A Walk Through the Cemetery

I’m debating whether or not I’ll watch South Valley Civic
Theatre’s production of Bram Stoker’s

Count Dracula.

It opens this weekend at the Morgan Hill Community
Playhouse.
I’m debating whether or not I’ll watch South Valley Civic Theatre’s production of Bram Stoker’s “Count Dracula.” It opens this weekend at the Morgan Hill Community Playhouse.

Word is, the play is very scary – and that’s what frightens me. I hate hair-raising stories – not that, as my column photo attests, my hair might rise all that high.

A certain nostalgia, however, draws me to see the play. About 10years ago, I lived in the Highgate district of London when I served as European bureau chief for an international news service. Highgate was where Dracula’s story was conceived, appropriately enough, in a cemetery.

My discovery of this historic fact occurred when a certain lovely Londoner took me on a romantic stroll among the ponds of Highgate’s Waterlow Park. As we walked, I glanced over a boundary fence and exclaimed, “Hey, cool, a cemetery!”

It wasn’t just any cemetery. My lady friend informed me it was the world-famous Highgate Cemetery. England’s Victorians had established it back in 1839 during a time when robbers ransacked tombs to steal cadavers for medical schools. Lofty walls around the Highgate’s hill-side cemetery guarded the dead from the body-snatchers.

Over the years, many famous people, including Michael Faraday, Christina Rossetti and George Eliot, were buried in Highgate Cemetery. It eventually became a popular – and rather macabre – tourist attraction.

My lady friend and I paid a couple of pounds to the graveyard’s gatekeeper and lost ourselves among the muddy and sloping paths of the unkempt place. What struck me most was the overgrown vines winding around the decaying gravestones. More than one decapitated angel stood on marble markers densely laden with crawling ivy.

Two Highgate Cemetery gravestones still strike my mind. One belonged to an Asian man who formerly owned an eatery in the Leicester Square district of London. The deceased dude, before he left this world, must have realized the potential marketing opportunity of thousands of cemetery tourists passing his final resting spot. He ingeniously turned his marker into an advertisement for his Chinese restaurant – even including an address and telephone number.

In another part of the cemetery, we found the monument to Karl Marx, the founder of socialism. A sculpture of his big bearded head sat on top a block of marble with the slogan “Workers of All Lands Unite!” on it. Nearby were numerous markers of other socialists reposing in peace near their beloved hero.

“This must be Commie’s Corner,” I light-heartedly told my friend. She promptly scolded me for not respecting the dead and their political viewpoints. I considered it great irony that the author of “Das Kapital” rested for eternity near the capitalistic restaurant entrepreneur.

As misty rain dripped from the grey sky, we continued wandering through the eerie burial ground. “This would make a creepy place for a Hollywood horror movie,” I mentioned. “Maybe they could film ‘Dracula’ here.”

Funny I mentioned that. I soon learned from my lady friend that back in the late 19th century, the Irish-born author Bram Stoker often traversed these very same cemetery paths. A failed novelist, he worked as a manager for the Lyceum Theater. During the day, to get away from London’s bustling West End, he frequently came to Highgate Cemetery to find quiet time in the peaceful sanctuary.

One afternoon, Stoker sat enjoying his lunch among the graves when a shaft of sunlight passed through a tree onto a tombstone. He pondered what might happen if the lightbeam might penetrate down to the corpse that lay beneath. That sparked his idea for a horror novel featuring a certain notorious Transylvanian count named “Dracula.”

Stoker, of course, didn’t invent the vampire story. For thousands of years, folklore described the doings of the “undead.” But the Victorians were fascinated by the notion of such creatures who lived in a strange limbo between life and death.

In 1847, author Thomas Priest published a novel titled “Varney the Vampire” which was immensely popular. But its fame was surpassed by Stoker’s blockbuster “Dracula” which hit book stores on June 24, 1897. It’s never been out of print since.

Some vampire aficionados even journey to London to tour Highgate Cemetery and see for themselves the place Stoker used as the location for his famous novel’s climax. Many believe it’s here that Van Helsing and his team of heros drove a stake through the heart of Lucy Westenra, the unfortunate woman who fell under the evil count’s spell and transformed into his vampire lover.

My lady friend told me that local London legend says a vampire still dwells in Highgate. She said that in the 1970s, a self-proclaimed “vampire hunter” claimed he tracked the nefarious creature to the Highgate Cemetery. What a wild imagination, I thought.

But then, a while later, there came a Halloween night when I attended a pub party in London’s Crouch End district, a short walk from my Highgate flat. I imbibed some good English ale, and felt the effects of it as I walked home late that night.

A wooded nature trail – converted from a former railroad line – connected Crouch End to my Milton Avenue neighborhood. All alone, I found myself walking along the dark path. Wind stirred the trees which made weird shrieking noises as branches creaked. My mind started imagining the Highgate vampire prowled in the shadows.

What if it wasn’t just a story? What if it were true? “Don’t be silly. It’s all superstition,” I kept telling myself.

Suddenly, I felt certain unseen diabolical horrors lay ahead for me. My heart pounding, I nervously picked up my pace. That 15-minute walk lasted an eternity. Somehow, I got home without facing any vampires.

That was a decade ago. Perhaps this weekend, I might attend our local production of “Count Dracula.” I’m sure the play will terrify me. I’m also sure a real live vampire couldn’t possible dwell in South Valley. All the garlic here would make our neck of the woods too scary a place for such a creature.

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