The Mummy
Traffic in mummies

by Ernest Larsen

from Jump Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 12-15, 128
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 2000, 2006

In one fell swoop, Universal Studios cornered the monster movie market in the early thirties with DRACULA (Tod Browning, 1931), FRANKENSTEIN (James Whale, 1931), and THE MUMMY (Karl Freund, 1932). Impressive, indelibly atmospheric films, they were so popular that Universal continued to spawn sequels as late as the mid-forties, sometimes even recycling bits of the original footage. The unholy threesome of the vampire, the re-wired corpse, and the buried-alive ancient Egyptian, when considered together, still register a violently irrational howl against the most oppressive fact of life, mortality itself. In their corporate refusal to die, they might even be said to nullify the real monster: the Grim Reaper.

Grotesque but otherwise adorable embodiments of the futile revolt against the inevitability of death, the three highly imitatable monsters enacted vibrant variations on the theme. In each case the destructiveness and fear that these monsters were supposed to incite within their harebrained but exciting narratives did not produce the psychological effect that might have been expected. Audiences invariably found themselves identifying not with the boring featureless good guys struggling to save the world from ruin and forbidden thoughts but with the monster himself, as if he was an existential anti-hero avant le lettre. Thus, studio publicity for Karloff, star monster of FRANKENSTEIN and THE MUMMY, billed the actor as The Man You Love to Hate. Such an acknowledgement, slyly hinting at perversity, powerfully bespeaks the forcible attraction these films caused audiences to feel toward the other. Surely that's what a decent horror story should get us to do: liberate us to imagine ourselves in the place of the other — or, to put it the other the other way, the force of our own desire also has something transgressive, something impermissible, something downright monstrous about it, despite the limits imposed by the social order. In exploiting this dynamic of attraction/ repulsion, classic horror/ monster films thus evoke the power of taboo to animate their nutty narratives — taboos which by definition are irrational. These narratives thrive by representing our mostly repressed desires to transgress the borderline that taboos uphold, the desire to go too far.

The power of taboo had, as it turns out, an inspirational influence on the making of the first MUMMY. On November 26, 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter, his immensely rich benefactor Lord Carnavon, and daughter Lady Evelyn unsealed the royal tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, revealing an extraordinary find, the only such unravaged site to be discovered in the modem era. The initial worldwide publicity was quickly followed by a tidal wave when Lord Carnavon died five months later of complications after a mosquito bit him at the site. A not very specific inscription on the tomb was now read by the press as an unmistakable curse. This resuscitation of the old taboo against grave robbing was intensified when two other members of the expedition also died suddenly. Such sensational elements begged for exploitation by Hollywood — and so they were. The tomb of King Tut, as the press called him, had just been relieved of the last of its treasures when THE MUMMY appeared.

The recourse of the press and then Hollywood to the power of a non-existent ancient curse could, of course, be read as a radical displacement to the level of the imaginary. Instead of acknowledging the real continuing curse of British colonization of Egypt, which had been completed in 1882, just about the time of the first major archaeological discoveries in the Valley of the Kings, the press and Hollywood dispatched the not-so-mysterious burden of imperialist oppression three thousand years into the conveniently mysterious past. In the first MUMMY, Karloff drives one English archaeologist mad, kills another, and kidnaps his daughter (for purely sacrificial purposes, of course). Surely it is pleasurable to read this as the symbolic revenge of the revived Egyptian culture on English imperialism. Early in the film, Karloff tips off a pair of clueless archaeologists where to find a tomb, saying, "We Egyptians are not allowed to dig up our ancient dead, only [pause] foreign museums." Karloff seems to be hinting at the rapacity underlying such scientific expeditions, while referring more explicitly to the taboo on grave robbing.

