Unwrapping the Mummy
by William Max Miller

Scorned by most film critics today as studio hack work, the mummy
films of the 1940's contain numerous subtexts which reveal the fears and anxieties
of a society at war.

    “Three thousand years ago, the Princess Ananka died and was buried with all the ceremony due her exalted station.” Thus intoned Eduardo Ciannelli to George Zucco in Universal’s 1940 horror classic The Mummy’s Hand, and thus did viewers first hear the saga of Kharis, an ancient Egyptian prince who paid dearly for defying the implacable gods by trying to reanimate his dead lover. The story undoubtedly sounded familiar. It was simply a revised version of the tragic tale of Imhotep, the prematurely buried Egyptian priest who had been so effectively portrayed by Boris Karloff eight years earlier. But The Mummy’s Hand put a different spin on the older story, and kicked off a fascinating new series of films that hinted at terrors significantly different from the ones that haunted audiences of the Karloff film.
    Of all the classic Universal movie monsters, Kharis the mummy receives the least serious attention from film critics. Those who do take the time to write about the four films that Kharis lumbered through usually dismiss them as assembly line hackwork, cranked out by a studio more interested in turning a fast buck than in creating serious horror offerings like its earlier Boris Karloff masterpiece The Mummy (1932.) Yet while the production values employed by the makers of the Kharis series are easy to fault, there lies a core of meaning in these films that remains largely unexplored today. We live in a different world with different concerns, and most of the dark shadows that gathered around The Hill of the Seven Jackals no longer oppress us. But a viewing that pauses to consider the psychic ambience of the period in which these under-analyzed films were made allows us to peer beneath the ragged bandages of the mummy. As with many of the science fiction films of the fifties, in which fear of Communism, the A-bomb and related radiation/mutation phobias are easy to spot, a close examination of the mummy series of the early forties also reveals many contemporary anxieties.
    However, like all Egyptian mummies, Kharis must be unwrapped one layer at a time, and the most obvious and general level of significance we discover beneath his bandages should come as no surprise. Ever since Napoleon sent his army of savants into Egypt to document the wonders of an ancient culture, people have been fascinated by the land of the Nile and the civilization that once flourished along its banks. The care and attention lavished by Universal on the Egyptian flashback sequence, first used in Karloff’s film and then recycled, with minor editing, in The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Curse (1944), testifies to the studio’s awareness of an ongoing public enchantment with ancient Egypt. Showing the elaborate funeral of the Princess Ananka and the subsequent fate of Kharis, who is caught and buried alive for attempting to revive her, this sequence captures the pageantry of an ancient culture and is always remembered fondly by fans of the mummy series.
    Writers often point exclusively to the 1923 media hoopla about the death of Lord Carnarvon and the alleged curse of Tutankhamen as the inspiration for the mummy films of the thirties and forties, but these movies actually derive from more diverse origins than this single colorful episode. The idea of a reanimated Egyptian haunting or otherwise seeking vengeance on the desecrators of his final resting-place predates Tut’s discovery by a good many years. Both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker penned spooky mummy yarns long before Carter and Carnarvon ever set foot in the Valley of the Kings. Even the mummy’s first cinematic appearance in the film The Mummy of King Ramses (1909) predates the unearthing of Tutankhamen by thirteen years. Like all mummy tales, both literary and cinematic, the Kharis series taps sources that can’t be limited to a single archeological discovery.
    To fully explain what those sources are, one almost has to go to Egypt and actually enter some of the more well-preserved tombs of the ancient dead. Something uncanny really does seem to hover in the shadows of such places. This uncomfortable feeling stems largely from the fact that the ancient Egyptians decked out their tombs like dwelling places, stocked with food, furniture, and clothing, and managed to preserve the living semblance of the deceased with such a remarkable degree of success. More than any other dead person, the mummy appears merely to be sleeping, with all his earthly possessions waiting nearby for his eventual—one might almost say inevitable--reawakening. Consequently, a very profound sense of disturbing something often overwhelms people who enter Egyptian sepulchers. Even Egyptologists, with their lofty scientific attitudes, succumb to this feeling and find themselves tip-toeing quietly about their great discoveries, fearful of making too much noise. With their suffocating, labyrinthine corridors, dark hidden chambers, and bizarre wall paintings, the tombs are places that few people would care to explore by themselves. In The Mummy’s Hand, George Zucco expresses such feelings quite succinctly when he informs an overly curious Charles Trowbridge that “there are things that should be left alone,” referring to the newly uncovered cave-tomb of Kharis.
