Vampire scares in London are usually thought to be a product of Victorian times. It’s not hard to imagine a foggy night with burning gas lamps and the occasional horse drawn carriage navigating its way down the cobble stone streets, a cloaked figure lurking in the shadows searching for a victim. But during the late 1960s and early 70s, London found itself in the middle of a vampire scare that would terrify its citizens to the core.
Built in 1839, Highgate cemetery resides in the heart of London. Over a 170,000 bodies are interred at Highgate, including Karl Marx, noted socialist and the writer of THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, and Douglas Adams, science fiction humorist and writer of THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. Today, it is listed as a historic park and nature reserve, but for years, it saw heavy amounts of vandalism and became a popular place for occult ceremonies.
The first rumors of a vampire originated in December of 1969. A group of students interested in the occult began exploring the cemetery, and a few even spent the night on the grounds. It wasn’t long before they began seeing figures in the dark. Many of those who stayed the night in the cemetery shared stories about what they had seen. But no common thread emerged between the many stories. The group reported many different sightings including a tall man in a hat, a grey figure in the shadows, a woman in white, and a man wading in a pond. Yet, somehow a vampire theory emerged.
On February 27th, 1970, the Hampstead and Highgate Express reported that a man who claimed to be the “King Vampire of the Undead” had taken up residence in the cemetery. After that press report, Highgate Cemetery quickly found itself flooded with vampire enthusiasts. On one occasion, a young man entered the cemetery in the middle of the night armed with a crucifix and sharpened stake with the intent of doing a little vampire slaying. He was later acquitted when his lawyers argued that there was no law against hunting vampires, just as there is no law against hunting the Loch Ness Monster. And no London court was willing to pass a law that acknowledged the existence of such creatures of the night just so they could prosecute this one guy.
As strange as it may sound, this young man wasn’t the first vampire hunter arrested, and he wouldn’t be the last. Soon anyone who could whittle together a pointy stick was stalking Highgate in the middle of the night, hoping to bag Nosferatu. This hunting frenzy was fueled even more by a televised vampire hunting special which aired in March of 1970 on Friday the 13th. Within two hours of the broadcast, the cemetery found itself flooded with hunters, many of whom scaled the walls of the cemetery after authorities locked the front gate. With its newfound fame, occult ceremonies at Highgate increased. On one occasion police found the charred remains of a woman’s head, which was believed to have been used in an occult ceremony. The body, still in its grave, was later reunited with its burnt head.
The Highgate Vampire was a popular subject in London in the 1970s, even inspiring the Hammer Horror film DRACULA AD 1972. Its legend survives in more recent depictions including the Dark Horse comic series, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, where she takes on the Highgate Vampire. But cases of occult ceremonies and vampire hunts have slacked off in recent years as the cemetery is increasingly protected by the authorities and local residents. Some curious folk do still manage to get through security in search of that that elusive creature of the night.