Friday 10 May 2013

The Mummy: Sand, Scrolls and True Myths

When we look at the countless varieties of myths, legends and tales of the mysterious that we have in Britain, in Europe or around the world, we often make the mistake of trying to ascertain whether or not they are based in fact. Does the Loch Ness Monster exist? Is there such a thing as ghosts? Plus there is also the trap of aligning ourselves with the irrational – that we need to believe in the supernatural in order to examine an idea. However, that is not the point. Even the most stone-cold materialist can enjoy the giddy joys of the nonsensical. The question is not whether we believe in them, but whether or not it is fun to pretend to believe in them.

All of these myths are effectively a form of embedded fiction – there is no possibility of them ever being true, but it is sometimes enjoyable to act like they are. Legends are hard to create from scratch, so the ones we have are there to be enjoyed.

Take, for example, the myth of Curse of the Pharaohs and it's associated Mummy-related cultural ephemera. This myth is unusual in being rooted in an actual event -the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 and the subsequent 'mysterious' deaths of some of the crew. This effectively began the whole cultural phenomena of Mummy and Egypt-related horror. In a way this is unusual, as unlike the rest of the classic horror strands (Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, the Phantom) it does not have a core text but instead has a core event. 1922 was Year Zero for the entire canon of curses, sand dunes, Mummies and scrolls.

Now, there are many reasons to pour cold water upon the basis of the 'curse' – the actual number of deaths, for one (only 8 of the 58 crew died in the next decade) to the various scientific reasons for any fatalities (3000-year old grave is full of dust, bacteria and disease shocker!). But to do so is to miss the point: a 'true' myth like that of the Curse is a treasure trove of escapist joy. Is it more fun to write the whole thing off as bunk, or to suspend disbelief and roll with the ripping yarn of archeological derring-do and supernatural terror that is the Curse?

When we consider that the myth of the Curse isn't even a century old, we can start to see how vivid and self-contained the genre is. The original Universal movie starring Boris Karloff remains breathtakingly evocative, and the news that the franchise is set to be rebooted once more in 2014 should set fright fans about drooling over their doughnuts. Such a heady brew of colonial misadventure, indigenous revenge, blistering sun, sands, scrolls, science and zombies deserves to be approached with respect. And so what that half of the genre is hammy nonsense? Just roll with it! Never mind, the quality - feel the myth.

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