The poster for The Mummy from 1932
It was a sunny weekday afternoon sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s. Ronald Reagan was still the President, the Soviet Union was still being a nuisance, glam metal bands like Motley Crue were still topping the charts, and people were still wearing those funny Izod shirts (with the little alligators on them). I was probably about 6 years old, and my family and I were living in the attic of a gigantic duplex house in the Philadelphia suburbs. It would get awful hot up there during the summer months, so we often went to the library and the mall just to enjoy some air conditioning. There was also a park and a zoo a few blocks northwest from our home. I can only remember bits and pieces of this part of my life, but I do remember being pretty content.
If there was one thing my mother and I always enjoyed doing together, it was watching old monster movies. You’ve probably seen the kind I’m talking about: the old black-and-white ones with guys like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. Back then, there was a local UHF TV station that used to broadcast a lot of these flicks on weekday afternoons (sometime around 4:00 p.m. EST). This is how I remember seeing things like Godzilla (1954), King Kong (1933) and Them! (1954) for the very first time. Most of these movies didn’t scare me that much (though I remember being absolutely traumatized by 1951’s The Thing From Another World). But I loved them anyway, especially the Universal monster movies. I always thought it was neat how they seem to take place in a mythical world that resembles urban America and rural Europe at the very same time. (The upper class characters – who are invariably the heroes and protagonists – always talk and dress like Americans while the lower class characters – who are more often in the background – are always “ethnic” and look like Romani or German yodelers.)
One weekday afternoon, I remember seeing Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932) for the very first time on that TV channel. In the film, an ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep (Boris Karloff) has a crush on his Pharaoh’s daughter, the Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. When she dies an untimely death, Imhotep steals the legendary Scroll of Thoth to resurrect her corpse. But he’s caught by the Pharaoh’s guards, and they rip out his tongue and bury him alive in mummy wrappings as punishment for his blasphemy. (To drive the point even further home, Imhotep’s fellow priests scratch out all the hieroglyphic spells on his coffin that would otherwise assure him a safe journey to the Otherworld, thereby sentencing him to the second death.) Thousands of years later, a couple of European archaeologists dig up Imhotep’s tomb and accidentally resurrect him with the Scroll of Thoth. (Big mistake.) One of them sees the old boy walking around and goes stark raving mad. Then the mummy disappears, and no one knows where it went.
A few years later, one of the European guys, Sir Joseph Whemple (the one who hasn’t gone crackers), comes back to Egypt with his son Frank to engage in a new archaeological expedition. That’s when this weird dude who calls himself “Ardath Bey” (an anagram of “Death by Ra”) shows up. Bey appears to be the oldest (and dustiest) Shriner walking the Middle East, and he walks around like he’s got a Louisville slugger rammed up between his ass cheeks. He’s also a great hypnotist, he looks like he can break a man in half with his pinkies, and he has an incredible knack for suddenly knowing where the archaeologists should dig to find more treasure. Thanks to Bey, the archaeologists discover the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. That’s when a European lady named Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) starts sleepwalking through traffic in the middle of Cairo. Thinking she may be the reincarnation of Ankh-es-en-Amon, Ardath Bey (who’s actually Imhotep) decides to put the wammy on her so he can kill her, mummify her and resurrect her corpse. (That way, they’ll be able to spend the rest of eternity together as deathless superbeings.)
Of course, Helen doesn’t exactly relish the thought of having her heart torn out of her chest and being turned into a drooling undead trophy wife. So Imhotep does what any sensible star-crossed lover might do; he kidnaps her, hypnotizes her with his magic and forces her to go along with what he wants. But just before he’s able to claim his final victory, Helen prays to the Goddess Isis, whose statue then comes to life and electrocutes Imhotep with magic lightning. At that point, the world’s oldest (and dustiest) Shriner is finally revealed for the walking, talking mummy that he really is, and he promptly disintegrates into a pile of bones. Then Helen goes home and presumably marries her other suitor, the archaeologist’s son. (While he’s really quite useless, at least the “hero” doesn’t want to zombify her – or does he? Knowing the state of women’s rights back in the 1930s, perhaps Helen has simply exchanged one kind of zombification for another. Considering how Frank treats her while he’s trying to keep her safe from Imhotep, it really does seem like Helen is doomed to be someone’s zombie trophy wife, regardless of whether it’s Imhotep or the Whemple whelp.)
