One of my personal areas of interest and research which provides one of the emphases of this blog is the growing academic literature on horror, science fiction, and fantasy. A while back I was reading through the bibliographical material for one such work and I came across a volume that caught my attention because it touched on a neglected area. The book was Jasmine Day’s The Mummy’s Curse: Mummymania in the English-Speaking World (Routledge, 2006). After some Internet detective work I was able to track her down and secure a copy of the book. Jasmine is a cultural anthropologist and a committee member for The Ancient Egypt Society of Western Australia. We were able to connect recently for an interview that is lengthy due to the depth of her understanding of the issues and the complexity of this subject matter. Consider several important questions on this topic: Why have mummies been neglected in horror studies? How did the sacred human remains of ancient Egypt become a symbol of pollution and decay in horror? What can mummymania and mummies in horror tell us about ourselves, Western cultures, and the cultures that produced them? In the interview that follows Jasmine day answers these questions as she shares her research on mummymania that combines the perspectives of anthropology, Egyptology and horror studies.
TheoFantastique: Jasmine, thank you for your wonderful book that brings together a number of strands of thought in addressing mummymania. How did you come to apply your doctoral studies in anthropology and Egyptology to this topic in your PhD thesis?
Jasmine Day: The topic of mummymania was always floating in the back of my mind I suppose. When I was about eight years old I was in the library at my primary school and saw a book on archaeology and I flipped through it. I didn’t now what archaeology was but there was a picture in there of a mummy being x-rayed and they found a mysterious figure between its legs that shouldn’t be there. They decided to cut through the wrappings to get to the figure, and when I saw those photos I had what was the only supernatural experience of my life. I suddenly knew who I was and what I was supposed to do, something to do with mummies, Egypt, and archaeology. For many years I interpreted this in a way that I had to be an archaeologist and I talked about this as I was growing up. But when I got to university I fell in love with anthropology, the study of cultures, both ancient cultures, other cultures, and contemporary cultures. And when I was doing my PhD I remembered after many years my encounter with the mummy and I remember this feeling of “follow me, come this way I’ve got something for you to do.” I designed this project which combined my interest in anthropology and the interpretation of other cultures with this character of the mummy in pop culture. I thought the view of the mummy in the Western world is very different from the ancient Egyptian view of the mummy. It was a figure of horror and fear rather than reverence. I wanted to know why we had that belief and the curse of the Pharoahs. I realized that my “mission” was to distinguish fact from fiction about mummies to dispel disparaging myths about them, but also to explain these myths as important aspects of Western culture rather than just some hokey legend that people laugh at nowdays. All of these questions were in my mind so I ended up writing the thesis and later the book that was the kind of book I always wanted to read.
TheoFantastique: In our email exchange prior to this interview you mentioned that horror has finally come of age as a respectable and important artform and that academic literature on horror is an increasingly popular topic in the humanities. As a result it can help us take things like mummymania seriously. How do you see academic studies of horror serving as a tool to help us understand mummymania?
Jasmine Day: I have to start by saying that I haven’t actually read very many academic studies of horror. I read from a wide range of literature to cover the subject matter, given that my project traversed a wide range of literature from Egyptology to Museum Studies to Cultural Studies and Anthropology. I tried to draw from all these different strands but I don’t think I put too much in there. I think I showed where mummymania fits into a wide web of subjects and fields. Some of the books I did read though include Male Myths and Icons by Roger Horrocks with a chapter on men and women in horror films, and in particular I read the work of Barbara Creed in her book The Monstrous-Feminine, but from what I have seen of horror studies so far, collectively they establish the genre as an object of not only artistic, but also historical and social significance. That is, horror films – even bad horror films that might otherwise be rejected on artistic grounds as a film critic – have consistently been proven as a body of work to reflect or even challenge the politics, gender relations, and technologies of the societies that produced them. Many academic authors have pointed out that horror is the underbelly of culture, that it has expressed ideas suppressed in mainstream culture, notably sexual tensions. I would add to that children’s pop culture sometimes borrows and recycles ideas from older horror culture also reflects this underbelly of culture as well. But going back to the function of horror in culture, this fundamental purgative role is certainly seen in the case of mummies, although I question many other horror analysts’ assertion that horror purges just sex. Because I have shown in my book that what mummies have expelled from the Western imagination is dirt and death, with the latter being the flipside of sex. So the mummy serves as a way to do away with decay, dirt, and death. So while their general function is typical of all icons of horror, its specific form – the expurgation of pollution in the late 20th century – seems to me to be almost unique to mummies. So horror studies have established some fundamental concepts that we can use to make sense of mummymania, but a specialized study of mummymania reveals some functions largely specific to this one type of monster.