The publicity tag for the 1999 remake of THE MUMMY is "Death is only the Beginning," as if once again evoking the dynamic of the irresistible desire for monstrous immortality. But, as we know, every renovation has its hidden costs. That identification with the other — so crucial to audience involvement in the first version — is thrown right out the window in the remake. Only a real monster could identify with this end-of-millennium Mummy. He wakes up in one hell of a badass mood from his three-thousand year siesta — gleefully unleashes the ten top plagues of ancient Egypt — and is ready to top that off with the ultimate downer of ending the world as we know it, if he doesn't get his way.

You have to wonder how a guy who's been under sand for three millennia could show as little restraint as a typical CEO of the nineties. When Karloff was mummy, all he was angling for was to resurrect his old (old!) sweetie, the Princess Ananke. Same story with the new guy, Imhotep by name, except he doesn't know when to quit. In point of fact, ancient Egyptian religion did not encompass a belief in resurrection in this world — only in the afterworld. But without it how do you get a love story into the movie? How do you get much of a story at all? More crucially, how do you get audiences to care about the love story if you make your monster unsympathetic? Well, of course, you don't. You do something much more terrifying. You make your monster virtual.

The new MUMMY sacrifices the pull of the other, the pull toward irrational identification with the bad guy, in favor of another kind of desire, the desire to see what the good super-technicians working double overtime over at the George Lucas mega-operation, Industrial Light and Magic, have pulled out of their hats this time. After all, it's Industrial Light and Magic's show. It produced the vast arsenal of special effects that gives THE MUMMY whatever excitement it has, as it has with just about every major blockbuster in the past twenty years. These computer-generated effects (along with a little modeling here and there, and a little makeup) bear the weight of producing almost the entire representation of evil in the film.

The economy of representation in blockbuster monster/ action films tends to be as follows: good guys are virtuous; bad guys are virtual. Unfortunately, the new MUMMY illustrates the downside to the virtual lock on virtual representation that I.L.&M. has on the blockbuster market, which is, in two words, deja vu and then some. The resurrected monster, which progressively, scene by scene, reconstitutes into human form from its putrified state as it wreaks havoc, is standard issue I.L.&M. And we've already encountered the hundred other mummy monsters that dominate the climax of the film in at least half a dozen other movies, even if some of the details and costuming have been varied, to protect not the innocent but the guilty. These corporate monsters do not function as characters but as machine-made projections, ghosts of ghosts, in a Platonic sense if you could fancy Plato as one of the head honchos at I.L.&M. Certainly, if you were privileged to read the mind-boggling dialogue between professional gasbag Bill Moyers and philosopher-king George Lucas that ran in Time the week that THE PHANTOM MENACE failed its way into the theaters, you'd understand that Lucas is now with all due humility entitled to see himself as Our Plato.

In any case, the phantasmagoria of special effects blanketing the narrative of THE MUMMY fogs whatever slight possibility there might have been to engage with the Egypt that actually existed in 1923, which is when the movie claims to take place. The Arab Orient exists as a picturesque and largely empty backdrop for the narrative to unfold. Ahistorical tropes apparently indispensable to Western portrayal are trotted out once again: sun, sand, camels, pyramids, ruins, treasure, an indistinguishable mass of speechless natives in flowing robes. The totalizing deployment of special effects not only blocks the apprehension of history, it produces the antidote to historical struggle by forging a covert alliance between the natural and the supernatural worlds. By making the impossible visible, convincing, and overwhelming, the naturalizing aesthetic of realism which I.L.&M. aims for melds with such supernatural occurrences as the appearance of massive faces in the sand or the many plagues featuring millions of computer-generated bugs, which explicitly refer to the plagues that afflicted Egypt in the Bible — though as effects they are harvested directly from the equally supernatural Indiana Jones series. When nature and the supernatural join hands, history might as well fold up its tent.

