by Della Farrant
The History Press, £9.98
Published Oct. 6, 2014
I once submitted a book proposal on southern Worcestershire hauntings to The History Press publishing company. It was destined to be a winner, featuring such odd entities as the Naunton Beauchamp vampire, the Throckmorton Fishman and the Slippery Eel of Piddle-in-the-Hole. I was told the suggestion was wrong on so many levels, especially as it seemed I had invented these beings. “I’m sure it contains no more fictional entities than any of the other supernatural-themed books you’ve published!” I exclaimed before the call was abruptly ended.
Misfortune to one side, I was finally willing to permit just one further History Press title to fall into my hands: Haunted Highgate, written by Della Farrant, spouse to vampire hunting pariah, David. With apologies to the author, my sole interest was her write up of the whole Highgate Vampire shebang. Would she back her husband’s most recent accounts of what occurred in 1970, or throw her own ideas into the mix? Well, a bit of both.
It makes sense for Della to adopt the basics from David’s version of events circa 2009. It would look odd to do otherwise though anyone familiar with the ins and outs of the case will understand facts and factoid have become one through the years. Mrs. Farrant writes:
On Sunday, 21 December 1969 [David] left his Highgate flat at around eleven in the evening, and made the ten-minute walk to Swains Lane. His intention, as he somewhat sheepishly admits today, was to scale the main gates and head to the flat area of land […] where [a previous sighting of an apparition] had occurred […] At this moment [viewing the apparition through the gates on Swains Lane] Farrant describes becoming aware of two faint points of light suspended in the region of what now appeared to be a face with no other discernible features.
Let’s compare this with Farrant’s initial letter to the Hampstead & Highgate Express, published Feb. 6, 1970. It places this sighting on Dec. 24, 1969—Christmas Eve. The letter makes no reference to any “points of light” on the facial area of the spectral “grey figure”. These may seem minor details though they are indicative of the manner in which the Farrant family account has evolved.
David’s letter detailed three sightings of the supposed entity, though someone called “Vampirologist” has rightly observed an inconsistent ability to stick to this figure. Della attempts to sidestep the doubt, definitively stating: “The letter relayed his own sighting […] and out of respect for his [British Psychic and Occult Society] colleagues’ privacy also attributed to himself the two […] sightings by members of his society.”
And let us not forget the identity of a “medium” at a 1971 ritual to contact the entity. Four years after the event, in an article for New Witchcraft magazine, the name of the psychic was clearly David Farrant. Not so in 2014; he has become she. This follows from David’s book of five years earlier, In the Shadow of the Highgate Vampire (2009), in which a female medium was also present to help David banish the entity. Gender issues are apparently very confusing when it comes to ceremonial magic.
It’s interesting to see Della attempt to draw links between various apparitions at the West Cemetery. She postulates they may be one and the same, noticing a physical similarity between a hooded, cloaked identity seen close to the cemetery and the Romano-Celtic era motif of the Genii Cucullati, “hooded spirits”. Indeed, in his book Haunted Land (2001), folklorist Paul Devereux asks: “if it was possible—if I dare even think it—that the supposed monkish spectres seen by people today were actually much older wraiths.”
I don’t follow suit, though Della would refer me to the paragraph of Haunted Highgate in which she states: “hoaxing, or at best the influence of auto-suggestion upon ‘witnesses’, are frequently offered by cynics as a simple solution to this riddle [of the West Cemetery apparitions]. So many unconnected witnesses relaying similar experiences within such a close time span, suggests, however, that there could be some other nexus.”
Ignoring the confusion between cynicism and skepticism, the rhetoric doesn’t hide a circular argument. It can’t possibly be true that people deliberately go out of their way to hoax things and achieve the desired effect upon their audience. It can; there are numerous examples of hoaxing through the years. Try hoaxes.org for a special treat.
It can’t possibly be true that witnesses may inadvertently interpret unusual events as paranormal? It can; these instances are known as xenonormal phenomena.
It can’t possibly be true that good faith reports of hoaxed or xenonormal phenomena can prime future visitors to the location, or influence those who seek retrospective explanations for an unusual event—an escalation of a locality’s paranormality. These factors represent part of the folkloric process, yet they are swiped aside in deference to the wishful thinking of paranormal hypotheses.
It’s a similar situation with the tale of the man who had camera equipment malfunction inside the West Cemetery; paranormality is the go-to perspective without the presentation of supporting evidence. There is no reasoned attempt to rule out other causes.
Another example concerns the “trend observed by notable parapsychologists over the years, including members of the London-based Society for Psychical Research’s various committees,” namely, “the apparent role which structural changes to old buildings and landscapes can play in triggering psychical phenomena.” I suggest certain other committee members of the SPR (an organisation which holds no corporate view) would have a different perspective.
Changes in an environment can introduce unfamiliar sights, sounds or smells. Until you’ve established what is normal in that altered environment you may interpret perfectly normal, though unfamiliar experiences as paranormal: the new house effect.
Della goes on to discuss Joe Meek, the record producer who attempted to capture the voices of spirits on audio recording equipment. On occasion, he visited the West Cemetery to make such recordings, capturing “the sound of a female voice, speaking in distant and distorted sentences.” Della attributes this, and Meek’s increasing paranoia to “what may have been a natural psychic ability, coupled with an undiagnosed mental illness.”
I’m uncomfortable with this; supposed recordings of the dead speaking on tape are called Electric Voice Phenomena, a title commonly abbreviated to EVP. It has a myriad of possible causes including psychological factors and those related to the equipment being used.
It’s this habit of ignoring rational explanations for supposedly paranormal phenomena that has plagued David Farrant’s take on the Highgate case, and now it extends to his partner. However, this methodology does not occur without discrimination. Della has no time for Sean Manchester’s theory a vampire stalked the West Cemetery (notably a theory that, back in 1970, David openly supported in the press and on television).
This may seem fair enough on first glance; in British society vampires are dismissed as the stuff of fantasy. They do not belong on these shores, whereas apparitions and spirits do; legends of the latter fill volume after volume of books and magazines.
It is only this acceptance through cultural familiarity that renders talk of supernatural apparitions more “believable” than rumours of vampires. To someone such as myself, recognising the role of folklore and holding no paranormal beliefs, how is it possible to separate the truth of one hypothesis above the other? I consider both to be highly unlikely, though I would be willing to reassess this with the appearance of solid, verifiable scientific evidence.
After all, as renown skeptic Brian Dunning wrote: “Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.”
I’m not going to pass further observation on Della’s presentation of the Highgate drama, except to say it is coherent and well written. But like anything else on the subject of that bloody thing in the cemetery, the reader chooses to accept its paranormality based upon opinion and faith alone.
Will the public ever really know what happened at Highgate Cemetery? Probably not.
Farrant’s book is available in paperback (UK£9.98) and Kindle (UK£6.99) on Amazon.co.uk. She is the co-ordinator of The Highgate Vampire Symposium, to be held on July 19, 2015 at The Gatehouse, Highgate N6.
Trystan Swale is a folklorist who writes about the Highgate Vampire case on his website, The Highgate Vampire. He will be reviewing the symposium for Vamped.