TheoFantastique: In popular and academic literature certain iconic monsters, notably the vampire and the zombie, have received a wealth of attention, and yet the mummy has largely been ignored. Why do you think this is?
Jasmine Day: The mummy has not been treated seriously enough, and it is only recently that horror film critics have focused their discussion Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and other aspects of the mummy in horror films. But looking more broadly, particularly the way mummies have been treated in children’s pop culture of the past thirty years that has caused them not to be taken very seriously. We’ve seen other classic monsters like the vampire, the wolfman, and Frankenstein’s monster appear in children’s pop culture and their reputation as a serious horror icon has not been damaged, so why has the mummy been taken less seriously? For one, the paradigms and meanings of mummies have changed more than other monsters over time and that complicates things. But nowdays mummies, unlike some other horror icons such as vampires, do not seem primarily to address issues of sexuality, so they’re less sexy than other monsters. They are rotting and have parts falling off of them, and with the lack of sexuality attached to them perhaps this is why they have been less “sexy” than other monsters. Horror studies generally assert or imply that most if not all Western horror has engaged with various Western sexual anxieties. For example my friend Christopher Frayling wrote a book titled Nightmare: The Birth of Horror where he specified that Dracula represented sex and Frankenstein’s monster warned against the dangers of playing God. So what about the mummy? I have argued that Freudian researchers who have been attracted to the plots of the 1932 and 1959 mummy films are based on incestuous relationships are wrong, they are trying to fit a round page into a square hole, because I argue as a major part of my theory that all Egyptian curse scenarios are explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously, structured as rape and revenge fantasies – rape, not incest, is the hidden theme, and it derives from the first, much more explicitly rape themed mid-nineteenth century curse stories, but prior to the more famous ones we might think of today. Yes, I must admit this is a sexual issue at the core of mummymania, but it is not “sexy” in the way that Dracula’s seduction of his victims can be appealing to audiences, and it is buried deeply in the plot – otherwise, other researchers before me would have detected a rape theme, but in all of my years of research this has not been detected. This is pretty stunning. So the disturbing nature of what sexuality there is in mummy films and stories, the less and less explicit treatment of this element as time went on, and the eventual replacement of the rape revenge theme with the late twentieth century idea of expulsion of pollution as the function of mummies in popular culture all conspired to stifle the sex appeal of mummy monsters. This lack of sex appeal ¬– the more diffuse and obscure the source of mummies’ horror – made them seem like a simpler kind of monster, one with a crude appeal to those easily frightened or impressed by a shambling, ragged creature – in other words, kids. So mummies became a “kids’ monster”, more easily translated than other monsters into toys and cartoon clowns and more easily dismissed or overlooked by the first serious studies of horror. The mummy with the pollution paradigm lends itself to humor most of all. So it’s easier to turn it into a cartoon. But the figure of the vampire or Frankenstein’s monster is a little more disturbing and so it’s more difficult to turn them into humor.
