It all started when a massive volcano erupted, showering the land in a shroud of darkness. From that dark cloud in June of 1816, two of the most enduring horror icons were born: the Frankenstein Monster, and the modern interpretation of the Vampire–which ultimately resulted in Dracula. Born on the same night, both turn 200 years old this month.
While that might all sound a little melodramatic, it’s actually totally accurate. In late 1815, a volcano called Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies had a massive eruption, which shifted weather patterns all throughout Asia and Europe. 1816 was known as “The Year Without a Summer” because it resulted in something of a mini Ice-Age. Cold temperatures and heavy rains plagued Europe for two solid years, leading to the worst famine in 19th century Europe.
“It was a dark and stormy
In summer 1816, the incessant rainfall during the summer led a 19-year old Mary Shelley — then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin — along with several others to stay indoors at Villa Diodati overlooking Lake Geneva as the guests of the infamous Lord Byron. At one point during the month of June, they decided to have a competition to see who could write the scariest ghost story, leading Mary Godwin to write Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus and Lord Byron to write A Fragment, which his personal doctor later used as inspiration for The Vampyre, the first romantic vampire fiction in the English language.
Mind you, these were not your typical early 19th century folks, and this was not a traditional holiday. If there was an early version of what we think of today as hipsters, it was this group. Most famous among them was Lord Byron of course, who was already a celebrated poet in his own lifetime. He had scandalous love affairs with both women and men, and in many ways is considered to be the first modern-style celebrity. His image was an obsession to the public at large, and his wife Annabella came up with the term “Byromania” to refer to the craziness and the fans surrounding him. Its said that his self-awareness and personal promotion are seen as a beginning to what would become the modern rock star, and like many rock stars, he died young, at 36. In fact, with the exception of Mary’s sister Claire, all of the guests would die young and tragically.
The poet Percy Shelley wasn’t famous in his own lifetime, but was well known enough to be part of Byron’s inner circle. Byron invited him and his then-mistress, 19 year old Mary, and her sister Claire to his Geneva retreat that cold summer. Also staying with Byron was Dr. John Polidori, his personal physician — and also possibly his lover, and definitely his drug dispenser. At the retreat, Polidori supplied everyone with drugs, leading to freak outs and hallucinations of all kinds. The 1980’s films Gothic and Haunted Summer — which dramatized the events of that retreat — had them taking opium, which was popular among the bohemians and rebels of the day, so that’s likely true. But we might never know 100% for sure what narcotics they took….just that there were narcotics involved.
“It’s Alive!” The Frankenstein Monster is born
The most infamous moment of the summer retreat — which took place on a particularly dark and stormy night — was when the group decided to have a contest on who could come up with the most thrilling and scary ghost story. It’s been lost to the mists of time what Percy Shelley came up with, but his future wife Mary dreamed up the concept of Frankenstein, most of which was supposedly based on a drug-induced nightmare she’d had on June the 16th.
But it wasn’t just the drugs that caused Mary to come up with the story of a scientist who played God, and revived a dead corpse. The elements had been rattling around in her brain for some time. When she was 17, Mary traveled through Europe, journeying along the River Rhine in Germany just a few miles away from Frankenstein Castle, where, two centuries before, stories of a mad alchemist engaging in experiments with corpses fired her imagination. Arising from those memories from a couple of years before, Mary concocted the saga of Victor Frankenstein, a man who re-animates a corpse, and is then horrified at the new undead creature he’s made.
Eventually, Mary began writing what she assumed would only end up being a short story. With her husband Percy’s encouragement however, she expanded the tale into a full-fledged novel. It must be said, it was pretty forward thinking of her husband at the time to not even be slightly threatened by Mary wanting a writing career of her own. This was highly unusual for the period. Mary would later describe that summer in Switzerland at Lord Byron’s retreat as the moment “when I first stepped out from childhood into life.” Shelley wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister.
The book was an instant hit with the public, although initially the book was published anonymously. Mary Shelley didn’t get a credit until the second edition in 1822. Unlike Bram Stoker some 80 years later, Mary Shelley lived to see her creation become a huge success, inspiring stage plays and going through several printings. Frankenstein isn’t just considered one of the greatest horror novels of all time, but it’s also generally considered one of the first science-fiction books ever written. Not bad for a teenage girl who, in her own time, was only expected to marry well and bear children.
