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(This is the finale of a series about the man, the myth, the legend–the Mummy. Part one is here, or follow the “gods and monsters” tag to see all the installments. Information was sourced from a variety of books, articles, films, and museum resources, but all opinions and conclusions are my own. A spoiler warning is in effect. Thank you for reading!)

VII — Conclusion (It’s Always Sunny in Hamunaptra)

The Mummy began as an artificial construct. Unlike fellow Universal alumni Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man, the Mummy did not derive from a longstanding mythological tradition or primal human fear. Instead, he arose from a fundamental cultural misunderstanding, as modern Western minds misinterpreted ancient Eastern practices.

In a time when it was seen as the West’s right to control, exploit, and plunder the ancient dead, the prohibitive moral hazards of tomb desecration—and the natural hazards of exploration, such as disease and death—manifested in the popular consciousness as evidence of vague but dangerous curses. The cinematic Mummy initially arose to explain these curses, but through multiple iterations became the central figure of the drama. In doing so, he evolved his own character: as a cursed man, cast out for love. A sacrilegious man at the least, often a murderer, but almost always a tragic character whose downfall came from the best of intentions.

And despite being hampered by his story’s origins, the Mummy’s story has proven flexible enough to survive into the modern day. Indeed, most Mummy films were, by the standards of their day, contemporary stories: the Mummy is always a creature out of his own time, capable of being resurrected in any era. While the similarly Victorian Frankenstein and Dracula have struggled to find a foothold in the modern day, their places taken by hordes of zombies and packs of vampires, the Mummy remains a solo act. Perpetually displaced, perpetually cursed, perpetually transformed, he remains compelling within the narrow framework of his story.

That story, too, has evolved with the creature itself. Though the beats remain the same, the tropes formerly associated with the creature (the sly, lecherous foreign High Priest, the lazy Arab henchman, the noble white adventurer) have sloughed away, and new ones have in turn come into prominence. The modern Mummies’ habit of appearing out of a sandstorm is just one example!

mummy chart

Pictured: the common beats of a mummy film, showing the evolution of the various roles. Top is 1932, bottom is 2017. (Terminology used for description of magical abilities is not official.)

The role of women in mummy films is also something of an oddity in the annals of cinema. While horror films often have the Final Girl, the women who face off against the Mummy are not just survivors; they are often avatars of wisdom, capable of sensing that something is wrong before anyone else does. In 1932 Helen Grosvenor, the unwilling reincarnation of Anck-es-en-Amon, reflected on the Mummy’s influence over her in this way:

“Don’t let me go again. I’ll try to get away, but you mustn’t let me, no matter what I do or what I say. There’s death there for me, and life for something else inside me that isn’t me. But it’s alive too, and fighting for life.”

In 1940, Marta Silvani sensed the same danger from Kharis’s tomb: “Pop, I’m afraid. There’s something about that cave that no one of us understands. There’s something going on that we’re just powerless to stop.”

And in 1999, the lead woman of the film is Evelyn Carnahan, an accomplished Egyptologist in her own right who provides a startling inverse parallel to Anck-su-namun’s role by being the one to accidentally raise the Mummy from his grave. One he has risen, Evelyn is one of the first characters to go on the offensive: told no mortal weapon can kill Imhotep, she snaps back “Well, then we’re just going to have to find some immortal ones!” While not much of a combatant, her knowledge is crucial to the Mummy’s defeat.

Ultimately, the Mummy is a curious but compelling specimen in the history of fiction. Though his story began from the cultural misunderstandings that accompanied western colonialism, his evolution from mere harbinger of an all-powerful nameless force to a character capable of multiple nuanced, driven incarnations has given him an entirely different role in the annals of pop culture: the monster of transformation and human fallibility. The Mummy is our modern Lucifer, who fell through his own tragic ambition.

The Mummy may be cursed by Egyptological inaccuracy and perpetual bad theology, but one suspects that he will, nevertheless, live forever.

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