Celebrating 40 years of scares at Burg Frankenstein
Ask someone about the legend of Frankenstein and most are familiar with the green, bolt-necked monster associated with Mary Shelley’s famous novel, “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.”
Some even know the history of Germany’s connection to the novel. Mary Shelley and her travel companions, poets Lord Byron and Shelley’s then-fiancé Percy B. Shelley, took a summer tour in 1816 through Germany and Switzerland. Shelley and her companions spent their evenings recounting German and French horror stories they’d read or heard, including tales of the alchemist, Dr. Johann Conrad Dippel (1673 – 1734), actually born at Burg Frankenstein. Although Mary Shelley never named who or what specifically inspired her classic novel, she did document her travels along the Rhine River, and is believed to have visited Burg Frankenstein – where she likely would have heard tell of Dr. Dippel.
What many revelers don’t know however, is the story behind what is now one of Germany’s biggest Halloween parties; Halloween at Burg Frankenstein.
The American notion of Halloween, the haunted houses and trick-or-treating aspect, has slowly started to gain popularity in Europe, but that wasn’t always the case.
In 1978, a group of American Airmen from the 435th Transportation Squadron stationed at Rhein Main Air Base (shuttered in 2005) heard the classic tales of horror connected with nearby Burg Frankenstein in Darmstadt and most notably, Dr. Dippel’s strange experiments and even creepier persona.
The alchemist dabbled in secret and strange potions, the study of anatomy and performed experiments with cadavers that he often dug up himself. In the doctor’s own dissertation, Maladies and Remedies of the Life of the Flesh, Dippel claimed to have discovered the Elixir of Life, which he named “Dippel’s Oil” as well as potions to exorcize demons. He also believed in “soul transference” where souls could be transferred from one corpse to another via a funnel.
Unsurprisingly, in the early 1700s Dippel garnered a reputation as a dark sorcerer who kept company with the Devil, and he would eventually serve a seven-year prison term after he was convicted for heresy.
So the legends surrounding Darmstadt’s creepy castle on the hill, its dark forests and even darker folklore were still captivating audiences centuries later.
That’s when an idea presented itself. What if Burg Frankenstein was used for an American-style Halloween party?
The 435th Transportation Squadron led the charge and decided to make it happen, successfully turning a great idea into one of the biggest Halloween festivals in Europe to this day.
In 2008, Stars and Stripes reporter, Kevin Dougherty, interviewed one of the event’s original creators, Retired Army Lt. Col. Cole B. Whaley, Jr. on his recollections of being stationed near Darmstadt. This is what Whaley, Jr. had to say:
“An event that sticks out in my mind occurred in about 1975. The German-American Contact Club approached me, the community executive officer, with an idea for Halloween. An Army Spec 4 had this idea to use Frankenstein’s Castle for a Halloween party, and I could see no reason not to support it. It turned out to be very popular. You could say Halloween in Germany was born right here in Darmstadt. Before then, there was nothing at all off post. It blossomed right here.”
Indeed it did.
Burg Frankenstein is celebrating 40 years of Halloween thrills and chills this year. Halloween events run through Nov. 5, which means there’s still time to experience monsters, ghouls and more at one of Germany’s creepiest castles.
There are several ticketing options available, more information can be found at the event’s website.
A warning … this is a seriously scary event. In Germany, the live actors are allowed to touch participants. In American haunted houses, you can scream your way through the terrifyingly costumed live actors, safe behind the curtain of knowledge that they are not supposed to touch you. Those gloves are off in Germany. Live actors will grab your shoulders, jab or poke at you to get a scare. Those who are more petite should know, actors will team up to pick people up off the ground for screams!
Due to the potentially scary nature of this event, there are age restrictions applicable per Germany’s Youth Protection Act (JuSchG) of 23 July 2002:
· Children under the age of 14 are not allowed,
· Children under 16 years of age are not allowed to enter without a guardian, and are to be accompanied by a guardian.
My husband and I actually visited Burg Frankenstein in 2016 for the Halloween event, and the hype is warranted; it is a truly scary experience. Perhaps it’s the setting, the knowledge of the actual alchemist, Dr. Dippel and his hair-raising experiments, the amazingly realistic live actors, or a heady combination of it all, this is one event you won’t soon forget … and might actually give you a few nightmares.
The original Stars and Stripes original interview with Cole B. Whaley, Jr. can be read here.
Additionally, it’s no surprise that Frankenstein’s Castle has been scaring people for quite some time – as former Armed Forces’ Network reporter, John A. Keel, recounts in his book, “Jadoo”. (Keel also penned the New York Times bestseller, “The Mothman Prophecies” which was made into a blockbuster film starring Richard Gere in 2002). In 1952, Keel was assigned to Germany and his colleagues pulled a magnificent prank at Frankenstein’s Castle that resulted in over a dozen police cars responding to the scene. Listen to Keel’s own words and read about what happened one fog-shrouded night, here!
Special thanks to Dan O’Brien for his contributions to this story!