When it comes to horror stories, Frankenstein is probably the most famous of them all. Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece has sent shivers of fear through generations of readers, inspired countless adaptations, and become the gold standard for tales of terror and suspense. It’s a story that becomes even more unsettling, though, when you realise it was inspired by twitching corpses, violent volcanoes and disturbing nightmares…
Mary Shelley’s famous novel barely needs an introduction. Its protagonist, Dr Victor Frankenstein, is fiction’s original ‘mad’ scientist, dedicating himself to chemistry at university so that he can learn how to create life out of inanimate matter. The being he cooks up, however, is repulsive:
“His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, … his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”
Disgusted, Dr Frankenstein deserts his horrible creation – but the monster will come to haunt him for the rest of his life. First, it murders Frankenstein’s little brother; then, when the scientist refuses to create a female companion for it, it kills his closest friend and beloved wife too. Distraught, Frankenstein vows to take revenge and pursue his monster until one of them is dead. But the scientist fails in his mission and, after months of pursuit, he dies from pneumonia near the North Pole.
When Mary Shelley began to write her spine-chilling story, she was just 18 years old and without a novel to her name. So what inspired her nightmarish tale? In an introduction to the book’s third edition in 1831, Shelley finally explained how she “came to think of and to dilate upon such a hideous idea”. As it turns out, the true story behind Frankenstein is even more intriguing than the novel itself, involving electrified frogs, reanimated corpses, and a rather strange summer holiday…
A Swiss holiday horror
Our story begins in the summer of 1816 on the grassy banks of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. Here, Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin) has rented a holiday home with her lover and future husband – the Romantic poet Percy Shelley – and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. Their poet friend, Lord Byron, is also staying nearby at the Villa Diodati with his physician John Polidori.
At first, the party while away the hours boating on the lake and wandering along its shore. But the halcyon summer days don’t last for long. “It proved a wet, ungenial summer,” remembers Mary Shelley in 1831, “and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” In fact, 1816 was to become known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’, partly the result of an eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora the previous year, which spewed out colossal amounts of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, lowering temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere.
Stuck inside the Villa Diodati, the group had to find new ways to keep themselves amused. They began by reading blood-curdling German ghost stories to each other, but then Lord Byron had a better idea: “We will each write a ghost story,” he announced. So the holidaymakers each set about writing the most frightening nightmare that they could muster. “I busied myself to think of a story,” wrote Mary Shelley, “…to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.”
But the young woman had trouble thinking up a suitably terrible tale. “Have you thought of a story?” her friends would ask every morning. And, every morning, she was forced to reply “with a mortifying negative.” Luckily, however, inspiration wasn’t too far away…
Galvani and his electric frogs
On those long summer evenings, Mary Shelley was often privy to the discussions between Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. One night, their conversation turned to “the nature of the principle of life”. This was one of the hot topics of the time: many people during the 18th and 19th centuries speculated that there was some kind of mysterious ‘vital force’ flowing through living things that distinguished the living from the dead. In the late 18thcentury, a few decades before Mary Shelley wrote her celebrated novel, one scientist thought he’d found it. His name was Luigi Galvani.
It was on an otherwise typical day at Italy’s University of Bologna that Galvani, an eminent physicist and physician, noticed something very unusual whilst experimenting on a dead frog. If he touched the exposed nerves of the frog with a scalpel at the same time as a spark was created by a nearby electrostatic machine, the frog’s legs twitched and contracted as if alive – a phenomenon that came to be known as ‘galvanism’.
Excited by his discovery, Galvani spent the next decade carrying out experiments on dissected frogs. He found that he could make the frogs’ legs twitch simply by connecting the leg muscles to the nerves via an arc, which usually consisted of two different metals. Because there was no external electricity source, Galvani concluded that there must be an electrical fluid inside the frog. In 1791, he announced to the world that he’d discovered animal electricity, sending ripples of excitement through the scientific community. Had this Italian scientist found the famous, long-searched-for vital force – the source of life itself?