This story is based on the opening of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 by the archaeologist Howard Carter. There was a lot of media hype back then about Carter and his colleagues being subjected to a so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs.” It was thought that everyone who had a hand in opening Tutankhamen’s tomb was doomed to die a strange and mysterious death. (Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, believed there was some kind of truth to this curse; he was a spiritualist and took the supernatural very seriously.) Personally, I’m disinclined to believe in the “curse” because I highly doubt that someone like Tutankhamen would have begrudged Howard Carter for opening his tomb. By doing what he did, Carter actually helped Tutankhamen – who was hardly an afterthought in ancient Egyptian politics during his woefully short life – to become the single most famous Pharaoh ever. Even people who’ve never read a single Egyptology book know who “King Tut” is, and most are surprised to discover that he wasn’t nearly so famous in ancient times as he is today. For these reasons, the idea of Tutankhamen’s spirit being angry with Howard Carter – or of any Pharaoh’s spirit being angry with any archaeologist – seems absurd to me. We only remember these people today because their tombs have been opened and their mummies are now being displayed in museums.
And did you know there was actually a real ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep? He wasn’t anything like Boris Karloff’s character in the film, however. The real Imhotep is the oldest known physician in history. He wrote one of the earliest medical treatises that offered purely scientific (and not magical) treatments for illnesses (predating the Greek physician Hippocrates by over 2,000 years). He was also a master architect and engineer who was responsible for designing the Pyramid of Djoser (i.e., the “Step Pyramid”). Far from being cursed for blasphemy, Imhotep (whose name means “The One Who Comes in Peace”) was a beloved culture hero, and after his death he became regarded in much the same way that Buddhists regard Siddharta Gautama today. He was a divine ancestor spirit who had achieved an unprecedented level of enlightenment during his life and who could intercede on behalf of the living. Such was the real Imhotep’s popularity that he eventually gained his own nationwide religious cult and was worshiped as the “Son of Thoth” (i.e., the God of wisdom, who was Imhotep’s tutelary Deity). Evidently, the makers of The Mummy wanted an authentically Egyptian-sounding name for their film’s antagonist, and they most likely chose “Imhotep” without knowing anything about the historical man to whom it’s attached.
(One could perhaps make the argument that this was a blasphemous insult to Imhotep’s memory, but I would disagree for two major reasons. The first is that the real Imhotep, from all accounts, hardly seems to have been the sort of person who would bear any ill will toward anyone. Frankly I think he’s on par with guys like Jesus and Gandhi, and he’d be a perfect role model for little Vulcan children from Star Trek. So I highly doubt that Imhotep has ever really been bothered by the fact that the antagonist in The Mummy is named after him. The second reason I would object to this idea is that by using the name “Imhotep,” the creators of The Mummy have inadvertently given the real Imhotep a truckload of free publicity. How else do you suppose that people like me first learn about the man? I’d be willing to bet that most Egyptian polytheists in my generation found out about the real Imhotep because they heard the name in The Mummy and they looked it up. Then they discovered that yes, Virginia, there really is an Imhotep, but he’s more like Laozi than Count Dracula. At the very least, that’s exactly how I first learned about him.)
Hopefully no one will be too angry that I’ve spoiled The Mummy’s ending, but anyone who’s ever seen any horror movies from the 1930s will know that they all end the exact same way: the monster is defeated and the dashing male hero gets the girl. We shouldn’t judge this predictability too harshly, however, for it was actually a rule in Hollywood at the time that such was how all monster movies should end. The sort of endings we see today – as made famous by guys like John Carpenter – were completely inconceivable. You couldn’t very well have the monster win or get away, and you couldn’t shock the audience with one last scare. Everything had to be set to right before the theater lights came up and people started walking back to their cars. Just look at how Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds went in 1938. For us it’s merely a prototype of something like The Blair Witch Project, but for people in 1938, it was goddamn real.
Yet the thing that sets The Mummy apart from other films of the period is the way in which its monster is defeated. Most gothic horror movie monsters – including vampires, werewolves and Frankenstein monsters – are easily defeated with Christian religious symbols or with purely practical weapons (e.g., fire). Imhotep, on the other hand, is impervious to both. It isn’t Jesus Christ or Professor Van Helsing (or even The Mummy’s own perpetually dumbstruck “hero”) who saves Helen at the end. Her savior is a female Deity who’s assumed by the (male) archaeologists in the film to have been a mere superstition, but who’s shown to be real and benevolent enough to answer an innocent woman’s desperate plea. In other words, The Mummy is decidedly pro-polytheist. It insists that the ancient Egyptian religion is true and that it continues to have power and currency today. The fact that most human beings no longer believe in the Egyptian Gods has absolutely nothing to do with it, and all of the characters are forced to accept these facts at the end of the film.
