Let’s clear this up from the start: Frankenstein is the mad scientist. The monster has no name, and both of them were created by a teenage radical named Mary Shelley. (Also for the record, it’s pronounced Fronk-un-steen) The daughter of progressive parents (one was an anarchist/atheist/free-love promoter and the other the 18th century’s most famous feminist), the young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814. Already a prolific poet, Mary had no trouble rising to the occasion in 1816 when, during a summer vacation in Switzerland, her husband and friends decided to hold a scary story-writing contest. Although not the way you’d expect a bunch of casual sex proponents to spend a summer at a beach house, the contest made sense in the context of the weather. It was, as they say, a dark and stormy night – and had been for several months. Earlier that Spring, Indonesia’s Mount Tambora had experienced a massive eruption that launched tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere, blocking out the sun, and launching what came to be known as “the Year Without Summer.” For poorer people, this meant starvation after summer snowfalls killed the harvests, but for the Shelley’s, it simply meant a dreary vacation that needed livening up. And liven it up, Mary did. Inspired by a dream, she wrote the classic story of a mad scientist who tries to create life and ends up giving birth to a monster he can’t control. She was 19. When her story was published as a book two years later, it was an instant best seller.
Whatever you do, don’t bring up the world’s most famous Count in a conversation with a Romanian. Dracula is a bit of a touchy subject there, where the citizens remember the inspiration behind the myth. Prince Vlad Tepes, as a national liberator and the man who saved Romania from the Turks. And, frankly, they think this whole evil creature of the night thing is an intentional smear campaign. Of course, to be fair, Vlad Tepes hardly needed the help of an international conspiracy to build his bad reputation. The 15th-century leader was, like most warlords of his day, a pretty violent fellow, known for spearing his enemies onto pikes and leaving them scattered around the countryside as a warning to others. In fact, his nickname, “Tepes,” means “The Impaler.” Naturally, this sort of behavior inspired the still-living enemies to write about what he’d done, and here and there, embellish it to be even worse. In these accounts, the prince was commonly referred to by a different nickname: Dracula. A diminutive form of his father’s “Dracul” or “the dragon,” Vlad’s antagonistic biographers probably chose the name because of its connotations with another “dragon,” i.e., Satan.
Get out your hankies, the inspiration for Godzilla is something of a tearjerker. In the early 1950s, the crew of the Japanese fishing boat (ironically named Lucky Dragon No. 5) accidentally stumbled into a chunk of the Pacific being used for clandestine US atomic testing. When a bomb went off, the boat was close enough that everyone on board ended up covered in a layer of radioactive ash. Soon after they returned to port, all of the men in the crew died. Worse, before officials were able to figure out what was wrong with the Lucky Dragon fishermen, their catch had been sold and eaten by average Japanese citizens. Already anxious about nuclear technology after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the public was infuriated and horrified by what happened. Among them was Tomoyuki Tanaka, a film producer who was so distraught by the real-life event that he crafted a story about a sea demon that had mutated to a huge size thanks to man’s obsession with building deadlier and deadlier weaponry. (Yes, the demon was a metaphor. Keep up, people!) The demon’s name: Gorillawhale. OK, not exactly. Instead, Tanaka combined the Japanese words for Gorilla and Whale (“Gorira” and “Kujira”) into a single word: Gojira. Naturally, the Americans went and screwed that up, too, and Gojira became Godzilla.