Highgate Cemetery West, opened in 1839, is a well-maintained working cemetery, and a testament to the Victorian fascination with death. But it wasn’t always so serene. This sprawling 20 acre necropolis, built on the grounds of the long-since demolished Ashurst House, was almost closed for good in 1975 after falling into a state of severe neglect.
During the early 1960s the cemetery, like Kensal Green, was targeted by an extremely secretive group of graverobbers, distastefully known as The Gravediggers Union. By the end of the decade an organised gang of lead thieves were stripping the valuable linings of coffins and leaving the dessicated skeletons which had occupied them discarded on the catacombs’ floors. Vandalism was rife, and by the 1970s wannabe vampire hunters, inspired by irresponsible advice proffered in local newspapers and on national television, advanced to actually staking and in some cases burning corpses. A spate of amateur vampire films as well as those shot in the cemetery by Hammer House of Horror only increased the popular delusion among some that Highgate Cemetery actually harboured a vampire. Of course such a creature has never existed at the cemetery or anywhere else, but in 1970 things came to a head when hundreds of people descended upon Swains Lane one Friday 13th armed with homemade crosses and stakes, and had to be turned away by the police. At this time broken vaults and coffins meant that scattered bones and skulls were commonplace. The architect John Winter, who lived in The Modern House in Swains Lane which backs onto Highgate Cemetery, even found a decapitated 100 year old skeleton propped up behind his steering wheel one fine morning and famously remarked ‘I should have known this would happen if I left my car unlocked.’
Amid all this chaos, a group of ceremonial magicians had somehow found enough solitude to practice various necromantic rituals in some of unsecured vaults in the heart of the cemetery. That Highgate Cemetery sits on an alleged ley line, on top of an underground watercourse, and presumably has an ample supply of what in occult terms would be referred to as death energy would seem to make it perfect for such rites.
This author is in possession of information which indicates that the group and its offshoots continued their practices in the cemetery intermittently until at least the 1980s. This dates the longevity of their activity to long after the Friends of Highgate Cemetery had come into being and commenced “the big clean up” – which resulted in the beautifully conserved landscape which visitors can pay to see today.
In the days when gaining nocturnal access to the cemetery was relatively easy, parts of it were also used by white witches, but it is the darker necromantic rituals which some have suggested either caused or triggered off the appearances of Highgate’s best known ‘ghost’ – the tall figure, swathed in black, which has been seen in and around the cemetery. It is this incorporeal entity which became hijacked by publicity seekers and branded a ‘vampire’. Obviously it isn’t one – it can apparently walk through walls for example – but it does share a few characteristics. For one, the typical modus operandi of this entity seems to be to ‘freeze’ people with an arresting stare, as the air around them turns icy cold.
A classic sighting from the late 1960s, by an accountant who wished for his name to be given as ‘Thornton’ to avoid ridicule, was recorded as follows:
As the light began to fail he decided to leave, but somehow, he became hopelessly lost. Not being a superstitious person or even believing in ghosts, he walked calmly around looking for the gate when he suddenly became aware of the presence of something behind him. Swinging around, less than six feet away, he saw a tall dark spectre hovering just above the ground. He found himself transfixed to the spot, completely unable to move; drained of energy by some powerful “hypnotic force” that in a matter of seconds rendered him unconscious to any sense of time or being able to recognize his surroundings. So great was the intensity of this force, that he remained like this for several minutes (or what seemed like several minutes) before the spectre abruptly vanished and he slowly regained his normal faculties.
Thornton’s experience was not singular, and many local people wrote to the Ham and High in 1970 reporting similar sightings. After encountering the figure people often report experiencing confusion, exhaustion and a sense of lost time. From an amass of accounts it seems that when the entity appears spontaneously in the cemetery itself this usually seems to be as bad as it gets, but when it appears in Swains Lane its demeanour can get decidedly more aggressive.
Taking all of this into account, it may come as no surprise that The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, who organise tours of the cemetery and manage and tend it with so much dedication, aren’t too fond of vampires. In fact they detest the concept. Vampire hunting loons are seen (quite rightly) as the antithesis of all the hard work which has gone into repairing the damage caused in the 1960s and 1970s. But an innocent or plain curious interest in the paranormal is equally likely to be met with disdain. Ignorantly or perhaps intentionally confusing a regular ‘ghost’ with a vampire – and accusing those who ruminate upon the possibility of the former of seeking the latter – might seem bizarre to avid and academically inclined readers of Forteana, but it seems to be corporate policy at Highgate Cemetery. This also extends to other subcultures. In the past paying visitors have even been ejected from tours for wearing black lipstick, or having a rubber bat safety-pinned to their rucksack. With modern security and robust management, coupled with cultural shifts in society in general, it seems highly unlikely that acknowledging the enduring fascination which many have with Highgate’s haunted reputation would cause the events of the 1970s to be repeated on any scale at all. But the whole situation is very sensitive and complex, and much as Highgate society might be perceived to brush a lot of it’s history under the carpet, there are some things which it refuses to forget.
This attitude of disdain can be a cause of frustration among the paranormal community who do not equate themselves in the slightest with vandals or fantasists. Check out the following article by Ghost Club chairman and barrister Alan Murdie for some more background:
The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) recently conducted a survey of the general public which indicated that over half of their sample believed in the supernatural, with 1 in 5 claiming to have had an experience themselves. Increasingly it is becoming clear that an interest or belief in the supernatural does not denote that one is an oddball. ASSAP even has academic accreditation. However there is no indication that a change in policy at Highgate will happen anytime soon, and the cemetery do not respond to any communications via writing or email of a paranormal nature.
But sightings within the cemetery itself continue, even on guided tours. In 2004 several members of a tour party witnessed a tall dark figure, apparently male, glide off the path inside the top gate. Utterly convinced that what they had seen was real, they asked their tour guide if the cemetery employed actors. They don’t.
It is only fair to warn readers that unlike many other working cemeteries, Highgate Cemetery considers ‘ghost’ to be as dirty a word as ‘vampire’ as you can see during this rather vicious condemnation of a former tour guide by a current one for daring to publicly acknowledge the possibility that the cemetery might be haunted – in this instance by a harmless little dog! So if you are planning to visit the cemetery do yourself a favour and don’t mention the undead!!! Apparently the guides are slowly getting more relaxed with the subject of the supernatural, but one takes pot luck and you probably won’t get a refund if you get kicked out. However also bear in mind that not everyone who visits the cemetery is on a tour – some are visiting the graves of relatives and might not appreciate overhearing conversations about the paranormal in such a context. And imagine the frustration of a volunteer who has spent years studying the biographies of notables buried in the cemetery, only to be asked where Dracula is buried. It’s a tricky one, folks!
More background on Thornton’s sighting can be found in:
Farrant, David. Beyond the Highgate Vampire. London, British Psychic & Occult Society, 1997.
If you are planning to visit Highgate Cemetery West please do check out their fantastic website first to book a place on a guided tour. Visitors are not allowed to wander around the cemetery without a guide, and there are restrictions upon filming and photography which you should familarise yourself with. Guided tours last approx. an hour, and you will probably need to go on at least two to get the best experience you can of this enormous cemetery. Oh – and do double check terms and conditions at time of purchase – but from the summer of 2013 admission to Highgate Cemetery West also entitles the bearer to a 4 week pass for the East cemetery which is equally worth a visit.
DISCLAIMER – ATTEMPTING TO VISIT HIGHGATE CEMETERY OUTSIDE OF OPENING HOURS IS NOT ONLY ILLEGAL IT IS HIGHLY DANGEROUS. DON’T DO IT PLEASE!
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