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How the Mummy Became a Monster



Rob Hardy


A couple of the most famous movie monsters came from literature. Frankenstein came from Mary Shelley, and Dracula came from Bram Stoker. The Wolfman was a product of folktales that had been passed down for millennia. There are, realists will tell you, no Frankenstein monsters, no vampires, and no wolfmen. There are, however, mummies, and though they may not be awakened by violations of a curse and though they do not walk around, hypnotize, and murder like in the movies, they really exist. The reasons we have them as villains in the horror films are rumor and a response to colonialism. These are the surprising sources cited in The Mummy's Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy (Oxford University Press) by Roger Luckhurst, who, according to the book jacket, at university "teaches horror and the occasional respectable novel by Henry James." The book is a history of all things Egyptological, not just mummies but the European fascination for mummies, caskets, and more. It is an academic work, without dryness; Luckhurst obviously enjoys the human foibles on display here, and much of the book, for all its facts, is simply funny, especially since, as he points out, there is no mummy's curse. 




It's not just that "there's no such things as ghosts;" ancient Egyptians did not seal their mummy cases with curses because, well, curses hadn't been invented yet. Where there were messages left for finders of tombs, they tended to be welcoming, with words of thanks for honoring the name of the entombed resident. Rather than being cursed, explorers of tombs, Luckhurst says, "must be more likely to be blessed than cursed." The idea that there is some curse on a tomb that promises doom to the invader "... is a fantasy, a later cultural imposition." Egyptologists are annoyed by the fantasy; one wrote an article, "Mummymania for the Masses: Is Egyptology Cursed by the Mummy's Curse?", but at least some are interested in investigating it as a modern cultural phenomenon.  




The curse was highlighted by the enthusiasm for the discoveries of Howard Carter when he entered King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922. Sure enough, Carter's patron, Lord Carnarvon, soon died. Then railroad tycoon George Jay Gould toured the chamber, got a fever supposedly from it, and he died. Then the radiologist who surveyed the king's sarcophagus died. Then the governor general of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan died. The curse lives on, and stories say that it struck even the airplane crew that transported the treasures for display at the British Museum in 1972. It will do no good for rational investigation to look at these stories. Carter himself lived to be 64, dying quietly of heart disease. Studies of those who entered the tomb between 1923 and 1926 show an average age at death of seventy years.  




It wasn't just Tut's mummy that was associated with curses; the stories of curses had preceded the opening of that famous tomb. The adventurer Walter Herbert Ingram, the socialite Thomas Douglas Murray, and the journalist Bertram Fletcher Robinson all messed around with mummies in some fashion around 1900, and all came to bad consequences. Or at least the rumors said so. The most amusing part of this book is how far the rumors flew. There was a mummy of a priestess at the British Museum, officially known as "Acquisition #22542," not actually a mummy, but a mummy case. Even a journalist who wrote about the mummy succumbed to the curse, an example of what Luckhurst calls a "recursive curse." The journalist had been warned by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote, "I told him he was tempting fate by pursuing his inquiries, but he was fascinated and would not desist. Then he was overtaken by illness. The immediate cause of death was typhoid fever, but that is the way in which the 'elementals' guarding the mummy might act." (In his acknowledgements section, Luckhurst jokes, "I should perhaps also take the opportunity to thank any Egyptian elementals that might still be hanging around, for deciding not to kill me off in some bizarre or comical manner during the writing of this book.") A "well-known society girl" taunted the mummy to do its worst, only to fall headlong down the museum's steps. Or so the story goes. The queries from curious readers and from editors of newspapers all over the world so exasperated the Keeper of the Egyptian Rooms that he mimeographed a point-by-point rebuttal: no, there is no record of a curse, no, the man who carried the case met with no accident, no, the man who photographed it did not have his camera smashed, no... It all changed little. 




The sensationalist journalist and spiritualist W. T. Stead wrote about the museum's mummy, and look what happened to him: he died on the Titanic. This sparked the rumor that the mummy had been on board the ship, and that it was the curse that had arranged the approach of that pesky iceberg. Somehow the mummy survived the sinking, only to be on the Lusitania to arrange that disaster as well, and so on. Actually, any curses the mummy case has done have been telepathic; it has never left the museum. A genuine Egyptologist was so exasperated by these rumors that she made up even more fantastic stories that the museum had sold the mummy case and it had been presented to the Kaiser who thereupon started WWI, and look what happened to him. One might fight fire with fire, but fighting rumor with rumor only added more stories for the general circulation. 




It is strange that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, observers regarded Egypt and its relics with awe and wonder; by the end, the feelings included fright and menace. The strongman turned Egyptologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni wrote a narrative of his finds in 1820, and did not turn to any gothic speculation; there was no dread about digging out the mummies or feeding them into the campfire as needed. Victorian Gothic tales often included menacing objects, or curses passed to a next generation. Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, and H. Rider Haggard all got into the act; it is a surprise that Louisa May Alcott did, too, in a "brief and nasty shocker, 'Lost in a Pyramid, or the Mummy's Curse'" of 1869. And then, at the turn of the century, Luckhurst says, theosophy and the revival of magic, via such lights as Madame Helena Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley, supercharged the idea of a curse, along with the medical study of hypnosis (which somehow became part of the mummy curse rumors, and is, of course, one of the mummy's powers in the movies). 




Luckhurst argues that these tales emerged at the times they did because of colonial guilt, the idea that the "others," in this case the colonized and exploited Egyptians, were taking their revenge. Britain had looked upon Egypt as a mystical yet admirable source of ancient wisdom. As Britain's colonial grasp tightened, however, Egypt looked darker and more threatening. Neither colonial Egypt nor ancient Egypt had curses with which to afflict the colonizers, so the colonizers made them up. It seems a silly employment for the imaginations of the colonizers, but not nearly as silly nor as funny as the role of rumor. There are many bizarre surprises in this strange tale, recounted within an entertaining book that goes into such dusty corners as the architectural revival of Egyptian motifs, Egypt as reconstructed within the world's fairs, and the meetings and researches of the London "Ghost Club." Luckhurst's book reminds us that there is merit in looking seriously at silliness. 




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