The Highgate Cemetery: In search of the Highgate Vampire

I was moved by the monument of the Victorian boxer Thomas Sayers, who wanted his faithful dog, Tim, commemorated as well. Though boxing was illegal in the 19th century, Sayers was enormously popular, and his funeral was attended by 10,000 people—a larger funeral than the Duke of Wellington’s.
“The Victorians had very small weddings and very big funerals.”Thus said our cheery guide by way of explaining the elaborate monuments of Highgate Cemetery, where I and my friend Caroline Kellett-Fraysse, fellow writer and journalist and connoisseur of all things esoteric, recently spent a sunny Tuesday afternoon. We had wanted to inspect this final resting place of Karl Marx, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and a host of other famous and infamous folks, and discovered that the older and more interesting part of the cemetery was only open by tour (unless one actually dies). Immaculately kept, it has a studied overgrown quality, the sort perfected by English gardeners over the centuries.

We specifically wanted to explore Highgate because it is the fictional resting place of Lucy Westenra, the vixen/victim of the vampire in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” though Stoker changed the name of the place to Kingstead. As we walked past the more ornate monuments like the Egyptian Hall, done in a style reminiscent of the Valley of the Kings, or the many-sided Circle of Lebanon, a many-vaulted tomb sitting dramatically beneath an ancient Cedar of Lebanon tree, I imagined poor Lucy buried within the vaults, only to be disentombed and subsequently slain and beheaded by the vampire hunters.

Another reason I wanted to come here was that Caroline had been telling me stories of the Highgate vampire, a 20th century vampire (?), ghost (?), and urban legend whose sightings have given rise to fresh vampire stories and rivalrous modern-day vampire slayers.

By the late 1960s, this beautiful Victorian cemetery had fallen into disrepair, not in the least because it had become a favorite meeting place of members of the counterculture experimenting with the occult (think “Easy Rider”). Around this time, a teenage girl claimed to have seen tombs opening and bodies rising from them. This attracted the attention of a vampire hunter who interviewed her, found her to be possessed, and performed an exorcism. Meanwhile, the ghostly figure of a man in a tall hat was spotted before he disappeared into a wall. Dead animals drained of blood began to appear in the neighborhood. Reminiscent of Lucy’s ordeal, a beautiful young woman turned up with punctures in her neck that she said she received while sleepwalking.

Then media got into the act. With television cameras present, the vampire slayer/exorcist entered the columbarium believed to house the creature, where they discovered three empty caskets. They then performed a Dr. Van Helsing-style with garlic, salt, and holy water. A boom was heard somewhere in the distance. The earth moved. And that was that.

But it wasn’t over. Soon thereafter, a headless corpse was discovered near the columbarium, and nearby, a coffin without a nameplate. Within it was a corpse that looked as if it was about three days dead, though no one had been buried in the cemetery in decades. The exorcist/vampire slayer reappeared and performed the necessary rituals, but he was not entirely successful. Signs of the vampire continued. The vampire slayer’s rival also appeared on the scene to perform a ritual vampire killing. But he was convicted on charges of desecrating a memorial when he tried to rid the grounds of the intruding undead.

More sightings happened. The original vampire slayer did some research and linked the mysterious creature back to a fiend who had fled Eastern Europe during a vampire epidemic. He discovered a house in North London once allegedly owned by this vampire, where he found the remains of black cats slaughtered in a ritual way. A menacing black specter ran him out of the house and harassed him the night long in his car. But at the break of day, he re-entered the house, found the vampire’s coffin, opened it, discovered a corpse, thrust a stake through its heart, and watched the creature turn to slime and dust before his eyes. Then he burned the slime and coffin in a funeral pyre on the front lawn. Whew!

While this story had many intriguing elements, what strikes me is that it was Bram Stoker who invented so many of the details of vampirism that real vampires seem to be acting out. Putting together a mishmash of old Romanian folklore, popular horror stories, and the Irish ghost and mythological stories he grew up hearing from his mother who was from County Sligo, he basically invented the creature we now think of as a vampire. I have had enough mysterious experiences myself to leave room in my belief system for absolutely everything. But I cannot help wonder if vampire mythology as laid out by Stoker has taken such hold in the popular imagination that these latter-day Lucys and Van Helsings are either creating the circumstances to reenact the events of Stoker’s novel, or if they are seeing vampiric evidence into phenomena that might be explained another way. That’s not to say that any perceived truck between the physical and metaphysical worlds inevitably has material explanations. But given the similarities between Stoker’s fiction and these real events, I do wonder if this particular case is not one of life imitating art.

Caroline quizzed our guide about the Highgate Vampire, but she claimed to have no knowledge of it.Oh, she’d heard rumors, but said that there were no specific tombs linked to the creature, and that it was probably all urban myth. We are certain that the facility is trying to prevent an onslaught of unwanted vampire and other curiosity seekers invading its pastoral gardens.

If you’d like to tour Highgate Cemetery, which is well worth doing even if you are not a vampire enthusiast, you must book a guided tour. Here is their official website:

If you want to find out more information about the Highgate Vampire, visit these websites that Caroline passed on to me:
2 pages of related background detail!
Vampire Research Society

And if you do go to Highgate, end your tour as we did with tea on the patio at beautiful Waterlow Park, which is opposite the cemetery:

Finally, I will leave you with this beautiful image from a cemetery monument, two hands shaking, meaning I will see you again on the other side.