The 1932 film The Mummy is an unlikely progenitor of one of the major summer movie revivals of 2017. An eerie, surreal film, it’s part of Universal’s proud lineup of monster movies — but even for its day it was unique, focused more on atmosphere and character development than on traditional horror scares. In fact, its titular monster is barely shown as a mummy at all.
The answer lies at a strange crossroads, between humanity’s fear of the unknown, the war between science and religion, and our love of adventure. It's there that the mummy in pop culture resides — and the lack of attention to this heritage may be at the root of the new film’s critical and commercial failure.
Mummies have long been cultural mainstays, but not always for the greatest of reasons
Mummies — the preserved bodies of ancient Egyptians — have been a cultural fascination since the early 19th century, when interest in archaeological excavations of Egyptian tombs swept across Europe.
“There’s been interest in mummies since the 18th and 19th century, when English travelers went to Egypt and took mummies like souvenirs,” Vicky Almansa, an Egyptologist at Brown University, told me in a phone interview.
The European interest in Egypt was sparked by an odd episode in history: the year Napoleon spent invading the country. Napoleon’s initial 1798 attempt, which was spurred partly by the desire to block English trading routes and partly by his fascination with the region, was mostly successful — or it was until British Adm. Horatio Nelson obliterated the French navy on the Nile and essentially left Napoleon stranded in Cairo.
But while Napoleon’s Middle Eastern campaign was failing, the scientists he brought with him to Egypt were beginning to explore the region and unearth countless finds — including the Rosetta stone — which they took from burial sites and sent back to French and later British museums.
In 1822, France formed the first official study of Egyptology, and the European fascination with Egypt — dubbed “Egyptomania” — kicked into high gear. Mummies in particular were all the rage: The 1851 London World’s Fair included an Egyptian bazaar, and 350,000 entrants to the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition saw an exhibit in which a mummy transformed into Pharaoh’s daughter and back again; societies and lecturers would host “unwrapping parties” in Victorian England in which mummified corpses were dramatically revealed to the public.
The origins of Egyptomania are significant because they connect cultural interest in Egypt to colonialism, conquest, and the consequences of tampering in the wrong domain — themes that have been associated with cultural depictions of Egypt for nearly two centuries. The mummy was the most prominent nexus of this fixation, in no small part because taking mummies from tombs was literal grave robbing.
“The ancient Egyptians didn’t want the mummy to come back to life,” Egyptologist Federico Zangani told me. “The body of the mummy had to be preserved in order for the deceased to attain eternal life.”
Almansa added that “taking the body out of the tomb, not even offering him food that he’d need to survive the afterlife, would be seen as some kind of sacrilege against the deceased.”
This sacrilege manifested itself in the many rumored curses that were popularly believed to be attached to the excavation of such finds — and which in some cases were actually written in tombs as warnings. Various real-life Victorian adventurers were believed to be impacted by the mummy’s curse. In 1901’s The Romance of the Mummy, Théophile Gautier ascribed to the mummy a supernatural knowledge of its disturbed afterlife: “The clear, fixed glance, gazing out of the dead face, produced a terrifying effect; the body seemed to behold with disdainful surprise the living beings that moved around it.“
In other words, the mummy wasn’t just an artifact; it bore the cultural anxieties incumbent upon the spoils of colonialism. Nineteenth-century scientists could sell mummies across Europe with impunity, but in fiction there would be consequences for the cultural ravaging of their tombs, and the mummy would have its day.
Because of its unique role within colonialism, the mummy in fiction has a tremendous amount of agency
Because the mummy was a primary focus of the British public’s fascination with Egyptian culture throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the emerging genre literature of the era — specifically adventure narratives and weird fiction — began to feature mummies. In these stories, the duality of the mummy played a major role: It was a dead corpse that could also enact vengeance upon the living, through supernatural reincarnation or ghastly curses. This framework for viewing the mummy essentially hasn’t changed since, and continues to inform today’s horror tropes about mummies.
