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Boris Karloff as the "Other" in The Mummy

When you think of the Universal Classic Monsters, who comes to mind? Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and his Bride, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, perhaps even the Wolf Man. But how often does the Mummy feature in your thoughts? Unless you’re a horror aficionado, a die-hard Karloff fan, or grew up obsessed with ancient Egypt like I did (I legitimately wanted to transform my bedroom into a Pharoah’s tomb. Don’t judge me, dear reader), the Mummy is probably the last one to make an appearance in the pantheon of monsters. 

Boris Karloff as Imhotep in The Mummy

Which, when you think about it, is odd. It features one of the most iconic horror stars of all time - William Henry Pratt AKA Boris Karloff - who had just starred in the hugely successful ‘Frankenstein’ adaptation the previous year, so the actor portraying the monster was already well-known to audiences. Despite this, ‘The Mummy’ had a budget $132,000 less than ‘The Invisible Man’ which was released the following year and starred Claude Rains, a theatre actor who had never acted on screen before and was unfamiliar to a majority of the audience. This budget was likely due to the special effects required to bring that story to life, but that is still a huge difference in production value, given how big of a star Karloff had become in such a short space of time and how invaluable he was to Carl Laemmle Jr. and his studio. 

Perhaps you could be forgiven for forgetting ‘The Mummy’ had it been released almost two decades after the big hitters, like ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’, but the amphibious humanoid known as Gill-Man is often cited alongside his 1930s horror stars. Or perhaps you could be forgiven if the story was outlandish, badly written, or downright forgettable. But in actuality, it is incredibly similar to ‘Dracula’, which did extremely well at the box office and continues to fascinate horror fans today, in its narrative devices and story beats. Undead male monster with hypnotic powers? Check. Born sometime in the past, with the film beginning in their ancestral home before they travel to an urban city? Check. A young human woman as the object of the monster’s desires? Check. Confrontation with white Westerners and their older, knowledgeable expert? Check. The heroes track the monster back to his lair and vanquish him, thus reestablishing the ‘natural’ order of things? Check. 

Some critics argue that ‘The Mummy’ is not as appreciated as its horror siblings because it lacks literary weighting. There is no book upon which it’s based, unlike ‘Dracula’, ‘Frankenstein’, or ‘The Invisible Man’. True, there were stories of ancient Egyptian mummies coming back to life by respected authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle (Lot No. 249 and The Ring of Thoth), Louisa May Alcott Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy's Curse), and even Houdini (Imprisoned with the Pharaohs was actually ghostwritten by H.P. Lovecraft) but the on-screen story of ‘The Mummy’ can’t be traced back to one singular piece of literature. It also lacks the B-movie quirkiness that make ‘The Wolf Man’ and ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ so of their time, and therefore so endearing. 

This lack of appreciation is underserved, for ‘The Mummy’ offers us something so worthy of note. Not only is it visually beautiful and shot with artistic, almost romantic expertise – William K. Everson claimed that it is the "closest that Hollywood ever came to creating a poem out of horror" – but it is one of the earliest examples, if not the most famous of the early Talkies, of the Oriental Other in the on-screen horror genre. The term Oriental is terribly outdated, so it will be used sparingly, but it is this exploration of this specific type of Othering that makes ‘The Mummy’ so deserving of our appreciation. 

Join us as we explore the cultural and production context of ‘The Mummy’, and how its exploration of the Other was so well executed. 

Cultural & Production Context: The Making of The Mummy

“Burn the scroll, man. Burn it! It was through you this horror came into existence” – Doctor Muller (The Mummy, 1932)

In 1922, the cultural phenomena known as Egyptomania reached a fever pitch with Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. 

While there had been some ancient Egypt enthusiasts in the Western world during Napoleon’s military campaign there in 1798, the notion of Egyptomania really began when Jean-François Champollion successfully translated Egyptian hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone in 1822. The Georgians were among the first to become enamoured with the ancient culture, with various Romantic books being written about mummies and mummy unwrapping parties (yes, they’re a real thing) being conducted in the heart of London, but it was with the Victorians, with their love for the macabre, that it became a full-blown cultural phenomenon. While the artwork, architecture, and intriguing polytheistic religions were fascinating to the Victorians, their main interests were the techniques of ancient body preservation. Dozens of expeditions were launched to expand their knowledge of the practice, with archaeologists successfully discovering the tombs of Ramses II, Ahmose, Thutmose III, and Seti I. 