Secondly, I said that to the extent mummies were linked to sex, it was a disturbing and unappealing element of sex, namely rape. I have recently started thinking about another “unmarketable” sexual theme even more deeply buried in the plots of Classic mummy films and I haven’t published this yet so here’s a website first for you. Nobody has talked about this in connection with mummymania, and that theme is celibacy. The mummy is a man condemned to death for breaking, or intending to break, his vow of celibacy as a priest, and for threatening the celibacy of a sacred princess, the vestal virgin thing. The celibacy of the priest has been threatened and that of the woman. The awakened mummy’s High Priest in the movies – is probably the most overlooked character in mummy lore who has all but disappeared now from it. Why is this character there? I think he is the mummy’s doppelganger, a man who repeats the mummy’s sin despite the example of the mummy before him. This is very interesting and nobody’s talked about it. We could interpret the celibacy motif as a way of representing the tragic confrontation between the desires of an individual to have a partner and the strict, unfeeling rules of his/her society to have a partner they provide. This type of theme is obviously out of place in modern Western culture where you get to choose your partner. But there is a similar idea conveyed by a parallel celibacy motif in late nineteenth and early twentieth century mummy romance fiction, in which a man falls in love with the spirit of an Egyptian queen, forsaking all other women (Theophile Gautier’s The Romance of a Mummy and Henry Rider Haggard’s Smith and the Pharaohs are prime examples). This sort of chastity tragedy story was very popular in the nineteenth century with the possibility of prolonged virginity in that time, but by the age of “sex sells” in the mid-twentieth century, when Classic mummy films met their demise, it was well out of date, and the chastity tragedy doesn’t make sense. I think that the anti-sex message of mummymania, along with the growing association of mummies with pollution by the mid to late twentieth century, explains why mummies have literally not been as “sexy” to consumers, or to horror analysts, as other monsters. But my question would be if mummies aren’t ad “deep” as other monsters why have they gone on, being constantly referenced in pop culture? There’s something there just at the edge or under our consciousness that keeps mummies “alive,” if you will. We never can quite throw them away. Clearly their role as representatives of pollution has been too important for them to be dumped from the lexicon of horror and popular culture – proof that mummies must have been performing a vital, if non-sexual, role in Western culture.
TheoFantastique: In your book you discuss three periods of mummymania: The Pre-classic, the Classic and the Postclassic. How did you develop this conceptual means of analyzing the data, and can you tell us a little more about them and what literary and cinematic aspects fit within them?
Jasmine Day: I noticed up until the point of my writing that most of the material that had been written on mummymania, had been very superficial and many of them were children’s books. I found that frustrating. I wanted to know why mummies were so fascinating in pop culture, and these books never answered my questions so I felt I had to write this book. In dealing with things superficially they tended to look at things in terms of medium, like literature, and story, and movies. This didn’t feel right, especially for someone like me who has hung around museums a lot. I like the more late twentieth century way of organizing things in museums where it’s more thematically organized. Applying that to mummymania I thought what we need is to stop looking at things in terms of medium or object and to start looking at things in terms of paradigm. I thought it was time to look at mummymania in terms of paradigms. After identifying three basic paradigms I thought back to my work as an undergraduate I undertook a unit of study about Mesoamerican cultures (Aztecs, Maya, etc.) with the late Dr. David Rindos at the University of Western Australia. Realising that the paradigms of mummymania had shifted over time in what I thought were three broad phases, I borrowed the historical division of Maya culture into Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic periods to describe this change. I hope people will start to use this terminology because it will fix in their minds the idea that mummymania is not a static phenomenon, as it has so often been portrayed.
I started the Preclassic period at 1800 (a little artificial but it forms the parameter of my study) to 1931, the year before the Boris Karloff film was released. This includes the time when Egypt was becoming popular n the modern world, to the beginnings of early cinema and some of the early mummy films some of which have now been lost. This period was dominated by literature, plays and poetry. There is a debate as to whether the legend of the curse of the pharaohs began in American 1860s pulp fiction or whether it started earlier. The paradigms of this period were curse (rape and revenge), and toward the end of the century that of romance. These are two very different ways of treating the mummy. Some have pointed out that there are other paradigms here that surface in stories of mummies from other worlds or other times who come and serve as “mummy as moral teacher.” In various early plays there was the mummy as “humor” paradigm that should be added to this list, and they may predate even the curse. More works needs to be done on this Preclassic period. So whether we talk about the Preclassic period being part of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and or whether this should be reclassified as an Early Classic Period is something I will continue to ponder pending further research.
