London’s richest and most well-to-do had been buried on the grounds. Each of these elite family’s were pretty petty too, often attempting to outdo the others with more ornate and lavish headstones or monuments. Unfortunately, though, this luxury did not remain forever. By WWII, the 20-acre cemetery had fallen into a period of neglect. Ruin and decay started taking their toll on the once beautiful mausoleums, headstones, and crypts, leaving them in a state of disrepair. In fact, by the early 1960s, the entire cemetery had become completely abandoned. At this point, between the 1960s and the 1980s, stories of the strange goings-on behind Highgate’s walls began spreading throughout the city.
Legends surrounding the Highgate Cemetery vary throughout the years. With that variety, comes a wide array of monsters and pictures that seem to linger around the grounds. Some of the original murmurs and tales were that a strange group of men wearing dark robes roaming the grounds at night. Eye-witnesses claimed that these mysterious men would frequent the now overgrown burial ground in order to conduct dark rituals.
Those brave enough to explore the alleyways at night reported run-ins with otherworldly ghouls. In fact, the local newspapers were bombarded with first-hand accounts of red-eyed demons, terrifying ghosts, and most famously, blood-thirsty vampires. There have been numerous credible witnesses to the spirits said to haunt Highgate Cemetery.
Many people have seen the “Mad Old Woman”. Who is the spirit of an old lady often running wildly among the graves. People describe it as if she is searching for someone. The rumor goes that it is supposedly the children, she was said to have murdered while alive. There is also the “Shrouded Figure”, a female phantom. She is commonly seen quietly staring up into the sky, during the middle of the night. If you approach her too quickly, she vanishes instantly; only to reappear a few yards away in the same eerie position.
The “Devil Ghoul” is one of the rarer sights in Highgate Cemetery. Those who’ve run into the ghost describe it as having a set of piercing red eyes, and a habit of disappearing completely when indirect light; appearing once more in the shadows.
Add to these encounters the countless reports of spectral faces that manifest out of nowhere. The Cemetery even has its own mad Banshee, that roams about wailing into the night. A number of individuals claim they’ve been personally assaulted by the dark forces in the graveyard. However, it’s a more general claim and not often linked to specific spirits. Other more minor spirits reported would be a ghostly cyclist who wanders the grounds, as well as the floating spirit of a nun.
The problems with the dead started way back during Victorian times, with exploding coffins. Highgate Cemetery has a series of tombs built for those who wanted to be buried above ground. Regulations at the time required tombs to be encased in lead to prevent “miasma”, or decay, from leaking out. As the bodies decomposed in their hermetically sealed tombs; the buildup of gases caused some of the coffins to explode suddenly. The solution was to drill a small hole in the coffin. Place a pipe in it, and then light a match so the gasses could burn off “hygienically”. But obviously, the damage was already done. Exploding after you die probably isn’t great for not coming back as a ghost later on.
Cloaked visitors and spectral residents weren’t the only things people experience in the strange cemetery. As we mentioned very briefly, the HighGate Cemetery is most famously, or infamously, known for its very own Vampire lore.
Many visitors became obsessed with the legends, even going so far as to spend the night alone inside the cemetery. During this time, again mainly between the 60s-80s, eyewitnesses spotted what they describe as a vampire. The Highgate Vampire is a tall, dark figure that glides through the cemetery. His presence is frequently announced by a sudden drop in temperature. He has also caused clocks and watches to stop when in his presence. He also terrifies animals in his vicinity, being the cause for a number of dead foxes on the cemetery grounds. The Highgate Vampire also has a hypnotic stare and a bone-chilling effect on all who have encountered him. Especially those who try and spend the night in the cemetery. Although not really any reports of attacks, from what I could find.
Unsurprising, this didn’t take long for this story to hit the newspapers. Where it caused a mass panic. Hundreds of concerned locals began flooding the cemetery to help “hunt” for the legendary vampire. However, as you may expect, nothing came up during these hunts. This didn’t stop these wannabe Hunters from desecrating graves.
As described in the book Beyond the Grave, “Many claimed to see a particular creature hovering over the graves. Scores of ‘vampire hunters’ regularly converged on the graveyard in the dead of night. Tombs were broken open and bodies were mutilated with wooden stakes driven into their chests. These stolen corpses, turning up in strange places, continuously startled local residents. One horrified neighbor to the cemetery discovered a headless body propped behind the steering wheel of his car one morning!”
This mad panic became known as the Highgate Vampire Sensation. However, the strangest aspect of this whole story comes from the climax of this wild craziness. A magic duel between wizards.
In 1970 two magicians, Farrant and Manchester claimed that each would be the first to find and kill the supposed vampire. Again this was during the height of the craze. Manchester announced an official vampire hunt, on Friday the 13th, in which, “a mob of ‘hunters’ from all over London swarmed over gates and walls into the locked cemetery, despite police efforts to control them.”
The two magicians supposedly settled the debate with a “magicians’ duel”. But it’s pretty certain to have never actually happened, and if it did, there were no witnesses. Farrant was arrested in the churchyard next to Highgate Cemetery with a crucifix and a wooden stake and in 1974 was jailed “for damaging memorials and interfering with dead remains in Highgate Cemetery”. Though neither magician was successful in locating and slaying the vampire; in the various “hunts”, graves were ransacked, corpses were indeed staked and beheaded. All of that is very much real. Again, probably not helping with the whole ghost problem side of things.
Finally, the debate between Farrant and Manchester continues to this day. They have this crazy rivalry and really it deserves its very own coverage. So we will be revisiting these two as a Patreon Bonus segment. Not this week, but soon, cause it is wild and absolutely needs an episode of its own.
EP 59 – London’s Highgate Cemetery | Ghosts, Vampires & Wizards, Oh My!. Produced by Shane Cummings; Audio Editing & Research by Shane Cummings.
Intro & Outro music “Creepy Regrets” by AnMo.
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