The Curse of the Mummy's Text

Michael Delahoyde

The mummy is a popular enough creature to show up usually at mad monster parties. It serves as one of only four creatures in the U.S. Post Office's Halloween 1998 merchandising of famous monsters from Universal Studios, as well as in the children's book, How to Care for Your Monster (1970), where we are advised:

If your family is always telling you to turn down the record player, and not to shout, giggle, or slam doors, then a mummy is the monster for you. He makes very little noise.... If your local monster store doesn't stock mummy-monsters, you have a problem. Unless someone in your family has stolen a Mummy's Hand. In that case, the mummy will find you. (23, 25)
But despite their charitable inclusion among their more compelling kin at monster mashes, mummies nevertheless remain second-rate monsters, seldom if ever the nightmare material of choice for 20th- and 21st-century dreamers. It seems as if the conception of the mummy as a monster ought to work effectively; but it never really has. Despite potentially successful elements inherent in the construction of this creature, no text to date (literary nor filmic) has capitalized properly on the psychological horror without blundering somehow. The few moments of frisson afforded by mummy texts always end by seeming far too incidental -- they never add up to an effective horror piece.

James B. Twitchell, in Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror (1985), spends barely more than one of his 300+ pages on mummies. Twitchell, who rather convincingly rates the success of monsters in terms of psychosexual taboos being broken, and in particular by the extent of specifically incestuous elements hidden within the stories, finds the mummy lacking. Instead, he insists, the creature "is hopelessly bogged down in a complicated story that involves capturing his reincarnated girl-princess and returning with her to the world of the dead"; he has "never developed a coherent text, let alone a family" whereby the incest formula might be operative (260). "Until the smoldering sexual relationships are made explicitly incestuous or forbidden, ... the [mummy] will probably molder for a few thousand more years" (261). I doubt that incest need invariably be the repressed taboo for successful horror, but for the mummy to be more gripping than it has been so far, it surely needs something more lurid than simply ignorance of the suggestion that when you're dead, lie down.

Vampires, werewolves, the Frankenstein monster, even zombies seem more effective infiltrators of the imagination. Whereas vampires, for example, can serve representatively as any force sucking your life away (your lover's brat kid, instructorship status at the university you work for, etc.), it is more difficult to find resonant metaphoric meaning in being stalked by a giant bandage just because your archaeologist father defiled tombs in the Nile region. Mummies may tap into some effective taboos and may indirectly represent psychologically disturbing notions: the persistence of their lumbering is bothersome; they are "undead" -- but many monsters are more effective on these scores. And besides, these and a few other potentially disturbing qualities do not make and have not made a unique and solidly successful monster.

The mummy arose as the dark side of Western culture's avid Egyptological enthusiasm, first prompted by the discovery just before the turn of the nineteenth century of the Rosetta Stone during the French occupation of Egypt, an artifact which (offering the same text in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek) allowed scholars to decipher the characters in Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions at last and therefore to uncover early Egyptian history and culture. Throughout the nineteenth century, scholarly work on ancient Egypt became gradually available to a general audience through translations and lectures, often presenting discoveries in comparison with biblical stories. From the second quarter of the nineteenth century onwards, scholars, the press, and popular culture were immersed in Egyptology.

The first reanimated mummy appears in horror-master Edgar Allan Poe's short story "Some Words with a Mummy" (appearing in the American Weekly Review in 1845). Capitalizing on the Egyptian craze, he seeks only to mock the fad of Egyptomania and satirize the smugness of progressivism. His mummy, named "Allamistakeo," is revived by a Frankenstein-like electrical hook-up to the slapstick surprise of scholars. In ensuing discussion, Poe works his satire against cultural self-congratulation by way of a defamiliarization technique through the perspective of the mummy: wigs and clothes, religious arrogance, "progressive" science, architecture, politics, and so on. Thus Poe used the mummy for social satire, not horror.

Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century potboiler and supernatural fiction cast about haphazardly trying to unearth a meaningful plotline from the era's Egyptological interest. Although weird, nasty Egyptians appear in creepy works such as Richard Marsh's The Beetle (1897), actual mummies are rarer. Théophile Gautier's The Romance of a Mummy (1857) is impressive in its historical accuracy regarding Egypt and introduces the theme of hopeless love between the living and the dead; but this is not a horror tale, and for the Egyptian queen's remains, transported to England by an adoring archaeologist who has read the sad tale of her life, the subject of reanimation is never broached. Ambrose Pratt's The Living Mummy (1910), although including an ambulatory mummy obedient to an evil mastermind and demonstrating a predilection for strangling his victims, is too rife with embarrassing melodramatic sappiness, along with racism and sexism, to be an effective text. Equally sappy in style is Burton Stevenson's A King in Babylon (1917), a novel about filmmakers blundering upon a pharaoh's curse. The story includes the notion of reincarnation of a lost love, even though reincarnation is an oriental belief and plays little or no part in the religions of ancient Egypt. Bram Stoker's somewhat-admired The Jewel of Seven Stars (1906) only approaches an attempted reanimation, despite a recent film's misleading title -- Bram Stoker's The Mummy (1997) -- an embarrassing attempt to cash in on the cheesy current trend of citing nineteenth-century authors in film titles. The fact is that there is no reanimated killer mummy at all in Stoker's tale.

