One Friday morning in February of 1970, the Hampstead and Highgate Express ran a headline calibrated to chill the blood of residents across suburban north London: "Does a Vampyre Walk in Highgate?"
For years, N6 had been plagued with a series of apparently inexplicable events and sightings, in and around the confines of Highgate Cemetery.
In 1967, two adolescent girls walking home along nearby Swain's Lane claimed to have witnessed the dead rising from their graves by the cemetery's north gate. Another teenager had been awoken one night with "something cold and clinging" on her hand, which left prominent marks the next morning, while reports circulated of a "tall man in a hat" walking in the area, before melting through the cemetery's walls.
The situation had turned nastier by the early months of 1970, as several animals were found dead, their bodies drained of blood and with what appeared to be lacerations to their throats. On the 6th of February the same year, a local man and self proclaimed magician, David Farrant, wrote to the Ham & High that he had recently glimpsed a grey figure he was certain was supernatural – a belief shared by several concerned residents in the paper's letters page.
His account didn't remain uncontested for long. From the start, Farrant had a rival, another man who claimed an even more startling paranormal insight, backed up by a career as both a self-proclaimed exorcist, vampire hunter and bishop of the mysterious "Old Catholic Church". Based on the available evidence and testimonies, Sean Manchester was certain: "It became appallingly apparent," he later wrote, "[that] the people of Highgate were not witnessing a harmless earthbound apparition… but a vampire."
It wasn't just the local media that jumped on the growing hysteria after both Manchester and Farrant declared they would destroy the evil figure they both claimed to be stalking Highgate (though Farrant consistently rubbished any notion of a real Hammer Horror-style vampire). The situation reached fever pitch on Friday the 13th of February, 1970, as Thames TV ran a programme on the unfolding saga the night before the scheduled hunt. Within hours of broadcast, dozens of "hunters" equipped with homemade stakes, coming from all corners of London, descended on the cemetery, bursting past the hastily assembled police cordon.
In August of the same year, a woman's century-old remains were discovered desecrated near her former resting place. A few weeks later, Farrant found himself arrested in a nearby churchyard carrying a crucifix and a wooden stake – and later sued the News of the World for their intimation that he was a would-be cat killer. The story officially ended in 1973, when Manchester claimed to have driven a stake through the vampire's heart in the nearby "House of Dracula" in Crouch End.
The apparent supernatural forces might have been defeated, but the real fear and loathing at the centre of the Highgate Vampire story had barely even begun.
Over the following 50 years, public interest and amusement in the story has ebbed and flowed, but one thing has remained constant: the levels of animosity between the two men who claimed to own the narrative around the Highgate Vampire. For decades, the feud between David Farrant and Sean Manchester took a succession of twists and turns, through a steady stream of petty – and often surreal – vindictiveness, until Farrant's death in April of 2019.
While Farrant had presided over The British Psychic and Occult Society, Manchester founded the British Occult Society. When Manchester published his sensational book The Highgate Vampire in 1985, Farrant countered with Beyond The Highgate Vampire in 1991. When Farrant was jailed for grave desecration in 1974 (charges he always denied, though he admitted sending voodoo effigies to two police officers), Manchester rarely missed a chance to call him a convicted felon in one of his many blogs.
The duo traded insults in print until Farrant's death, though the feud reached its dramatic peak in 1973, when both parties heavily advertised a "magical duel", which was to take place on Parliament Hill in Hampstead, before cooling down and calling off the clash.
According to a statement issued in 2013, Manchester retired from public life that year to devote himself to "creative contemplation", though it doesn't appear to have stopped him guarding his relationship to the Highgate Vampire any less fiercely. I received a courteous – if slightly chilly – response after contacting him via Facebook in December of 2019.
One of my questions led straight into the admonition that "had you actually read my published account… you would already be aware [of the answer]". Others were more ambiguous. When I asked if he would ever consider returning to Highgate, he replied that it remains "a matter of public record that I would do so if I was able, but always discreetly and absent of any media intrusion, which is precisely why I do not confirm or deny that I am doing so currently or recently".
To try to make sense of the tale requires making sense of the area and time in which it took place. Highgate is just one of London's many synthetic villages, but its history is unusually stuffed with the strange and macabre, including the spectre of the "ghostly chicken" – a story from the 17th century involving Sir Francis Bacon and the ghost of a chicken buried in the snow near Pond Square.
On my first visit in December of 2019, on my way from the tube station to the cemetery, I walked along Highgate's picturesque high street and through a maze of stately multi-million pound houses. There's an unmistakable stuffy affluence to the area – a coalition of money, both old and new. Even the high street's Caffè Nero seemed embarrassed to be bringing down the tone, with its logo half smudged from sight.
The Highgate of 1970 was different, just as the Highgate Cemetery of the era was not the genteel tourist destination it is today. In place of the carefully manicured graves and pathways, there was a deep set neglect, characterised by rampant vandalism and mutterings about pagan sex parties taking place in the dark of night.