The many sequels to THE MUMMY set the same rinky-dink elements in motion, several of them even recycling footage from the original: pale male archaeo-adventurers in Egypt seek buried treasure unseal cursed tomb releasing ancient mummy who buried alive is still undead kills some character actors while aiming to resurrect his ancient princess paramour and therefore kidnaps adventurer's girlfriend for ritual sacrifice who is saved at last moment by adventurer who kills hapless mummy saves the day and civilization as we know it. It's the sand variant of the white hunter imperialist/ orientalist narrative given a scientific half-nelson. We know the basic narrative from KING SOLOMON'S MINES to the Indian Jones trilogy. This new Mummy is clever enough to make sport of its own copycatting. Asked at the direst of moments what we can do now, our hero cheerfully responds, "rescue damsel in distress, kill the bad guy, save the world." The narrative self-consciousness implied by such ironizing does not block repetitively racist wisecracks about smelly dirty Arabs, however — that would apparently be succumbing to the most dreaded curse of all: the curse of political correctness.

The film's frantic sense of narrative pacing is also derived from the Indiana Jones/ Spielberg formula, which is itself inspired, if that's the word, by boy's adventure stories, comic books, and Saturday matinee movie serials. Nearly every scene involves a strenuous buildup to severe mayhem of one sort or another, which is averted at the last second, if it involves the hero or heroine — or not, if it involves one of the supporting characters, followed almost immediately by the buildup to the next such scene. The relentlessly logical exploitation of the illogicality of the cliffhanger narrative structure tends to deprive the form of its only real pleasure: the speculation afterwards on how the good guys are going to get out of their impasse the following week — or, once you wised up, on how the filmmakers were going to cheat their way out at the beginning of the next episode.

Strictly speaking, the cliffhanger was not so much intended to provide actual pleasure, which takes a certain time and attention to experience, as excessive stimulation, which was okay when cliffhangers were only one-reelers. Each episode was intended to get you to a certain pitch of excitement and leave you there (so that you'd return the following Saturday), which of course has a definite analogue in sexual arousal. The feature length versions in vogue since STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES (big budgets, Dolby, up to 90% special effects) are not only a thousand times more stimulating than the old serials were, they amount to two hours of such excessive stimulation, which is to say, deliberately crowding out any reasonable exercise for the imagination, which is to say, at their wont, relentlessly masturbatory without outlet, mental or muscular — just sheer nervous excitation, tech-porn.

Given this technical overinvestment, it seems downright old-fashioned that the overall narrative of THE MUMMY is explicitly structured around the dangers of kissing. The before-the-title sequence takes us direct to ancient Egypt 1290BC, downtown Thebes. The Pharaoh's mistress, wearing not much more than a little metallic paint (i.e., bad girl), is caught kissing Imhotep, who looks like Yul Brynner's younger meaner brother. It's not all that much of a kiss but still it's the only sexy moment in the entire film. Pharaoh's in anything but an understanding mood — so the twosome offs him behind a decorously shimmering curtain. Caught by the imperial guard, it's curtains for the lovers. She does get one good line, "My body is no longer his temple," before knifing herself; lmhotep promises to resurrect her and is buried alive in a way too horrible even to think about. It's not pretty but the good part is that they speak their subtitled lines in what purports to be ancient Egyptian. Thus these characters at least maintain their mythic remoteness — though I did recognize the actor who played Pharaoh. I think he lives down the block from me. But the moral lesson holds: kissing causes immediate death.

Dangerous Kiss Number Two. The only other female character in the movie (with a target audience of young males why clutter up an action movie with women?) is presented as an overdressed repressed up for success stressed but beautiful librarian (i.e., good girl) in the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. Her character, as is customary in knockabout films, has only thirty seconds flat to establish itself before the plot runs off with her. So she's wearing glasses and is put through the hoop of a sight gag that's much more elaborate than funny in order to show that even though she can read which is a pain at least she's klutzy.

