Frankenstein — a name that conjures up spooky Gothic horror, a lurching monster assembled out of spare corpse components.

It’s also the name of a small castle ruin on a mountaintop overlooking Darmstadt’s southern suburb of Eberstadt.

Once a year, for three weekends around Halloween, it does fit the stereotype. Then Burg Frankenstein is home to a well-publicized fright fest complete with ghouls and goblins, or at least with actors playing these parts for the entertainment of the paying guests.

The rest of the year, however, it’s a popular place for area residents to hike, ride mountain bikes, take Grandma for Sunday lunch or just sit on the restaurant terrace and enjoy the view over the Rhein Valley.

The tourists come, of course, sometimes by the busloads, and what they find is a small castle ruin, partly “reconstructed” according to romantic 19th-century notions, plus a small family chapel, and, in the warmer months of the year, a small souvenir and snack stand where they can buy postcards.

Next to the castle is a restaurant featuring traditional German fare and whose broad terrace offers al-fresco diners fine views of the valley below.

Not much else: no museum, no rides, no monsters.

The real charm for people who live in the area is the mountain itself, properly called the Schlossberg, but commonly referred to locally as merely the Frankenstein, or the “Rock (that is, the hill) of the Franks.”

Densely wooded, it is covered with winding trails, popular with families taking afternoon walks or runners in training. It has also become something of a mountain-bike Mecca, so hikers know to step to the side when they hear the thundering descent of a fat-tire flier.

There is a large parking lot outside the castle, and a free, well-maintained public toilet next to the souvenir stand.

The castle

Burg Frankenstein is the northernmost of a chain of castles running along the western edge of the Odenwald.

Like the others, it is perched on a hill overlooking the Bergstrasse, the old Roman Strata Montana, the “mountain road” linking the forts of the Roman border Limes in the north and Ladenburg, near Heidelberg, in the south.

The castle was founded in the early 13th century by the Frankenstein family of knights. It was expanded and modernized in the 15th and 16th centuries, both to withstand the new artillery and to accommodate the family, which had split into two quarreling lines, although they continued to share the lodgings.

In 1660-61, the castle was sold to the Hessen-Darmstadt royal house. The new owners turned it into a home for retired mercenaries, and later in the century, it provided a refuge for local villagers, driven from their homes by French king Louis XIV’s marauding armies.

Obsolete as a fortress, the castle itself was never besieged and destroyed, but rather fell apart from neglect and — like so many other German castles — served as a cheap source of building material for surrounding towns.

The ruin became a romantic subject for Darmstadt artists and one of the Grimm brothers, Jacob Ludwig, made it the home of his dragon-slaying Knight George.

The romantic restoration began in 1835, and the castle now belongs to the state of Hessen.

Link to monster?

Mary Shelley, whose 1818 novel “Frankenstein,” or “The Modern Prometheus,” started it all, claimed the name came to her in a dream. The main character was Swiss and there is no link in the text to the area of the real Burg Frankenstein.

Shelley, the wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote the book on a dare, so to speak, from her husband and their friend, George Gordon, Lord Byron, while they were visiting Byron in Geneva. The Shelleys had traveled along the Rhein to get there, and modern theories maintain that they stopped in the area — perhaps even visited the castle — and heard tales about a notorious local, Konrad Dippel, who was born in the castle in 1673.

Dippel was a serious scientist, a chemist who developed industrial dyes, but he lived in a time in which people were still being executed for witchcraft, and scientific inquiry and experimentation were often viewed with suspicion and even legal barriers. Anyone wanting to dissect cadavers, for example, would have to resort to the crime of grave-robbing.

Local rumor accused Dippel of collecting parts of fresh corpses to prepare a secret potion that would grant immortality or even bring the dead back to life. He died in 1734, supposedly after taking his own potion.

Link or no, the theme of a scientist who tinkers with the secrets of life and suffers a terrible retribution struck a chord in popular imagination, and the 1931 film with Boris Karloff made the name Frankenstein world-famous.

Getting there

Burg Frankenstein is just south of Darmstadt off of Bundesstrasse 426, overlooking the city quarter of Eberstadt.

@ From Autobahn 5, take the Darmstadt-Eberstadt exit.

@ You will immediately come to a T-intersection and traffic light. Turn right onto B-426.

@ Stay on this road through one traffic light (at that intersection the castle will be visible high on the hill to your front), and take the Burg Frankenstein exit.

@ The road will take you up the hill to the visitors’ parking area.

@ For more information about the castle visit (Juan Melendez is the webmaster for the U.S. Army Garrison Heidelberg Public Affairs Office)