The Real Frankenstein
out of ****
I’ve heard it said that if the Holocaust never happened, it would make for such preposterous fiction that no one would take it seriously. I had a similar epiphany as I watched a play called “The Peoples Temple” at our local theatre a few days ago. It detailed the story of Jim Jones and the Jonestown tragedy in Guyana. I was familiar with the incident, but the facts and testimonies presented in the play seemed so outlandish that I had a difficult time believing them. Only later as I checked the truth to the reenactment did I realize that not only were the depicted atrocities accurate, but they were only scratching the surface of the truth. This revelation was shattering: Even in my worst nightmares, I realized, was I unable to create a scenario as chilling as those created by the likes of Hitler and Jones. This would be ironic if it wasn’t so unsettling —that even our imaginations cannot fathom the depths of evil that humanity can achieve.
It should not come to a surprise, then, that the documentary The Real Frankenstein tells us that Mary Shelley’s gothic novel is indeed based on a real person—a 17th century alchemist and theologian named Johan Konrad Dippel, who served as an innkeeper of the Castle Frankenstein, located near Darmstadt, Germany. This revelation is appropriate in light of the above thoughts on the Holocaust and Jonestown: The Frankenstein story seems too powerful and haunting to have originated solely from Mrs. Shelley’s young mind—or anyone’s mind, for that matter. Its power is so enticing that it would almost take an act of supernatural inspiration for a person to have conceived it at all. Thus, as standalone fiction apart from any historical influence, Shelley’s work is a dark miracle. So, here is The Real Frankenstein to bring us back down to Earth.
This is not a criticism of Mrs. Shelley, but rather an observation that is actually a common event among the great horror classics. The Real Frankenstein was put together by historians Radu Florescu and the late Raymond T. McNally, who collaborated on a trilogy of books that suggest the relationships between our fictitious villains and historical persons: In Search of Dracula, In Search of Frankenstein (from which this documentary is based), and In Search of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is curious that all of these influential horror tales—which provided English literature with some of its greatest literary demons—were all based on real people more demented and sinister than their mythical alter egos. Florescu and McNally’s findings are important from both a literary and historical perspective: They not only provide insight into the past origins of great literature, but if we are also to believe the oft-quoted theory about those not knowing history being doomed to repeat it, then these are histories that need to be told.
These books have actually revolutionized the way we approach at least Dracula and Frankenstein today (their look into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde wasn’t as successful, as there is really no one real person who parallels Robert Louis Stevenson’s antagonist as closely as Stoker’s or Shelley’s, and attempts to create such a parallel are not nearly as convincing): Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as we all know if we’ve seen Coppola’s dreary take on the tale, was based on the merciless 15th century Transylvanian conqueror Vlad the Impaler, a bloodthirsty dictator with a fetish for impaling his enemies on stakes in his front yard. What you might not know is that it is Florescu and McNally who first connected this relationship, and since they first published In Search of Dracula, the history of Vlad and the story of the vampire Count have become seemingly interchangeable.
Similarly, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was long considered the genius work of originality from a nineteen-year-old girl; the discovery of Dippel doesn’t make her novel any less genius, but it does render it perhaps a little less original, to the point that feminist critics have since scrambled to defend Shelley’s far-reaching imagination against the alchemist’s existence. Indeed, Dippel’s life corresponds so closely to Victor Frankenstein’s that by the time the fictional doctor begins listing off alchemists that have inspired him in the novel, the absence of Dippel’s name now makes the text seem lacking.
Like Frankenstein, Dippel was a man of science who had various theories concerning the resurrection of dead tissue. In pursuit of achieving immortality, he conned his way into various, illustrious courts and castles and convinced nobles and lords that he had the knowledge that would allow them to live forever (for a price). In his spare time, Dippel stole bodies from graves and experimented on them, ground up corpses and bones to make special ointments that he stole for high prices, preached theology intentionally designed to turn people away from faith, and was a generally despicable fellow, his infamy continuing to grow has he hopped from one nobleman’s service to another. Also like Frankenstein, Dippel wandered the earth restlessly and was killed (murdered?) under mysterious circumstances related to his experiments. He was found dead in Castle Frankenstein.
These are interesting parallels, and The Real Frankenstein, discloses the life of Dippel in such a way that little room is left for debate regarding whether or not Mary Shelley had heard of the sinister alchemist: In interviews, Florescu provides documented sources that suggest that when Shelley, then still Mary Godwin, was on her European tour with her soon-to-be-husband Percy Shelley, they certainly heard of the legends of Dippel and his grotesque experiments in the quest for immortality. The lovers traveled to Castle Frankenstein and the surrounding areas during their tour, in which time Dippel had become a local legend; ergo, it doesn’t seem coincidental that Shelley’s immortal story of a man’s demonic pursuit to conquer the supernatural did not derive from Dippel in some way. And as was the case in the disclosed relationship between the historical and literary Count Dracula, the knowledge of Dippel makes Shelley’s work all the more interesting, and vice versa.
Today, The Real Frankenstein is a bit dated. It is a made-for-TV production made to coincide with the release of Kenneth Branagh’s underrated Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), and it is therefore littered with plenty of promotion for that film, including endless film clips that today seem tiresome and distracting from the historical information from In Search of Frankenstein, the book. Also present are clips from James Whales’ 1931 Frankenstein and, curiously, the little-seen Frankenstein Unbound, but none of these scenes really add any new insight into Mary Shelley or her novel. More interesting are the bits of literary trivia that will be familiar to those who know the history of Gothic horror (did you know that the modern vampire and Frankenstein were both conceived in the same room, on the same night?), but perhaps insightful for the layman.
But at the core of the documentary are the alchemist Dippel and the insistence that he must be considered as an essential ingredient in the Frankenstein legacy. This is fascinating stuff, made even more enlightening in light of Vlad the Impaler’s connection with Dracula: How curious is it that our two greatest literary demons were not conceived in a mind’s eye, but are actually grounded in reality? This fact seemingly reveals our own inability to explore the greatest evils of our nature without first having realities to base them on. One wonders if all our most enduring nightmares can only exist under such circumstances—if the demons that truly remain with us, including Hitler and Jones, are those that cannot be created by the human soul, but only manifested. Such questions are tantalizing indeed.
Also recommended: In Search of Dracula, Calvin Floyd’s low-budget documentary based on the book by Florescu and McNally, starring Christopher Lee as Vlad the Impaler.
Narrated by Sir David Frost.
A film by MPI Home Video. Directed by Jennifer Larmon. Written by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally, from their book In Search of Frankenstein. No M.P.A.A. rating, but contains images that might frighten young children. Running time: 43 minutes. Original year of release: 1994.