Popular Cultural History:
Avid Egyptology was prompted by the discovery in 1799 of the Rosetta Stone, an artifact which offered the same text in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek, thereby allowing scholars to decipher the characters in Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions at last and therefore to uncover early Egyptian history and culture. In the nineteenth century, scholarly work on ancient Egypt became gradually available through translations and lectures, often presenting discoveries in comparison with biblical stories.
Despite the involved preparations for the pharaoh's afterlife--mummification, supplying the tomb with anything the royal corpse might need in the hereafter, the elaborate security measures for preserving the tomb--plundering seems always to have been a problem. "Even as Khafu, some five thousand years ago, was busily engaged in erecting his magnificent pyramid, he was given the unhappy news that the richly appointed grave of his mother, recently buried, had already been entered and robbed" (Douglas 150). This is why the discover of the King Tutankhamen's tomb is so famous--it was one of the few significant modern finds in which the riches were found intact.
Egyptology and mummies particularly took 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. 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 5 of the 6 people involved in the opening of the tomb died early, although they were all fairly well along in years in 1924. Various museum curators being hit by a cab or dying mysteriously, 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 in the films.
Mummies usually show up at mad monster parties, but nevertheless remain rather second-rate monsters. They tap into some effective taboos and may indirectly represent psychologically disturbing notions, but unlike vampires, werewolves, and the Frankenstein monster, mummies are seldom if ever the nightmare material of modern dreamers.
They have some of the right elements: "The dead, after all, should be subject to decay, and there is something not quite Christian about a body which remains intact through so many centuries" (Douglas 157). Additionally, the "mummy's curse" makes sense as a manifestation of guilt over graverobbing; and although not many of us have reason for guilt in this respect, a certain cultural guilt may be in play earlier in this century and last when under the noble auspices of museum collecting, plundering was passed off as scholarly advancement.
The mummy is accused of "lumbering his way" through numerous literary works and, especially, films "without developing a coherent text" (Twitchell 260). He "neither is cunning nor heroic" (261), and therefore cannot capture the imagination in any subtle way.
One monster critic rates the success of monsters in terms of psychosexual taboos being broken, and thus finds the mummy lacking: "Until the smoldering sexual relationships are made explicitly incestuous or forbidden (as they are in the adaptations of Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars), the Bandaged One will probably molder for a few thousand more years" (Twitchell 261).
It seems to me that the real potentially disturbing aspect of the mummy is hinted at in the two key mummy texts: Arthur Conan Doyle's short story "The Ring of Thoth" and the Boris Karloff movie The Mummy (1932).
In the former, an ancient Egyptian discovers the elixir of life everlasting, but loses his love to death. He has wandered through the centuries seeking, rather ironically, an antidote to longevity, and finally, gaining employment in a museum, is alone at last with the mummified remains of the woman he loved. "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, 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. Regarding his capture, he says, "They broke in upon me and found me doing an unholy thing."
In both cases, the texts flirt with the notion of necrophilia. This perhaps is the potential psychosexual creepiness, since other monsters seem to involve other taboos. The zombie, for example, "is really a mummy in street clothes with no love life and a big appetite" (Twitchell 261). Vampires, the undead, have a sexual aspect to their predations, but it doesn't seem quite the same as necrophilia. The problem may be that necrophilia just simply is not a repressed impulse, so the implicit facets of it playing beneath the surface of the key mummy stories are not enough of a lurid taboo to hold us.
Washington State University