Howard Carter’s discovery and opening of the tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922 created a fervor of interest in all things Egypt. The discovery flooded newspaper headlines around the world and influenced popular culture aesthetics for years and decades. People were beguiled by gold fever – the myriad of statues, the sarcophagus, the death mask – dazzling pieces of antiquities. It was those same pieces that decades later captivated my young mind and imagination. I looked into Tutankhamun’s eyes – windows to a world crafted by artisans over three millenniums ago: I was in awe.
Yet, underneath the mask of a king whose life was cut too short, I eventually came to learn of your existence and your true face. Well, not just one face, but many, from the numerous mummies that have been found over the centuries. Each with a story buried with them, often fragmented through looting. Science and technology has revealed physical data – height, age, diet, ailments – but the personal stories are often left to speculation.
Your existence has had a perplexing existence in our collective psyche, largely due to the conflicting portrayal in popular culture. Early stories, most often based on Egyptian mummies, oscillated from mysterious shuffling sounds in the depths of the pyramid, unwrapping parties gone awry, tragic love lost, and the most familiar, the vengeful mummy. The “monster run amok” narrative has had longevity, which interesting enough has come to lump mummies from other cultures, such as the bog and Aztec, in a similar narrative. Additionally, the concept of the mummy as a monster has been further muddled by a dialogue that believes that mummies and zombies are the same – they are not: simply speaking, mummies have been purposely preserved bodies for a believed afterlife or as a sacrifice to appease the gods, whereas zombies are dead individuals reanimated, usually via a virus.
That said, it probably comes as no surprise to you that I am a huge fan of mummy movies. In fact, I’m a sucker for all of them, good and bad. And dear mummy, I have watched a lot of bad ones, or bad ones that had a fascinating premise, but sadly were executed badly. In fact, there is a bounty of mummy oriented films and I have yet to exhaust my list. You may be asking what’s the best mummy film out there, and I’m glad you asked!
My favorite remains the 1932 Universal Studios’ The Mummy directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff as Imhotep/Ardath Bey and Zita Johann as Helen Grosvenor/Ankh-es-en-amon. It had the distinction of being the cinematic premiere of a mummy, and Karloff was excellent. His tall, pinched frame lent to emaciated images of his interpretation of a lost soul looking for his true love, one sided though it might be. His transformation between Imhotep and Ardath Bey portrays a more realistic imagining than say Universal’s The Mummy (1999, Stephen Sommers). The tension in the opening scene between the mummy and an excavation assistant is still palpable 80+ years on. Actually, a thread of tension is woven into the entire film. The cast is superb, especially Karloff – seriously, could you possibly ask for a better actor to represent you? – and Johann, who each provide mesmerizing performances in all of their incarnations. The film does seem to try to weave some factual with fiction, and I think that is part of the lasting appeal of this film. Truly, this film is the archetype, at minimum, for the dozen or so films released by major studios titled “The Mummy” or some variation of it – that have followed. And Universal has another mummy film is on the horizon for this June, aptly titled The Mummy (dir. Alex Kurtzman) and will star Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella. The trailer was intriguing, and I’m holding out that it will deliver a competent horror film than many of the subpar examples that fill Netflix. If nothing else, the mummy is a female this time, which could result in a unique narrative, since most of the time you are portrayed as a male.
Dear Mummy, while I’m a fan of mummy films, I’m sure you are thinking it seems at odds with the independent scholar in me. Like Tutankhamun’s golden treasures, I think it is the cinematic visuals that draw me in, especially ones that portray Ancient Egypt. Honestly, though, I am more curious by what the films represent socially and politically speaking, since I know you are more than the monster books and films dictate in your role in popular culture. I think there’s a basis of Colonialism and Orientalism, which are narratives I believe haven’t changed all that much from the pre-Victorian to contemporary narratives in literature and film. And while fiction is entertaining, it’s the facts that each mummy reveals about themselves as well as the culture of their era, even if speculative, that causes me to be such an ardent fan of yours: one that began years ago as I glazed into the eyes of Tutankhamun’s mask.
Your humble servant,