Highgate Cemetery is one of the most haunted places in London, and with good reason. In the early 1800’s the city’s population topped the 1 million mark and, despite a high death rate, it was still growing. Graves were crammed between shops and outside taverns. Undertakers dressed up as clergymen to perform illegal ceremonies. Many people were buried in shallow graves and quickly covered with lime. The stench and disease were horrific.
Parliament Steps In
Parliament decided that seven private cemeteries would be built in the countryside around London. (They were known as “The Magnificent Seven.”) The third cemetery, dated 1839, was Highgate. The architect and builder turned Highgate into an eternal oasis of peace. Everybody who was anybody wanted to be buried there. By 1854, the place was packed, and they bought another 20, adjoining acres.
The Fall from Paradise
By the turn of the 20th century, the cemetery’s fortunes waned. World War I decimated the staff, and by the end of World War II the cemetery had all but been abandoned. In 1960 the gates to Highgate Cemetery were closed, pristine landscaping become lush jungles, and buildings tumbled in on themselves. Studios used the grounds to shoot horror movies. And then the rumors and rituals began . . .
Enter the Spirits and the Vampire
Stories of men dressed in dark robes, practicing dark rituals, surfaced. 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 vampire was said to be a medieval nobleman who practiced black magic in Romania. His coffin was brought from Europe to England in the 18th century, and his cult-like followers bought him a house in the West End. He was buried at the site that eventually became Highgate Cemetery. He slumbered peacefully until, according to reports, Satanists performed a ritual at the cemetery. It woke him up.
The Tall, Dark Vampire
The Highgate Vampire is said to be 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. He terrifies all animals in his vicinity, and he’s been blamed for scores of dead foxes on the cemetery grounds. The Highgate Vampire has a hypnotic stare and bone-chilling effect on all who have encountered him, especially those foolish enough to spend the night in the cemetery.
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 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” leaking out. As the bodies decomposed in their hermetically sealed tombs, the buildup of gases caused some 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 the gasses could burn off “hygienically.” Though the cemetery is done burning off gasses, there are still problems, including heart-stopping banshee wails. Spectral faces float around the place. A ghostly cyclist wanders the grounds, as does the floating ghost of a nun. Some spirits are such regular visitors that the locals have named them.
Today, 170,000 people are buried at Highgate Cemetery in 53,000 graves on 37 acres. Plots are still for sale, subject to government restrictions. It continues to be a popular place for enthusiasts of the occult, paranormal, and vampires. It also hosts the graves of some of history’s most well-known figures, including Karl Marx, Malcolm McLaren, and George Michael. On your London vacation, consider a tour of Highgate Cemetery!