For several years, I’ve been on a fact-finding mission focused on the history of traditional Halloween “monsters” including their origins and evolution in folklore, literature, and pop culture.
Today, let’s take a look at MUMMIES.
While many monsters on my list thus far deal with death or a fear of death, mummies are the only Halloween “monster” that are associated with religious ritualistic practices to safely journey to the afterlife. So why are they part of the line up of Halloween baddies?
Let’s look at the history. The practice of preserving a body is widespread across the globe and throughout time. Many civilizations—Incan, Australian aboriginal, Aztec, African, ancient European and others—have practiced some type of mummification for thousands of years to honor and preserve the bodies of the dead.
While Egyptian mummies are the most well known, the oldest mummies are not Egyptian. Found in what is now Chile and Peru, the Chinchorro mummies date to 5000 BC (Egyptians date back to 2500 BC). The Takla Makan Mummies are 3000 year old mummies found in China.
No matter how a body was mummified, the primary goal was the preservation of as much skin tissue as possible—and the priests of ancient Egypt are considered the leading experts on the process. Egyptians routinely used a more elaborate process–up to 70 days, though not as elaborate for the poor–to ensure the dead experienced safe passage to the afterlife. In addition, Egyptians didn’t just mummify people. Mummified gerbils, birds, cats, dogs, fish, snakes, baboons, crocodile, hippo and even a lion have been found!
Ancient Egyptians discarded the brain, which was considered useless. Mean while the heart, considered the center of intelligence and caring, was kept, wrap individually, and placed back into the mummy. Other organs were placed in special containers called canapic jars.
Believing mummies had healing powers, for almost 500 years, mummies were ground up and used to treat stomach aches and other ailments. Which, while gross, seems to have a positive connotation. In combination with the idea of safely delivering the dead to the afterlife, how did the frightening “monster” image become what it has?
It starts with ancient folklore that says disturbing a mummy’s tomb leads to death. This is known as the “curse of the mummy” or “curse of the pharaohs”. The first novel about a mummy that returns from the dead is The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century by Jane C. London, first published in 1827. It is an early example of a “curse of the pharaohs” story.
The true increase in the “mummy monster” image started in the 1900s, growing and changing across the course of the 20th century. In 1903 Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame), wrote The Jewel of the Seven Stars, a first-person narrative of a young man pulled into an archaeologist’s plot to revive Queen Tera, an ancient Egyptian mummy. This story featured mummies as supernatural villains.
Then, in 1922, came the excavation of King Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. When exhuming King Tut’s tomb. Still, several people involved in the expedition died early of unnatural causes. This story was sensationalized by the media, but led to a growing belief in the curse.
But it was one of Boris Karloff’s famous monster movies in which he portrayed a mummy in the 1932 movie, The Mummy, that solidified the mummy’s place in the pantheon of Gothic monsters, alongside Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster.
It is likely about the point that mummies also joined the common list of Halloween “monsters”. Remember that the practice of dressing up started as a way to ward off evil. It’s not surprising that a moaning, heavily-bandaged creature, often depicted as rotting or bloody, and known to be raised from the dead, would make that list.
The end of the 20th century saw the revival of interest in the “romantic mummy” archetype, starting with the 1989 novel The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned by Anne Rice. The 1999 movie The Mummy, staring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, (and subsequent sequel) was a remake of the original Boris Karloff movie. The difference was a move away from classic horror to more an action/adventure tale.
Which begs the question…will the mummy go the way of vampires and werewolves in becoming the often misunderstood, darkly brooding romantic lead? Personally, I think they would need to stop rotting first, although the 1999 film showed how that could be accomplished.
Looking for some new mummy-related (or raising of the dead-related) paranormal romance books to consume? Check these out…
- The Mummy or Ramses the Dead by Anne Rice
- The Mummy’s Curse by J. Raven Wilde
- Queen of the Cursed Lands by MD Baker
- The Mummy’s Curse by K.C. Adams
- Tomb of the Queen by Joss Walker
- Jewel of the Seven Stars by Bram Stoker
Interested in the history and evolution of other traditional Halloween “monsters” in folklore, literature, and pop culture? Check out my other posts…