Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Mummies: Introduction


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 inscriptionsat 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 alwaysto have been a problem. “Even as Khafu, some five thousandyears ago, was busily engaged in erecting his magnificent pyramid,he was given the unhappy news that the richly appointed graveof his mother, recently buried, had already been entered and robbed” (Douglas 150). This is why the discover of the King Tutankhamen’stomb is so famous–it was one of the few significant modern findsin which the riches were found intact.

Egyptology and mummies particularlytook hold of popular culture from 1924 onwards, from the timeof Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s discovery of Tutankhaton,known later as Tutankhamen (or King Tut). Firing the popularimagination were reports of a curse carved in the stone abovethe entrance regarding Amon-Ra’s intended vengeance against anydefilers of the tomb. Thus, when misfortune struck any one ofthe members of the expedition, the press could capitalize on thepotentially sensational aspects. Superstition has it that 5 ofthe 6 people involved in the opening of the tomb died early, althoughthey were all fairly well along in years in 1924. Various museumcurators being hit by a cab or dying mysteriously, the lightsin Cairo blacking out at the moments of Lord Carnarvon’s death,his son’s dog howling and dropping dead also–these kinds of storiesfed the notion of “the mummy’s curse,” inevitably involvedin the films.

Monster Commentary:

Mummies usually show up at mad monsterparties, but nevertheless remain rather second-rate monsters. They tap into some effective taboos and may indirectly representpsychologically disturbing notions, but unlike vampires, werewolves,and the Frankenstein monster, mummies are seldom if ever the nightmarematerial of modern dreamers.

They have some of the right elements:”The dead, after all, should be subject to decay, and thereis something not quite Christian about a body which remains intactthrough so many centuries” (Douglas 157). Additionally,the “mummy’s curse” makes sense as a manifestation ofguilt over graverobbing; and although not many of us have reasonfor guilt in this respect, a certain cultural guilt may be inplay earlier in this century and last when under the noble auspicesof museum collecting, plundering was passed off as scholarly advancement.

The mummy is accused of “lumberinghis way” through numerous literary works and, especially,films “without developing a coherent text” (Twitchell260). He “neither is cunning nor heroic” (261), andtherefore cannot capture the imagination in any subtle way.

One monster critic rates the successof monsters in terms of psychosexual taboos being broken, andthus finds the mummy lacking: “Until the smoldering sexualrelationships are made explicitly incestuous or forbidden (asthey are in the adaptations of Stoker’s Jewel of the SevenStars), the Bandaged One will probably molder for a few thousandmore years” (Twitchell 261).

It seems to me that the real potentiallydisturbing aspect of the mummy is hinted at in the two key mummytexts: Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Ring of Thoth”and the Boris Karloff movie The Mummy (1932).

In the former, an ancient Egyptian discoversthe 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 amuseum, is alone at last with the mummified remains of the womanhe loved. “He threw his hands up into the air, burst intoa harsh clatter of words, and then, hurling himself down uponthe ground beside the mummy, he threw his arms round her, andkissed her repeatedly upon the lips and brow” (Doyle 364). Within moments, “The action of the air had already undoneall the art of the embalmer. The skin had fallen away, the eyeshad sunk inward, the discolored lips had writhed away from theyellow 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.–Yesterdaymorning a strange discovery was made in the principal Egyptianchamber. The ouvriers who are employed to clean out therooms in the morning found one of the attendants lying dead uponthe floor with his arms round one of the mummies. So close washis embrace that it was only with the utmost difficulty that theywere separated. (380)

Doyle’s story is obviously a sourcefor the 1932 movie The Mummy, in which we have anothertale based on undying love. Im-ho-tep, the revived mummy playedby Boris Karloff, believes he has found the reincarnation of hisown lost love of many centuries ago. He hypnotizes the womanand recounts the ancient tale in which she died and he attemptedto revive her, but was caught and buried alive. Regarding hiscapture, he says, “They broke in upon me and found me doingan unholy thing.”

In both cases, the texts flirt withthe notion of necrophilia. This perhaps is the potential psychosexualcreepiness, since other monsters seem to involve other taboos. The zombie, for example, “is really a mummy in street clotheswith no love life and a big appetite” (Twitchell 261). Vampires,the undead, have a sexual aspect to their predations, but it doesn’tseem quite the same as necrophilia. The problem may be that necrophiliajust simply is not a repressed impulse, so the implicit facetsof it playing beneath the surface of the key mummy stories arenot enough of a lurid taboo to hold us.

Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University