The first romantic vampire comes out of the coffin
The origins of Frankenstein coming from Lord Byron’s summer retreat are fairly well known — even as early as 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein where the story of Lord Byron’s gathering was used as the prologue for the movie. But what is less known is that the Vampire as we know it today was also born on that very same night. “But wait!” you might say “vampire legends have been around for centuries, going back thousands of years. I saw it on the History Channel once.” To a certain extent, that’s true. But the vampires of folklore had more in common with the zombies of The Walking Dead or George Romero films than they do with what we think of today as a vampire. Because THAT vampire was born the same night as Frankenstein.
Lord Byron wasn’t one to let 19-year old Mary Godwin win the best ghost story contest so easily, so he came up with his own tale, a vampire story which he never properly finished, simply referred to today as A Fragment. At some point, Byron and his doctor friend John Polidori had a bitter falling out (possibly lover’s quarrel?) and Polidori took Bryon’s story and finished it. And the ultimate act of revenge, he changed the Vampire’s name to Lord Ruthven, and based him entirely on Byron, portraying his former friend as a callous narcissist who collects high society lovers and discards them, draining them of all life. It was the 19th century version of the “diss song.”
The story, now called The Vampyre, was first published in New Monthly Magazine in 1819, and was an instant hit. It spread like wildfire, the way a viral YouTube video or internet meme would spread today. Polidori had taken the folkloric legends of the vampire, but fused them with the the idea of suave, sophisticated nobleman, who can fit into society and pass for human, and prey upon victims while living among them — a far cry from the folkloric Nosferatu of Eastern Europe. This vampire was a literal and figurative lady-killer, and Europe simply went nuts for him. The Vampyre was the subject of countless stage plays, operas, and knock-off stories for the next decade, and was a direct influence on popular penny dreadfuls of the time like Varney the Vampyre and Carmilla, and ultimately, Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897.
And although Stoker’s vampire is by far the most well known today…in the final analysis, Polidori’s concept of the vampire even won out over Dracula too. In Stoker’s novel, the Count is an aristocrat and can pass among humans, but he’s not a sexy dude in finely tailored clothing like Lord Ruthven was in The Vampyre, or as in many a theatrical version of that story. But when Dracula became a stage play in the 1920’s, the producers decided to go back to the popular Lord Ruthven mold for their stage Count, and ditched the notions of making him repugnant and ugly like Stoker wanted. Audiences — mainly women — ate it up, and when Broadway vamp Bela Lugosi donned the fangs in Universal’s 1931 movie, that’s the image that stuck. Lord Ruthven wasn’t supplanted by Dracula, he just became Dracula.
Life (after death) Partners for 200 Years
Ever since that night, the two iconic horror figures have been linked together in film, novels, comic books, television, and commerce. Both of Universal’s iconic 1930s films were released a year apart, and played in double features together for years. The characters of course would team up in later films, shared family ties on The Munsters, have a hit song together called “The Monster Mash“, and even shared breakfast cereal commercials. Most importantly, the two became the de-facto icons of Halloween decorations for decades, and thanks to their public domain status, pretty much still are. And few people know that the two essentially share a birthday.
Although the world of horror has expanded greatly since Frankenstein and Dracula, the two are never entirely absent from popular culture. The two shared screentime in the recently finished Showtime series Penny Dreadful, and last year Victor Frankenstein hit movie theaters. Sure, it totally tanked, but it proved that the name Frankenstein can still get a movie greenlit. And while the last Twilight and True Blood-inspired “vampire craze” has died down, we all know it’s only a matter of time before another wave of sexy vamps – inspired directly by Lord Ruthven — take the spotlight.
In a popular culture where things come and go with the breeze, and few things have real staying power, having a two century long lifespan is no small task. So on this, their 200th birthday, lets raise a glass to Frankenstein and Dracula — and here’s to 200 more years of undead adventures together.
Images: Universal Pictures / FUNtastic Toys