Arthur Conan Doyle, responsible for launching the vilification of dinosaurs in all of twentieth-century popular culture with his The Lost World (1912), is actually responsible also for much of the key mummy material of fiction and film. His short story "Lot No. 249" (1892) (adapted as a Tales from the Darkside episode) tells of an Oxford student having bought a mummy at an auction (hence the title). This student harbors personal grudges and sets the creature on his perceived enemies. While townspeople fear a hypothetical escaped ape, the protagonist, armed with an amputation knife, forces the owner to hack up the mummy and burn its pieces in a fire with an accompanying scroll, despite the latter's supposedly priceless knowledge. Although we do not quite find out how reanimation was accomplished, mention is made of some strange leaves at the immolation, the origin of the famous "tana leaves" in the later Universal films.

Silent films toyed with the subject. In Vengeance of Egypt (1912), Napoleon digs up a mummy case; one of his lieutenants steals a ring to send to his girlfriend, who subsequently dreams of a mummy blinking its eyes open while a murderous burgler sneaks into her room and kills her. The ring passes hands, and each time follows disaster. When an Egyptologist finally returns it, the mummy's eyes glow.

Egyptology and mummies took much stronger hold of popular culture from 1924 onwards, from the time of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon's discovery of Tutankhaton, known later as Tutankhamen (or King Tut). Firing the popular imagination were reports of a curse carved in the stone above the entrance regarding Amon-Ra's intended vengeance against any defilers of the tomb ("Death shall come on swift wings to whoever ..."). Thus, when misfortune struck any one of the members of the expedition, the press could capitalize on the potentially sensational aspects. Superstition has it that five of the six people involved in the opening of the tomb died early, although they were all fairly well along in years in 1924. Museum curators being hit by a cab or dying unexpectedly, the lights in Cairo blacking out at the moments of Lord Carnarvon's death, his son's dog howling and dropping dead also -- these kinds of stories fed the notion of "the mummy's curse" inevitably involved later in the films.

Amid the ensuing Tutmania -- the Egyptianesque spring fashion; the "Tutankhamen Fox Trot"; the design of the Crysler Building, constructed 1928-1930 (A&E's Ancient Mysteries) -- came the seminal mummy film, 1932's The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff. The film has been called "a veritable remake of Dracula" (1931), written by the same adaptor and recasting the actor who played Van Helsing in Dracula as Dr. Muller, another leader of a group of boys trying to destroy the monster (Twitchell 260). But The Mummy borrows some ideas from the other of what I consider to be these two key mummy texts, that being Arthur Conan Doyle's short story "The Ring of Thoth" (1890). One truly potentially disturbing aspect of the mummy is not tapped into but at least hinted at in these two seminal mummy works.

In Doyle's tale, an ancient Egyptian discovers the elixir of life everlasting, but loses to death the woman he loves. He has wandered through the centuries seeking, ironically, an antidote to longevity, and finally, gaining employment in a museum, is alone at last with the mummified remains of his beloved. "He threw his hands up into the air, burst into a harsh clatter of words, and then, hurling himself down upon the ground beside the mummy, he threw his arms round her, and kissed her repeatedly upon the lips and brow" (Doyle 364). Within moments, "The action of the air had already undone all the art of the embalmer. The skin had fallen away, the eyes had sunk inward, the discolored lips had writhed away from the yellow teeth" (367). He tells his story to our narrator, and the tale ends with a newspaper report from the next day:

Curious Occurrence in the Louvre. -- Yesterday morning a strange discovery was made in the principal Egyptian chamber. The ouvriers who are employed to clean out the rooms in the morning found one of the attendants lying dead upon the floor with his arms round one of the mummies. So close was his embrace that it was only with the utmost difficulty that they were separated. (380)
Doyle's story is obviously a source for the 1932 movie The Mummy, in which we have another tale based on undying love. Im-Ho-Tep, the revived mummy played by Boris Karloff ("Imhotep" was actually the architect of a step pyramid during the reign of King Zoser), believes he has found the reincarnation of his own lost love of many centuries ago. He hypnotizes the woman and recounts the ancient tale in which she died and he attempted to revive her, but was caught and buried alive.

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Works Consulted

A&E's Ancient Mysteries: The Face of Tutankhamen, Part III: "The Pharaoh Awakes." 1992.

Aylesworth, Thomas G. Movie Monsters. NY: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1975.

Bridwell, Norman. How to Care for Your Monster. NY: Scholastic Book Services, 1970.

Brier, Bob. The Encyclopedia of Mummies. NY: Checkmark Books, 1998.

_____. Egyptian Mummies. NY: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1994.

Douglas, Drake. Horror! NY: The Macmillan Company, 1966. 145-175.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. "Lot No. 249." Harper's New Monthly Magazine (American Edition) 85 (September 1892): 525-544.

_____. "The Ring of Thoth." In Conan Doyle's Best Books, Vol. I. NY: P.F. Collier & Son, Publishers, n.d. 355-381.

El Mahdy, Christine. Mummies, Myth and Magic. NY: Thames & Hudson, Inc., 1989.

Gifford, Denis. A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. NY: Hamlyn, 1973.

Glut, Donald F. Classic Movie Monsters. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1978.

Lost Civilizations: Ancient Egypt. Hosted by Sam Waterston. NBC, 1995.

Marsh, Richard. The Beetle. 1897. In The Penguin Book of Victorian Villanies. London: Bloomsbury Books, 1984. 441-715.

Poe, Edgar Allen. "Some Words With a Mummy." In Edgar Allen Poe: Poetry and Tales. NY: Library of America, 1984. 805-821.

Putnam, James. Eyewitness Books: Mummy. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Rice, Anne. The Mummy or Ramses the Damned. NY: Ballentine Books, 1989.

Stoker, Bram. The Jewel of Seven Stars. 1906. NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1989.

Twitchell, James B. Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror. NY: Oxford University Press, 1985. 260-261.

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