Boris Karloff as Imhotep in The Mummy

Mummies fascinated writers as equally as the general public. Stories featuring them were published regularly, including one of the first science fiction novels, a spiritual companion to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, Jane Webb's ‘The Mummy!’, Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Some Words with a Mummy’, and Bram Stoker’s ‘The Jewell of the Seven Stars’. The horror in these stories was hinted at, rather than being blatantly obvious. It was not until Conan Doyle picked up his pen again in 1892 to write ‘Lot No. 249’ that the mummy’s potential as a frightening and threatening antagonist were explored. Set in the world-renowned Oxford University, the story follows the exploits of Edward Bellingham, a passionate Egyptology student who owns many ancient Egyptian artefacts, including a mummy he purchased at an auction sale (yes, that also really did happen). It soon becomes clear that Bellingham has brought the ancient corpse back to life and is using it to attack his antagonists. 

This horrifying idea of the mummy as a threat soon became a (supposed) reality. When Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb twenty years after the publication of ‘Lot No. 249’, the public were bombarded with reports of ancient curses. George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, an amateur Egyptologist who funded and attended the excavation, died the following year, and it was quickly surmised that he had fallen victim to the Curse of Tutankhamun. This was unhelpfully encouraged by none other than Conan Doyle himself, who said that the death had been caused by ‘elementals’ (he did not elaborate) created by the Pharoah’s priests to guard the royal tomb. Conan Doyle’s belief in the curse was supported by his experience with the death of his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who he believed was cursed after investigating an ancient Egyptian artefact known as the Unlucky Mummy in 1904. 

Obviously, none of this was true. Lord Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito while in the Valley of the Kings, and it soon became severely infected after the bite was cut with a razor. This led to death by way of blood poisoning and pneumonia. A painful way to go, but in no way supernatural. And with regards to ancient Egyptian curses, their inclusion in Pharoah burials is exceedingly rare because the idea of desecrating a tomb was so beyond reprehensible to the Egyptian people that including a curse as punishment for doing so was barely a consideration. The madness of Egyptomania was still very much in the public eye in the early 1930s, when Universal began making their monster movies. Following the huge, and surprising success of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, Universal Studios capitalised on this new thirst for on-screen horror, with producer Carl Laemmle setting his sights on producing more overt horror. In 1931, two of the best-known horror films were released – ‘Dracula’, starring Bela Lugosi, who up until that point was most famous for his on-stage portrayal of the Count, and ‘Frankenstein’, starring the relatively unknown Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster. These films did amazingly well at the box office and cemented Lugosi and Karloff’s status as iconic horror stars. 

Horror became popular genre in the 1930s. After the decadent madness of the Roaring Twenties, a veil of uncertainty permeated America with the Great Depression. Horror provided a much-needed note of certainty. In his groundbreaking book 'The Philosophy of Horror', Noël Carroll explained that: 

‘Horror can be easily the mouthpiece of the status quo. Horror became a major genre because it’s not so much a genre of chaos as it is a genre of containment. The primary question [posed by early horror films] was often how do we contain things that might erupt or challenge the status quo? During the Depression, you might think that audiences facing economic ruin wouldn’t want horror films, but horror gave them that fantasy of control. It’s actually quite a comforting genre.’

‘The Mummy’ is an interesting addition to the Universal Monster franchise because it wasn’t based on a single work of classic literature. Rather, it drew inspiration from the modern day by directly referencing what was popular at the time – ancient Egyptian mummies. Inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s discovery ten years previously, Universal viewed a tale of ancient evil returning from the grave for directed, deliberate revenge, only to be vanquished by the ‘forward thinking and modern’ West, as a massive draw for audiences. 

Universal hired Karl Freund to direct. Freund had been a cinematographer in Germany, working within the artistic German Expressionist movement on films such as ‘Metropolis’, ‘The Golem’, and ‘The Last Laugh’. He had moved to the US and had already worked on horror pictures, including ‘Dracula’ and ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, so he was well versed in cinematic language. While he had directed numerous shorts and one major film prior to ‘The Mummy’, this was his first credit as sole director of an American picture. He was known for his ability to create eerie and atmospheric works on screen, utilizing chiaroscuro lighting techniques and mobile cameras. 

The screenplay was written by John L. Balderston, who had also previously worked on ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ stage adaptations. Balderston was also intimately familiar with the subject matter at hand because he had broken the story of Tutankhamun’s discovery for The New York World. To add historical weight to the story, Balderston created the Scroll of Thoth, a fictionalized version of the ancient Egyptian’s Book of the Dead, as a way to bring the Mummy Imhotep back from the dead and named the love interest Ankh-esen-amun after Tutankhamun’s first and only wife. 

Jack Pierce removing make-up from Boris Karloff on The Mummy

Universal hired Karloff as the Mummy, following his success with portraying Frankenstein’s Monster. Karloff, though in real life a kind-hearted and soft-spoken man, was tall and imposing on screen, and had a way of making even the most heinous characters feel human and evoke sympathy. To create his look, one Karloff called ‘the most trying ordeal’ of his life, Universal brought in make-up artist Jack Pierce, who was renowned for his talents and had already worked with Karloff in 'Frankenstein'. Universal has assembled the perfect team to bring this tale to life. 

