At 2 a.m. on June 16, 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin awoke with a fright.
Mary was 18 years old and spending her summer at the Villa Diodati at Lake Geneva with her stepsister Claire Clairmont and the writers Lord Byron and John William Polidori.
Her future husband, Percy Shelley, was staying nearby.
They had intended to spend the summer swimming and sunbathing, but a year earlier, Mount Tambora, a massive volcano in Indonesia, had erupted, dispersing nearly 1.5 million metric tons of dust into the atmosphere, blocking the sun, and sharply decreasing temperatures worldwide.
It had such devastating effects on global weather patterns that 1816 came to be known as “The Year Without a Summer.”
Although the inclement weather foiled the group’s outdoor plans, the four of them contented themselves with indoor activities and took to reading scary stories, most notably from Fantasmagoriana, a French anthology of German ghost stories.
“It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house,” Mary Shelley wrote, in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein; Or the Modern Prometheus.
“But,” she added, “Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands.” On the suggestion of Lord Byron a few days later, the four of them decided to try their hand at writing their own scary stories.
Throughout the summer, while trying to write her tale, Mary spent many evenings listening to Lord Byron and Percy Shelley discussing the spine-tingling findings of Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather).
The elder Darwin had been experimenting with galvanism, and had shown that with the right use of electrical currents, a frog’s legs could be contracted at will.
Rumors spread that electricity, which was widely not understood in 1816 (it wouldn’t be until 1882 that Thomas Edison harnessed electricity to create the first light bulb), could even be used to control and potentially reanimate humans.