The Mummy

Histories of Horror: The Mummy

Welcome to Histories of Horror, a column in which we will be diving into the origins and inspirations behind some of your favourite horror creatures, characters, and more, from the infamous to the more obscure. Join us as we examine the roots and themes that have helped these stories and characters evolve from the humblest beginnings to becoming, in many cases, cornerstones of pop culture.

Mummies are fascinating because, while they predate many of even the oldest vampire and werewolf legends, stories of them rising from their grave are relatively new. That’s even more surprising because the idea of the slow, lumbering mummy seems archaic now. You’ll hear mummies referred to as an outdated, boring monster pretty often. Yet in some ways they are as popular as ever. While it didn’t light the box office on fire, the fact that Universal is still making blockbuster Mummy movies as recently as 2017, starring Tom Cruise, one of the biggest stars in the world, is a testament to that lasting popularity. If you scour the depths of Tubi, you’ll find that we’re actually in the middle of a bit of a no-budget mummy movie renaissance. American Mummy, The Mummy Resurrected, The Mummy Reborn, The Mummy Rebirth, even The Mummy Theme Park, they’re all happening, for some reason, right now. Tracing the origins of mummies, however, can be difficult, because this was a global burial practice thousands of years before it made its way to literature, let alone the horror genre.

While mummies are without a doubt most associated with Ancient Egypt, the earliest mummies actually stemmed from Chile, predating Egyptian mummies by a full two thousand years. One of the more interesting things that separates this Chincharro mummification tradition from most that would follow is that this was a practice for all members of this society, from all walks of life. That’s huge, when you take into account that mummification was, in many cultures, a sign of wealth and status. In many civilizations, being mummified was a privilege only reserved for the wealthy elite. The mummification process was not too different from what we know of from other cultures, save a few exceptions. The Chincarro mummies had their organs removed and often replaced with hair and, in many cases, the skin was removed entirely and replaced with clay. The earliest of these artificially preserved mummies dates from around 5050 BCE, whereas the first Chincharro mummies in general date from around 7020 BCE. 

While the Chincarro traditions are the earliest, though, mummification was practiced all over the world. But it is without a doubt the Egyptian mummies that have most deeply permeated pop culture. There are several reasons for that, the most obvious of them being the success of the 1932 Universal film, The Mummy. In many ways, though, that was itself only a byproduct of a widespread fascination with Ancient Egypt and its culture at the time. And that, it must be said, largely has its roots in colonialism and exoticism. This is a genre that, as much as we love it, largely stems from a borderline fetishization with a culture that was, at the same time, being stolen by the very same British folk who claimed to romanticize it. When these artifacts began hitting British museums, that’s when mummies started to capture the imagination of the public, and when the Western fascination with Ancient Egypt truly took off. With that in mind, perhaps it’s easy to see why the mummies, in particular, became such a point of fascination. After all, most people getting a close look at these mummies, especially getting the chance to study them, were themselves wealthy elites. It makes plenty of sense that wealthy Brits would respond to these displays of Ancient Egypt’s absolute reverence of royalty. 

Egyptian mummies showcased much more classism than the Chincarro mummies had, to be sure. Pharaohs received the greatest treatment, with beautiful golden sarcophagi, their organs encased in decorated jars, their tombs turned into shrines to wealth. This was not a treatment reserved for every citizen. Given this reverence, it should come as no surprise that the earliest examples of mummies in literature were not horror stories, but were actually romantic adventure stories. The earliest of these is Jane Webb’s The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, published in 1827. This novel saw an Ancient Egyptian mummy being restored to life in the year 2126, and was the first English-language story to feature a reanimated mummy. In this instance, the mummy is reanimated through what would loosely be considered science and technology, rather than reading from an ancient scroll. The thought of a mummy revived via galvanism immediately brings to mind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is ironic, as that novel at one point likens its central monster to a reanimated mummy. The resuscitated protagonist of Webb’s novel is not a malevolent, vengeful creature, but is instead more akin to Dorothy in Oz, taking in the sights and marvels of this imagined future. 

Theophile Gautier’s 1840 short story “The Mummy’s Foot” (an amazingly coincidental precursor to Universal’s The Mummy’s Hand) saw a man buy the mummified foot of an Egyptian princess, only for her to return to claim it. Rather than going for shocks, though, this story sees the spirit of the princess take the protagonist back to Ancient Egypt to give him a first-hand view of her homeland, and he quickly falls in love with her. Many mummy stories of the era followed this tradition, in which the mummies were female and the stories themselves leaned much more heavily on romance and adventure. Even Edgar Allan Poe dipped his toes in the burgeoning mummy genre with the satirical “Some Words With a Mummy.” 

Of this era, Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story “Lot No. 249” might be the most important. While there were clearly mummy stories before it, the concept of the malevolent, lumbering, ghoulish reanimated mummy starts right here. In that respect, Conan Doyle might be responsible for the creation of two of the most persistent fictional icons of all time, with the other obviously being Sherlock Holmes. Horror movie fans might best recognize this tale for its star-studded adaptation in Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, featuring Christian Slater, Steve Buscemi and Julianne Moore. 

