I recently ordered a few items for Christmas from my Amazon.com wishlist which included a DVD of Hammer’s The Mummy (1959). My completed order included a free video on demand rental for the film, I suppose to hold me over until my DVD arrives. I hadn’t seen this film since I was a teenager, and with my recent renewed interest in mummies as horror figures it was a pleasure to see it again. Of course, as an adult I looked for and noticed things that I didn’t as a teenage fan. When I was younger I enjoyed yet another Hammer monster that shambled across the screen. As an adult I continued to enjoy that aspect, but also found more of interest. One particular scene stuck out for me (it can be viewed at YouTube here), and that was a confrontation between the archaeologist John Banning (played by Peter Cushing) and Mehemet Bey (George Pastel), an Egyptian high priest and the one who controls the mummy (Christopher Lee). Banning is not only an expert in Egyptian archaeology, but also in its religion. At this point in the story Banning suspects that Mehemet is connected to the mummy and tries to provoke him through confrontation. This clash comes about as Banning ridicules Egyptian religion, which understandably frustrates and angers Mehemet.
Mehemet Bey: “Does it not occur to you, Mr. Banning, that this religion could inspire a profound and deep devotion?”
John Banning: “It occurred to me but I dismissed it.”
This aspect of the film has been interpreted variously. On the YouTube page where the clip is found some of the comments assume an atheist perspective and that the film is indicative of skepticism of all religion as superstition. Other commentators have read this as an implied Christian critique of paganism allegedly demonstrated by the Victorian background of the film, and religious influences from director Terence Fisher.
In order to answer this question we need to consider the film’s narrative, as well as the cultural circumstances which produced it. In light of these I wonder if a better reading may be that the film reflects the symbolism of the mummy and its association with death and decay with Western contempt for the East, even while it retained a fascination with the exotic aspects of Egyptian culture. Given the West’s continued tensions with the Muslim world in our post 9/11 environment I’m surprised we don’t see more expressions of this in contemporary horror cinema, whether symbolized by the mummy or some other monstrous creature. Beyond this, the scene provides additional food for thought on religious understanding and respect in a pluralistic environment.