Then we come to the Classic period with The Mummy with Boris Karloff in 1932, and this period runs up to to 1971. When we think of mummies we think of Karloff. His film, his portrayal and his makeup by Jack Pierce continue to influence depictions since then. This period is dominated by the ten most important and influential Universal and Hammer mummy films that drew upon but also overturned the literary tradition, and went on to become the principal sources of inspiration for most subsequent mummy productions and products. The paradigms in this period are curse (but here it changes so there are not just one cure of the pharaohs but many curses of the pharaohs). In the nineteenth century was was rape and revenge, and in the twentieth century it was rape, revenge and counter-revenge. The other paradigm of the classic films is romance (in a form that is adulterated by conflict with a modified curse theme, which finally disappeared from some productions).
The Postclassic begins in 1972 (with the end of Classic films’ dominance) to the present time. Initially, films were sporadic and low quality, and derivative animated cartoons, comics and toys came to the fore. It’s interesting to see during this time period what aspects of the literature and films were plucked out and included in children’s culture. What did they pick out, what did they leave, and why? The mummy becomes a stand alone figure able to operate in isolation from the curse, even from Egypt, a stand alone character symbolizing pollution. So the paradigms of this period are first, the mummy as paragon of pollution (derived from use of polluting motifs to portray mummies as evil in the Classic films), second the mummy as icon of decrepitness (a theme in humor and verbal analogy), and third, the mummy as icon of difference (alluding to cultural difference and implying superiority of Western culture, an extension of difference by pollution/decrepitness, in other words it’s an opposition to Western values of hygiene and youth). It almost seems to embody a paranoia cleanliness and beauty. Since 1999, Universal Pictures has resumed dominance of the genre with more prominent films. It remains to be seen whether 1999 should be regarded as the beginning of a New Classic Period, depending on how much influence the interpretations of the mummy unique to Universal’s new films (e.g., scarabs, mummy transformations into sand) have on other representations of mummies.
TheoFantastique: Can you sketch how Western culture’s fascination with Egyptology and mummymania developed?
Jasmine Day: We’re talking about thousands of years of history here, but I can summarize it. Arguably Egyptomania began in ancient times. Egypt was known to Greeks and Romans who imitated and appropriated its material culture and participated in its religion and mummification. For example consider the great Cleopatra. She was the first of the Ptolemy’s to learn the Egyptian language and dress and ceremony. She helped the Egyptians know that she really loved them and that she was one of them. But you can go back further to the 25th Dynasty to the black Pharoahs, the Kingdom of Nubia which the Egyptians called Cush who came in and eventually took over Egypt but they loved the culture and had already been influenced by it. One could argue that they were the first to be struck by Egyptomania. Egyptomania started in ancient Egypt, because ancient Egypt itself last for about 3,000 years, the longest complex civilization. By the end of ancient Egypt, the later periods, the early stuff was looking old, the pyramids were old ruins to King Tut. We have a lot of evidence that the started tourism. They actually went into old ruined tombs from centuries before, and they would go in their and write on the walls with things like “we love the artwork.” Steve Martin was right, King Tut died for the sake of tourism. We have an example of a man who took a sarcophagus from a much, much older tomb and put it in his tomb. He went to the trouble of being an antiquarian. We have many examples of this kind of thing. So the Egyptians were struck by the antiquity of their own civilization. They were the first, followed by the Nubians, the Greeks, and the Romans.