In the 1978 General Election, David Farrant ran in Hornsey as the sole candidate for his own Wicca Workers Party, on a platform of free sex and nudity, restoring the Wiccan creed, outlawing communism, establishing state brothels, restoring true power to the monarchy and leaving the EU Common Market. Farrant's brand of electoral paganism may have been unsuccessful, but it says something of an era in which London could play home to eccentrics and outliers, as well as a time that lent itself to a spectacularly theatrical supernatural yarn.
For Merlin Coverley, the author of Occult London, which contains a chapter on the Highgate saga, it feels like the story could only have caught fire when it did.
"The entire period seems to be caught up with the folk horror revival. The key date here is 1973, the 'Year Zero' of folk horror, in which The Wicker Man was released," he says. "This also happens to be the year in which the feud between Farrant and Manchester was at its height, culminating in the magical duel that was supposed to take place on Parliament Hill, but never materialised."
This was also the decade of the Enfield Poltergeist, another cornerstone of the city’s recent paranormal folk history. Considering the weight of the era's neuroses, it's also hardly surprising that Stephen King chose suburban north London as the shapeshifting mouth of hell in his 1980 short story, Crouch End.
It wasn't just a specific cultural moment that propelled interest in the story down the decades. For Coverley, as for many other observers, this is a tale driven by rivalry: "[The feud] between Farrant and Manchester seems have provided the whole dynamic for the story, and it was their enmity which kept it alive. If you remove their involvement from the story, there isn't actually a great deal left, and certainly nothing substantial enough to have maintained a widespread interest in the story 50 years on. In this respect, they really are the story, and the Highgate Vampire is merely the set of circumstances which brought them together."
On a Sunday night in January, I had a lengthy Skype call with Don Ecker, the long-time head of research at UFO Magazine and a well-known figure in the US' sprawling paranormal media scene. In another life, the avuncular American was a law enforcement officer and carried his professional scepticism into his media and broadcasting career. His association with the Highgate Vampire started in the early 1980s, after his brother-in-law mentioned it in passing.
Years passed before Don stumbled across Sean Manchester's work. The exasperation in his voice about what happened next is clear, decades on: "I wanted to contact him [through a mutual friend] to see if he would be interested in an interview. It came back that he had absolutely no interest whatsoever. I found this kind of odd, to say the least."
As a former criminal investigator, Don told me that when he gets his teeth into something, they stay stuck. "I had the attitude that the guy wasn't firing on all cylinders. Here was a guy that was screaming high and low that vampires were real, that they were an imminent threat to civilisation, and all the rest of it. But he didn't want to be interviewed by someone fairly well-known in the US? I knew that 'real vampires' were horse shit, but I did want to dig further."
That digging led to Farrant, a man Don speaks of with fondness: "I really found him enjoyable. He was just a funny guy. My god, he had some hilarious stories."
Things took a left turn in the early 2000s, when Don posited a question on a blog about Manchester, written in admittedly brisk language. Several days later, the emails started from the "Friends of Sean Manchester Society".
"Oh boy, that first day there must have been about ten or 15," he told me. "And I'm convinced [to this day] that man does not have a secretary."
It wasn't long before the smears started, after an increasingly ludicrous back and forth email conversation that Don documented in his own paper on the subject. One 2010 blogpost from the Friends of Sean Manchester Society gives an accurate flavour of the invective. "Don Ecker is a grumpy old American who, like David Farrant… obsesses about Bishop Seán Manchester on a regular basis. Though they only know him via the internet, it is quite apparent that Mr Farrant [is intimidated] by Don Ecker. [He] even comes across as being afraid of this vulgar Neanderthal."
There was still a note of bemusement in Don's voice, many years after his last engagement with the weird and often baffling world of the Highgate Vampire: "The whole thing was water off a duck's back, but I've seen the way [the Friends of Sean Manchester Society has] gone after others, hammer and tong."
There is a crucial problem with reporting the case today. Farrant is gone, his side of the story dependent on the often strained memories of others, and Manchester remains in no mood to relinquish his grip on ownership of the case – it is, after all, almost his entire life's work – while also not exactly forthcoming when it comes to interview requests.
Not everyone wants to remember the spectre of the Highgate Vampire, even as a camp oddity of London's recent social history. Through a reporter at the Ham and High, I tried to reach Farrant's long-term partner, Della – but she chose not to respond.
Highgate Cemetery understandably declined to comment, considering it's the custodian of the graves that were desecrated among the initial hysteria – a factor that rids the story of some of its charm, when you remember the hurt and anguish it must have caused those with loved ones interned inside its walls.
Farrant's passing has not proved to be the end of the story. His death witnessed an outpouring of affection and reminiscence, including an obituary in the Ham and High, the same newspaper that had helped stoked the Highgate Vampire story into being all those years ago.
I'm not really sure what I expected when I asked Sean Manchester for some thoughts on his old rival, but it certainly wasn't a link to a relatively magnanimous self-penned eulogy. Perhaps I should have already realised that, when it comes to the Highgate Vampire, one should leave any reasonable expectations at the door.