Mummy Fearest: The Ancient History of a Horror Icon

From Boris Karloff to Christopher Lee, celebrating our favorite bandaged boy.

By Diana Prince · @kinky_horror · January 31, 2023, 1:56 PM PST
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In 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter and his team opened the tomb of Tutankhamun, the boy king of Ancient Egypt. This momentous event engendered two major developments: a surging public interest in Egyptology and ghastly vengeance from beyond the grave. You see, there were a number of strange incidents surrounding the opening of Tut's tomb. Not long after Carter's team pierced the veil of the past, Lord Carnarvon (the man who financed the expedition) was bitten by a mosquito and eventually died of blood poisoning. Two weeks before that unfortunate incident, author Marie Corelli wrote a letter published in The New York World which asserted that "dire punishment" would befall those who desecrate a sealed tomb. With those two elements paired together, the Curse of Tut was born. Sherlock Holmes creator/historical kook Sir Arthur Conan Doyle suggested that Lord Carnarvon's death had been caused by "elementals" created by Egyptian priests to guard Tut's tomb.

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Though proposed by a man who thought that some paper cutouts were actual fairies, the "elementals" theory further fueled the public's fascination with the Curse. Throughout the '20s, more tragedies were thought to be the result of Tut's posthumous wrath: Sir Bruce Ingham, a friend of our dear Mr. Carter, accepted the gift of a paperweight made from a mummified hand... and then his house burned down; Richard Bethell, Carter's secretary, died of a suspected smothering; George Jay Gould, a visitor to the tomb, passed away after he developed a fever following his fateful visit. Now, I could list deaths attributed to the Curse all day, but there are far too many to cover: if someone had even a tangential connection to the expedition, their inevitable death was linked to Tut. Curiously, Howard Carter, the man who actually opened the tomb, died of Hodgkin's lymphoma well over a decade after the tomb's discovery. Did the Gods spare him... or were they playing the long game?

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Why the history lesson? Well, unlike Dracula, Frankenstein, or any of the other major Halloween monsters, the Mummy was not created by literature but rather by the headlines of the time. Sure, there had been literary works about living mummies before cinema embraced the concept (including a short story by that wacky nutty-funster, Conan Doyle), but the creature as we know it was based on the real-life Curse of the Pharaohs. Prolific author Nina Wilcox Putnam and story editor Richard Schayer wrote a nine-page treatment for a Universal film about historical occultist Alessandro Cagliostro, which was handed over to John L. Balderston for an Egyptian makeover. Though Balderston is best known for his contributions to Dracula and Frankenstein, he covered the opening of Tut's tomb for the aforementioned New York World. His experience informed his writing and gave us 1932's The Mummy, the film that spawned a thousand TP-covered terrors. Much like the jinx that plagued Carter and his associates, the archaeological expedition of the film awakened a supernatural force from history. However, that supernatural force comes in the form of Imhotep (played by the uncanny Boris Karloff), the formerly mummified Egyptian high priest. While death does indeed come to those who disturb ancient powers, the titular Mummy seeks his reincarnated lover, not revenge.

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Despite being the progenitor of the modern mummy myth, The Mummy bears little resemblance to the films that followed. Perhaps most jarring to a modern viewer is that the Mummy only appears in his iconic wrappings at the very beginning of the picture: after a prologue of sorts, the Mummy spends the film disguised as a modern (yet desiccated) Egyptian. Unlike subsequent shamblers, this Mummy is rather articulate and doesn't brutishly strangle folks. Really, Imhotep is more akin to romantic figures like the Phantom of the Opera than he is to the future fiends who share his monstrous moniker. The original Mummy is macabre poetry, but the next entry in the Universal Mummy cycle truly established the rotted reprobate as a cinema icon. Succeeding the gloomy elegance of the 1932 Mummy was the decidedly inelegant adventure of The Mummy's Hand. What it lacked in romance, it made up for in wacky shenanigans. For this outing, Imhotep was replaced by the definitive movie mummy, Kharis (played here by Tom Tyler, played in the sequels by Lon Chaney Jr.). Ostensibly, Kharis and Imhotep have a lot in common: both were high priests, both were mummified alive for attempting to revive a dead lover, both are motivated by undying devotion, and both return to the earth as living mummies. But that's where the similarities end. You see, Kharis is THE MUMMY that pop culture kept alive for generations: the laconic lurcher who hobbled to his victims, performed one-handed throttles, and carried maidens off to his tomb.

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The Kharis films are not particularly deep; they are, however, B-movie perfection. In a way, the series is an ancestor to the slasher genre, with its unstoppable killer and relatively high body count. (The second film, The Mummy's Tomb, was likely the first horror sequel to kill off the survivors of the previous film, which later became a slasher tradition.) Folks didn't watch these movies to relive the strange beauty of the first film; they wanted to see an undead weirdo strangle some fools! The Kharis pictures lack poetry, but there is a high level of fool-strangling. Silly as they are, these movies are immensely entertaining, and their villain does enjoy a significant cultural legacy. Kharis may be a man of few words, but who needs eloquence when you're a hulking murder machine? His bandaged body, vile visage, and silent savagery have made him the most popular mummy in fiction. In speechless slashers such as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, you can detect the unmistakable influence of Kharis. Imhotep is the most respectable entity to be called "The Mummy," but Kharis is the most enduring.

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After his initial series, Kharis appeared in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (well, "Klaris" in that film) and Hammer's remake of The Mummy (played by the imposing Christopher Lee). Speaking of Hammer, the British House of horror produced three more Mummy movies, including Blood from the Mummy's Tomb with Valerie Leon as the eponymous cadaver. Myriad monster mashers made mummies marketable, though it was 1999's The Mummy that brought the creature back to its original home at Universal. Emphasizing two-fisted action rather than Gothic chills, the '90s Mummy turned the franchise into an Indiana Jones-style series of actioners that includes two sequels, a cartoon show, a series of spin-off flicks, and a ride at Universal Studios. In 2017, Universal exhumed the Mummy in a superheroic reboot meant to launch a shared universe of rollicking monster thrill-films. They never made another one.

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From what began simply as a horrifying alleged real-life curse, The Mummy became one of the most beloved icons of the horror genre. His cadaverous countenance has inspired decades-worth of costumes, masks, toys, and model kits. During Halloween, The Mummy is just as ubiquitous as vampires or werewolves. No October goes by without a few dozen revelers wrapped in toilet paper. Like the Curse of Tutankhamun, The Mummy is eternal.