After Egypt was taken over by the Roman Empire eventually Rome becomes Christian. Christianity takes hold in Egypt as one of the first places, probably because Jesus died and resurrected which sounded suspciously like Osiris which had the same thing happen to him, so it took hold there. The Arabs invaded Egypt in 641 AD and with the Crusades and the eventual falling out between the Christians and Islamic people Egypt would become isolated and an Islamic country with Christianity surviving there in the Copts. Moving along historically to the Middle Ages in Europe, Egypt was remembered only through references in the Bible and how it portrayed Egypt. Even a little kid said to me something like “In the Bible Egypt is an evil place.” So this is the vision people had, that Egypt is mysterious and yet evil, alluring and yet repulsive at the same time. But Egypt became of interest to biblical scholars. Later early European priests began explorations in Egypt, reporting back to European audiences about pyramids, the Giza Sphinx and mummies which resulted in exaggerated reports. Europe really came back into contact with this part of the world when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 to block Britain’s eastern trade routes. He is thought to have brought scholars with him to study antiquities. They studied and took the antiquities and published a lot of books which were called the Description de l’Egypte. After Napoleon was defeated Europeans flooded into Egypt, and since there were no antiquities laws yet a lot of things were stolen including mummies and antiquities for museums and private collections. Mummies then became icons of ancient Egypt because they were the remnants of ancient Egyptians. So to get a mummy out of Egypt was considered fantastic. By the 1820s Giovanni Belzoni the famous circus giant brings treasures and mummies back to England and exhibiting them in the Egyptian Hall and the British Museum. In the 1830s and 1840s Thomas Pettigrew started doing public unwrappings of mummies which was both science and entertainment, and everybody wanted to see it. As time moves on we see a gradual improvement in Egypt’s antiquities legislation enforcement and Europeans’ excavation standards that comes about in the late nineteenth century. Eventually Egyptomania goes to the movies, and that takes us into the twentieth century.
TheoFantastique: Contemporary mummy films strongly emphasize the romantic aspect, but you point out that in the changing meaning of mummies the twin themes of romance and horror are structurally related. Can you describe how this is so and provide some examples of it in film?
Jasmine Day: Romance and horror developed in concert in concert with each other in nineteenth century literature (in the dialogue between disparate works, not within a single work) because they were based upon motifs that mirrored each other, opposing motifs that encapsulated conflicts of opinion over how mummies ought to be treated. Romance, as Nicholas Daly pointed out some years ago in an essay called “That Obscure Object of Desire,” he pointed out that romance stories were written primarily by men and were based upon a metaphor of seduction: in nineteenth century fiction, the mummy invites and welcomes her Western archaeologist/seducer. Horror, as I have argued, was written predominantly by women during its origin in the 1860s and was based upon the metaphor of rape: the later, twentieth century cinematic mummy resists and avenges his/her rape with a curse. How often has a man claimed to have seduced a woman who said it was rape? Seduction and rape are two conflicting (and gendered) interpretations of sex, and also of the despoliation of Egypt and its mummies. Were Europeans the rightful possessors of mummies, or did they rape Egypt? Is the curse a wicked cruel spell, or a righteous punishment of evildoers? There’s these two views of the curse, these two perspectives on it. I believe that it is this potential for conflicting interpretations that gives the curse its popular appeal. Interestingly, Roger Horrocks in Male Myths and Icons who I mentioned previously, presented a similar argument that horror films’ appeal lies in their invitation to audiences to lend their sympathies alternately to the heroes and villains. What he sees in horror in this oscillation I’m finding in the mummy film with the curse as evil vs. the curse as good. The origin of the Western curse legend in a moral conflict over colonialism and antiquarianism has attuned it perfectly to the oscillating sympathies of horror cinema.
The structural relationship of romance and horror is one of conflict, of seduction versus rape, of mummy as lover versus mummy as monster, so cinema’s attempts to meld the two in harmony have not worked well. Nineteenth century authors didn’t combine them, but twentieth century scriptwriters have put them together. The best example is in The Mummy (1932), when Ardeth Bey/Im Ho Tep implores Helen Grosvenor/Anck es en Amon to unite with him in an eternity of love, but she withdraws when his crumbling flesh leaves a dusty mark upon her arm. He is a man who feels love, yet also a monster who repels women. Some writers have said this makes him an interesting character, but this reversion of seduction into force (a symbolic rape threatened by Bey’s phallic knife) also renders impossible the fulfillment of the film’s ancient love story. Later attempts to meld romance and horror foundered, notably the implausible pairing of lumbering Kharis with his beautiful co-stars: romance would have it that the two were lovers, but horror insisted that the mummy was a monster upon whom a maiden would be wasted. Maybe this is another reason why the mummy in the Classic period collapsed because there was something implausible about them because of this structural incompatibility.