This milestone of mummy literature was followed up with another of the most important mummy stories ever told, written by another literary icon in 1902, with Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars. In some ways, Jewel melds traditions of the recent past. Like many earlier stories, it depicts a female mummy. In this story, the mummy of Queen Tera is seeking to possess the protagonist’s love interest, Margaret, to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance. Through to the end of the 19th century, stories of mummies only became more common as mummies and other Ancient Egyptian artifacts began populating more and more museums. This is, of course, a direct result of the European occupation of Egypt, with the strong and forceful British presence naturally making it easier remove these things, which had sat undisturbed for thousands of years, from their homeland. Even if unintentional, it’s not surprising that so many books and films of The Mummy are about taking revenge on those who unearthed them, because as much as museums of the day would play at admiration toward that culture, there’s an obvious disrespect in the fact that these artifacts were even removed in the first place. And mummies, human bodies taken from their tombs to be put on display for the public, are the ultimate representation of that. 

Still, mummies would not truly permeate mainstream culture, especially in America, until 1922. The discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb was the thing that kicked off the passion for Ancient Egypt in earnest. More than that, it was what kicked off the longstanding fascination with “the mummy’s curse.” This was not, obviously, a real-life story of a mummy returning from the dead to kill those who had disturbed its tomb. A more accurate movie adaptation of this heavily sensationalized turn of events would play much more closely to Final Destination. After opening the tomb, a few members of the archaeological team died in entirely separate ways in a relatively short amount of time. Once the word “curse” began to get thrown around, though, every news outlet did whatever they could to run with it. One member’s canary got eaten by a cobra, and that was attributed to the curse. Lord Carnarvon, financier of the expedition, died from a mosquito bite and that, too, was attributed to the curse. Novelist Marie Corelli wrote a letter that reaffirmed the belief that anyone who opened a mummy’s tomb would suffer a terrible fate. Arthur Conan Doyle even returned to the subject of mummies to offer his opinion on the events, claiming that he did in fact believe that supernatural forces were at work. In particular, he suggested that the death of Lord Carnarvon had been caused by elementals that had been created by Tutankhamen’s priests to protect the tomb. 

At that point, the concept of the mummy’s curse had already had a clear affect on the culture of the time—gossip culture, at least—and within a decade, the film would arrive that would ensure the mummy would be a mainstay of horror fiction and film, permanently. After the success of Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein, both in 1931, Carl Laemmle Jr. selected The Mummy to be the burgeoning studio’s next horror picture, taking overt influence from the still-lingering stories of Tutankhamen’s curse. He wanted the film to be a literary adaptation, like the two successful films before it, but story editor Richard Schayer found none, instead writing a nine-page treatment titled Cagliostro, about the life of occultist Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, who claimed to be a 3,000 year old wizard. Laemmle handed that treatment to John L. Balderston, instructing him to turn it into what would become The Mummy. Balderston must have done some degree of research, though, because The Mummy features elements of so many things that had come before. First, even if only for one iconic scene, there is the shambling undead mummy first described in Conan Doyle’s “Lot No. 249.” Despite its stated influences, the story itself bears a great deal in common with Conan Doyle’s story “The Ring of Toth” as well. The idea of a mummy’s curse is unsurprisingly present, as that was still a popular talking point at the time, not to mention being the thing that led Laemmle to make the movie in the first place. And the concept of the female protagonist bearing a strong resemblance to an Ancient Egyptian princess, even subtly being possessed or revealed as the reincarnation of that princess, is borrowed from Stoker’s Jewel of Seven Stars. 

1932’s The Mummy is interesting among the Universal pantheon as it is an outlier even in its own franchise. The iconography we still have to this day of Boris Karloff wrapped in bandages is something only depicted in one scene of the actual film, and even then it is barely glimpsed. That one image would be so strong, though, that it would go on to define the movie’s sequels. And as much as this one remains a classic, it’s those films—The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Ghost, The Mummy’s Curse and The Mummy’s Tomb—that is truly where our image of the bandaged, lumbering, undead mummy stalking through a moonlit bog come from. Those features still retained many of the elements of the original, the curse in particular, often accompanied by another heroine who once again proves to be the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess, while simply pushing the iconography of the central monster to the forefront. 

Hammer’s franchise would largely follow that mold, with Christopher Lee’s mummy also being the silent, stalking type. Hammer broke from this tradition for Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, which proved to be a more overt (although still very loose) adaptation of The Jewel of Seven Stars. And the ball only kept rolling from there. Into the ‘70s and ‘80s, we saw the likes of Dawn of the Mummy and Time Walker, not to mention standout appearances in crossover classics like The Monster Squad and Waxwork. In the 1990s, after noticing the box office success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and slightly more middling success of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Universal began to develop a remake of The Mummy that would last almost the entire decade. Major genre talent like Clive Barker, George Romero and Mick Garris were all attached to write and/or direct at various points, before the job eventually went to Deep Rising director Stephen Sommers. Abandoning the horror genre almost entirely for a more Indiana Jones-esque blockbuster, Sommers’ The Mummy proved to be a huge success, once again impacting how the mummy was depicted in pop culture. 

Over time, fans have often criticized both Sommers’ franchise and the 2017 remake for moving away from the deeply ingrained horror roots. I definitely get that, because I will never, ever pass up the chance to watch a slow, crumbling mummy move like a snail toward its victim and I hope that classic iconography will never disappear. There’s nonetheless a sense of irony to that sentiment, though. After all, in both remakes’ shift toward adventure, the 1999 film’s penchant for whimsy and humor and the 2017 flick’s return to a female mummy, this classic monster has—if anything—been restored to its fictional roots.

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