Frankenstein. The very mention of the name evokes images of a mad scientist holed up in his dungeon-like laboratory, stitching together a man made from the body parts of the dead. Outside his foreboding castle abode, lightning crashes amidst the dark and stormy night; lightning which he hopes to harness in bringing his unholy creation to life.
It’s a classic scene; originating from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, and since then made familiar through countless retellings in numerous horror films. But one may be surprised to know that this iconic figure of gothic literature might actually have a basis in fact. Yes, Frankenstein exists. Or at least, his castle does.
Located in Germany, the real Castle Frankenstein is situated on top of a hill in the village of Nieder-Beerbach, approximately 5 kilometers south of the city of Darmstadt. It was erected sometime before 1250 by nobleman Lord Conrad II. Reiz von Breuberg, who had since given himself the name von un dzu Frankenstein and founded the free imperial lordship Frankenstein. Prior to the castle’s construction, another castle may have occupied the hill upon which it was built since the 11th century. Frankenstein Castle would fall into ruin in the 18th century, but its distinctive feature, a stone tower measuring a height of around 60 to 70 feet, still stands amidst the ruins.
The main character of Shelley’s macabre masterpiece may have been inspired by Johann Conrad Dippel, a German theologian, physician and alchemist who was born in Castle Frankenstein on August 10, 1673. Perhaps Dippel’s most notable accomplishment was the discovery of the pigment Prussian Blue, but he had also been the subject of bizarre speculation. He was said to have been developing an elixir of life, supposedly estimated to extend a person’s life span to at least 135 years of age. It was also rumored that when he died on April 25, 1734, strange alchemical paraphernalia, as well as human body parts, were found in his laboratory.
Shelley had always claimed that she based her story on a nightmare that she had, but many believe that the legends surrounding Dippel may actually have served as her inspiration. It is speculated that she may have visited Frankenstein Castle with her husband Percy Shelley, but there is no real evidence of this. Still, the coincidences are too close for comfort. Another theory is that Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) may have heard of the tall tales regarding the castle and told them to Shelley’s stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont, but this is also in doubt.
Aside from the connection to Shelley’s immortal tale, there are a few other legends associated with Frankenstein Castle. One told of a giant vampire bat kept by one of the Frankenstein lords as a pet. Eventually, it preyed on the villagers for their blood, including a girl who was to marry one of the lords. Her body was discovered in one of the castle’s towers and the bat was killed, but it continued to menace the villagers as a ghost. Another legend was about Georg von Frankenstein, a knight who purportedly died in battle against a blood-drinking dragon in 1531. The knight’s grave can be found at the church of Nieder-Beerbach, while it is said the dragon’s ghost can still be sighted.
Whether the morbid myths of Frankenstein Castle are fact or fallacy, its caretakers have nonetheless embraced its ghoulish reputation. A restaurant was established within the castle’s walls in 1970, and starting in 1976, it has played host to an annual Halloween festival which has since become among the largest such Halloween celebrations held in Europe.