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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

Oct. 16, 2005

Halloween Special:
A Boy's Best Friend is His Mummy

With Halloween lurking around the corner, I thought I'd do an editorial appropriate to the festivities.  Last year, I included my Halloween ballad, Some Things Keep Well.  That ballad is still online in our Rants and Raves Archive, so check it out if you want to get in the Halloween spirit. (Y'no y'wanna!)  In the meantime, without further ado...Mummies!

When I was a little tyke, just discovering the joys of reading, I happened upon a Scholastic Book called How to Care For Your Monster (1970).  It had belonged to one of my sisters but I inherited it along with her Thorton W. Burgess collection and a zillion others bought at school.  It was a fun sort of book, heavily illustrated with a minimum of words, imagining what if kids collected monsters the way they collect, oh, say, stamps or pogs.  Thus we are told how to find old cast off mummies by rooting through the trash behind public museums (I'm going by my memory here -- I could be wrong, but you get the idea).  I must have read through that book a billion times.  It was a sort of safe scare, with pictures just cartoony enough that they didn't frighten you, even as the subject matter itself couldn't help but put rats up your spine.

But there was one picture that went too far.  In the section about mummies, we are warned that we must never fully unwrap the mummy, no matter how dirty he gets.  To illustrate its point, there was a drawing of the mummy without its bandages, looking very cold and very miserable.  But it also looked frightening in a way that the mummy with its bandages did not.  It was thin to the point of being grotesque, little more than a skeleton, with sunken eyes and blue (I think) skin.  I knew it was supposed to be funny, but I couldn't see anything funny about that picture.  There was something terrifying about seeing a mummy without its bandages.

Anyway, that book neatly covered what I think of as the four basic monsters: vampires, Frankenstein (or rather "Frankenstein's monster"), the werewolf and the mummy.  There are other high profile monsters, like the zombie or the ghoul, but they are strictly second stringers.  These four are the dream team of horror. Even then, the mummy just barely makes it onto the roster. 

Now, let's get something straight.  When I refer to the mummy, I mean the mummy monster.  Or rather, the mummy as monster.  We all know what I'm talking about.  I'm talking about the version of the living dead mummy that walks with a slow lurching gait, dragging one leg as well as trailing bandages, that sets out on a mission to kill someone either at the command of some evil guy with tana leaves or to fulfil a curse upon those who have disturbed its tomb.  The bandages are as essential to the mummy monster as fangs are to a vampire.  How the mummy actually does its killing is frequently left rather vague.  I recall one movie reviewer who simply concluded that it "mummies" its victims to death.

The reason I emphasize this "mummy-as-monster" point is that a great many mummy stories and movies aren't really about the mummy monster, even if they have a mummy in them.  Even the recent remake of The Mummy (1999), starring Brendan Fraser, for all that it features a mummy going around killing people to fulfil a curse, doesn't really fit the definition of a mummy monster movie because, most of the time, the mummy looks just like Arnold "Darkman" Vosloo.  He sheds his bandages the first chance he gets and, after that, he's just a bald guy.  Icky, yes, but hardly a monster.

Most of us likely assume that there have always been legends of lurching mummy monsters, just as the werewolf legend has an ancient pedigree in Europe.  Not so.  The idea of the lurching mummy monster is of fairly recent vintage, little more than a century old.  I first realized this fact when I watched the original movie The Mummy, which came out in 1932, the year after Bela Lagosi's turn as the vampire count Dracula.  (I will henceforth refer to the 1932 movie as "Universal's The Mummy", in order to distinguish it from the later Hammer version, and the recent Brendan Fraser remake).  In fact, it has been pointed out that Universal's The Mummy was basically just a remake of Dracula with an ancient Egyptian standing in for the blood sucking count.  (The original title of Universal's The Mummy was going to be the name of the Egyptian, Imhotep, again in keeping with Dracula's title.) 

I had long read about Universal's The Mummy and Boris Karloff's frightening portrayal of Imhotep, and I was supremely disappointed when I finally got a chance to see it.  For all that the poster One Sheets  showed Karloff in mummy make-up and the tag-line "The mummy lives!", Karloff appears in mummy wrappings in only one scene.  The rest of the movie he is Imhotep, a man brought out of the past, who has the ability (just like Dracula) to hypnotize victims to do his bidding.  Ah, but that one scene...

I'll get back to that in a sec.  Meanwhile...