Within moments, in possession of a treasure map, she's visiting a prison so she can get kissed rudely right on the mouth and through the bars by the scruffy-but-not-really American adventurer hero, played by Brendan Fraser, who last time out was, oddly enough, imitating Frankenstein at the end OF GODS AND MONSTERS. Fraser has graduated from his eponymous roles in teen and sub-teen fluff like ENCINO MAN and GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE to take on the Harrison Ford role, which casting undergirds the comedy of the required meet-cute kiss. The heroine (Rachel Weisz) shows her spunk. She saves the uncivilized (i.e. manly) hero from hanging by bribing a stereotypically repulsive lecherous Arab. But first she makes the hero suffer because he kissed her without permission and you have a sinking feeling right away this means you're going to have to wait till the end of the movie before they get to kiss again because a convention's a convention.

Dangerous Kiss Number Three is adumbrated thickly as soon as Imhotep starts getting his act together. At this stage he looks like the generic I.L.&M. virtual younger meaner brother of Yul Brynner monster. First he rips the eyes and tongue out of a standby character, then he sidles up to the heroine and says in some kind of Egyptian, "Come with me, my princess." She's not going for it but you know right away what's at stake because you've already seen not just THE MUMMY, but THE MUMMY'S HAND, THE MUMMY 'S CURSE, THE MUMMY 'S GHOST, THE MUMMY 'S TOMB, and if you were lucky, even WE WANT OUR MUMMY, starring Larry, Moe, and Curly. If he's going to bring back his hot 3000-year old sweetheart, she's got to supply the actual flesh, sad to say.

So later when he's almost back to abnormal, which is to say no longer hardly virtual at all, for the moment, except for some strange moldiness happening about the mouth, he finds her in bed and leans over to kiss her. While he's at it, his mouth starts to rot and don't even think about what that must feel like to her but fortunately Brendan Fraser shows up with a cat which is the only thing that scares revived mummies, foiling the disgusting act of oral congress in the lick of slime. Like the living dead, the filmmakers do not shrink from exploiting the direct association of the disintegration of flesh with sexuality in the era of the modem "plague," i.e. AIDS.

Dangerous Kiss Number Four is the Feminist Kiss. Oh sure. The heroine gets to save the hero for the second time. Imhotep is having a wild time in the desert right there at the edge of the City of the Dead otherwise known as Hamunaptra blowing Brendan and the other surviving good guys skyhigh in a sand tornado when the heroine leans over and kisses him full on the mouth as a mental distraction. All it takes to distract even a monster-type guy from killing somebody is for a cute girl to come on to him.

Final (Not-Dangerous) Kiss. The final clinch of hero and heroine. This kiss functions as the good analogue of the first kiss in the film, except that it's as devoid of sexuality as the first one was fill of it. The repellent wholesomeness of this embrace certifies the triumph of good, the reestablishment of narrative stability, of boredom in other words. The movie's over.

Since women function as the other other in such films (other to the target audience, other to the monster), the trading of kisses in the film signifies the traffic in women that animates the overall narrative and unifies the behavior of all the battling male creatures from Pharaoh forward. The unstable sexuality of the two female creatures in the film guarantees the motion of the narrative. In the late scene at the sacrificial altar, the good girl and the bad girl come fiendishly close to melding into one body but the twain stays where it belongs. The female temptress commences the 3000 years of destruction in 1290 B.C. and the female goody-two-shoes ends it in 1923. In this respect, female sexuality is the repressed special effect of special effects.

Turns out there's been a fairly massive traffic in Egyptian mummies for centuries. By the hundred and the thousand mummies were exported, swiped, and smuggled out of Egypt direct to Europe. In 1658, one of the great masters of English prose who was also a doctor, Thomas Browne wrote, "Mummy is become Merchandise, Mizraim cures Wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for Balsams,"[1] [open notes in new window] and at least since 1100AD doctors had been prescribing mummy for their patients. It was thought to contain the same healing properties as a kind of pitch called mummia, found in Persia. By the sixteenth century, mummy was as commonly prescribed as penicillin is now.