Karloff’s Mummy as the Ultimate Other 

Aside from the visual aesthetic of ‘The Mummy’, the most enduring part of its legacy is Karloff’s portrayal as the Mummy as an Othered Monster. The word ‘monster’ is likely a contraction of the Latin words ‘monstrate’, which means to show, display, or demonstrate, and ‘monere’, which means ‘to warn’. Monsters, therefore, serve as warnings. Warnings, usually, of the consequences of immoral, sinful acts, making them valuable tools in upholding hierarchies and social norms. They can also be warnings of things that are offensive to us all, something utterly primal. Arguably, utterly abject. 

Abject monsters, according to Julia Kristeva in her groundbreaking work ‘Powers of Horror’, produce a "bodily affect, moments of physical revulsion and disgust", a bodily reaction to substances that provoke our subconscious fear of disease, death, and decay, such as ‘excrement, blood, and pus’. Gross, I know, but stay with me. Therein lies the difference between horror and terror – horror is about the ick factor, the physical body horror (think classic slashers) whereas terror is about the feeling something invokes (think ghost stories or the psychological works of Val Lewton). 

What makes monsters on screen so effective is that they often combine horror and terror, producing an overwhelming physical and emotional reaction from us. These reactions exist because the abjection we’re exposed to ignites an existential terror within us because it plays with the boundaries of the Self and the Other – the Self being us, our experiences, what we know, and the Other, something outside ourselves, unknowable, and therefore frightening and threatening to our sense of order. Monsters are the ultimate Others because they are not only physically different – vampires cannot die and feed off us, werewolves are more beast than man – but they undermine the idea of structure and order of our society, something that has been created to keep us safe. 

What makes Karloff’s portrayal of the Mummy so effective is that he is not only physically Othered in that he is a dead man who has been brought back to life – messing with the natural order of life and death – but that he is an Oriental or Eastern Other, framed in a monstrous way by the Western characters in the film itself. He’s not just an undead monster, he is a foreign undead monster. 

So what? I hear you. So is Dracula. Dracula is Transylvanian and undead, so why is the Mummy more frightening to us? Well, it’s because while Dracula is driven by sex and lust outside marriage (which, yes, was deemed sinful during the time of the source material and the 1931 film adaptation), his desires are wholly physical and selfish. Dracula wants blood and sex, that’s it. He does not care about killing (it is sometimes a byproduct of his desire for blood but it’s not his end goal) or about conquering an empire (though it has been suggested by scholars that Dracula is a metaphor for an invading East, but that’s a whole other argument). Dracula wants what Dracula wants, and that’s it. The mummy, however, is driven, it is purposeful in its vengeance. It has been awakened from a sacred slumber – its body was dead, its soul in the afterlife – and it has been cruelly snatched back into the land of the living by the selfish (and in the case of the archaeologists in the film, stupid and naïve) acts of those who have desecrated its final resting place. You’d be angry too. And not only that. Dracula is attractive in his immortal life. He’s desirable, a sexual object that draws his prey to him. The mummy is often physically repulsive, harking back to Kristeva’s notion of the abject fear associated with disease, death, and decay. The mummy essentially fulfils what Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc call ‘a ritual function’ that helps us ‘come to terms with death by offering a worse alternative to it’. Vampirism is appealing, being a mummy is not. 

Boris Karloff & Zita Johann in The Mummy

Everything about Karloff’s mummy is Othered as an Eastern monster because the Westerners in this film view anything outside themselves as frightening and threatening. American academic Judith Halberstam has stated that ‘monstrosity (and the fear it gives ride to) is historically conditioned rather than a psychological universal’, and that is certainly true in this context. Karloff’s mummy, and the Egyptian setting itself, is infused with subconscious Western biases about the East. 

Everything in this film is about creating an ‘us versus them/it’ mentality, and it’s not a new concept. The reason the West felt so vindicated in their colonization of Eastern countries was their deeply held belief that they were more intelligent, more evolved than their Eastern counterparts. They had a right to pillage their land and take what they wanted, because they had evolved and modernized, whereas the East had remained stubbornly stuck in the past. Some even reasoned that they were doing this to help the East (though how true this was remains a contentious issue). 

