(This is part one of a series on the world’s most aristocratic walking dead man–the Mummy. Information was sourced from a variety of books, articles, films, and museum resources, but all opinions and conclusions are my own. Enjoy!)
In June 2017 Universal Studios launched The Mummy, the first official film in their new “Dark Universe” cinematic series. The Dark Universe is planned to feature modern retellings of classic Universal monster film characters, including the Mummy, Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein, and the Invisible Man. Producers Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan stated that they intend to “respect the legacy [of the monster characters] while bringing them into new and modern adventures.”
Indeed, as trope codifiers and intersections of myth and pop culture, the original Universal monster films have an impressive legacy. But in the ranks of classic monsters, the Mummy has always been the odd man out. Despite being undead, the Mummy blends genres and may carry elements of anything from sorcery and Satanism to good old-fashioned body horror and action-adventure drama. Unfortunately, the latest cinematic iteration of the Mummy’s story fails to explore either the fictional and historical roots of the character, or the methodology which makes a monster.
This series will explore the evolution of the Mummy in film, comparing and contrasting the creature’s various incarnations and tracking how the story changed over time. We’ll see its roots–not as an ancient legend, but as a construct of the 20th century and the British imperial tradition. We’ll see how, despite these roots, the Mummy broke away from cliche to become his own monster. And finally, we’ll follow the Mummy right up to June 2017, and discuss how and why the Dark Universe film failed to recapture the magic of ancient Egypt’s most famous curse.
For the sake of clarity, two modes of address will be used here. When speaking of mummies in general or actual historical mummies, the mummy in question will be referred to without capitalization; when referring to the monster and mythical figure as it has come to be known in Western culture, it will be capitalized, e.g. the Mummy.
Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then let’s begin!
I – Ancient Roots
While Universal Studios produced dozens of horror films between the 1920s and the 1960s, four of its monsters became iconic in their own right. These four persist in popular culture in the forms which the Universal films gave them: Frankenstein’s Monster (most commonly called Frankenstein), Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. These four are familiar faces even for people who have never seen a monster film, thanks to their presence on Halloween store shelves and in various third-party material. (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Scooby Doo, Teen Wolf, etcetera.) They seem to have been around forever, and there’s a good reason for that: a cursory examination of three of these monsters reveals their strong ties to longstanding mythological traditions.
Frankenstein fills the role of the walking dead, golem, or homunculus, a thing raised from death and considered within the framework of the story to be fundamentally wrong. (Witness the Bride of Frankenstein: “We belong dead.”) The Wolf Man is heir to the long tradition of man-animal and shapeshifter stories, such as the Algonquin wendigo. Dracula is the parasite or unholy leech, with mythological relatives in every form from the bruxsa of Portugal to the jiangshi of China.
But unlike his brothers in this group, the Mummy does not spring from an ancient storytelling tradition. The Mummy is an artificial monster.
Ancient Egypt had no stories of the walking dead. Their closest equivalent was the concept of hungry ghosts, who should be fed and remembered to prevent them from causing misfortune or disease. There were a few curses laid on tombs, but mainly as warnings to robbers and disobedient priests—less a vile invocation of dark gods than an insurance policy for the BC era. But as ancient hieroglyphics went undeciphered for most of human history, there was no way for outsiders to know even these curses existed. In fact, there are no stories of cursed or malevolent mummies at all before the late 1600s.
Prior to this time, mummies had been mainly familiar in the West as apothecary stock. Mummies were believed to contain bitumen, which was considered a useful drug, and powdered mummy would be prescribed for a variety of complaints. During the Renaissance, ground-up ancient bodies were also used to produce the pigment still known as mummy brown. (Its modern iteration is thankfully guaranteed human-free.)
Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt spurred the 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone. This trilingual artifact featured one inscription written in three forms—hieroglyphic, Demotic (one of the last forms of ancient Egyptian), and ancient Greek—and thus provided a heretofore-missing key to deciphering the ancient hieroglyphs. Linguist Jean-Francois Champollion, who is now considered one of the founders of Egyptology, would use the Rosetta Stone to make the first steps in decoding these ancient words. But the world was interested in more than dusty old scripts: the fight against Napoleon had brought Egypt to the attention of Europe, and the relics and ruins of the old world spurred an interest in this bygone civilization. Egyptomania had begun.
