Monday, October 24, 2011

The Curse and the Mummy

What is really fantastic about director Karl Freund's 1932 classic horror film The Mummy is that it so radically breaks with traditional themes while still retaining all the best of the horror genre: while there is still fear, suspense and the encroaching great 'unknown,' it doesn't utilize the horror genre as a vehicle for sexual pathos the way most horrors do, but it is definitely about pathos and resurrection.
It doesn't take much to figure out that Boris Karloff plays the mummy, Imhotep (and after he's "resurrected," he goes by the name of Ardeth Bey). Archaeologists have discovered the sacred Scroll of Thoth which gives life back to the dead, and the young archaeologist can't wait to find out what it means: transliterating the hierogylps, he merely utters the words and that is enough to give "the breath of life" back to a mummy dead for thousands of years. Taking the scroll with him, Imhotep plans to find his love, the Egyptian princess who's spirit is now in Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). Helen both wants to give herself up to Ardeth Bey and his plan to kill her and then resurrect her through the same means that he himself was resurrected, but she also wants to live and be of her own time.
At the moment the mummy regains life and steals the Scroll of Thoth.
In 1932, what had died and needed to be resurrected?
The American Economy.
In the early 1930's, the world-wide Great Depression was here to stay and people everywhere were realizing it. The American economy had bottomed out from a huge percentage of unemployed and poor. At dire times such as these, people begin to question and examine, "What went wrong?" "How did we get here?" and from what's going on in today's economy, we all know the dark, ugly truth of that. The Mummy was one of many films exploring some of the options and fears of American's at that moment in history.
Bread and soup line during the Great Depression in America.
Imhotep, a priest during the ancient golden era of Egypt, symbolizes the founding fathers of America's golden era, the Revolution. The team of archaeologists who dig him up? Economists and historians in the 1930s trying to figure out where we had been, so they could tell us how we got here. The Scroll of Thoth? The great American Constitution. That single document, more than any other, that gave life to this nation and it's principles is still the soul of this country to this day. When colonial America was nearly dead from the "grip of taxation," under the "British yoke of tyranny," it was the words of Thomas Jefferson who revived the broken spirit and led us onto win the War for Independence.
Imhotep as a high priest in ancient Egypt.
And that was their time.
They were the ones who had it in them to get this country through those struggles and trials. The Mummy seems to be saying that, "This is our time, and we have it in us to get out of it and to the place we need to be." The great love that Imhotep has for his princess symbolizes the love the founding fathers had for this country: they all risked being hanged for treason and losing their family and wealth, so they truly sacrificed everything as Imhotep did for the princess. We should follow their example, but not necessarily them, because to utter words "too dark," would be, like the young archaeologist, to resurrect them unwittingly, and they have no more place in today's world than one of us being transported back into their world would have.
So how does it translate symbolically that Imhotep was buried alive, to be dead even in death?
We buried the founding fathers the same way: they weren't treated as the regular dead, they were left intact, all their writings and ideas, their goals and their achievements; the punishment is, we won't let them rest in peace. When our times get particularly troubled, we tend to invoke them, "resurrecting them from the dead," disturbing their peace. Most of us would say this isn't a bad thing, it's a sign of reverence and honor to seek out their wisdom from their experience. But each time we resurrect them, we graft something of ourselves onto them, we destroy the real "them" in some way and reshape them by the standards and ides of our own time. 
But that's not the only thing that happens.
Helen Grosvenor wearing the trappings of an Egyptian princess.
As The Mummy makes all too clear, those who are resurrected, want to make us as they were.
There are two important traits about Helen, who embodies the spirit of the the princess Imhotep loved, that we should note: first, she's half English and half Egyptian and she's under treatment for a disorder that is never elaborated upon. That she is half and half translates to her being "half modern and half ancient": when Imhotep calls her to come to him so he can tell her what his plan is, she enters his dwelling and exclaims, "This is old Egypt," and she easily succumbs to the romanticism of the "old ways."
But when he makes it known to her the gruesome death she's going to have to undergo to be "eternally united" with him, the half of her that is modern wakes up and realizes that she wants to live in her own time, her own life that is in the now. "He's going to kill her, and make her a living mummy like himself," and that is what would happen if the founding fathers were resurrected. The Mummy is a great horror film because it shows us the consequences of our wish: if only President Washington was still alive, this wouldn't still be going on! But if he were alive, what would he want in return?....At this point in American politics, many are willingly saying, "I don't care! Give him whatever he would want!" But that would be to miss the point of why they sacrificed so much for our country, so that we could be free to make our own way.
Ready to kill Helen as her "mummy" burns in the background.
But what about her disorder?
She is undergoing treatment but it is never revealed what that treatment is for, which translates symbolically into the American economy that needed "treatment" for crashing the stock market into the ground and using unsound financial principles to guide the country. Because of the horror she undergoes with Ardeth Bey wanting her to be united with him, she makes a definite stand to live in her own identity, in her own time. This basic philosophical commitment to her own individuation is what "cures her" of whatever ailment she had, and this worked on the American economy to live up to the moment (which happened to be World War II) and that's what it's going to take for us today.
This is the priceless image of the film: the eyes of the Mummy. Like the entrancing stare of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), film makers in the early 1930s were invoking the ambiguous but important territory of the soul, as claimed by evil, or claimed by good, to really enthrall audiences. In both Dracula and the Mummy, the eyes--as they always do--symbolize the soul, and in these cases, they are souls given up to evil, and the power of their evil souls is stronger than the good in other souls, and that's how they are able to control weak people with their eyes. The message is, build up your soul so you can't be controlled like the ones you see in this film. They don't make public service announcements like that anymore.
So what is "the curse of the mummy?"
That each generation will make its own mistakes, but will necessarily overcome them. The mummy might put a curse on anyone that won't permit it to resurrect the one that it loved, but we have the overwhelming burden of our own identities to bear and explore, to fulfill and realize. As existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, "We are condemned to be free," and that is the curse which each generation bears under the darkest scrutiny of previous generations and those still to come. That is the "death and eternal punishment" of anyone who opens the casket, that you lose your own identity and the chance of being forged in the fire of trials in the making of your own self to resurrect those who have gone before you.