It’s not just about grave-robbing anymore…
Somehow, that is the potential problem that plagues the modern Mummy, still interpreted by Hollywood primarily…Instead we are obsessed with special effects, popular movie stars, and ancient curses we manage to make up ourselves. Always we decorate our interpretations of Mummy stories with elaborate bigotries and racist caricature.
Nowhere in the past have we treated the culture we are robbing to tell the Mummy’s tale with the respect it is due, nor in a way that enhances the story.
What a shame…For with the Mummy we stand among the most powerful subgenres in Horror – in the fertile ground of the Gothic Romance and the Ghost Story, amidst a magnificent example of marginalization of the Other: the grave-robbing of an antiquated culture for fun and profit, and the exotic dead laced with the desperation of revenge.
Somehow, with visions of pulp and action adventure blockbuster receipts dancing in our heads, we have lost interest in what the Mummy really represents. The true heart of the story is not about love and reincarnation: the real purpose of the Mummy has always been revenge for the wanton disregard of the dead of Others… And we have carefully crafted something else again.
As we await the release of a yet another new Mummy film and the recent publication of a new (overdue) Mummy anthology, we are reminded to consider exactly why the Mummy disappeared from view, becoming the least-utilized trope in contemporary Horror.
Why did the Mummy go away? And is his tale done being told?
Orientalism: Our Nasty Little, Overripe Secret
Most of us today aren’t quite sure what to make of the Egyptian Mummy, of Bog People, of ancient Andean Children found mummified on mountain tops… We are, after all, human. We are curious, simultaneously drawn and repulsed by the exposure of the desiccated bodies of mysterious, long-dead people. But we are also voyeurs. We relish the encouraged and unseemly study of remains, the ghoulish poking and prodding of one who cannot expose our unnatural interests, the very public humiliation of a helpless human being we can dehumanize further by simply pronouncing that being “ancient and dead” in the same sentence.
It is a most intimate and unforgivable form of desecration. Under cover of scientific curiosity we allow it because of the historical distance we can put between us in our modern civility and sophistication, and (ironically) a primitive people who were so technologically advanced we are still trying to decipher how they did so many wondrous things.
We have not only talked ourselves into an entitlement to find and break into tombs in the name of research, but we have made ourselves the official filter of their stories. And we have long taken liberties.
Why, then, was this ever okay?
Is it because we believe now as we believed then that we deserve to know the secrets of vanished civilizations? Is it because we also fear becoming vanished and hope to avert whatever dictate of fate caused the demise of those civilizations? Or are we simply hiding behind a convenient behavioral pattern humanity has historically exploited since our sordid beginnings – one that inspires those in power flaunting the most cultural currency to mock and then destroy the cultures they overrun?
Why is it not only okay but fashionable to display the bodies of ancient or conquered cultures? We are obliged to admit we have done this before… and indeed, we continue to do it…
The answer is called Orientalism… which according to Edward Said, dates from the period of European Enlightenment and the colonization of the Arab world. It is also a Critical term, and as such it means that using art and writing, we interpret predominantly Arab cultures not with facts, but with wild imaginings that include the distortion of actual facts, the exaggeration of unfavorable characteristics, the labelling of local practices as primitive, suspect and dangerous, the strong suggestion that choosing to live certain ways or adopt certain religious beliefs other than Judeo-Christian ones are simply proof of superstitious ignorance.
For instance, with the Mummy, we have created malevolent Egyptian spirits and forcefully superimposed the belief of reincarnation on a culture that had no such religious interpretation, the idea of which would have been as abhorrent to the Egyptians as the concept of reanimating a corpse. (Guran 10-11) Indeed, despite our contemporary obligation to tell modern Mummy stories that conform to the historical facts we dug them up for, we have not always been so considerate to our Mummies as fictional characters.
We have taken liberties that seem to be inspired by what we know about Mummies in general – that there were a lot of ancient Egyptians who lived and died, and a lot of them were mummified as part of religious burial practices, some historians estimating that some “730 million corpses were mummified” during the period, and that there were so many, they ran out of places to put them… (Stephens x) With so many, with no names, with no place to keep them, what harm is there?
Assumptions were then made based on our knowledge of human nature – that if a body is buried with any form of valuable, that burial site might well be pillaged for the wealth by anyone, thereby providing ample need for a curse or two and a ready explanation for inscriptions found on the occasional tomb but which we do not understand. We take “poetic license” and color our fiction with it –letting fear imply truth, despite facts.
