DARMSTADT FRANKENSTEIN CASTLE RUINS
Where Literature, Legend and Halloween Meet
The legend of a monster and mystery of creation. The town of Darmstadt is about half an hour from Frankfurt in the Hesse region of Germany. Fifteen minutes south of the city and the airport just off the A5 autobahn, a winding road takes you up a mountain to the ruins of a castle called Frankenstein. An original fortress was first built in the 10th Century. The current castle was constructed beginning in the 13th Century with additions in the next two hundred years. Abandoned as a residence in the late 1600's, serving for awhile as a prison and then completely forgotten and a ruin ever since with some walls, an intact though damaged distinctive tower and a small chapel, said to be haunted.
The Darmstadt Castle Frankenstein was resurrected in romantic age of the 1800’s as a part of the era’s fascination with gothic and romantic literature and the publishing of Mary Shelley’s famous novel of “Frankenstein” in 1818. The inspiration for Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s brilliant, haunting work has been the subject of speculation ever since it’s first printing. Connections of the name of the novel with an actual place have been tantalizing, though never proven. The novel of Frankenstein has very little to do with a castle, which was more an invention of James Whale’s iconic version of the story in the Universal film with Boris Karloff, indelibly etched as the monster and castle as a romantic setting for a film.
Mary Shelley’s inspiration is more complex. In the novel, Victor von Frankenstein is not German at all but Swiss from Geneva. Her story was most famously begun at Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 (see Byron and Villa Diodati). The science student's undetailed creation of an unnamed “creature” were carried out at Ingolstadt University and most of the story takes place in Switzerland, the Alps, and on a ship. There is a suggestion that Mary Shelley visited the Darmstadt Castle Frankenstein ruin on a boat trip down the Rhine River in 1814. There is no record of a visit to Darmstadt, or mention of it in her journals. She perhaps may have heard from Byron, who spent more time in Germany than the Shelleys, of the castle and its legend of physician, crackpot theologian and alchemist, Johann Dippel, rumored to have tried to raise the dead by experimenting with human corpses in the castlea its days as a prison. Dippel was trying to discover the alchemist's "Elixer Vitae" potion of eternal life from blood and body fluids. He supposedly got the Landgrave of Hesse (see Castle Hotel Ludwigseck) to grant him the castle in exchange for the formula, but instead he created a foul-smelling explosive concoction known as "Dippel's Oil" made from animal bones, better suited to cloth dies and sheep dip than eternal life. The only very tenuous connection to be made from the novel to Dippel's doings might be found in an offhand joke made to a pregnant Mary Shelley while she was working on the book, taking a remedy of mixed Aniseed Spirit and a whale fat called Spemaceti, to which Percy Shelley quipped might be added "9 drops of human blood, 7 grains of gunpowder, 1/2 ounce of putrified brain and 13 mashed grave worms", perhaps a reference to local villager jokes about what Dippel was up to. Or the name may not be from the Darmstadt castle at all, but rather from the other Frankenstein Castle ruin in Rhineland-Palatine (see Grab Your Pitchfork).
A suggestion for the Frankenstein name has been assigned to Mary's step-mother Mary Clairmont, who may have had contact with Jacob Grimm (see Grimm's Fairy Tale Trail) for William Godwin's children's book publishing venture in London. Darmstadt is not far from Hanau, the birthplace of the fairy tale writing brothers and the start of the Fairy Tale Road from Hanau to Bremen (see Fairy Tale Museum). Though that's even less likely as Mary Shelley's relationship with her step-mother was not good and they did not speak. The early 1800’s was a time when the mysteries of science and medicine were meeting the mysteries of life. A panic of being buried alive had caused coffins of the time to be made with bells on a rope that could be rung if the mistakenly buried came back to life. Mary (Godwin) Shelley had also heard from her father’s friends Charles Lamb and S.T. Coleridge stories of experiments at Newgate prison of electricity being passed through dead prisoners, and the experiments of Luigi Galvani making frogs legs twitch with electric jolts. The idea of corpses surging to life was called "Gavanism" all the rage of excitement in the early 1800s. The invention of her story "in a dream" had come after the reading of a German collection of horror stories called the "Fantasmagoriana" that famous summer night on the shores of Lake Geneva. The novel of Frankenstein and what inspired it is as much a collection of inspirations as her monster is of collected bits of dead bodies (see Mary Shelley St Pancras).
The Castle Ruins of Burg Frankenstein in Darmstadt have been popularized by its name over the years and by its proximity to a military base as the end of a run to the top of the hill from Cambrai-Fritsch Kaserne army base in Darmstadt. It was mostly American soldiers who brought the idea of Halloween as a holiday party to Germany and the castle with the scary name seemed the perfect place. The Darmstadt Frankenstein Castle has become the location for one of the largest Halloween scare-show celebrations in the country, with spook effects and music, food and drink partying over three weekends at the end of October and November.
The Ruins of Burg Frankenstein can be reached by car off route B426 to a parking lot down the hill or by public transportation on the "Frankenstein Bus" from Darmstadt during the Halloween weekends and to the bus stop the rest of the year, but the walk from the bus stop is indeed a hike. The road and slope up the hill to the castle is a popular destination for bike riders and runners. There is a restaurant at the castle which hosts weddings and other events with beautiful views of the valley. The ruins have become quite popular in the "goth" world with photographers taking pictures of glam girls in black dresses freely haunting its stone walls. © Bargain Travel Europe
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