TheoFantastique: How did the myths of cursed tombs arise, and how did this find its way into mummy films?
Jasmine Day: When we get to the Middle Ages the Arabs had their own stories. Jinn spirits were believed to guard the treasures in Egyptian tombs and even to repel attempts to appropriate mummies for mumia. An Arabic tomb robbing manual from the Middle Ages, The Book of Buried Pearls and of the Precious Mystery, Giving Indications Regarding the Hiding Places of Finds and Treasures, supplied magical incantations to ward off jinn. Some spells were meant to cause treasures believed to have been rendered invisible by the ancients to materialize, and depictions of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony on tomb walls were interpreted as proof that mummies could come back to life. Malevolent spirits manifest the guilt — or fear of social stigma — at robbing the dead that must be suppressed to satisfy a need or greed for their riches.
The vengeful dead of Egypt entered Western tradition via the mumia trade. Jean Bodin’s religious treatise Colloquium of the Seven About Secrets of the Sublime, completed around 1588, reported that mummies smuggled out of Egypt were believed to cause storms at sea, so were thrown overboard to avert shipwrecks. This practice provided an opportunity for smugglers to avoid prosecution and could have been a pretext for discouraging smuggling, but it was fundamentally a magical act, the propitiation of a deity with a sacrifice. As storms threatened their vessels, mixed crews of Greeks, Ishmaelites and Jews chanted to their gods and saints for salvation, lighting upon mummies as their common enemy and most convenient scapegoat. The nineteenth century elaboration of the malevolent mummy concept as a warning against disturbing the dead converted the mariners’ magic, with its self interested motivations, into the first incarnation of the Western curse myth. This investment of mummies with moral import received its greatest contribution from fiction writers.
Louis Penicher recounts a similar story told by Prince Nikolaj Radziwill, in which the ghosts of two mummies appear to a priest aboard a ship until their bodies are jettisoned. Green describes this story as the first European account of a curse but Bodin’s manuscript is older. The mariners’ superstition must predate these stories, considering the antiquity of the mumia trade. The question is whether pre-Western curse beliefs stem from Arabic lore or whether the Arabs adopted their rudiments from native Egyptian traditions that evolved from ancient ideas; consider the living mummy and sin and punishment theme in The Tale of Khamuas and Neneferkaptah.
From these semi mythical, semi historical origins, it appears (given current lack of hard evidence) that such tales influenced European writers of fiction – though nobody has apparently found any European curse tales dating prior to the 1860s, so why it took this long for Europeans to borrow such a promising plotline is unclear. Certainly, the earliest known curse fiction in English, found by myself and my colleagues S. J. Wolfe and Robert Singerman, is American, written by women (hence its rape theme) and dates to the 1860s. These stories were long forgotten by the time more famous tales – usually of a romantic nature – were penned in the late nineteenth century by famous male writers, but the idea of the curse ran concurrently in poplar myths and was occasionally employed by writers of the period. Thus it survived long enough to influence the writers of early mummy films, most of which are now lost, but the plots of several seem to have been about curses. The advent of the Titanic Curse and Tutankhamun Curse in the early twentieth century greatly boosted the familiarity and longevity of curse tales and clearly influenced The Mummy (1932), the first major mummy film.
TheoFantastique: How does the “exaggerated abjection” of the mummy serve as a foil for our fears of defilement (whether death or rape) and pollution (particularly in the form of death and bodily decay)?
