Burg Frankenstein (Frankenstein Castle) is a little ruined remain, about 30km south of Frankfurt, Germany. It’s an easy afternoon’s trip from Germany’s second city if you’ve got your own transport.
Frankenstein Castle certainly isn’t the biggest or most interesting castle in Germany, but it’s possible that Mary Shelley found the inspiration for her gothic novel, Frankenstein, from these ruins.
Whether this is true or not, the castle was certainly home to an eccentric scientist, Konrad Dippel – responsible for hair-raising experiments with animals – and human body-parts.
Frankenstein Castle is a fairly subdued and peaceable spot for around 364 days of the year, but it comes to life (or should that be, resurrects itself from the dead?!) once a year, for a huge and frankly terrifying Halloween Festival, every October 31st.
The History of Frankenstein Castle
The word ‘frankenstein’, rather prosaically, means ‘the stone of the Franks’ – the name of the family who laid claim to the land.
The castle was probably built a little before 1252 (the year of the first historical record) and remained in the Frankenstein family for around 400 years – give or take some squabbles between two sides of the family.
In the c17th, it became a barracks for retired soldiers; and the castle was overzealously restored by well-meaning romantics during the c19th.
Post WWII, parts of the castle were used as an American army base – which helps part explain some of the castle’s popularity to visitors from the USA.
Unfortunately, the most impressive parts of the present-day castle – the tall, peaked towers – didn’t ever exist in Medieval times.
These were additions in the 1850s by Romantic architects who wanted to exaggerate the castle’s gothic qualities. Even so, much of the inner ward of the castle (the lower walls) are authentic; and you can still see the remains of the old drawbridge.
The castle is perched upon a wooded hilltop, around 400m above the surrounding Rhine valley. It’s surrounded by pretty deciduous woodland and attractive nature trails. There’s a modern restaurant (which is a bit of an architectural nightmare), and eating here affords good views across the surrounding countryside.
Frankenstein Castle: An Inspiration to Mary Shelley?
Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, Frankenstein, was first published in 1818. It told the story of an eccentric, dangerous scientist named Frankenstein, who creates a ghasty 8ft being – and manages to bring it to life. Frankenstein runs away, terrified, from this terrible creature – but the being manages to learn self-awareness whilst fending out in the wild.
The terrifying creature finds Frankenstein and demands he creates it a female mate – or it will be doomed to exist alone, cast off from society. Frankenstein is drawn to take responsibility for the life he’s created, and the fates of both Frankenstein and his horrifying creation become gruesomely intertwined.
The vastly popular novel has spawned many movies, plays, novels, and TV series. In 1931, the most famous of these – the original Frankenstein movie – was released.
It was this movie that unofficially christened the ghastly 8ft creature to be ‘Frankenstein’ (rather than it being the name of his creator); and the first time that the creature was referred to as a ‘monster’.
The 1931 movie was also the first time that the Frankenstein story became associated with a castle. Mary Shelley’s original novel makes no reference to a castle at any point. The film adaptation, however, took place in a castle – at one point, the monster is locked in the dungeons.
Despite all this, it does seem likely that Frankenstein Castle somehow influenced Mary Shelley – although it’s almost certain she never visited the place.
In 1814, four years before her novel was published, Shelley enjoyed a boat-trip along the Rhine river. Although it’s very unlikely she’d have spotted the castle from her boat, we know for certainty that she did pass close by.
We know that Shelley was particularly interested in folk-lore and local legend – she was one of the Romantic artists, who valued mysterious heritage over modern industry.
Indeed, her step-mother was the English translator of the Brothers Grimm – the slightly freaky fairytales that still feature in our modern imaginations. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine that Shelley could have been inspired by tales of ruined castles – and of mad scientists! – while she travelled down the river in this part of Germany, just four years before her novel was published.
What’s the other side of the story? Well, I should say that some authors, most notably Radu Florescu, have argued that Shelley visited the castle but kept it a secret – to maintain her claim to originality.
His line – which has been supported a couple of other academics – is that she snuck to the place but purposefully left out any mention from within her diary or her letters. It all sounds very far-fetched to me though – a bit of a conspiracy theory.
John Konrad Dippel: Mad Scientist, or The Inspiration for Frankenstein?
John Konrad Dippel is, nowadays, thought of as the archetypal mad-scientist, and as the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Dippel was born in August 1673 inside Frankenstein Castle. A natural loner, he busied himself studying science, alongside theology, alchemy, and also mysticism.
Dippel made some impressive contributions to science – including helping discover the dye Prussian Blue, which is still used in modern-day textile production. More creepily to modern ears, he also developed his own Animal Elixir – a potion with the potential to cure any malady and reverse ageing . It was formed by boiling down the remnants of various dissected animals.
Like other alchemists of his time, Dippel was fixated with the human soul. He documented many experiments of ‘soul transference’ – trying to swap the soul of one dead animal into a living one.
It was one of his less-ghoulish experiments on living creatures. He also believed that his potions could be used to exorcise demons; and that the soul of one human being could be poured into another – quite literally with a funnel, hose, and lubricant.
It’s from this point in Dippel’s life that it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction. According to the stories, Dippel was so obsessed with anatomy that he began to dissect human corpses, instead of animal’s bodies.
Of course, there are hundreds of stories of rogue doctors cutting up bodies over the years – but apparently Dippel had a particular penchant for exhuming the dead, after-dark, from local graveyards. It’s said that he believed the recent dead still had some soul intact in the body.
It was said that Dippel had a particular obsession with re-animating the dead – boiling human remains to create an elixir of life – after all, he’d achieved success with his animal elixir.
Finally – most gruesomely of all, but most likely hearsay – it was said he transferred hearts and eyes between dead bodies, as part of his experiments in transferring human souls.
True? Probably not, and there’s no substance to the rumour that local villagers expelled Dippel on account of his experiments.
However, more plausible modern theorists do believe that other contemporaneous scientists, jealous of Dippel’s success with Prussian Blue, sought to smear him with these fanciful tales and gruesome stories of his dirty work.
Perhaps these tall tales of re-animating the dead, of crazed experimentation, and of the search for the human soul were relayed to Mary Shelley when she travelled through the Frankenstein district back in 1814. We may never know for sure.
Even so, modern urban myth has irrevocably linked Dippel to being the ‘real life Frankenstein’ – modern authors and readers have perhaps created their very own monster.