The misinterpretation of what we have pronounced “curses” might – according to researchers – “have been directed at would-be tomb-robbers of their own epoch” whose efforts to extract even minor wealth might damage the mummy or the tomb and therefore the identity and spiritual welfare of the person buried within, rendering the spirit homeless and nameless (Weigall 2). And while it is the mark of good fiction to commandeer such details to create a good Horror story, we still have a responsibility to remain truthful.
Indeed, perhaps we came to assume once too often, eventually even believing that within witnessing the local misappropriation of mummies for all manner of uses – including thatching roofs, grinding up as elixirs, as fertilizer, as a food condiment, locomotive fuel, and general disregard (Stephens x) – was an implied permission to further abuse the memories of those dead. But those who descend from a culture have their own ancestors to answer to in the end. And those who are not-so-related have an obligation to decency – even in fiction, which sometimes survives longer.
We may be better educated today, but Orientalism is, alas, not a thing of the past. And this has inhibited the creation of new (and better) Mummy stories. Rather than get our hands dirty by doing research and letting the truth inspire better told tales, we cling to our old, tried and true Orientalist tendencies. Or we remain silent entirely, moving on to other, more easily rendered monsters.
We prove it each time we refuse to educate ourselves on the wars in the Middle East, when we look at a Sikh and call him a Muslim, when we look at a Muslim and see a terrorist… even when we look at Native Americans and name sports teams after them. We are far from out of the woods… some days farther than others.
But the difference is that today if we write something and don’t properly vet the information, there are more people willing to stand up and call us out on our ignorance. That is scary if one thinks of creative writing as a place we can make facts up to carry the plot in a story about a real people, because that simply isn’t true.
It is daunting once one realizes how far out of our own depth we are when we write about other cultures. It should be.
And there are more people who are willing to really look at what our interpretation of Egyptian mythology and religion says about us… proving that turnabout is indeed, fair play…
When the internet happened, suddenly a lot of us discovered just what a minority we are in the scope of the world, and just how ignorant our own ignorance was making us appear to be.
It was the Mummy’s fault, of course. He’s been after us all for a long, long time. Perhaps it was all that glossed-over, rationalized grave robbing…
So we disappeared the Mummy partly in embarrassment.
Suddenly, there was no good way to tell a Mummy story without being politically incorrect. But instead of embracing that and re-working the Mummy stories into what they always were at heart – a really great ghost story – we just re-entombed him.
We recycled the old infused with new special effects, but we contributed nothing to the dialog…at least until Anne Rice tried her very adept hand in 1989. Yet still the Mummy did not seize our imaginations anymore.
We buried him with the truths science was bringing forth, allowing ourselves to be intrigued and amazed – but never to be outraged that we are circulating the bodies of the un-exhumed dead. Could it have been a wee bit of guilt?
Make no mistake. These are dead people. People consigned to the earth under the implicit promise we all expect to be honored that our eternal rest will not be disturbed…
What are we doing putting them on display?
And why do we assume that those so long dead are simply not aware, in whatever afterlife they may reside?
I cringe each time I see these exhibitions glorified…each time a tomb is discovered and opened. Granted, maybe it is watching too may Horror movies, maybe it is reading and writing far too much Horror…
But there are stories. True stories. And they should rattle your inner Mummy…Because if you are looking to write a new Mummy story, you don’t have to go farther than some real Ghost Stories..
The Black Hope Horror: a Modern Mummy Tale Without a Mummy
In 1982, they made a little summer blockbuster called Poltergeist. But what most people don’t know (or perhaps remember), is that the movie was loosely based on fact: that an entire modern housing area was built upon an old cemetery – a cemetery of a certain age and containing the remains of African Americans, some of whom were freed slaves. The movie had absolutely nothing to do with poltergeists. It had to do with what happened in real life: the disturbance of graves.
So old was the cemetery in question with the last burial in 1939, that developers decided it would be too expensive to relocate the graves and relatives too deceased themselves or too scattered to be the wiser. A wealthy subdivision was built in the 1980’s on what had once been the Black Hope Cemetery in Houston, Texas.
And the odd occurrences began almost immediately, accelerating for one family when they attempted to build a swimming pool. Some families were more troubled than others, some claim were never troubled. But the bottom line is that the incredible amount of alleged occurrences resulted in some of the most documented hauntings in modern American history.
The remains of Betty and Charlie Thomas were found in the Haney’s backyard
And unbeknownst to many, this is not an unusual circumstance – this desecration of old cemetery grounds in the U.S. by developers and energy companies. Older cemeteries in rural areas are often overtaken by modern greed when they are found to be neglected, or so old descendants are not to be found to defend them. A number of coal companies are watched quite suspiciously in the Midwest, with aging descendants worried about what happens when they themselves are no longer around to protect the family plot.