Jasmine Day: It’s simple: culture makes representations not only of the virtues and successes it cherishes, but also of the enemies it hates and threats it fears. Thus destroying or casting aspersions upon the images of bad things symbolically defeats these abstract things by making them concrete and vulnerable to physical damage or harm to their reputation. It’s the principle of the voodoo doll or public slander. It’s also the principle of abjection, as explained by Julia Kristeva: heap associations with dirt, defilement and abominable acts upon your enemy. In Classic films, mummies were abjected, portrayed symbolically as “baddies” by means of visual traits associated with pollution (dirt, sand, blood, mould) and decrepitness (ragged, rotting bandages). This abjection had to be emphatic because the filmmakers had to counter the fact that the mummy, as the victim of defilement of his or his princess’ tomb, could attract sympathy. They were trying to turn a century of sympathy for mummies on its head, trying to turn the curse from a “thou shalt not defile the dead” moral lesson for Europeans into an “infernal Eastern magical menace” to be defeated by heroic Britons or Americans. So the mummy had to really look horrible, to allude to what Westerners feared most: pollution (threatening the value of hygiene) and aging/death (threatening the ideal of beauty). The efficacy of the abject motifs associated with Classic mummies is demonstrated by the fact that these motifs took on a life of their own in later, derivative children’s popular culture, in which mummies represented pollution in particular. Thus, they could be taken out of Egypt and a curse plot and used as cautionary examples for children, showing them how not to behave.
You are right to point out that in both their sympathetic original incarnation of rape victims and in their more recent incarnation as polluting/decaying monsters, mummies have consistently expressed our fears about bodily defilement, be it sexual or terminal. Of all the horror icons, the mummy is the one with the most permeable, most delicate and crumbling body (arguably more so than even vampires and zombies), and in nineteenth century fiction and twentieth century films, the final disintegration of the mummy’s body is emphasized, along with its (figurative) initial disturbance/penetration. Whatever the mummy means, its message has something to do with the body. This could act as a metaphor for spiritual matters, and analysts have remarked upon the emotional and spiritual import of mummy narratives, but perhaps it is the mummy’s emphasis upon visceral imagery (including its pollution association) that, together with its anti-sex message I spoke of before, crippled the character’s popular appeal by comparison with that of other horror icons. The mummy irrevocably embodies barrenness, corruption, waste and destruction – an irony, considering that mummies are people preserved for eternity.
TheoFantastique: How have mummies in films impacted our views of archaeology, and the display of the artifacts of various cultures, including human mummified remains?
Jasmine Day: It has informed the idea of archaeology as treasure hunt: even before Indiana Jones and Lara Croft there were the “archaeologists” of mummy movies, stealing and destroying things. But this did reflect reality – albeit a vision of archaeology that was 50 years out of date.
The abjection of polluting mummies in movies, cartoons, and toys has taught museum visitors to fear or loathe mummies. This is a learned, not natural, reaction (compare reactions to mummified saints by the faithful) so it should not be treated as a valid reason to remove mummies from display.
TheoFantastique: In the conclusion of your book you state: “The validity of displaying mummies and fragments is not determined solely by their status as human remains but also by the intentions of their exhibitors and viewers. What is really at stake is not whether human remains should be displayed, but why or why not.” There has been some controversy surrounding a traveling exhibit called Bodyworlds which involves specially treated human remains that are posed in athletic and artistic ways. The intent of this display is to help us understand human anatomy better, but some of the controversy comes with the use of human remains as art. Does the controversy and debate over the display of human remains in the form of mummies shed any light on exhibits like Bodyworlds?
Jasmine Day: Absolutely, but we can also draw some distinctions between the two. First the similarities. Any exhibit of human remains provokes the Western death taboo (which Philippe Aries discusses in his book The Hour of Our Death). Mummified remains, even those that are not Egyptian, provoke recollection of curses and pollution. In short, Western people (and perhaps many others) have poor cultural resources to draw upon when facing the dead, so it’s no wonder that many object to displays of the dead, which in many other cultures have been viewed quite differently and positively regarded. Rather than pandering to demands to put away the dead, we should begin by educating people about death and afterlife beliefs in museums – one of the great, somewhat unrealized potentials of museums – and then ask them what they think about the display of the dead.
