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 mummies in movies 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 in the way that ancient Egypt is portrayed both in fiction and non-fiction. How many documentaries have the words ‘secret’, ‘mystery’ or ‘magic’ somewhere in their title or synopsis?
The mummy may gain these powers as a result of an ancient curse as was the case in The Mummy (1999) or be resurrected to do the bidding of another as in The Mummy’s Ghost (1944). Mummification itself is often taken out of its specific religious and cultural contexts and used in different ways in the fictionalised space of movie Egypt. For example, in The Mummy (1999), mummification is used as a punishment for the disloyal priests. The scene suggests the physical processes of mummification to the audience through props but does not directly show them, instead leaving the audience to use their imaginations fuelled by the agonised screams of the priests. Thus, the scene suggests mummification as torture before live burial. In The Egyptian (1954), Sinuhe takes his parents' bodies to be mummified in a set that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Frankenstein film. There are vats of a thick, bubbling green liquid and scattered coffins. Sinuhe must work in ‘The House of Death’ in order to pay for his parent’s burial and he is told in no uncertain terms ‘Only condemned criminals and the accursed of the Gods seek work in the House of Death’. Both films code mummification as a horror and so the ‘products’ of that process are likely to be viewed in the same way. Indeed, it has been argued that the horror aspects of the Mummy genre are very much rooted in Victorian colonial attitudes and the situation with Egypt at a time when Egypt was considered a financial asset to the British Empire.
The treatment of mummies onscreen, whether for comical or horror purposes, is perhaps one of the reasons for a de-sensitisation when engaging with them in a museum context. After all, Egyptian mummies are one of the staples of Ancient Egypt’s popular appeal. Of course the feeling is not universal, and this project has shown that many are coming to have important discussions about this topic, but there does seem to be a lot that onscreen mummies can perhaps answer for.
Alice Baddeley graduated from the University of Birmingham and is currently Secretary of the West Midlands Egyptology Society. She wrote her undergraduate dissertation on cinematic receptions of ancient Egypt and hopes to continue with an MA and (perhaps!) PhD in Egyptology.