The Halloween History of The Mummy
Reanimated mummies are, like the alien menace, a more recent Halloween invention - and one that, like the werewolf, owes much of its lore to Hollywood. They’ve now become a staple in modern horror writing and movies.
Mummification has been practiced by a wide variety of cultures throughout history. Mummies are found in China, Japan, Tibet and Peru. Natural (and presumably accidental) mummies have been found in a variety of arid or frigid climates.
The most famous society that engaged in mummification, of course, was that of the Ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians believed that the body was the receptacle for the Ka, which was necessary for the afterlife. Skilled embalmers prepared the body by removing the internal organs, eliminating excess moisture with salts, and then wrapping the body with linens soaked in resin.
Egypt has long fascinated western man. The Romans - especially in the time of Caesar adopted Egyptian themes in their art and architecture. The ancient order of Freemasonry, adopted Egyptian motifs in their organization. The involvement of some of the founding fathers in Freemasonry led to the inclusion of a pyramid in the Great Seal of the United States.
During his expedition to Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte took with him teams of scientists to study the ancient civilization; Napoleon founded the Institut de l’Égypte in Cairo in 1798. It was this Institute that discovered the Rosetta Stone that finally allowed Egyptian writing to be read when it was deciphered in 1822 by Jean-Francois Champollion.
One the mystery of Egyptian writing was unlocked, Egypt became a Victorian era fad. It became fashionable to visit Egypt (Theodore Roosevelt toured Egypt as a child), where tourists picked up innumerable artifacts with which to decorate their homes. In England, public mummy unwappings became a form of entertainment. Some Victorian era religious cults, such as the Order of the Golden Dawn adopted Egyptian motifs in their ceremonies. In 1871, the composer Verdi unveiled the Egyptian themed opera, Aida.
Still, it never seemed to occur to anyone that there might be a reanimated mummy, or a curse of the mummy’s tomb until the publication of an obscure book in 1821 called The Mummy. This was the first use of a mummy in horror literature.
In 1869, Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame, published a book called Lost in A Pyramid: The Mummy’s Curse. In both of these books, the trouble seemingly begins when an Egyptologist lights a burial chamber by burning the resin-laden body of a mummy. But there is no lumbering, murderous mummy to be found. In Alcott’s book, the curse comes from some seeds taken from the tomb.
Interestingly, in one of his travelogues, Mark Twain reported that he observed mummies being used as fuel for steam engines in Egypt. But given Twain’s penchant for exaggeration, it’s probably best not to believe this one.
Following the sinking of the Titanic, rumors circulated that the giant ocean liner was transporting the mummy of a priestess of Amon-Ra.
But the idea of a Mummy’s curse probably didn’t really catch on until Howard Carter’s opened and excavated King Tut’s tomb in 1923. The unexpected death of Lord Carnavon, Carter’s sponsor, two weeks later, immediately gave rise to the idea of a curse.
Carnavon’s death was not so mysterious - even if it was a bit odd. He had been bitten by a mosquito, and then cut the bite while shaving. The wound became infected, and he died of blood poisoning.
It’s weird, but it’s hardly the stuff of a curse. One study showed that of 58 people directly involved in the opening of the tomb, only eight had died within a dozen years of the event. From an actuarial point of view, that’s nothing unusual.
Hollywood, of course, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. In 1932, Universal Pictures released “The Mummy,” starring Boris Karloff. The story involves an ancient Egyptian priest, Im-Ho-Tep, who spends his time over the centuries guarding the mummy of his lost love, Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. When the body of the Princess is taken to England, Im-Ho-Tep (now known as Ardrath Bey), follows and sets about the job of resurrecting her. This, of course, requires the body of living woman.
Rather than an outright, and mysterious curse, Hollywood’s curse of the mummy involves a staggering, unstoppable monster in hot pursuit of a victim. Like his portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster, Boris Karloff’s interpretation of the creature has left an indelible mark on our consciousness.
Today, when a mummy is portrayed in Halloween art and costumes, it is a tall, lumbering figure, arms outstretched, bandages hanging, and fluttering in the air. Pure Karloff. (Real mummies have their arms bandaged to their bodies, and their feet wrapped together. They would have hopped, not walked.)
Copyright 2005 by John Retzer