The Mummy: The Degradation of Culture

A popular debate in modern culture is the need for accurate representation of ethnic cultures in shows and movies. It is not unknown the lack of accurate representation and also potentially the distortion of certain culture’s beliefs in various film medias. This brings up the question: Can a show/film really influence an audiences’ perception of a culture that is generally not well known by most Americans in a negative way? This is an important question to examine since shows and films can potentially have an influence on how people perceives a certain culture. This only happens if the audience doesn’t have much prior knowledge on the culture that is being presented. But the current debate about representation has argued that films have been detrimental on how people view a different culture. This issue is especially predominant in representation of Asian, Middle Eastern, and African cultures. Modern and past films have been shown to show those three general cultures with a negative perception. To answer this question – I will be using Karl Freund’s famous horror movie, The Mummy to explain that the film had a negative impact on the audience’s perception of Ancient Egyptian culture.
themummycover(This is the movie cover for The Mummy – image provided by IMDB) . 

Even before viewing the movie – I found it perplexing that the movie obviously belongs in the horror genre. This already foreshadows to the audience that the Ancient Egyptian culture that will be shown will be manipulated in some way to match the horror theme that Freund tries to create. The main catch title of the movie “It Comes to Life!” (A blatant reference to Mary Shelley’s famous monstrosity in her novel Frankenstein) also immediately sets the tone that the mummy will be causing some sort of destruction or terror in the movie. From how the movie has been advertised/presented sets the immediate tone that an important aspect of Ancient Egyptian culture will be distorted to match the horror genre that Freund desires.

In the beginning of the movie, the mummy Imhotep is brought to life when archaeologist, Sir Joseph Whemple’s assistant Ralph Norton reads a scroll that is a resurrection spell. The mummy Imhotep then escapes and goes into hiding for ten years in hopes to resurrect his lover: Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. Though Imhotep causes no real problem in the beginning of the movie – it is not a real mystery for the audience to figure out that he will be the horrific monster. imhotepAlready in this first few minutes – we see a degradation of Imhotep’s true character and his achievements.

(Screenshot of Imhotep’s first movements post revitalization after the spell is read – image provided by Geek Tyrant)

In  history, Imhotep was in reality a successful and renowned architect and priest. He’s known to be the main architect for the first step pyramids in Saqqara. Also, he was reputable to be familiar with medicine and herbs. Imhotep is quite famous in Ancient Egyptian history and to be boiled down to a random mummy character is quite disappointing. For people who are not aware of Imhotep’s prestigious background in Ancient Egyptian history would not see him beyond a fictional monster. They could would fail to see that this character contributed a fundamental piece of Egyptian culture that archaeologists are fascinated by.  It’s insulting and inaccurate to his character and his achievements to be degraded as some monster who will horrify those later with his actions.

Later on in the movie – Imhotep (now under the pseudo name of Ardath Bey) reappears, leads the current archaeologists (Frank Whemple and Professor Pearson) to his lover’s tomb grounds. His true intentions of leading the two archaeologists there is to ensure that they will find her coffin so Imhotep can try to resurrect her. Imhotep then encounters character Helen Grosvenor – who he recognizes as the reincarnation of his dead lover. We see Imhotep use magic to kill others and lure Helen to him when Imhotep sees it the proper time to finally resurrect Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. Imhotep’s few acts of killing others with magic sets the idea that magic in Ancient Egyptian culture was a negative and evil force in their culture.
(Imhotep preparing to resurrect his lover by using her reincarnation Helen as the body she will inhabit. – image provided by Britannica)

Eventually Helen or Princess Ankh remembers their history and desires to stay dead. She then prays to the goddess Isis to stop Imhotep from killing her. Isis hears her prayers and zaps Imhotep to death, turning his mummified body to dust. Imhotep’s actions in the movie could make the audience perceive that magic in Ancient Egypt was used for only horrendous and quite frankly in Imhotep’s case, creepy purposes. Magic is known to be a huge part of the ancient culture. Ancient Egyptian culture was a highly religious society. Magic was not uncommon to be used. Magic was used by people to ensure protection against any kind of evil. It was seen as a helpful and protective force – not a vehicle for any kinds of evil. In texts, magic is only mentioned as being used by those seeking protection from the Gods. The distortion of the use of magic in the movie could affect how people see Ancient Egyptian culture. It affects how people see Ancient Egyptians as faithful, but logical people.  That their strong religious beliefs supported unmoral actions and decisions out of selfishness in the movie. But this was hardly the case in Ancient Egypt. They prided themselves on their strong morality. Morality could affect their time in the afterlife – and the thought of never reaching their idea of “Heaven” was frightening enough. So for this movie to show Egyptian magic being used for horrific purposes changes people’s perception of their intelligent and moral culture for the worse.  People would believe that Ancient Egyptians used magic for evil and also for petty, selfish reasons. This was hardly the case though.

Ancient Egypt has a strong, interesting, and intelligent culture. To have important characters such as Imhotep be placed as some scary mummy undermines his actual historical intelligence and achievements. This would also make Ancient Egyptians seem as scary and frightening people.  It also creates the perception that Egyptian culture is “weird”, or “creepy”, or “horrifying” because their practices and their means of religion are used for evil matters as shown in the movie. Their proud culture should not have been degraded to produce some famous horror movie – Ancient Eygptians are much more complex and moral than the movie would make them out to be. The Mummy provides evidence to the complex question of: “Do movies change how people choose to see various cultures?” The answer would be yes just with this one movie.

Sources: The Mummy (IMDB) and The Mummy (Wikipedia)

One thought on “The Mummy: The Degradation of Culture”

  1. Great choices of screenshots. This film really is iconic, having influenced many later films, books, and tv shows.

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