The mummy was a prominent part of popular British adventure narratives at the turn of the 20th century. Writers like H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle, who invented the exotic “lost world” genre of pulp fiction, wrote mummy narratives, like Conan Doyle’s short story “The Ring of Thoth.” This is the pulp tradition that ultimately led to Indiana Jones and his brand of adventurous archaeologists and treasure hunters.
At the same time, the mummy in turn-of-the-century literature coincided with the rise of weird fiction with exotic occult overtones. Writers like Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers, Algernon Blackwood, and H.P. Lovecraft would frequently write about terrifying mystical encounters in faraway or unknown lands, and the mummy came to be a conduit for both the dread and the inspiration of these moments. In Blackwood’s “Nemesis of Fire,” the mummy is almost a portal to the universe: “time fled backwards like a thing of naught, showing me in haunted panorama the most wonderful dream of the whole world.”
Compared with other exotic horror tropes of the time period, like the monkey’s paw and any number of similar “cursed” artifacts, the mummy often exercised an unusual degree of agency and a will of its own. Early “curse” stories, including Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 “Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse,” tended to involve a female mummy coming back to life in order to revenge herself upon the person who had stolen her from the tomb and parted her from her lover in the afterlife. (If this plot sounds familiar, it should — vengeful female mummies play a role in all of the Universal Mummy films, including the new one.)
Each of these tropes catered to the West’s growing interest in spiritualism and occultism, but they also, again, dealt with cultural anxiety surrounding the West’s role in colonialism. Edward Said famously argued in Orientalism that US and European writers othered Asia and the Middle East by portraying it as bizarre, regressive, and innately opaque and impossible to understand — all characteristics that recur throughout weird fiction and 20th-century horror. In these narratives, the mummy’s agency serves to justify the West’s fascination with the mummy and ancient Egypt while bearing out Westerners’ fears of the supernatural terror the mummy brings with it.
These are all traits that recur again and again throughout the most famous modern depiction of mummies: Universal’s movie franchise.
The Mummy was an unlikely entry into Universal’s monster mythos from the beginning
By 1932, when Universal produced The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff, the studio was already enjoying a full decade of success from the days of its early silent monster films starring Lon Chaney, and Karloff was in the midst of megastardom thanks to his turn in Frankenstein for Universal the year before. These early horror films typically relied heavily on strong ensemble casts, and a prominent star such as Chaney or Bela Lugosi in the title role, and many of them went on to have sequels like Bride of Frankenstein.
The original 1932 Mummy differed from the typical monster fare of the time (and it would soon be followed by the even weirder The Black Cat in 1934). The plot is essentially a slow-paced cat-and-mouse chase between Boris Karloff and a group of wary Westerners rather than a fast-paced thriller full of terrifying monster moments. And the story is rooted in actual Egyptian mythology, with Karloff’s character, Imhotep, named after a historical Egyptian figure and his ancient bride named after King Tutankhamun’s real princess. Tut’s tomb had been excavated in 1922, and audiences were still familiar with the details.
“Finding King Tut’s tomb would have had a huge impact on the popularity of mummies because that was an international event,” Egyptologist Christian Casey told me.
Notably, the core plot of The Mummy involves a rare trope for horror films of the day: a reciprocated love story between Imhotep and his lady love. But what makes The Mummy really stand out among its monster movie brethren is that there are almost no “shock” moments. Instead, a creeping atmospheric tension builds through plenty of expressionist cinematography until we finally, and only briefly, see Karloff in his full “mummified” form. The film overall was far more romance than horror, and more melodrama than thriller — a genre-hybrid formula that Universal would return to for its unexpected 1999 hit.
Though the 1932 Mummy was unusual in the pantheon of Universal films, it was quite typical in its presentation of the tropes associated with fictional mummies. The discomfort surrounding Western appropriation of ancient Egyptian artifacts is on display; the plot kicks off with archaeologists ignoring warnings about tampering with an ancient Egyptian scroll, with dire results. The portrayal of Karloff’s sinister Egyptian is steeped in Orientalism, reflected in our scientist heroes’ accompanying fear and mistrust of his true motives. The war between Eastern occultism and Western science is another major theme, as is the mummy’s obsession with his reincarnated bride and his dual existence as an evil but civilized scholar and a reanimated corpse.
