Exploring the Real Castle Frankenstein AKA “How the Phantom Spent the Christmas Holidays”

Castle FrankensteinThe Phantom of the Ville travels to Darmstadt, Germany to explore the ruins of Burg Frankenstein and investigate the history and myths surrounding this iconic medieval castle.

Castle Frankenstein
Happy New Year, haunt fans, it’s The Phantom of the Ville back on the streets of Louisville, KY after a two-week adventure spent across the pond in Germany and the Netherlands. As an incorporeal specter who has spent his entire afterlife within the borders of the United States, I experienced something of a spiritual and cultural awakening during my journey that I hope to share with you over the course of weeks to follow.

I experienced the overwhelming Gothic majesty of the Cologne Cathedral and listened to the chimes ring out from its’ towering spires as I marveled at the world-renowned Christmas Market in the streets below, imbibing in gluhwein (hot, spiced wine served in festive mugs as a European holiday tradition) and filling my belly with currywurst (the German equivalent of fair food consisting of fried sausage slathered in red curry sauce). I took the Autobahn into the Netherlands to visit one of the oldest and most elaborate theme parks in the world, The Efteling, which is twice the size of the original Disneyland and opened in 1952, three years prior to Uncle Walt’s grand experiment. The park’s attractions envelope guests in the world of fantasy, fairy tales and folklore including many elaborately produced dark rides that rival anything at Disneyland. The Efteling has its’ own haunted attractions: Spookslot Haunted Castle and the Villa Volta Mystery House, which I will go into much more detail about in a follow-up article.

I also experienced an art exhibition of a scale I had never seen before at the Gasometer Oberhausen, a converted former industrial gas holder that now showcases a full-scale replica of the Matterhorn that “floats” upside down above the audience as 3D projectors deliver 67 million pixels of animation across its’ surface to bring the mountain to life. Among the number of ancient castles that stretch across the historic landscape of Germany, I also visited a 12th century moated castle called Burg Linn in Krefeld, which is the oldest known castle along the Lower Rhine.

Castle Frankenstein
As a lifelong scholar of English literature and obsessive fan of classic horror, the most personally impactful destination on my holiday adventure is also a mecca for monster lovers all over the world. When I interviewed Wisconsin Fear Grounds’ owner, Tim Gavinski, a couple of years ago he recalled to me the scariest night of his life spent with his military unit on the grounds of Burg Frankenstein in Darmstadt, Germany. The castle was brought to American pop culture attention in 2008 when SyFy Channel’sGhost Hunters International” did an entire episode on site and declared the ruins “significantly active.”

What are the legends surrounding these mysterious ancient ruins and what is the connection to Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old novel and the 1931 Universal film featuring Boris Karloff as Baron Frankenstein’s monstrous creation?

The castle, built on the Odenwald mountain range overlooking the city of Darmstadt around 1230 is first recounted in a Latin document as “Super castro in frangenstien” which translates as “castle at the top of the Frankenstein.” The document names the founders of the castle as Konrad Reiz von Breuberg and his wife Elisabeth, who assumed the name “von und zu Frankenstein” after construction was complete. Konrad was the founder of the free imperial Barony of Frankenstein, who were the authorities of the local land that included seven villages and were subject of jurisdiction only to the emperor. The castle eventually fell into ruins during the 18th century.

Castle Frankenstein
Perhaps the most infamous resident to have ever lived in the castle was a man named Johann Conrad Dippel who was born in the castle in 1673. Dippel was a well-known alchemist who created what he described as “the elixir of life” called Dippel’s Oil, a dark, viscous liquid made from the destructive distillation of animal bones. Local history claims Dippel practiced both alchemy and anatomy while living in Castle Frankenstein. He was accused of graverobbing and is said to have performed bizarre experiments on cadavers including attempts to transfer the soul from one body to another. Dippel was banned from a number of countries due to his reputation and controversial religious ideas. Just a year before his death, Dippel published a manuscript claiming he had discovered an elixir that would allow him to live to be 135 years old.

There is historical evidence that Mary and Percy Shelley toured the Rhine river in 1814 and stopped in Gernsheim, which is only about 10 miles from Castle Frankenstein. It is likely, though never proven, that she may have heard the stories about Dippel and the castle while in the area. It’s also possible that these local stories may have influenced the nightmare she had months later that gave her the idea for the “Frankenstein” novel.

The Dippel/Frankenstein monster connection isn’t the only legend that locals tell about the castle and the dense woods surrounding it. One of the most famous is the story of Lord George and the Dragon which tells the story of a man-eating dragon who lived in a garden near Castle Frankenstein and the knight who sacrificed himself to slay it. Rumors suggest there is a supposedly hidden fountain of youth somewhere near the castle which can grant youth to those who drink from it on the first full moon after Walpurgis Night. There is also a place in the forest behind the castle where compasses don’t work due to strange magnetic properties in the stone formations there that has long been a gathering place for witches.

Castle Frankenstein
As we drove up the long, winding and densely wooded hill that leads to Castle Frankenstein, it was difficult not to surrender to the atmosphere of the place and it becomes abundantly clear why this area has become the center of so many folktales. Overcast and grey, the typically gloomy German winter conditions set the perfect black-and-white horror classic mood as we crested the Odenwald and I got my first glance at the battlement walls and top of the castle tower through the craggy trees.

We passed a banner advertising a theatrical dinner show that takes place at the restaurant built next door to the castle ruins. The restaurant was booked solid due to the holidays, so I can’t tell you what the food is like, but the interior looks properly rustic. You can park in a small parking lot just a few steps from the castle and admission is free. There is a small kiosk at the entrance that sells drinks, snacks, lurid postcards and simple coffee mugs. A fistful of postcards and a coffee mug cost me less than $10.

Before you reach the crumbling walls of the castle courtyard, you will pass the Frankenstein Chapel, which was first opened on July 13, 1474 and is still remarkably preserved today. Inside you will find a small church adorned with statues and grave markers representing significant members of the Frankenstein family. The first castle tower is inaccessible, but the main tower is intact. You can climb the wooden steps to four separate floors to take in the view through openings in the stone walls on the top floor. The best view, however, is on the castle battlement wall overlooking the city of Darmstadt below. Not much around the ruins is blocked off and you are free to explore at will. There was a strange room behind locked bars that appeared to be filled with mock “treasure” that seems to have been staged for tourist curiosity and photo ops. You can easily spend an hour walking the pathways around the castle and much longer exploring the mystery enshrouded woods surrounding it.

The potent mix of history, literature, folklore and horror make Burg Frankenstein a singular travel destination for fans of classic horror around the world. As I headed back to the car with a dreamy grin on my face, I passed and greeted several other guys headed towards the castle with the same boyish grin plastered across their astonished mugs. There is a true mystical electricity in the air around Castle Frankenstein that I can only describe as alive. Alive. Alive!

 

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