But Galvani faced staunch opposition from Alessandro Volta, a young and brilliant physicist at the University of Pavia. Volta believed that the frogs’ legs were simply reacting to external electricity generated by the contact between the frog and the two-metal arc that Galvani used in his experiments. Taking inspiration from this concept, Volta used two different metals to develop his famous voltaic pile – the world’s first battery – in 1800 and showed that an electric current could be produced without the need for any animal tissue.
Many scientists saw this as a major blow to Galvani’s theory, and the animal electricity debate became somewhat overshadowed by Volta’s revolutionary new invention. Nevertheless, a handful of determined scientists continued to defend galvanism. Chief among these was Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, who carried out a series of experiments worthy of Dr Frankenstein himself…
The real-life Frankenstein?
While Galvani had mainly worked on frogs, Aldini decided to up the ante, experimenting on birds, lambs, horses, oxen, and pretty much any other animal he could get his hands on. In one experiment, he used a voltaic pile to demonstrate galvanism on a decapitated dog’s head. “The most frightful convulsions were produced,” reported one observer. “The mouth opened, the teeth gnashed, the eyes rolled in their orbits; and, if the imagination had not been restrained by reason and reflection, one might have almost believed that the animal was restored to life…”
Aldini’s most notorious demonstration, though, took place on January 17th 1803 at London’s Royal College of Surgeons. There, in front of a crowd of wide-eyed spectators, Aldini carried out his experiments on the fresh, lifeless corpse of George Forster, a 26-year-old man who had just been hanged at Newgate Prison for drowning his wife and child in Paddington Canal.
Taking up two conducting rods, both connected to a voltaic pile, Aldini applied one to the dead man’s mouth and one to the ear. “The jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver,” reported the Newgate Calendar, a record of executions at the prison. “…the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened.” But Aldini’s pièce de résistance came when he moved one of the rods to the man’s rectum. The corpse began to convulse violently as if coming back to life, perhaps seeking vengeance for its untimely death. “The right hand was raised and clenched,” noted the Newgate Calendar, “and the legs and thighs were set in motion.” One of the observers was apparently so alarmed that he died of fright soon afterwards.
These were certainly gruesome, outrageous experiments, but Aldini wasn’t attempting to create a Frankenstein-esque monster – he was simply trying to defend his late uncle’s theory and demonstrate the potential medical applications of galvanism (albeit in a very dramatic way). In the end, Aldini and Galvani weren’t too far off the mark: scientists have since proved the existence of a kind of animal electricity, even if it’s not a special ‘vital force’. Today, we know that electric pulses – ‘action potentials’ – allow nerve cells to communicate and muscles to contract. So time has vindicated these Italian scientists. They may have got some things wrong, but they were the first to discover and develop the idea of bioelectricity.
Mary Shelley’s living nightmare
Mary Shelley was familiar with Galvani’s work, and probably Aldini’s too. “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated,” she wrote, remembering back to the conversations between Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. “Galvanism had given token of such things”.
On that Swiss summer’s eve in 1816, the discussions about galvanism and the nature of life lasted until the early hours of the morning. When Mary Shelley finally went to bed that night, she closed her eyes, but she couldn’t get to sleep. Her mind racing, she slipped into a reverie – a “waking dream” – inspired by the evening’s discussions:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.”
The night’s conversations had clearly sent Mary Shelley’s imagination into overdrive. “The idea so possessed my mind,” she wrote, “that a thrill of fear ran through me.” The next morning, she announced to her friends that she’d finally thought up a story and hastily jotted down the outline of her spooky dream. Initially only a short tale, her lover encouraged her to turn it into a novel, and, in January 1818, the first edition of Frankenstein was published.
By the time of the novel’s publication, Giovanni Aldini was a distinguished scientist, knight of the Napoleonic Order of the Iron Crown and councillor of state at Milan. It’s not known if Aldini read – or even knew about – Mary Shelley’s novel. But, if he did, it would undoubtedly have conjured up some unsettling memories of George Forster’s grotesque reanimated corpse.