Zita Johann as “Helen Grosvenor”
There’s only one male character (aside from Imhotep) who understands these things from the very start, and that’s Dr. Muller (who’s played by Edward Van Sloan). Dr. Muller is Helen’s psychiatrist, but he’s also an occultist who happens to put his faith in the Egyptian religion. He’s the one who insists that everyone should wear an amulet of Isis for protection (and he turns out to be right). He’s also the one who warns the archaeologists that they shouldn’t meddle around with the Scroll of Thoth. Not only does he seem to know that doing this is a bad idea, but he specifically uses the word “sacrilege.” Furthermore, Muller isn’t some crazed whack-job; he’s a well-educated gentleman who’s very clearly a “good guy.” It’s almost as if the makers of the film were trying to say, “Hey, a guy can believe in the Egyptian Gods and still be normal” – which is pretty wild for 1932.
The Mummy was followed in the 1940s by a string of so-called “sequels” (i.e., The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Ghost, etc.) that actually have nothing to do with the original film’s characters or plot. They’re about a mummy named Kharis who’s sent by a modern Egyptian cult to kill archaeologists for desecrating their tombs. Usually, the members of the cult are supposed to be non-white people (even though they’re always played by white actors) and all they seem to care about is killing white men and raping white women. In 1959, the British Hammer Film Productions remade The Mummy’s Hand (as The Mummy) and soon dispatched its own series of films that were equally ethnocentric. While these films still have their good qualities (especially the first Hammer Mummy film from 1959, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), Karl Freund’s version is the only one that depicts the Egyptian religion as a faith that can be practiced by anyone and that can be used to help (as demonstrated by Helen Grosvenor and Dr. Muller) or hinder (as shown by Imhotep). In contrast, the later films depict Egyptian polytheism as a bizarre and destructive cult that can only bring death and that’s only ever practiced by degenerate non-white savages. I think you can probably guess as to why I tend to enjoy the original Mummy the most.
Of course, the 1932 film isn’t without criticism. One complaint I often hear is that it’s basically the same movie as 1931’s Dracula, but with Egyptian rather than Transylvanian window dressings. There’s definitely a certain amount of truth to this; the idea of an undead immortal man lusting after a mortal woman also appears in Dracula, and Dr. Muller and Frank Whemple are both played by actors who also appeared in nearly identical roles in the Lugosi film (i.e., as Professor Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker, respectively). The opening title sequence even uses the exact same music that was used for Dracula (i.e., the “Swan Theme” from the second act of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s Swan Lake). Nevertheless, I feel The Mummy is significantly different from Dracula and that it’s actually a superior film. (Don’t get me wrong, I think Dracula is excellent; but I find it difficult to watch in its original form. The acting is stiff and the silent parts are so long that I tend to fall asleep while watching it. Generally, I enjoy it much better with the additional music score that Philip Glass composed for it in 1998 – but more about that some other time.)
Anyway, seeing The Mummy on that suburban Philadelphia TV channel back in the mid-to-late 1980s was what started it all for me; it was, in fact, my very first exposure to ancient Egyptian religion. (The second, interestingly enough, was a Sesame Street special on PBS called Don’t Eat the Pictures, in which Big Bird helps the ghost of an Egyptian boy named Sahu pass the Weighing of the Heart so he can join his parents as a star in the northern sky.) Admittedly, most of The Mummy‘s more in-depth elements were completely lost on me as a child, but the film filled me with a mad urge to start reading books about Egypt from the library. I remember staring at drawings of the Egyptian Gods – including Anubis, Isis, Thoth and Seth-Typhon – for hours on end. I secretly yearned to worship and pray to Them for years, but I wouldn’t learn that it was actually okay for me to do this until 1997. By then, I had forgotten all about The Mummy (having progressed to edgier stuff like 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness) and wouldn’t see it again until several years after making a commitment to the Red Lord. When I finally did, my jaw dropped all the way to the floor (especially when I saw the ending, which I had also completely forgotten). Considering the number of other people I’ve known who saw this movie as children and who later grew up to become Egyptian polytheists of one kind or another, I feel this movie is very special indeed.
Boris Karloff as “Imhotep” / “Ardath Bey”