But there are also differences. The bodies in Bodyworlds have been deliberately modified with the intent that they serve an educative function; the mummification of ancient Egyptians was performed instead for a religious purpose. Arguably this makes the former more educational than the latter, although this works only in theory and I would like to compare how much and what people thought they learned in one exhibit with similar findings from the other. In addition, the people in Bodyworlds consented to the display of their remains. The ancient Egyptians didn’t. This alone could legitimate one exhibit over the other. It has been argued, however, that 1) Egyptian mummies could not feasibly be protected if returned to their tombs, and 2) under this circumstance, displaying them is the best way to promote remembrance of the dead, which was a major Egyptian cultural value. This argument is a modern interpretation of ancient beliefs, so one may or may not accept it, and it is debatable how much laypeople can learn by just looking at an unwrapped mummy. However, I feel that the emotional connection that some Egyptophiles feel with mummies should count for something (doesn’t it counteract the monsterization of mummies in movies?), as should the long standing Western cultural tradition of displaying mummies as icons of ancient Egypt that inspires so many humanizing (not just dehumanizing) fantasies about them. Most importantly, if we take Egyptian mummies off display, this will only feed the monsterization complex by giving people nothing real to compare the myths with.
So there are similarities and differences, and by reflection on the display of mummies we can learn something more about cultural attitudes toward the display of human remain today in Western cultures.
TheoFantastique: Would you care to make any predictions about how cinema mummies might evolve in the near future? Do you see the romantic theme continuing to be dominant or will the horror theme arise again?
Jasmine Day: Having observed the increasing abjection of mummies from the Classic to Postclassic Periods, I predicted that the 1999 film (which I had not yet seen, or seen advertisements for) would maximize the abject qualities of its mummy to horrify audiences who are no longer easily terrified. Sure enough, Imhotep belched flies and scarabs, was still “juicy” as he slowly rotted away, and purloined people’s vital organs for his own use. The yuckiest mummy yet! That prediction was my coup. With their traditional conservative sexual themes having lost popularity and their abjection now maximized, mummies in the cinema may have played their trump cards. It’s been said that the 1999 film was more Indiana Jones than a true mummy movie, and it’s precisely this modification of a conventional curse/romance plot to incorporate action/adventure that made the film a success. It was not the “purely mummy” elements that ensured success; reliance on those alone would have made it a flop. So I predict that only the continued, creative infusion of elements from other movie genres will preserve – and yet paradoxically, erode – the mummy film genre. We were to have seen the film version of Anne Rice’s Ramses the Damned, which would have combined adult romance with mummies given its inspiration by nineteenth century romance fiction, but this project foundered. To attempt another action/adventure or horror mummy film would be to make a poor imitation of the 1999 film, so I think that one or the other of mummymania’s very early, pre-horror paradigms – romance or comedy – may be in the hustings. The latter has already begun; witness Bubba Ho Tep. Personally I would like to see more mummy comedy – perhaps something inspired by Poe’s Some Words With a Mummythat makes fun of the overcommercialization of mummies!
TheoFantastique: Is your study of mummymania ongoing beyond your thesis and book, and if so, what direction is your research taking now?
Jasmine Day: Absolutely, even though I have no funding or institutional employment at present. Nothing stops my research! I am working with S. J. Wolfe of the American Antiquarian Society to search recently digitized nineteenth century literary works for lost mummy stories and poetry. We are trying to reconstruct the early history of mummymania, i.e. the early Preclassic Period and even earlier still. My aims are to discover how the curse legend migrated from European folklore to American pulp fiction and to study what roles mummies played in society and language of the period. Ms. Wolfe is also interested in mummies’ social roles and wants to discover which real mummies may have inspired fictional characters. Our greatest success so far has been to locate three American short stories about curses that are presently the oldest modern mummy curse stories known in English, perhaps in any language.
TheoFantastique: Jasmine, thank you again for our in-depth research on this topic, your bringing together the various strands of the differing themes and research perspectives, and your fine thesis and your book The Mummy’s Curse. I hope it will be read widely and inspire continued research on this topic in anthropology, Egyptology, and horror studies.