If the mummy monster came late to the party, what about the earlier mummy stories like Edgar Allan Poe's "Some Words With a Mummy" (1845), or Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Ring of Thoth" (1890), or Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars (1906)?  Those were about mummies, weren't they? 

The West's interest in mummies has a surprisingly convoluted history.  In the 16th and 17th centuries, it became common to grind up Egyptian mummies and use the powder as a medicine to cure an assortment of ills.  But then, sometime in the 1700s, the West's interest in Egypt wandered until the wonders to be found there were all but forgotten.  Had you stopped a bloke in White Chapel and asked him about the Pyramids at Giza, he would have said: "Gesundheit".  But then, in the late 1700s, Napoleon's army conquered Egypt and, returning home, the soldiers brought with them countless treasures looted from the pyramids.  They also brought back the famous Rosetta Stone, which allowed them to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphs.  What followed was the first Egyptomania.

The West seemed mesmerized by the ancient exotic world of the Pharaohs.  One manifestation of this mania was a sudden craze for "mummy unrollings".  Under the guise of scientific curiosity, throughout England it became fashionable to throw swank parties where a mummy, fresh from the tomb (so to speak), would be "unrolled" from its bandages.  Some professional "unrollers" made a good living renting out their services, going from party to party with their grisly bundles.  (For some reason I am reminded of Dennis Hopper's line from the movie Speed:  "Poor people are crazy, Jack -- I'm eccentric!")

With renewed interest, it was inevitable that mummies would find their way into literature, but, as yet, no one thought of them as frightening monsters.  What was a mummy, after all, but an attempt to preserve a body from decay.  Nothing scary about that.  Thus, in stories, the mummy served a narrative function, explaining how a man from the past might survive to our own time.  Today, with science fiction, "cryogenic (or cryonic) suspension" would serve the same purpose, the "corpsicle" taking the place of the mummy.  But in the 19th Century, even the primitive embalming techniques used by the ancient Egyptians seemed pretty damn mind-blowing to the West and it was easy to imagine mummification as a sort of fountain of youth, allowing a man out of the past to live essentially forever.

And, far from being scary, the result was more often pathos.  Poe's "Some Words With a Mummy" isn't frightening in the least, nor was it meant to be.  It is a satire in which a man out of the past comments upon our modern world.  Conan Doyle's "The Ring of Thoth" is a moving love story about an immortal who has spent eternity trying to recover a lost love.  The same goes for Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars.

In the same way, Universal's The Mummy was also about an ancient Egyptian searching for his lost love.  Except, as I mentioned, for that one scene where Karloff, in full mummy regalia, first reawakens in his tomb.  In that scene is clearly contained the essence of the mummy monster, distilled to its basic ingredients.  One moment, the unsuspecting scientist stands beside the dead corpse in its wrappings, alone in the tomb.  Then... only slowly to we realize that the mummy is moving.  The mummy is alive!

My theory (I always have a theory) is this.  When they made Universal's The Mummy, they were just trying to make a quick knock-off of Dracula.  But then, they discovered that audiences were lining up  just for that one scene of Karloff in mummy get-up.  So, when it came time for the inevitable sequels (and there were several of those), the filmmakers jettisoned everything except the mummy in its bandages -- and the mummy monster was born.  Henceforth, the mummy was portrayed as a sort of gauze wrapped heat seeking missile, shambling about in the dark of night, slow but unrelenting, mummying its victims to death.

And when I say "slow" I mean slow.

There has long been a tendency to ridicule those mummy sequels for the way in which the mummies always lurched after their victims with all the speed of Superman responding to a false fire alarm at Maxim Magazine.  (False alarm...Sprinkler...?  Get it?  Get it?)  Because they moved so slowly, it was necessary to explain why the victims couldn't just run away.  The solution was inevitably that Fear held the victim to the spot.  So terrified were they by the sight of a lurching mummy monster that they could barely make themselves scream (although they do -- man, do they scream), let alone find the strength to vamoose.  (As the comic book superhero the Beast once said: "Forewarned is forearmed, but four arms do not great feats make.  So, feets, don't fail me now!")

What the detractors fail to understand is that the slow lurching mummy monster is infinitely more frightening than a fleet footed mummy would be.  It is in nightmares that we frequently find ourselves unable to move while a dream monster shambles closer and closer.  Technically this is because, in deep sleep, your body shuts down your motor functions, rendering you paralysed, a state which you sense in your dreams.  If the mummy moved quickly, there would be no suspense.  It would be over with in a flash.  Instead, the filmmakers turn the screws, the victim rooted to the spot with fear, the mummy lurching slowly, steadily nearer.  Somebody (probably Stephen King) once compared the result to running on a freshly waxed floor while wearing socks.

