The Thoroughly Modern Mummy

Mummies have been popping up everywhere in my life lately. Not literally, like turning around to find them shambling down the street behind me or accidentally disturbing their peaceful slumber in a dark corner of the closet, but in many fictional formats. I’ve discovered mummies in board games and novels, had mummy facts turn up in podcasts and news stories, and revisited familiar mummies in movies. Unsurprisingly, it’s left me pondering the roots of the fictional resurrected mummy, and also the challenges of bringing the Mummy story and undead mummies in general into a 21st century context.

Actual Egyptian mummies were, of course, never supposed to come back to life. The point of mummifying someone in the first place was to preserve their body for a peaceful eternity in the afterlife, so the narrative of resurrecting them is already fundamentally horror from a cultural perspective. The majority of the early Western mummy stories revolved around a mummy coming back to life and wreaking vengeance on the fools who had awoken them, usually by raiding their tomb and stealing their body, which was something Europeans were doing quite frequently in the 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. There were even “unwrapping parties” in Victorian England, where people got together to unravel some poor mummy they’d brought back from their travels like a souvenir.

There is all kinds of interesting writing out there about how the mummy narrative in early Western fiction and film reflects both the fascination and unease that Westerners felt with ancient Egyptian customs and mummification in particular, and a fear of facing the consequences of colonialism and their willingness to engage in grave-robbing and desecration. It’s interesting that the bones of the mummy narrative that began in the 19th century with stories by writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, H, Rider Haggard, Louisa May Alcott, and later Bram Stoker have persisted through the Universal Pictures Mummy movies of the 1930s and 40s, the Hammer films of the 50s and 60s, and back to the Universal series reboot in 1999. Foreigners open tomb and disturb mummy’s rest in assorted inappropriate ways, mummy is angry at being resurrected and separated from beloved, mummy tries to reunite with beloved, usually with a side of revenge. Sometimes it’s just all about the revenge.    

Hammer Films, The Mummy (1959)

The most recent entries in the Mummy series still play to a Western fascination with Eastern cultures that is less than post-colonial, but the 1999 version has a campy sensibility and a the appeal of a scrappy female lead who doesn’t easily succumb to the other central horror of the mummy narrative, which is sexual violence, stalking, and the violation of having another person control your body. Although many of the early fictional versions of the story were quite sympathetic to the tragedy of the mummy’s situation and cast the story as a romance, few versions have come across as a consensual situation where the woman the mummy saw as his lost love truly remembered him and longed to give up her current life and be reunited with him as well. The endings to the story do vary somewhat, with the woman remembering her past life and rejecting his advances in the original 1932 Universal Studios The Mummy, and the mummy relenting and saving the woman’s life in the 1959 Hammer Films The Mummy.

I recently picked up the very entertaining Universal Studios board game Horrified, where you play as heroes who have to save the village from some combination of the classic Universal movie monsters including Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, and the Mummy. Each monster has special powers and conditions, like Dracula thralling you to come to him on the board or Frankenstein and the Bride running amok if they encounter one another. I think the point about consent in the Mummy movies is pretty clear in the Mummy’s Reincarnated Soul rule, which states that the Mummy believes that one of the heroes is the reincarnated soul of his true love and the player who gets the Soul sign is repeatedly drawn three spaces towards the Mummy against their will throughout the rest of the game.

Mostly the mummies that have been turning up in my life, though, are ones that have come out of a more recent cultural context in which mummies are mostly being returned to their home countries and the ethics of displaying human remains in museums or taking them apart to study them has come sharply into question. One of the things I really like to see in a modern mummy is a sense of agency. Mummies have always seemed to me to have a bit more agency than some of the other movie monsters, but the ones I like best pretty much just do whatever they want once they’ve been resurrected.

For example, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010), which is a French film based on the 1970s comic series by Jacques Tardi. It’s set in Paris in 1910, and revolves around archaeologist and adventuress Adèle Blanc-Sec’s plan to cure her sister’s unfortunate medical condition by resurrecting the mummy of Patmosis, who was the physician to Ramesses II. Due to what one assumes may have been a translation error, she instead raises the mummy of Ramesses II’s physicist, who proceeds to don a three piece suit and bowler hat and is very entertained by being a mummy in the modern world. The entire rest of Ramesses entourage and the Pharoah himself, who happened to be on display at the Louvre, are also inadvertently resurrected by the same spell and end up going out on the town at the end of the movie.

“Excuse me, my good sir! I’m looking for the Ramesses exhibition…”

I also love Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), which is based on a short story by Joe Landsdale and stars Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis impersonator who claims to be the real Elvis Presley, stuck in the Shady Rest Retirement Home in East Texas after switching places with an Elvis impersonator and then accidentally blowing up the contract that would prove his identity and allow him to switch back. A mummy accidentally falls out of a truck near the rest home and comes back to life, targeting the old folks for his soul-sucking needs to stay under the radar. He seems to adapt quite happily to modern life, gleefully sucking souls and covering the bathroom stalls with rude hieroglyphic graffiti. Elvis and his best friend (played by Ossie Davis), a black man who claims to be John F. Kennedy, suit up with weapons, walkers, and wheelchairs for a good old-fashioned showdown to save the rest home residents’ asses from the mummy. Literally. That’s where he sucks their souls out.    

One of my favorite recent depictions of living mummies, and one in which they are fully in control of their own story, is in Grave Importance, the third book of the Greta Helsing novel series by Vivian Shaw. Dr. Greta Helsing is a physician to the undead, including vampires, ghouls, and mummies. She’s pioneered various restoration techniques for her mummy patients, and in this third installment she is invited to be the interim clinical director at a secret luxury spa and medical facility for mummies, hidden in the hills above Marseille. The spa has mummies on staff and all kinds of mummy-specific medical equipment for everything from rewrapping to treatment of organs that are stored in canopic jars. There’s a whole other plot involving angels that is less my cup of tea so overall I preferred the first two books in the series, but Grave Importance was totally worth it for the mummy plot.

From The Mummy Concerns zine, by L. Reid and G. STAB

And just in case you thought the mummy craze was a thing of the past, I also recently read about a mummification company in Salt Lake City called Summum, which claims to have a number of celebrities signed up to be mummified after they die. They work out of a pyramid-shaped building and also mummify people’s pets, including cats, rats, and peacocks. Unlike the ancient Egyptians, they use a wet mummification process that they say will leave the body looking “just like the day they died, even thousands of years later”, so people of the future will have to watch out if they’re resurrecting any of those mummies. Once the wrappings are off, you’ll never see them coming!  


The 1999 Universal Mummy movie went through multiple visions and scripts before landing on the one that got shot, including Clive Barker and Mick Garris, George Romero, Joe Dante and John Sayles (set to star Daniel Day-Lewis as the mummy), and Wes Craven. alex MacFadyen wishes he could see all of them.

1 reply »

  1. I’m also going to suggest Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar’s The Professor’s Daughter, in which a mummy awakens in Victorian London and falls in love with the daughter of the man whose collection he is putatively part of.

    Liked by 1 person

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