Two-hundred years ago, at a party at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, a woman named Mary Shelley had a “waking dream” that would become one of the most famous horror novels of all time: .
What many people do not know is that the name “Frankenstein” predates Shelley’s novel by centuries. On a hilltop in the Odenwald mountain range, overlooking the German city of Darmstadt, are the crumbling remains of the real-life Frankenstein Castle. The stone structure has stood upon the hilltop since the mid-13th century. Some say that the castle’s dark legend made its way to a young Mary Shelley, providing inspiration for her great novel.
While “Frankenstein” conjures thoughts of mad scientists and lumbering monsters, the phrase is in fact a fairly normal phrase for castles in southern Germany. The term “Frank” refers to the ancient Germanic tribe, while “stein” means stone. “Frankenstein” means “Stone of the Franks.”
Lord Conrad II Reiz of Breuberg constructed the castle sometime around 1250. He christened the structure Frankenstein Castle, and afterward adopted the name “von und zu Frankenstein.” As founder of the free imperial Barony of Frankenstein, Lord Conrad held power over nearby Darmstadt, Ockstadt, Nieder-Beerbach, Wetterau, and Hesse.
As for the castle’s dark legend, that can be traced back to alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel, who was born in the castle in 1673. Dippel created an elixir known as Dippel’s Oil. Derived from pulverized animal bones, the dark, viscous oil was used as late as World War II, as a chemical warfare agent that rendered wells undrinkable without actually making the water poisonous.
Rumors surrounding Dippel hold that, during his time at Frankenstein Castle, he practiced anatomy as well as alchemy, even going so far as to exhume corpses and perform medical experiments on them. There are some reports claiming that Dippel actually created a monster that was brought to life by a bolt of lightning—though it seems most likely that Shelley’s tale inspired these stories, and not the other way around.
An intriguing local legend tells of a Lord Georg of Frankenstein, who lived in the castle and fought a dragon that lurked at a nearby well. The legend goes that the lord was stung by the dragon’s poison tail during the skirmish, and died after making his way back to the castle. The supposed tomb of Lord Georg can still be visited in the church in the nearby village of Nieder Beerbach.
The forest near the castle is also home to a particularly eerie natural anomaly. Due to magnetic stone formations within the mountains, there are places near Frankenstein Castle where compasses cease to work properly. Legends say that witches used these areas for their sabbaths on Walpurgisnacht.
In 2008, the SyFy show dedicated an entire episode to Frankenstein Castle. While there, the investigators met with a Frankenstein expert and claimed that the castle held “significant paranormal activity.” Sounds were recorded in the castle’s chapel and entrance tower, including a recording of what some believe was a voice speaking in Old German saying, “Arbo is here.”
Frankenstein Castle remains a popular tourist destination to this day, located only 20 miles from Frankfurt International Airport, and with a dedicated tram stop that’s simply called, “Frankenstein.” Since 1978, the castle has been home to an annual Halloween festival, started by American airmen from the 435th Transportation Squadron who were stationed at the nearby Rhine-Main Air Base. Today, a restaurant is located just below the castle’s towers, where visitors to Frankenstein Castle can enjoy regular meals or special themed events like Horror Dinner Nights.