Man, just writing that last sentence has me sweating.

So far I seem to have traced the origin of the mummy monster to that one scene in Universal's The Mummy.  But I said before that the mummy monster concept was at least a century old.  Lest the gentle reader think I can't count, I will explain.

While Conan Doyle's "The Ring of Thoth" doesn't count as a mummy monster story, two years later Conan Doyle wrote a second mummy story, "Lot 249" (1892).  It is the story of a British student who has found a magical papyrus scroll with which he animates a mummy bought at an auction (hence, the title: Lot 249).  He secretly sends it out to kill his enemies in the night.  Another student figures out what he is doing and forces him to burn both the mummy and the papyrus scroll.  Thus, forty years before Universal's The Mummy, in "Lot 249" the mummy monster appears for the first time complete in every detail -- save one.  Conan Doyle describes the mummy as really moving when it wants to.  Far from being a slowly shambling corpse, it is likened to a fast ape.  Clearly, the slow mummy monster came later, a Hollywood contrivance. 

Reading "Lot 249" -- or watching the version starring Christian Slater filmed for 1990's Tales From the Darkside: The Movie -- it is impossible not to suspect that Conan Doyle's story served as an influence on the later Universal movies.  I don't know if that has ever been confirmed but, if so, then we can see that the mummy monster traces its origins to the creator of Sherlock Holmes.  Which means that, at last count, Conan Doyle was responsible for two of the most well known fictional constructs of the last hundred years.  (Someone ought to have knighted that man...Oh, wait... Never mind.)

I said before that, although the mummy monster is one of the dream team of monsters, along with the vampire, the Frankenstein monster and the werewolf, it just barely makes it onto the roster.  What I mean is that, for all that it is a high profile monster, it could be said that no one has ever managed to really make a mummy story work as well as it seems it should.  On the surface, a mummy movie should be frightening.  And yet, somehow they always seem to fall short.  One explanation I ran across claimed that the problem is that all the other monsters lend themselves to metaphorical significance.  That is, they are not just stories about monsters but have a deeper meaning.  The vampire, for example, is said to represent sex without repercussions.  "Sex" without the "ex", so to speak.  But no one has ever found a metaphor for the mummy.  Like Popeye, it y'is what it y'is... er...anyway.

Personally, I don't think that explains the lack of good mummy stories.  In fact, I would argue that the mummy may in fact be the purest monster of the lot.  The other three monsters are all muddled by motivation, angst even.  The werewolf is a good man who finds himself turning bad at the full moon. The vampire is a lonely immortal, tormented by an addiction he can't control.  And the Frankenstein monster is the loneliest man in the world by dint of the fact that he is the only one of his kind -- and butt ugly to boot.  As frightening as they may be, so long as they have motivations, they can evoke our empathy.  Understanding is control, and control is the death of fear, so, if we feel we can at least partly understand what drives them, they become less frightening.  But there is nothing to understand about a mummy's motivations.  It has no motivations.  It is driven either by the will of another who controls it, or because it must fulfil a curse.  (Remember, I'm talking about the pure mummy monster movies, not something like the Brendan Fraser remake of The Mummy which was a love story at heart.)  It is like the shark in Jaws, a killing machine.  Of all of the monsters, the mummy is the most alien, and thus the purest monster of the lot.

But maybe the question shouldn't be "Why don't mummy stories work?" so much as "Why do we think they should?"  What is there about the mummy that allows it to remain one of the four top monsters even as it has never had its "Dracula" -- its defining portrayal?  I put that question to my brother and, as usual, out popped a pearl of wisdom (I really should charge admission).  Perhaps it is because, of all the monsters, the mummy alone truly exists.  The three others all reside exclusively in the imagination.  There are no such things as vampires, or werewolves, or Frankenstein monsters.  But there are mummies.  You can see them in their glass display cases in any museum.  And there are Egyptian tombs.  And Egyptian curses on some of those tombs.  And sarcophagi.  And the Book of the Dead...

Given that all these things are real, it takes little effort, very little, to imagine the mummy rising from its coffin, bandages trailing as it lurches out into the night, its dragging steps carrying it slowly, slowly but relentlessly on its terrible mission.  

Its mission to mummy someone to death...

Happy Hallowe'en!!!

The Supreme Plasmate awaits trick or treaters.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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