Monsters, mad scientists and macabre experiments may be what’s evoked when someone says “Frankenstein”, but the German name has a history stretching back centuries before Mary Shelley wrote her famous novel.
With “Frank” being an ancient Germanic tribe and “Stein” meaning stone, many places in Germany share this moniker. But the place most associated with Shelley’s novel is Castle Frankenstein, seated 400m above the Rhine Valley within the Odenwald, a tree-lined mountain range in southern Germany. Overlooking the city of Darmstadt, the 13th-century hilltop castle has long been shrouded in folklore and myth.
Alchemy and anatomy at work
No resident was more notorious than Johann Conrad Dippel. Born in the castle in 1673, he eventually became its official alchemist. Dippel dabbled in elixirs and experiments seeking the secret to immortality. Frequently experimenting with animal cadavers, he created “Dippel’s Oil” made of a distillation of horns, blood, leather and ivory. He claimed the black concoction was the “elixir of life” and could be used to cure everything from epilepsy to the common cold.
While there’s no evidence that he actually performed Frankenstein-like experiments on human cadavers, Dippel had a strong interest in anatomy and he wrote about his belief in the ability to transfer the soul from one corpse to another with the use of a funnel, hose and lubricant.
Dippel died of a stroke in 1734 (just one year after publishing a claim he would live to 135), but many speculate he was poisoned, a punishment for his unpopularity with the locals.
The ruins behind the literary legend
Rumours persist that the Brothers Grimm shared Dippel’s dark history with Shelley’s stepmother, who was an English translator of fairy tales. Shelley herself was travelling through the Rhine region near the castle in 1814, four years before Frankenstein was published, but she never claimed the castle or Dippel as a direct inspiration.
This hasn’t stopped visitors to the castle from immersing themselves in the legend. The castle fell into ruin in the 1700s, but was restored (if historically inaccurately) in the mid-19th Century, with the two prominent pointed towers taking on a Romantic-inspired Gothic architecture look that was popular at the time. Still, the stones of the lower walls and parts of the original drawbridge remain intact, and the well-marked forest trails around the ruin provide plenty of fodder for folklore.
A haunted American import
Finding a fright at Castle Frankenstein gets a little bit easier every October, when the spooky ruins host one of Germany’s biggest Halloween parties.
After World War II, US troops were stationed at the nearby Rhein Mein Air Base. After their annual Halloween celebrations became a bit too rowdy for the barracks, in 1978 the soldiers moved their party to Castle Frankenstein – and the tradition has stuck ever since. The festival has grown over the years to be one of Europe’s largest Halloween celebrations, especially as Germany hasn’t traditionally celebrated the event.
To mark the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s finishing her manuscript of her famous monster, the castle has chosen the classic Frankenstein story as its theme this year, complete with mad scientists, grave robbing and creepy experiments. Tickets are available from 21 October through 6 November.
The rest of the year, the medieval castle remains a relatively quiet place to visit, accessible by a tree-lined, windy road. Open to the public, admission and parking are free, and an on-site restaurant (open from March to December) offers German classics like schnitzel alongside more contemporary options like vegan bratwurst – as well as regular Horror Dinners for those who prefer their Frankenstein with a scare on the side.
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