Egypt became accessible to scholars and tourists alike. As the century continued, the Khedive Ismail’s short-lived belle epoque of the 1860s ultimately gave England a strong stake in Egypt via the Suez Canal. Now anyone could visit the mysterious east, and bring home a piece of it for themselves.
Mummies became curios, souvenirs, and objects of fascination and disgust. They would be dissected for the edification of onlookers or looted for the artifacts in their wrappings. 19th-century British society would hold “unwrapping parties” that combined scholarly curiosity with a good gawk. And, for much of the era, mummy medicine was still available! Mark Twain even satirized the commercial use of mummies in Innocents Abroad (1869), claiming that Egyptian locomotives burned mummies as fuel.
Not coincidentally, this era also saw the publication of the first tales of reanimated Egyptian mummies: The Mummy: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century in 1827, The Mummy’s Soul in 1868, the serial Pharos the Egyptian in 1898, and The Jewel of Seven Stars in 1903, among many others. These stories did not commonly resemble later iterations of the mummy myth, being more firmly rooted in the melancholy traditions of English romantic and Gothic literature, but in them we can clearly recognize the roots of the cinematic monster. Tomb violation was the key theme: the English in the stories might be either vicious interlopers in an ancient land or the innocent victims of an insidious foreign magic, but vengeance was still meted out for disturbing the peace of the dead.
The rise of Egyptology had made disturbing the peace of the dead a popular real-life pastime, too. Stories of real-life mummy curses began to circulate in the latter half of the 19th century.
Perhaps the best-recorded example is the oft-garbled tale of Ghost Club member Thomas Douglas Murray and the “unlucky mummy,” specimen no. 22542 in the British Museum. (Curiously, this item was not a mummy itself, but only the painted lid of a mummy case.) The Unlucky Mummy supposedly brought about multiple misfortunes, ranging from financial ruin to maiming via shotgun misfire. Even Murray’s death was eventually attributed to its malign influence. Mummy curses were gaining traction in popular discourse.
Of note is that the mummy or mummy artifact central to the newspaper stories was often perceived not as a person or a character, but as an artifact. The nature of the misfortune mummies brought was both malevolent and vague: every kind of bad luck was attributed to the influence of the curse. Mummy magic arrived on a wind, as a plague, in a whisper, and the effects would be the same no matter what artifact was involved. Specimen no. 22542 depicts a woman of unknown provenance from the New Kingdom, while the similarly-cursed coffin of Nesmin was of a male priest from the Ptolemaic Era, but the mysterious effects attributed to them were virtually identical. There was no individuality or personality to the curses. Instead, a curse was an exotic hazard of adventuring in the east, like dengue fever.
Popular publications of the 19th century thus contained the germs of what would become the cinematic M. A fascinatingly foreign object, i.e. a mummy or mummy-like artifact, had become associated with bad luck and malevolence—the result of disturbing the dead of an exotic foreign land. Yet it wasn’t a painted mummy case or an ominous, formless ill will that would become the face of a horror icon.
The two threads—the Egyptian Gothic literature of the Victorians and the newspaper tales of formless curses—didn’t intertwine until the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. The discovery triggered a fresh craze in Britain and America for all things Egyptian. Journalistic accounts combined a number of unfortunate incidents in the expedition and subsequent events to create a tale of a pharaoh’s curse, and public interest sped it on. For the first time, a real-life mummy’s curse has not only a name attached to it, but hints of a personality and a life lived: King Tut, the boy-king, deceased under mysterious circumstances.
And now there was one final element: cheap mass media. Cinema reached a far greater cross-section of the English-speaking world than the magazine stories of the 1860s or the newspaper rumors of the 1910s. The romance of the Gothic stories, the bad-luck mystic powers of the newspaper stories, and the hard details of the Tutankhamun discovery combined to give cinema a new monster: Boris Karloff as Imhotep in 1932’s The Mummy.
Thus, the Mummy is something of an incongruity. While sharing superficial traits with Frankenstein and Dracula—a creature brought back to unnatural life, sometimes depicted leeching life from others to fuel himself—our modern conception of the Mummy springs not from a longstanding folkloric tradition but from press gossip and a superficial interest in the foreign and mysterious, the inheritance of an imperial past. Frankenstein taps our fear of the dead, Dracula fear of the leech and violation, the Wolf Man fear of the ravenous animal. In 1932, the Mummy represented not a primal fear, but a blend of xenophobia and exoticism.
But though the Mummy began as a figure of foreign evil, he wouldn’t stay that way. Cinema was about to give him a whole new identity of his own.