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Why We'll Always Want Mummy (How King Tut Invented the Slasher Film)

Posted: 04/12/2012 13:11

By James Goss author of The Race Of Scorpions (A Lady Serpent Egyptian Murder Story)

Ninety years ago this month, the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in the Valley of the Kings. Instantly, Tutmania swept around the world. A decade later, the dead pharaoh arrived in Hollywood and changed the shape of the horror film for ever.

When King Tut's tomb was opened, the world was fascinated by the sight of these chambers, sealed forever, waiting for the King to reawaken. Cheated of a proper afterlife, it didn't take long for the world to invent one for Tutankhamun. Frenzied rumours spread of a (made-up) curse killing off the archaeologists who'd opened the tomb ("Death shall come on swift wings to all who enter this tomb"). From this curse came the idea of 1932's The Mummy. Frankenstein's Monster was misunderstood, Dracula was peckish, but the Mummy was angry.

The Mummy laid down the pattern for the "revenge from beyond the grave" movie - in which a disfigured serial killer hunts down a succession of victims, and single women should be afraid, very afraid. As well as spawning countless remakes and sequels, The Mummy also gave birth to such unkillable creatures as Friday 13th's Jason, Halloween's Michael Myers, and even the notorious Leprechaun (star of such films as Leprechaun IV: Lep In Da Hood). All share the central idea behind The Mummy - that, if a character's story is good enough, death is not necessarily the end.

The world gazed at the remarkably-preserved corpse of young Tutankhamun and speculated that it was almost plausible that it could live again. Often concealed like the Phantom of the Opera, The Mummy set the trend for serial killers hiding their mad staring eyes behind a mask that would later be taken up in everything from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to the Halloween films.

Similarly, the relentless, almost laughable unkillability of the villains in these films owes a lot to The Mummy - if he has been reincarnated once, why not keep coming back for more? As long as there are victims, and a plausible enough excuse for a curse, then there's no reason why death shouldn't keep coming on swift wings.

But what about the victims? The original Mummy was unjustly killed and out for revenge (becoming, over quite a few follow-ups, the bandaged serial killer). Although there wasn't really a Curse of Tutankhamun (the tomb's discoverer, Howard Carter, lived to a bitter old age), the Ancient Egyptians handed out terrible tortures to grave robbers in this world and the next. A classic Mummy film sees a succession of archaeologists suffering for their work. This gradually evolves into the archetypal horror film where bad things happen to a group of co-workers (be they the scientists who discover a long-crashed space ship in the Arctic in The Thing, or the negligent summer camp teachers in Friday the 13th).

The Mummy also sets the precedent for a shambling-gaited undead menace, in many ways a template for the classic zombie. While zombies are after your brains, many Mummy films have also seen the central figure driven by a need to rebuild himself by harvesting the internal organs of his victims.

And, finally, there's the power of Love. The 1920s press decided that Tutankhamun died from love and hate (it's possible he was bumped off in a palace coup so that his political rival could marry his queen). The 1932 Mummy is looking for the reincarnation of his lost love. She's both virginal and uninterested. Look at the last person standing in your favourite horror films - whether it's Sigourney Weaver at the end of Alien or Jamie Lee Curtis at the end of Halloween - could they be the reincarnation of Tutankhamun's wife?

James Goss is author of The Race Of Scorpions (A Lady Serpent Egyptian Murder Story) published by Endeavour Press.

 

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