The Curse of the Mummy’s Text
The Curse of theMummy’s Text Michael Delahoyde
The mummy is a popularenough creature to show up usually at mad monster parties. Itserves as one of only four creatures in the U.S. Post Office’sHalloween 1998 merchandising of famous monsters from UniversalStudios, as well as in the children’s book, How to Care forYour Monster (1970), where we are advised:
If your family is alwaystelling you to turn down the record player, and not to shout,giggle, or slam doors, then a mummy is the monster for you. Hemakes very little noise…. If your local monster store doesn’tstock mummy-monsters, you have a problem. Unless someone in yourfamily has stolen a Mummy’s Hand. In that case, the mummy willfind you. (23, 25)
But despite their charitableinclusion among their more compelling kin at monster mashes, mummiesnevertheless remain second-rate monsters, seldom if ever the nightmarematerial of choice for 20th- and 21st-century dreamers. It seemsas if the conception of the mummy as a monster ought towork effectively; but it never really has. Despite potentiallysuccessful elements inherent in the construction of this creature,no text to date (literary nor filmic) has capitalized properlyon the psychological horror without blundering somehow. The fewmoments of frisson afforded by mummy texts always end byseeming far too incidental — they never add up to an effectivehorror 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 termsof psychosexual taboos being broken, and in particular by theextent of specifically incestuous elements hidden within the stories,finds the mummy lacking. Instead, he insists, the creature “ishopelessly bogged down in a complicated story that involves capturinghis reincarnated girl-princess and returning with her to the worldof 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 madeexplicitly incestuous or forbidden, … the [mummy] will probablymolder for a few thousand more years” (261). I doubt thatincest 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 ofthe suggestion that when you’re dead, lie down.
Vampires, werewolves,the Frankenstein monster, even zombies seem more effective infiltratorsof the imagination. Whereas vampires, for example, can serve representativelyas any force sucking your life away (your lover’s brat kid, instructorshipstatus at the university you work for, etc.), it is more difficultto find resonant metaphoric meaning in being stalked by a giantbandage just because your archaeologist father defiled tombs inthe Nile region. Mummies may tap into some effective taboos andmay indirectly represent psychologically disturbing notions: thepersistence 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 notmake 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 nineteenthcentury 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 Egyptianhieroglyphic inscriptions at last and therefore to uncover earlyEgyptian history and culture. Throughout the nineteenth century,scholarly work on ancient Egypt became gradually available toa general audience through translations and lectures, often presentingdiscoveries in comparison with biblical stories. From the secondquarter of the nineteenth century onwards, scholars, the press,and popular culture were immersed in Egyptology.
The first reanimatedmummy appears in horror-master Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “SomeWords with a Mummy” (appearing in the American WeeklyReview in 1845). Capitalizing on the Egyptian craze, he seeksonly to mock the fad of Egyptomania and satirize the smugnessof progressivism. His mummy, named “Allamistakeo,” isrevived by a Frankenstein-like electrical hook-up to the slapsticksurprise of scholars. In ensuing discussion, Poe works his satireagainst cultural self-congratulation by way of a defamiliarizationtechnique 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-centurypotboiler and supernatural fiction cast about haphazardly tryingto unearth a meaningful plotline from the era’s Egyptologicalinterest. Although weird, nasty Egyptians appear in creepy workssuch as Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897), actual mummiesare rarer. Théophile Gautier’s The Romance of a Mummy(1857) is impressive in its historical accuracy regarding Egyptand introduces the theme of hopeless love between the living andthe dead; but this is not a horror tale, and for the Egyptianqueen’s remains, transported to England by an adoring archaeologistwho has read the sad tale of her life, the subject of reanimationis never broached. Ambrose Pratt’s The Living Mummy (1910),although including an ambulatory mummy obedient to an evil mastermindand demonstrating a predilection for strangling his victims, istoo rife with embarrassing melodramatic sappiness, along withracism and sexism, to be an effective text. Equally sappy in styleis Burton Stevenson’s A King in Babylon (1917), a novelabout filmmakers blundering upon a pharaoh’s curse. The storyincludes the notion of reincarnation of a lost love, even thoughreincarnation is an oriental belief and plays little or no partin the religions of ancient Egypt. Bram Stoker’s somewhat-admiredThe Jewel of Seven Stars (1906) only approaches an attemptedreanimation, despite a recent film’s misleading title — BramStoker’s The Mummy (1997) — an embarrassing attempt to cashin on the cheesy current trend of citing nineteenth-century authorsin film titles. The fact is that there is no reanimated killermummy at all in Stoker’s tale.
