Vampires, Magic Duels, and Headless Bodies
31 Days of Halloween: On Atlas Obscura this month, every day is Halloween. Stop by the blog every day this month for true tales of the unquiet dead. Come for the severed heads, stay for the book bound in human skin. Every story is true, and each one is a real place you can visit. We dare you.
Today we are inspired by one of London’s most famous cemeteries and a bizarre period in its history, when it became the stage for dueling magicians, a roving vampire, and mobs of stake-carrying “vampire hunters.” Welcome to Highgate Cemetery in the 1970s.
For a long time, anyone who was anyone wanted to be buried in London’s fashionable Highgate Cemetery. Filled with the famous dead - Marx the most famous among them - Highgate is built in the classic Victorian style. (Think weeping angels.)
But by the 1940s, the cemetery had fallen into disrepair and become overgrown and covered in vines giving it an iconic “haunted” look. (Helped no doubt by the fact that a number of Hammer Horror films were shot here in the 1960s.) But it was in the 1970s that the cemetery turned into the backdrop for a truly bizarre scene, involving dueling magicians, hordes of stake carrying vampire hunters, and left a trail of unearthed bodies in its wake. (Photo Source for above.)
In the 1970s the US and the UK were alive with an interest - and terror of - the occult. Astronomy was everywhere, bands like Black Sabbath ruled the airwaves, and films like the Exorcist were frightening teens everywhere. It was against these backdrop that a sort of media mass - hysteria took hold of the UK.
Though the details are a bit murky, it began with reports of a “creature” in the graveyard. The story was likely generated by one of the two main players in the incident magicians / exorcists / full-on maniacs Seán Manchester and David Farrant. Eventually the story became that it was a vampire (a Transylvanian prince brought to the cemetery in the 1800s) and Manchester and Farrant both vowed to hunt down and kill the beast. (They also pronounced each other charlatans.)
As described in the (not to be fully trusted) book Beyond the Grave, “many claimed to see a particular creature hovering over the graves. Scores of ‘vampire hunters’ regularly converged on the graveyard in the dead of night. Tombs were broken open and bodies were mutilated with wooden stakes driven into their chests. These stolen corpses, turning up in strange places, continuously startled local residents. One horrified neighbor to the cemetery discovered a headless body propped behind the steering wheel of his car one morning!” (Photo source for below)
Farrant, playing the part of the dark magian, appeared on the cover of a local newspaper next to a naked girl and promising to sacrifice a cat to rid the cemetery of the vampire, saying “Blood must be spilled, but the cat will be anesthetized.” Meanwhile, Manchester played the “good” magician, saying “My opponent intends to raise a demon to destroy me by killing a cat - I will be relying solely on divine power.”
Eventually Sean Manchester announced an official vampire hunt, and according to Wikipedia, on Friday the 13th, “a mob of ‘hunters’ from all over London swarmed over gates and walls into the locked cemetery, despite police efforts to control them.” Though the two magicians were set to “duel” in the cemetery, it never took place. (Photo Source for Below.)
Eventually Farrant was arrested when found in the churchyard next to Highgate Cemetery with a crucifix and a wooden stake, and in 1974 was jailed “for damaging memorials and interfering with dead remains in Highgate Cemetery.” Though neither magician ever found the supposed vampire, real graves were ransacked and real corpses staked and beheaded in the search.
The debate between Farrant and Manchester continues to this day, while the cemetery remains a popular location for occult, paranormal and vampiric enthusiasts.
GO SEE FOR YOURSELF
HIGHGATE CEMETERY London, England
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