Wednesday, November 4, 2015
Elements of Horror: The Mummy
Believe it or not, Mummies used to be considered one of the big boys of the classic monster posse. You may think of them now as lame proto-zombies but the fear they represented is very different from that of the Walking Dead.
We talked yesterday about The Other and how aliens embody this idea of something wholly outside humanity. The Mummy is about something uglier and closer to home, xenophobia. Before the world got small and the revolutionary Arab Spring included twitter updates and youtube videos, Egypt was a mysterious land. That every school kid is taught the wonders of the Egyptian Empire and that such opulence could be reduced to a pile of crumbling pyramids is mind-boggling. There but for the grace of god goes our own civilization.
Foreigners as Others is not unique to the Mummy (vampires were largely European at the dawn of horror) but the reliance on mysticism is. Up until very recently, the popular view of Egypt was of a backwards, superstitious land of camels and turbans. Hell, they probably practiced some sort of magic over there, too.
Also, it was no coincidence that the rise of the Mummy as a horror figure coincided with the discovery of King Tut's tomb. This burst of ancient folklore got all tangled up in the popular idea that the tomb itself was cursed. That mystery that Egypt was veiled in made it just believable enough that they could embalm a person in such a way that they would rise again to kill.
Boris Karloff's Mummy was an Egyptian priest who dabbled in dark, arcane arts. Upon returning from the dead, his whole scheme was restore his power through blood rituals. The iconic mummy we think of when we think of the monster (like the dude above) was only in the movie for a few minutes. The rest of the time, Karloff looked like a normal man who had been left in the sun too long. Even that first movie realized that, while it would be creepy to see a wrapped up corpse move, you need more to make a good monster.
In the 1980s, The Monster Squad movie poked fun at just how ineffectual the Mummy was by having him unravel into useless bones. It wasn't until the Indiana Jones flavored Mummy movie from the 1990s that the creature returned to its theatrical roots. Again, to make the evil priest formidable, the filmmakers gave him magical powers, man-eating bugs and servant mummies that looked more like the old-fashioned creature. No longer a horrific figure, the new Mummy was a special effect laden super villain in the serial tradition.
Really, knowledge has sort of ruined the allure of this once proud monster. We now recognize that Egyptians aren't magical and dead bodies, no matter how well preserved, only really work in large numbers. Perhaps a hundred years from now, the Mummy will have fully faded into obscurity.