“It’s a fairly gruesome process that would’ve involved removal of the brain through the nose. They would then have removed the internal organs - the viscera,” says John J Johnson of the Egypt Exploration Society, describing the intricate process of ancient Egyptian mummification. "The body would then be washed and covered in oils.”
The curse of Tutankhamun supposedly resulted in real deaths
Ninety-five years have passed since the excavation of the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun and the event continues to provoke mythological fascination. It fueled film-makers’ imaginations, manifesting in a malevolent, bandaged brute that enacted murderous revenge in retaliation for cultural desecration and forbidden love.
A largely cinematic fabrication, the reanimated mummy was inspired by the alleged Curse of Tutankhamun. According to newspaper reports in the early 1920s it resulted in early deaths of several people connected to British archaeologist Howard Carter’s 1922 Valley of the Kings expedition, including its wealthy financial backer Lord Carnarvon, who died of an infected mosquito bite the same year.
Sharing similarities to other semi-tragic undead screen monstrosities like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, the mournful threat of the mummy is arguably more deeply engrained in our collective consciousness due to the real unearthing of Tutankhamun, rather than the literary antecedents of the other characters.
Following the media frenzy around the excavation, a particular idea of Egypt took hold in the popular imagination and fed into the development of the architectural style, Art Deco. American movie houses of the 1920s were typically adorned with extravagant Egyptian décor that mimicked the imagined opulence of the ancient culture. Capitalising on this eruption of Egyptomania, Universal Studios unleashed The Mummy on cinemagoers in 1932.
Boris Karloff famously played the mummified high priest Imhotep, who is inadvertently brought back to life by the reading of a magical scroll. Posing as a modern Egyptian, Imhotep becomes convinced his lost love Ankh-es-en-amon, (named after Ankhesenamun, the half-sister and wife of King Tut) has been reincarnated as a woman who bears a striking likeness to his deceased princess. It was escapist entertainment for audiences living through the Great Depression.
The 1932 film is a cautionary tale for meddling with a foreign culture and its ancient customs
Lending the project an element of legitimacy, the film’s screenwriter John L Balderston had been a news correspondent who had reported on the opening of King Tut’s tomb. At its essence this atmospheric, primarily psychological film – directed by the German expressionist cinematographer Karl Freund – serves as a cautionary tale for meddling with a foreign culture and their ancient customs.
It took another eight years before the next mummy film from Universal surfaced. The Mummy’s Hand (1940) was the first in a reimagined but decidedly dumbed-down franchise. Despite popular belief, Karloff actually only appears as the titular bandaged being during the memorably unnerving 10-minute opening of the original film: it was only in the follow-ups that the revived creature became the lumbering threat we know today. The idea of a mobile mummy would have been totally alien to the ancient Egyptians and goes against the entire concept of mummification, sought to preserve the dead for a still and peaceful afterlife.
Unwrapping a legend
Hammer Studios brought the mummy back to fearsome life with Terence Fisher’s The Mummy in 1959, a film that honoured the original legend and recognised the creature’s romantic appeal by reinstating an Ankhesenamun figure named Princess Ananka, (Yvonne Furneaux). Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster borrowed from Universal’s uneven sequels and adopted the moniker Kharis for the towering creature (Christopher Lee) having mistakenly presumed it was the name of a real Egyptian god.
A deadly curse also plagues a team of archaeologists in Hammer’s subsequent outing, The Mummy’s Shroud (1967): they are murdered one-by-one by their reanimated discovery. This also includes their financial backer – an arrogant caricature of the ill-fated Lord Carnarvon.
A beautiful but deadly Egyptian queen and her modern reincarnation (both played by Valerie Leon) replace the conventional mummy in Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb (1971), an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars. This film appeared to be plagued by a curse of its own. Five weeks into production, director Seth Holt suddenly died from a heart attack. Furthermore Peter Cushing was cast as Leon’s father but was shortly replaced after the unexpected death of his beloved wife.
Having clearly exhausted the material, (and after possibly aggravating the pharaohs enough) there wouldn’t be another mainstream mummy film until the turn of the century. However, in the interim, some fantasy adventure films drew on Egyptian culture, mummification and the excavation of ancient artefacts.
Spielberg’s first Indiana Jones adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) hinged on the search for the Ark of the Covenant in Egypt. The film-maker also notably produced Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), which centred on the budding sleuth uncovering an underground Egyptian cult who mummify live human sacrifices as part of their sadistic ritual. Roland Emmerich’s Stargate (1994) concerned the gateway to a distant planet that mirrored ancient Egypt and played upon its exotic lure and despotic history with an alien masquerading as the Egyptian god Ra.
The dawn of the 21st Century ushered in a whole new mummy franchise (1999-2008) that starred Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz and reverted back to the legend of Imhotep.
“Most of this movie is based on real myths and real legends even though it’s a story about a 3,000-year-old walking, talking corpse,” claimed director Stephen Sommers of the first campy film in the series. The story hinges on the unintentionally awakened shape shifting creature that summons the ‘ten plagues of Egypt’. While audiences felt pity for Karloff’s mummy, in this remake he was a fully-fledged antagonist, totally devoid of sympathy. It didn’t make a difference to the box office and two further adventures were exhumed.
Judging from the trailer to the Tom Cruise-powered franchise-building Mummy revamp, it looks likely the retribution this time will erupt from an accidentally discovered mummified ancient sorceress (Sofia Boutella) who murdered her father. Even if this film disappoints, the mummy certainly won’t be done lumbering toward cinema screens anytime soon.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.