Ancient Egypt seems to me to be the most magical of forgotten civilizations. The horror and decadence of Roman myths often outweigh the arcane power used therein, and the Norse gods are more about hammers striking stone than straight-up witchcraft. The Aztecs, Mayans, and American Indians come off as too in tune with the earth and its power, not organized and disciplined. But Egypt is soaked in the practice of sorcery, from its gilded temples to its animal-headed gods, right down to the runic code of its hieroglyphs.
As such, the power of the mummy has always made sense. A creature born of the elaborate death rituals of its great empire, buried in the dark by time and dust, lying in wait over centuries and driven by a curse from history’s most supernaturally volatile time.
And yet it feels odd for the mummy to be as much of a horror icon as it is. While many more sinister and obvious figures in horror culture have faded into the background (stay tuned, fearless readers, we’ll talk about them later this month), the mummy has remained relevant and loved since it first climbed out of its sarcophagus and into the pop culture psyche.
The mummy as a monster comes from a combination of two early obsessions with Egyptology: the mummy as a sacred object, and the curse of the pharaohs. When Egyptomania struck in the late 1700s, mummies became seen as the ultimate relics of Egypt. Americans became especially obsessed with mummies, hosting mummy-unwrapping parties and considering the strange and grotesque corpses beneath the wrappers vengeful enemies of this lost time.
The curse of the pharaohs, meanwhile, is the much-fetishized idea that Egyptian tombs were booby-trapped with curses that would punish both grave robbers and archaeologists alike for disturbing the resting places of old-world royalty. The obsession with this phenomenon was heavily fueled by the mysterious deaths of those involved in the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. The idea that this ancient revenge would take the form of an unstoppable walking corpse made the notion even more strange and horrific, especially for those who might feel some guilt as desecrating said bodies at a dinner party.
In that way, the mummies of horror aren’t just the undead. Though also the result of cultural “othering”, the zombies of Haitian voodoo are as bizarre and ragtag as the religion they represent, and are utilitarian in nature. The Slavic vampire, meanwhile, is inherently evil, as much a demon as it is a walking corpse. But mummies are undead with a purpose, and with the weight of time weighing down upon them. They are not ruled by the laws of good and evil or those magic users who would break them. The priests who made the mummy are long dead, and their gods are no longer worshipped, and yet the mummy walks. One cannot punch a curse.
Maybe that distinction is what has kept mummies so alive (I’ll be here all month!) in horror and Halloween culture. Frankenstein’s creature is the monster of science. Dracula the monster of nobility. The werewolf is the catharsis of the wilderness. The mummy, meanwhile, is the agent of humanity’s past, pulled from a slumber so deep that it didn’t even notice the sand swallowing up its entire culture. We cannot read the markings on its tomb, and so we do not know how to stop it.
Then again, it might just be the wrappings.
It will disappoint some of you to know that mummies were wrapped in linen bandages for cosmetic reasons. After a body was mummified, it looked like, well, a shriveled corpse. As such, they were bandaged to appear dignified when they were viewed by their grieving families. And yet bandages have come to define the horror mummy for us.
In fact, most of the mummies used in Halloween decorations show no sign of having a corpse underneath the bandages; often, the best we get is some grey skin and an eyeball peeking out between the wrappings on the wrapped head. As such, the mummy takes on an even different scariness—what if there is no human inside? What if we are dealing with not even a corpse rising to avenge its fallen kingdom, but the trappings of ancient Egypt itself, literally a body of walking burial shroud?
The most iconic mummy movie of all time remains 1932’s The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff in the titular role of Imhotep, a priest of Thoth who was buried alive for his forbidden love. What many newcomers forget, however, is that Karloff is only in bandages for about 20 onscreen seconds in the film. For the rest of the movie, he wears a robe and a fez, and uses arcane magic to kill the men who violated his tomb and seduce his reincarnated princess bride. Yet somehow, even when he’s dressed as a normal (if inaccurate) Egyptian man, Karloff might as well be wearing bandages. Dress him up however you like–a mummy is a mummy.
It is, at the end of the day, the distinctive flavor of death in Egypt that makes the mummy a lasting figure. It is no mere walking corpse, nor is it a specter, or devil, or robot. The mummy is all of those things and none of them, a millennia-dead representative of the most magic-heavy era of all time, defying the laws of nature to remind us all that, though believed obsolete, ancient history will always be there, and is very frightening if foolishly ignored.