But would you believe that even within Black Hope, we hear this little parcel of Orientalism:
“Respect Houston is willing to move these graves to give them a proper burial,” she said, “provided we identify the people who are buried.”… http://www.chron.com/neighborhood/article/Black-Hope-horror-doesn-t-haunt-this-hood-9565799.php
Pardon me, but…they had a “proper burial.” The proper thing is to buy back the homes and raze the neighborhood. I don’t care how expensive it is. That is the “proper” thing to do because it doesn’t matter who these people were…they were people their community and loved ones buried. Period.
Yet these types of things are ongoing… Somewhere in the midst of our individual Orientalism we lost the respect for our own collective dead. Many of us just rationalize that “certain things must be done for the greater good” or that “the dead are dead and the living have needs that surpass promises made.”
One sees it all of the time in Horror fiction: the person who refuses to acknowledge a haunting because to do so means attrition must be made and compromise means loss; it is far easier to hope denial will make the facts go away.
Yet isn’t this fine fodder for any new Mummy? Because isn’t the message the same?
Building a Better Mummy
Why did the Mummy go away in Horror fiction? The answer is because as he was, we out-grew him. The caricatures and racist overtures were embarrassing if not self-implicating. And as the world began to merge with social media and a cacophony of international voices found their stages, it was quickly apparent that we could no longer expect to just make things up and not be called on it. Justice for the Mummy came on the wings of the internet…
Thank heaven for Paula Guran and the Mammoth Book imprint. At last we now have a modern anthology of Mummy tales that manages to “go beyond” a bit, encasing a little less orientalism – provided you don’t look too close at the cover (if you modernize a mummy, you shouldn’t cheapen the effort by abandoning harmless yet important factual detail by using gauze to do it)… Overall I liked this collection – especially because of the attempt to recapture the “spirit” of the monster in more contemporary ways.
The Mammoth Book of the Mummy: 19 Tales of the Immortal Dead is long overdue, and although “padded” with older tales, offers some new versions of the story…But then many of us stay away from the Mummy, worried no doubt about the ease of misrepresentation. This collection proves we are at least trying to get there. And I for one challenge writers to try their hands at a good Mummy story… a good don’t disturb-the-sleeping-dead story… because they are indeed harder to write well today.
But be respectful. First, be human. Then, be civilized.
What is not-human is willingness to disturb, to rob, to steal the tiny real estate that is a gravesite for fame and monetary gain.
What is not-civilized is to parade about the body parts like those individuals have forfeited their right to peace and respect by the lack of living guardian-relatives.
It’s more than time for new Mummy tales. It’s time for a reiteration of the real message hanging blatantly beyond cheap shot summer blockbusters and tomb raiding which we continue to accept because we employ scientists to do it on our behalf. We are just not “entitled” to dig up dead people to satisfy our curiosity. And if we can’t academically help ourselves, we should respectfully study, document, photograph and return such remains to their rightful tombs.
It really is time we lived up to what we claimed – that we just wanted to learn about these people and their culture, no harm intended.
Those Mummies have told us their tales. It was amazing. I am grateful. Now put those people back. And it wouldn’t hurt to apologize – especially for whatever Tom Cruise is about to do.
The fact is, the Mummy ‘s tale is far from finished. We have merely begun to scratch the surface of what it means to disturb the dead no matter how long they have been put to rest.
Within these parameters the Mummy could not be more timely – right now when the populations of many cities in many countries are overflowing, and the demand for real estate to accommodate housing and the growing of food has never been more pressing, when wars and atrocities spring up like weeds in spring. We are no longer at liberty to not-reside in properties that have not seen death, and we are like the ancient Egyptians before us, running out of places to bury people, have lost track of old cemeteries, have lost records of old murders and battles and tragedies. We are going to have to rediscover what it means to live alongside our legacies – the good and the bad – to appease angry spirits of those we might well offend.
Surely there is a great Mummy story in that. Because even now we are so not without blemish…And the reason it should haunt us is a human one. A primal one.
Make no mistake. Treating corpses like “things” is a slippery slope…first it is an unwrapping party, then it is digging for coal under great, great grandma… or building houses on old black cemeteries…
Eternal rest. Now that’s an entitlement no matter who you are.
Guran, Paula, ed. The Mammoth Book of the Mummy: 19 Tales of the Immortal Dead. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2017
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, c1979
Stephens, John Richard. “The Truth of the Mummy’s Curse” (introduction). Into the Mummy’s Tomb. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., c2006, 1999
Weigall, Arthur. “The Malevolence of Ancient Egyptian Spirits.” ). Into the Mummy’s Tomb. Edited by John Richard Stephens. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., c2006, 1999