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Beneath the Wraps

by Walter von Bosau

The Mummy is unique in the annals of classic film monsters in that it was brought to life completely by the imaginations of Hollywood screen- writers. All of the other monsters had impressive pedigrees: the werewolf had a centuries-long history in the folk tales of the Middle European countries, as did the vampire. The most famous vampire of them all, Count Dracula, had a historical basis in Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. "Vlad the Impaler," a "bloodthirsty" medieval knight. The Frankenstein monster was the result of a fevered dream by a young, impressionable Mary Godwin (later Shelley), after a night of listening to tales of terror by her famous friends Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

3D Glasses The Mummy, however, is altogether different. To the ancient Egyptians, the idea of a mummy as an instrument of revenge would have seemed ludicrous. The mummy served as the link between the physical self and the ka, the spiritual or astral double. The physical self was preserved in the belief that it was a necessary link for the journey into the afterlife. Without that link, one's ka would wander aimlessly forever. One of the worst sentences an Egyptian could have passed on them was to be put to death and to have their body thrown to the desert, to be eaten by the jackals and vultures—one was condemned not only in this world, but also the next.

Everyone had a mummy, from the richest pharaohs to the poorest person. Families would go hungry and sell all their possessions to make sure they had money for their proper burial. The mummification itself was done by the eta, a group similar to today's undertakers, with one major difference: the eta were a community unto themselves. They lived in a separate part of town and were generally avoided because of their smell: the chemicals used in the mummification process were so strong and pungent that it never completely washed out of their skins. (For a detailed description of the process and a fascinating book in general, may I recommend The Mummy by E. A. Wallis Budge.)

Wrapper The other reason the historical mummy would have been a poor choice for revenge is that he wasn't, shall we say, "all there." The mummy itself was just a shell—all the internal organs were taken out and preserved in canopic jars and the eyes were replaced with glass substitutes—so it would have been very hard for him to partake in any perfidious perambulations.

So how did this frail, complacent shell become the rampaging killing machine we know (and love) today? The answer begins in the year 1922. It was then that a team of British archaeologists, led by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, unearthed the remains of King Tutankhamen and took the world by storm. The popular press had a field day with the story, especially when it was discovered the Boy King's tomb had curses carved on the lintels, such as the following: "Death will slay with its wings whoever disturbs the peace of the pharaoh." This was an obvious warning to the grave robbers of Tut's time (a not uncommon practice). As various members of the expedition, including Lord Carnarvon himself, died during the 1920s, it seemed the curse had reached out over the centuries and come true… How could Hollywood resist such a story?

It couldn't. Universal Studios, the unrivaled king of the horror genre during the 1930s and '40s, put screenwriters Nina Wilcox Putnam and John L. Balderston (co-authors of the stage version of Dracula) to the task of bringing the Mummy to life—and the result was spectacular.

This is a sample of The Mummy, Beneath the Wraps from issue No. 4 of Obsidian.

Walter von Bosau is a film librarian and historian, who got hooked on movies at a very early age. He is the author of the "Conjure Cinema" series, which ran in Harvest and Tides, has taught a twelve-part History of Film Genres course at the Boston Center For Adult Education, and for six years, with his wife Laura, ran a home version of Conjure Cinema, showing the films discussed in his articles (including Karloff's The Mummy) in order to raise donations for Boston-based shelters. He and Laura are the proud parents of Justin Ellery von Bosau, an unsuspecting two-year-old whose father is eagerly awaiting the day to expose him to these strange films, as well, and continue the family tradition.