Universal’s subsequent follow-ups to The Mummy (The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Curse, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, et al.) weren’t direct sequels, but rather new stories with no connection to the 1932 original except their reliance on the well-established tropes of the genre.
The 1999 film The Mummy resurrected this tradition with a new story using elements taken from the 1932 original. The film, starring Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser, was an unexpected cultural phenomenon, merging the mummy’s adventure and horror roots into a new Indiana Jones–esque hybrid: It was a screwball comedy, an action adventure, and a horror movie — a modern pulp narrative that audiences loved. Not only was the film a surprise hit, grossing nearly $500 million worldwide, but it also became a pop culture mainstay.
Despite receiving criticism for its Orientalist portrayal of the Middle East and its stereotyped portrayal of Arabic characters, The Mummy has remained popular among geeks, and in particular feminists, who praise it for its spirited heroine. Weisz’s character Evy, in addition to being an homage to Katharine Hepburn’s scatterbrained but sexy scholar in Bringing Up Baby, is allowed to be smart, adventurous, feisty, fun, and competent — and she even gets to drive the plot. This all means a lot to a lot of people — particularly on Tumblr, where love for the film and its 2001 sequel has remained strong.
What causes the mummy to rise from its cultural tomb?
So why is a Mummy reboot happening in 2017? There’s a simple, obvious reason: Universal, seeking to compete with other studios with major ongoing film worlds in development, is creating its “Dark Universe” and starting with its most financially successful horror franchise to date. (Though technically, the plan to kick off this universe dates back to 2014’s lackluster Dracula Untold.)
The subject of The Mummy also speaks to contemporary concerns in a moment when the Middle East is a constant subject of international conversation. At one point in the new film, bullets from Iraqi insurgents “shred apart some of the local antiquities.” The idea of the titular mummy continues to justify Western interest in the preservation of Egyptian culture while also serving as a vehicle for the prurient othering and Orientalism that’s still at work in the way many US viewers discuss the Middle East.
The idea of the mummy also focuses debate around mysticism and science, pitting religious beliefs in the idea of souls and the afterlife against scientific inquiry and exploration. This, too, is a conflict that feels all too trenchant in the current cultural moment.
But of course, the allure of the mummy in pop culture could also boil down to horror fans’ ever-ravenous desire for scary supernatural objects — and that’s something the new film apparently didn’t tap into enough for fans and critics, one of whom noted that “The Mummy, Princess Ahmanet … is a supporting character in her own movie.”
This is a wasted opportunity for a franchise that began in full awareness that the mummy was the nexus of a host of cultural anxieties and contradictions, the kind that easily generate horror. The titular mummy in the 1999 film was also a supporting character in his own film, but the obsession between the mummy and his reincarnated bride remained the scary driving force of the plot. In the new film, the mummy mostly just wants Tom Cruise, and as Vox’s own Todd VanDerWerff points out, Tom Cruise is just too Tom Cruise-y to imbue that connection with any of the usual sociocultural overtones.
Another complicating factor in the mummy’s place in pop culture circa 2017: Modern mummies are handled differently in contemporary culture than they were during the Egyptomania era that birthed our current cultural perceptions of the fictional mummy. Almansa points out that museums now debate the ethics of displaying human remains in exhibits, and mummies are almost never unwrapped for study anymore.
Yet “the scary image of this dead body plus the curses that we actually find in tombs” continue to make mummies a recurring interest for horror fans — or at least they do when the story understands what makes mummies interesting to horror fans.
And it’s not just horror fans who understand and embrace the mummy’s ongoing cultural relevance; Casey also noted that Egyptologists tend to universally love the Mummy films — perhaps more than they love actual mummies.
“They are just dried-out corpses,” he said. “They’re pretty gross.”