This belief extended to cinematic representations of the East. According to Mark A. Hall, of the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, film portrayals of Egypt "often deal with themes of appropriating and controlling the dangers of non-European cultures, or deal with the past if it relates to legend and superstition". This works in a horror film context because it can paint the East as primitive for believing in legend and superstition while highlighting the hubris of the Western archaeologists, who read the incantation to bring Imhotep back to life, assuming that it is all ‘silly superstition’, paying no respect to the beliefs or culture of the people in who’s land they stand. Imhotep coming back to life and killing them is a punishment for their assumption that their culture is the only correct one. This works on two levels, for it shows that obviously not one culture is correct, but it still paints the mummy, and by extension the East he represents, as beastly, un-evolved, therefore reinforcing the idea of the Other and justifying its destruction by Westerners all the same. 

Still with me? Good. 

Boris Karloff & Bramwell Fletcher in The Mummy

The film leans into the idea that, according to Caroline T. Schroder, author of ‘Ancient Egyptian Religion on the Silver Screen: Modern Anxieties about Race, Ethnicity, and Religion’, "Egypt is a place of dark mystery and superstition, contrasted to the West’s allegiance to the clarity of science and logic". It "contrasts Western science and rationality with not only ancient Egyptian magical religion but also modern Egyptian mysticism and superstition". Director Karl Freund creates an Egypt full of foreboding, a place to be feared, with slow but purposeful camera movements to heighten the anxiety and anticipation.

Karloff’s mummy does not have a typical ‘big reveal’. Rather, he stands immobile in the background while the archaeologists admire their discoveries. He is not a threat – yet. It is only after the curse, which they do not believe in, is read aloud that Karloff’s mummy slowly comes back to life. The camera moves agonizingly slowly, Freund using close-ups of his eyes opening, his grotesque rotting hand falling from its placement on its chest, all the while cutting to the archaeologist reading in the same room, who is none-the-wiser. There is also no non-diegetic sound, just the sound of the archaeologist writing and the sound of the bandages and heavy body parts falling and moving. It’s all about tension. 

We do not get to see the mummy in its entirely, we see only snippets, but it’s more than enough. What we can imagine is far worse than what we can see. A mid-shot of the archaeologist shows the mummy’s hand coming in from outside the frame, a symbolic intrusion on the natural order of life and death, and terrifying the archaeologist, who is reduced to hysterical peels of laughter as the sight of the mummy drives him mad (not too far removed from the Lovecraftian approach of showing people’s reaction to the frightening thing, rather than the frightening thing itself). It is exceedingly clever. 

Throughout the film, we don’t see Karloff as the mummy, but rather as Imhotep in his human form. He contrasts the Americans in their crisp white tuxes with his own traditional Egyptian dress, and his ability to control those in the household of Egyptian blood, using similar eye lighting techniques as those in ‘Dracula’ and ‘White Zombie’, highlights Imhotep mystical powers, which makes the Westerners feel powerless and out of their depth. 

Everything about Imhotep, from his appearance to his actions, are magical manipulations. The archaeologists can’t rationalize it with science and logic; this man, this dead man, has been brought back to life. He should be rotting but isn’t, and it’s right in front of their eyes. There is a certain irony the Christians would be so frightened by someone coming back to life when their religion is primarily based on the fact that their savior came back to life, but it just reinforces their arrogance and domineering attitude towards other cultures and religions – someone of their religion can be resurrected, someone of a polytheistic ancient one can’t. The lack of scientific explanation for Imhotep’s resurrection fuels their fear, as does their lack of understanding about the power of ancient Egyptian mysticism. And rather than try to understand how it works, they destroy Imhotep because he is not what he is supposed to be. He is alive when he should be dead, therefore they must destroy him to restore the natural order and make everything as it should be. 

Boris Karloff as Imhotep in The Mummy

Imhotep is eventually vanquished, but not by the Westerners. They are largely useless in this film, unlike in ‘Dracula’ where they are active participants in the Count’s defeat. In ‘The Mummy’, Imhotep is stopped when the Egyptian Goddess Isis sets the Scroll of Thoth on fire, which breaks the resurrection spell and sends Imhotep’s soul back to the afterlife. Freund captures the rapid, abject decay of Imhotep’s body, as his skin disintegrates, revealing his skull, before crumbling to dust. 

While his body and soul may be gone, the threat lingers – other scrolls such as Thoth’s may still exist, leaving open the possibility that a monster such as Imhotep may rise again, and how will they vanquish them? The Westerner’s science and logic, so helpful in ‘Dracula’, meant nothing in ‘The Mummy’. Everything in ‘The Mummy’ has a lingering overture of threat, of fear, and it is Freund and Karloff’s depiction of it that makes it so effective. It’s why, out of all the Universal Monsters, that I think ‘The Mummy’ is the most frightening. It deserves to be appreciated for its exploration of Othering, and the legacy it left behind for other horror filmmakers.

-Victoria Brown


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