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The Haunted History of Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery, one of the most haunted places in London, was born, if you will, out of desperate need.  In early 1800’s London, the city’s population had just crossed one million mark and was growing at a monster pace – despite the impressive death rate.  Graveyards and burial sites were crammed into any and every available space: between shops, outside taverns and much too close to occupied homes.  Undertakers dressed as clergymen to perform illegal burials.  Graves were shallow and the bodies were covered with quicklime to speed decomposition…so that the grave could be reused in a few months’ time.  The smell, and the diseases, wafting from these graves were horrific.  By the early 1830’s something had to be done.

Parliament passed a statute that allowed for seven new private cemeteries to be built in the countryside around London for burying the dead; these seven cemeteries came to be known as the “Magnificent Seven.”  The third cemetery to be built (in 1839) was Highgate Cemetery – and it is now one of the most haunted places in the world.

The London Cemetery Company paid £3500 for 17 acres of the Ashurst estate running down the steep hillside from the Highgate village.  The company hired David Ramsey, a landscape architect, to work alongside one of the founders, Stephen Geary, an architect.  They quickly transformed the graveyard into an ethereal oasis that, in very short order, became the place for London’s wealthiest to be buried.  By 1854 the cemetery was so popular – and so profitable – that the company bought another 20 acres and the London elite galloped along in their ostentatious funerary competition, building evermore elaborate and fanciful crypts and memorials.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, the cemetery’s fortunes began to wane.  The outbreak of World War I decimated the grounds staff, the interwar years saw fewer and fewer plots being sold, and by the end of World War II the cemetery had been all but abandoned.  By 1960 the London Cemetery Company declared bankruptcy and the gates to Highgate Cemetery were closed.

By 1970, the lush landscaping had become a wildly overgrown jungle, and the impressive architecture so many decrepit buildings.  Hammer movie studio used the cemetery to shoot their Gothic horror movies.  The press surrounding the movies rekindled interest in the cemetery…and the stories started spreading like the cemetery’s landscaping.  There were rumors of men dressed in dark robes who used the isolation of the forgotten graveyard to practice their dark rituals.  Ghosts and ghouls haunted the alleyways around the graveyard.  People reported seeing red-eyed demons staring at them through the fence.

And then there was the Highgate Vampire.

The Highgate Vampire is rumored to be a medieval nobleman who practiced black magic in Romania and whose coffin was relocated from continental Europe to England in the 18th century by his followers, who bought a house for him in the West End.  He was buried at that site and eventually that site became Highgate Cemetery.  He slumbered peacefully for a while until, according to Sean Manchester, Satanists performing a ritual at the cemetery woke him.

The Highgate Vampire is reported to be a very tall, dark figure that glides through the cemetery.  His presence is frequently announced by a sudden drop in temperature; he has also reportedly caused clocks and watches to stop.  He terrifies any and all animals in his vicinity and has been blamed for scores of dead foxes on the cemetery grounds.  He has a hypnotic stare and bone-chilling effect on all who have encountered him, but especially those foolish enough to spend the night in the cemetery, like David Farrant did in December 1969. 

Farrant and Manchester were two local lads with an interest in (or obsession with) the occult.  When Farrant wrote a letter to the local newspaper about his encounter with a specter in the graveyard, it was Manchester who advanced the idea that the entity was a “king vampire.”  Both agreed that the vampire needed to be destroyed, but the growing rivalry between the two men (being played out in and fueled by the press) precluded any possibility of cooperation.  Finally, Manchester declared that he and his associates would hold a vampire hunt on Friday, March 13, 1970, (yes, Friday the 13th) to rid Highgate of its vampire.  Within hours the cemetery was overrun by enthusiastic “helpers” who damaged innumerable graves and memorials. 

The vampire’s grave was never found.

But the Highgate Vampire is just the tip of the supernatural iceberg.  The problems with the dead started during Victorian times with exploding coffins.

Highgate Cemetery has a series of catacombs built for Victorians who wanted to be buried aboveground, à la the ancient Egyptians.  The problem was, regulations of the time required those tombs to be encased in lead to prevent “miasma” leaking out.  And as the bodies decomposed in their hermetically sealed tombs, the buildup of gases caused some of the coffins to explode.

The solution was to drill a small hole in the coffin, place a pipe in it and then light a match so that the gasses could burn off “hygienically.”

Though the cemetery is done burning off decomposition gasses, there are still problems aplenty.  Scores of people have reported hearing all manner of sounds coming from the cemetery, including heart-stopping banshee wails.  Spectral faces float about the place.  A ghostly cyclist wanders the grounds, as does the floating ghost of a nun.  Many people have reported physical assaults.  And then there are the spirits who appear with such frequency that the locals have named them.

There is the Mad Old Woman, a spirit that is often seen running frantically among the graves, her long gray hair streaming behind her.  According to legend, she is looking for the children she murdered in a fit of rage.  Then there is the Shrouded Figure, a morose specter that is usually seen staring up at the sky.  If you approach her too quickly she will disappear, only to reappear a few meters away.

Less frequently seen, but more menacing, is the Devil Ghoul.  He is a ghost with a set of piercing red eyes and a habit of vanishing in direct light.

Today, Highgate Cemetery has 170,000 people buried in 53,000 graves on its 37 acres.  And it is still a working graveyard – plots are for sale, subject to restrictions.  It also continues to be a popular place for occult, paranormal and vampire enthusiasts.  It also hosts the graves of some of history’s most well-known icons including Karl Marx, Malcolm McLaren and George Michael.  

There are even tours are available, if you dare.