As a result, mummy became an object of intense economic speculation, "tombs were sacked, and as many mummies as could be obtained were broken into pieces for the purpose of sale," according to one Thomas Pettigrew, an early-nineteenth century surgeon. It's got to be preferable to have a trade in mummy movies over a trade in actual mummies but even in the nineteenth century the trade continued. They became collectable in Europe in the post-Napoleonic era. You just didn't go back home from your vacation in Luxor or Memphis or Alexandria or Cairo without lugging a mummy back. You had a big party and the servants rolled your new old mummy into the drawing room and all the guests went nuts and instead of a string quartet for after-dinner entertainment you unrolled your own personal mummy.

It's all a question of value — the value we attach to mummies or to mummy movies, or to movies, in general, though perhaps Marx is right and it's all about the form of value. In the only part of Capital I've read more than once, "Section 4 — The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof," Marx says, "Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is." In case you don't think Marx is thinking about ancient Egypt — here are his next words:

"it is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language."[2]

Ella Shohat in her groundbreaking essay "Gender and the Culture of Empire" pointing out that "the 'birth' of cinema itself coincided with the imperialist moment," maintains that

"the cinematic Orient…is best epitomized by an iconography of Papyruses, Sphinxes, and Mummies, whose existence and revival depend on the 'look' and 'reading' of the Westerner."

In THE MUMMY, the heroine is a librarian, who is seeking the legendary Book of Amun-Ra but instead helps discover the same Book of the Dead that Imhotep, as high-priest, uses in the pre-title sequence to resurrect his beloved. At the end of the film, after rushing to discover at last The Book of Amun-Ra, the Westerners rescue themselves by reading and speaking aloud spells that will destroy Imhotep. As Shohat has pointed out about the entire history of Western filmic representation of the Arab Orient, the secrets of the past are all considered to reside in the act of reading as performed by a Westerner. Imhotep never gets his chance to revive his loved one by reading from the book.

To Shohat it makes perfect sense that Kracauer referred to films as "visible hieroglyphs" and that these films participate "in what Jacques Derrida..calls the 'hieroglyphist prejudice." While she doesn't quote Marx's use of the same metaphor to describe the nature of value, what seems clear is that insofar as the "voice of the present"[3] is suppressed and therefore devalued, then the past assumes value as what must be read, decoded, and spoken. For Marx the recognition of value itself is directly dependent on the apprehension of the hieroglyphic as it appears in the present. However, since the traffic in mummies continues to this day (this MUMMY grossed over $100 million, for instance), then it appears that it's the unstable and apparently contradictory co-existence of the present and the past that troubles us. The dead weight of the past turns out to be undead, to be stalking us, label or no label.

In "Ontology of the Photographic Image," Andre Bazin, apostle of realism in cinema, says,

"if the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture, there lies a mummy complex. The religion of ancient Egypt, aimed against death, saw survival as depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body."[4]

Furthermore, in cinema, "now, for the first time, the image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were."[5] While diminishing the belief system at the heart of Egyptian religion, Bazin's recourse to the spiritual to account for the power of cinema also tends to undermine the aesthetic of realism. In the embalming hands of mythmakers, realistic imperialists of the supernatural realm, cinema itself is mummified and Lucas, Spielberg and Co. become billionaire undertakers.


1. Quoted in A.R. David, "Early Investigations of Mummies," in The Mummy's Tale, edited by A.R. David and E. Tapp, New York: St. Martins, 1993, p. 11.

2. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, New York: International, p. 74.

3. This and other quotes, Ella Shohat, "Gender and the Culture of Empire," in Otherness and the Media, edited by Hamid Naficy and Teshome H. Gabriel, Langhome, Pennsylvannia: Harwood, 1993, p. 51-52.

4. Andre Bazin, What Is Cinema? Vol. 1, New York, p.3.

5. Ibid, p. 11.