Alice Baddeley talks to us about how mummy movies introduced her to the world of Egyptology
I always feel a little nervous when asked by academics what attracted me to Egyptology because I immediately jump to memories of seven year old me watching The Mummy (1999) on repeat, and I wonder if I can talk about that without having the other person take me less seriously. Thankfully, most people are okay with that answer!, and the study of receptions of ancient Egypt is steadily gaining momentum in the field. That film very much influenced what I expected when I later encountered mummies in museums as a child. My first encounter was with the Graeco-Roman mummy in the Birmingham Museum, and it was not at all what I had thought Egyptian mummies looked like with its very elaborate bandaging and gilded terracotta studs. It wasn’t until I visited The Secret Egypt exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum that I began to fully appreciate these mummies as human remains because of the museum’s decision to place the mummy in a separate room with a notice asking visitors to be respectful within that space.
The movie mummy and the adventures of cinematic Egyptologists were the catalysts for my choice to study Ancient History and later Egyptology. But, unsurprisingly, films featuring Egyptian mummies have been around almost as long as film-making itself, and they were heavily influenced by Victorian literature that included many of the key narrative clichés prevalent in the genre. For example, mummies exacting revenge on the disturbers of their tomb (Lost in a Pyramid or The Mummy’s Curse by Louisa May Alcott (1869)), ancient curses (Lot 249 by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)) and reincarnation (The Jewel of the Seven Stars by Bram Stoker (1903). The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901) – free to watch on YouTube -, is one of the earliest examples of an Egyptian mummy on film and shows an ancient Egyptian emerging from a sarcophagus who quickly turns into a skeleton. The classic film The Mummy (1932) has, for many, come to define the genre and its influence can be seen in the films that were released throughout the 40s and 50s. However, most mummy films suffer from a uniformity of themes, styles and plot that can make it difficult to distinguish between them at a quick glance which lends itself very well to parody and comedy. The conventions of the genre are used to create humour along with comedic figures of the time in We Want Our Mummy (1939), Mummies Dummies (1948), Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (1955) and Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
The Egyptian mummy in films is usually imbued with magical or supernatural powers which is often linked to their status in life - so many movie mummies are High Priests or Priestesses… - This is directly linked to the idea that ancient Egypt itself hides esoteric, arcane knowledge and that idea comes across i