From the town of Gernsheim, on the eastern banks of a languorous meander in the Rhine, it was once possible to see the steep slate roof and towers of Frankenstein castle, positioned on a hilltop 10 miles away. In 1814, a few days after her 17th birthday, Mary Shelley very likely gazed up at the fortress during the several hours her party spent resting in the town. She and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley eloped to France and Switzerland but overspent and were returning to England by riverboat through Germany.
During their three-hour stop at Gernsheim, it’s unlikely they climbed up to the summit, but it is possible that she heard grisly tales of the alchemist and physician Johann Konrad Dippel, who was born in the castle. Dippel invented an animal oil that he claimed was a universal medicine and theorized about transferring souls between dead bodies with the aid of a funnel. [Read about Dracula's castle in Transylvania.]
While there is little substantiated proof that Dippel inspired the novel, the coincidences are spooky. In contrast, Shelley’s social milieu does include a connection to Benjamin Franklin, whose experiments with electricity are a likely inspiration for the animating process that brings the monster to life. The connection to anatomist Erasmus Darwin is the most certain of all, as he is cited as affirming that the events of the Gothic tale are “not of impossible occurrence” in the introduction to the original version of the novel, published 200 years ago this year.
Visit the castle today, a short drive south of Frankfurt, and you can climb the tower and dine on a patio, both with a view of the valley below. Get ready for the kind of warmhearted companionship that the novel’s monster yearned for.
The menu is kid friendly, with vegan options and a nonalcoholic version of their signature Frankensteiner cocktail, which will help make sure you can navigate back down the winding road. Be sure to peek into the chapel where you might see a kindhearted bride.
If you're in the mood for murder and mayhem that the monster unfurled on the world once it spurned him, head downstairs to the dinner theater where you can catch German-language productions featuring criminals and monsters including, of course, the experiments of Dr. Frankenstein.
Brad Scriber is the Deputy Research Director of National Geographic Magazine. Follow his travels on Twitter.