Arthur Conan Doyle,responsible for launching the vilification of dinosaurs in allof twentieth-century popular culture with his The Lost World(1912), is actually responsible also for much of the key mummymaterial of fiction and film. His short story “Lot No. 249″(1892) (adapted as a Tales from the Darkside episode) tellsof an Oxford student having bought a mummy at an auction (hencethe title). This student harbors personal grudges and sets thecreature on his perceived enemies. While townspeople fear a hypotheticalescaped 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 supposedlypriceless knowledge. Although we do not quite find out how reanimationwas accomplished, mention is made of some strange leaves at theimmolation, the origin of the famous “tana leaves” inthe later Universal films.
Silent films toyedwith the subject. In Vengeance of Egypt (1912), Napoleondigs up a mummy case; one of his lieutenants steals a ring tosend to his girlfriend, who subsequently dreams of a mummy blinkingits eyes open while a murderous burgler sneaks into her room andkills her. The ring passes hands, and each time follows disaster.When an Egyptologist finally returns it, the mummy’s eyes glow.
Egyptology and mummiestook much stronger hold of popular culture from 1924 onwards,from the time of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s discoveryof Tutankhaton, known later as Tutankhamen (or King Tut). Firingthe popular imagination were reports of a curse carved in thestone above the entrance regarding Amon-Ra’s intended vengeanceagainst any defilers of the tomb (“Deathshall 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 theopening of the tomb died early, although they were all fairlywell along in years in 1924. Museum curators being hit by a cabor dying unexpectedly, the lights in Cairo blacking out at themoments of Lord Carnarvon’s death, his son’s dog howling and droppingdead also — these kinds of stories fed the notion of “themummy’s curse” inevitably involved later in the films.
Amid the ensuing Tutmania– the Egyptianesque spring fashion; the “Tutankhamen FoxTrot”; the design of the Crysler Building, constructed 1928-1930(A&E’s Ancient Mysteries)– came theseminal 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 whoplayed Van Helsing in Dracula as Dr. Muller, another leaderof a group of boys trying to destroy the monster (Twitchell 260).But The Mummy borrows some ideas from the other of whatI consider to be these two key mummy texts, that being ArthurConan Doyle’s short story “The Ring of Thoth” (1890).One truly potentially disturbing aspect of the mummy is not tappedinto but at least hinted at in these two seminal mummy works.
In Doyle’s tale, anancient Egyptian discovers the elixir of life everlasting, butloses to death the woman he loves. He has wandered through thecenturies seeking, ironically, an antidote to longevity, and finally,gaining employment in a museum, is alone at last with the mummifiedremains of his beloved. “He threw his hands up into the air,burst into a harsh clatter of words, and then, hurling himselfdown upon the ground beside the mummy, he threw his arms roundher, and kissed her repeatedly upon the lips and brow” (Doyle364). Within moments, “The action of the air had alreadyundone all the art of the embalmer. The skin had fallen away,the eyes had sunk inward, the discolored lips had writhed awayfrom the yellow teeth” (367). He tells his story to our narrator,and the tale ends with a newspaper report from the next day:
Curious Occurrencein the Louvre. — Yesterday morning a strange discovery was madein the principal Egyptian chamber. The ouvriers who areemployed to clean out the rooms in the morning found one of theattendants lying dead upon the floor with his arms round one ofthe mummies. So close was his embrace that it was only with theutmost difficulty that they were separated. (380)
Doyle’s story is obviouslya source for the 1932 movie The Mummy, in which we haveanother tale based on undying love. Im-Ho-Tep, the revived mummyplayed 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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