Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Highgate Vampire

In his book The Highgate Vampire, Bishop Seán Manchester states that the vampiric source of the Highgate infestation first showed up shortly after the infamous vampire plague of the early 1700s, the same era as Arnold Paole and Peter Plogojowitz. He further states that an Eastern European nobleman rented Ashurst House in the early 18th century. This all seems to make sense, and it suggests that Tamás Orszag of Hungary is the most likely candidate for the identity of the Highgate Vampire. Many researchers are certainly aware of an escalation of sightings reported in Swains Lane during the Victorian era, but the contamination clearly goes further back by another hundred years.

The identity of the suspected nobleman is by no means certain, which is why no name is offered for this person in the bishop's book where speculation on such matters is avoided.

A composite of the Highgate Vampire's appearance can be gleaned from various statements in the Vampire Research Society's archive and, of course, on public record in Bishop Seán Manchester's The Highgate Vampire (published by Gothic Press).*

Accounts provided by witnesses in the Hampstead & Highgate Express, 13 February 1970 & 20 February 1970, describe "a most unusual form [that] just seemed to glide across the path ... a pale figure ..."; "Many tales are told about a tall man who walks across Swains Lane and just disappears through a wall into the cemetery ..."; " ... a 'form' moving behind some gravestones ... the thing made no sound and seemed to disappear into nowhere ..."*

Jacqueline Beckwith, a teenager living in North Hill, awoke one night with something icy cold clutching her hand which soon went numb. The next morning revealed "deep tears in the flesh where she had forced [her hand] free."*

A ghost hunter by the name of Thomas told of "a dark shape [which] moved across the path directly in front of us." On an earlier occasion he had started to walk home with his fiancee down the lane running alongside and eventually between Highgate Cemetery. "Something was standing behind the iron railings of the gate ... upon its face was an expression of basilisk horror."*

Once again, "the thing behind the gate appeared to dissolve into the shadows of the night."*

Only when discovered in the putrid chamber of its tomb at Highgate Cemetery in August 1970 do we start to gain an idea of the full extent of the Highgate Vampire's horrific countenance. At its extirpation in the grounds of the neo-gothic derelict mansion in early 1974 the appearance is one of a heavy form, gorged and stinking with blood with eyes glazed and staring horribly, glinting with the red fire of perdition. This great leech possessed sallow, parchment-like skin beneath which a faint bluish tinge could be discerned; the colour of a three-day old corpse. It had black hair and eyebrows that were especially heavy and joined across the bridge of an aquiline nose. The mouth betrayed thin, cruel lips which drew back, almost in a snarl, to reveal sharp teeth where lodged congealed gouts of discolouring blood, the offal of the previous night's feast. Some witnesses describe a tall figure with a hideous countenance. All remark upon the eyes which burned like hot coals in a face so frightening it paralysed them in their tracks. There was also the unbearably fetid stench that accompanied this presence, rank with corruption and the stench of the charnel, which indicated an undead rather than an apparition. The last moments, some of which were captured by a 35mm camera, reveal the same "burning, fierce eyes beneath black furrowed brows staring with hellish reflection. Yellow at the edges with blood-red centres, unlike anything imaginable. Flared nostrils connected to a thin, high-bridged nose. The mouth still set in its cruel expression with lips drawn far back as if unable to contain the sharp, white teeth."*

*(The Highgate Vampire, pages 49, 54, 65, 66, 67, 68, 85, 86 & 142, Gothic Press edition)

“A pyre was built in the centre of the large garden … We looked, but saw none of its awful contents before everything was consumed. At last it was hidden from our view ― its dark pestilence swallowed in the bright flames which leaped skyward while all beneath crackled and hissed. Several hours later all that remained was a great scorch-mark on the ground … We stood staring at the charred spot, not daring to believe it was finally over. I took a handful of grey dust from the blackened earth and scattered it to the four winds.” (The Highgate Vampire, Gothic Press, 1991, pages 144-145)

Scenes captured on panchromatic film by a camera at the time, alas, would not see the light of day in a definitive depiction of the same events for a film dramatisation by the production company whose directorate included the talented Aimee Stephenson. Bishop Seán Manchester's episcopal duties, plus Aimee Stephenson’s tragic death, dampened all desire to resurrect this ambitious project for a long period afterwards, despite numerous overtures being made. The book, however, is toady optioned for a major cinema production. Eventually Bishop Seán Manchester came to the decision not to be interviewed about the Highgate case unless it could be demonstrated it was in the public interest. The nightmare wherein the door between us and another world was almost ripped off its hinges is now a distant memory that, for him at least, must be laid to rest. "Next to the hunger to confront such a thing, there is no stronger hunger than to forget," he once wrote.
Bishop Manchester initially wrote his book due to so many people contacting him to ask what really happened. Letters ran into hundreds, and this accumulated following the commission from Peter Underwood and his publisher, Leslie Frewin Books, to give an account of events up to and including the failed exorcism of August 1970. The bishop thought this might stem the flow, but the case itself was not yet solved, and reports of unsavoury incidents continued to filter into the columns of local newspapers. Hence the complete and unexpurgated account first published in 1985. A more intimate account was given in a special edition published by Gothic Press in 1991 where the rear fly on the dust jacket states: “[The author] recognises the immense public interest in the Highgate Vampire case which is why he has written the present volume as a final comment on what, in his own words, is ‘hopefully the last frenzied flutterings of a force so dight with fearful fascination that even legend could not contain it’.”
It was not Bishop Seán Manchester's intention to try and convince anyone of the existence of the supernatural; yet still he receives messages asking him to do precisely that. Nor was it his wish to stimulate undue interest in these matters; though he accepts this has been an unintentional by-product. By writing a comprehensive recounting of those events surrounding the mystery, Bishop Manchester merely sought to provide a record of his unearthly experience for those who wanted to read about it.

In the wake of his book, and personal appearances where he discussed its contents, parasitical elements were not slow to engage in shameless exploitation of his work, while others decided to become what can only be described as fans. Sometimes self-styled fans became almost vampiric themselves. When denied their demands, they would behave badly, turning bitter and resentful. Thankfully such incidents have been few and far between. The majority of enthusiastic readers of Bishop Seán Manchester's work have shown immense sympathy and encouragement as reflected by the popularity of any forum where it is discussed.