    The mummy series, of course, thrives on such sentiments and exploits the eerie ambience inherent to its subject matter quite effectively. This is especially the case in The Mummy’s Hand, in which the action takes place entirely in Egypt. Ancient ruins bathed in moonlight, howling jackals, misty incense smoke, and still living ancient beliefs maintained throughout the millennia by a mysterious priesthood all function as potent icons for a bygone civilization that defies our attempts at safe logical analysis. One of the film’s most suspenseful moments occurs when archeologist Steve Banning discovers the entrance to Ananka’s tomb concealed behind the empty sarcophagus of Kharis. As Banning struggles to move the heavy stone sarcophagus in order to reveal the corridor beyond, the mummy slowly creeps up behind him through the front entrance to the cave tomb. Banning gains admission to the hidden passage just in time, but remains unaware of the danger that continues to pursue him down the shadowy, ancient passage. This scene perfectly conveys the claustrophobic menace that some visitors to Egypt experience when descending into tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
    The outermost layer of Egyptophobia swathing the body of Kharis rests on a more generalized racial tension that helps explain some of the appeal of the mummy series. The mummy haunts that instinctive ethnocentric fear-zone that most of us are ashamed to acknowledge within ourselves. He is the product of a culture quite foreign to us, one far removed in space and time from our own, and provokes a vague uneasiness by tripping all those buried racial alarms we like to suppress. Such xenophobia becomes quite apparent in some of the films. In The Mummy’s Tomb, for example, a crewmember on the ship transporting Kharis to America can hardly conceal his nervousness as he admits Turhan Bey into the cargo hold containing the mummy’s coffin. Although Bey is perfectly polite and non-threatening, the crewman seems only too glad to quickly leave when the Egyptian asks for privacy. It’s important to note that this man has actually seen nothing menacing. No living mummy has reached out for his throat, and he has been courteously treated! Yet he finds this brief exposure to a different culture’s way of behaving toward the dead very uncomfortable, and his uneasiness elicits the audience’s sympathy. We know exactly how this man feels because we share a similar ethnocentric bias.
    Since the mummy’s culture is quite dead and gone, society permits us to openly shudder at his ancient way of life without feeling guilty. He provides a safe target for racial phobias and functions as a receptacle for speculation about weird, nasty and barbaric foreign customs. Through Kharis and his tale of sexual transgression and subsequent inhumation, we can let our ethnocentric imaginations run wild and project onto the ancient Egyptians all the violent and illogical tendencies we fear may dwell within anybody different from ourselves. When Kharis migrates to America in the last three films of the series, this racial tension reaches a surreal level of intensity due to the stark contrast between the shambling Egyptian mummy and the familiar American locations through which he stalks. He seems even more like a stranger here than in the land of his ancestors, and therefore more powerfully evokes our innate xenophobic reactions.
    Racial tensions, in the extreme forms of Aryan supremacist theories and mass ethnic cleansing, were at a high point in 1940, the year the Kharis saga started to unwind. Europe was engulfed in a war with a nation dedicated to genocide and America tottered toward involvement in the conflict. This turbulent backdrop casts a meaningful light on many elements of the mummy series too often dismissed by genre critics as unimportant or silly. In The Mummy’s Hand, the flashback vision of ancient Egypt seen in the mystic pool in the Temple of Karnak may look the same as that revealed to Zita Johann by Boris Karloff in the earlier film, but different demons now lurk beneath its troubled surface. By removing another layer of wrappings from Kharis, we come to a level of meanings that had a more immediate social significance to audiences of the forties.     The Mummy’s Hand was filmed and released at a time when war anxieties ran rampant. This first film introduced themes that continued, with slightly different emphasis, throughout the rest of the series, and which undoubtedly reverberated with disturbing subliminal echoes for audiences at the time. Most significant is the fact that Kharis, unlike his predecessor Imhotep, remained bandaged and therefore required the services of the arcane Priests of Karnak in order to keep going. The prime importance of these priests is indicated by the fact that they are the very first characters we meet in the film. After scenes showing George Zucco disembarking from a train in Cairo, we watch him travel by camel through various desolate sections of countryside until he comes to a crumbling temple in the wilderness. He is ushered into the presence of the High Priest by acolytes, and learns (along with the audience) of the secret mission of the priesthood. We find out that this ultra-conservative group has existed clandestinely for thousands of years, that it is dedicated to preserving the mythology of an ancient culture, and that it will not hesitate to kill anyone that fails to respect its values.
    By introducing the secret priesthood, a plot device that is usually condemned by critics today as an unnecessary complication, scriptwriters actually presented a story that mirrored the grim realities of the war. An older, myth-inspired culture reanimates and remobilizes a force thought to be dead and uses it to exact retribution on Americans (and the very British-sounding Cecil Kellaway) who have committed depredations on its native soil. Viewers knew this story only too well from watching countless newsreels showing how Hitler’s myth-infused bombast, imbibed like tana fluid by millions of Germans still scarred by the trauma of WWI, was reanimating a nation that had been buried alive by the Treaty of Versailles. Kharis himself, with his bandages and limp, resembles a horribly wounded soldier ordered back to active duty on the front lines by some fanatical general bent on vengeance. And the behind-the-scenes manipulations of the deceptive High Priests of Karnak, coupled with the protagonist’s initial bewilderment about their predicament, reflect a mounting feeling of confusion and helplessness in the face of current events. “There’s something going on here that we’re just powerless to stop,” comments Peggy Moran about the mysterious happenings at the Hill of the Seven Jackals, expressing sentiments identical to those of most viewers who felt helpless before the gathering momentum of the Nazi war machine.
    The various Priests of Karnak who appear throughout the mummy series present interesting characteristics that dovetail neatly with more specific war-related public concerns. As members of a secret underground organization they tapped a deep-seated reservoir of paranoia about omnipresent Nazi spy rings and German secret agents. George Zucco portrayed High Priest Andoheb as a suave, cunning man who used his charm to conceal essentially sinister motives. Andoheb possesses all the qualities of the perfect spy. He has a “cover” in the form of a respectable day job; he employs field-agents, like the beggar at the Cairo bizarre, to do his dirty work; lies roll off his tongue like honey; and he definitely has a hidden agenda that involves deception, sabotage and murder. Subsequent High Priests embody similar cloak-and-dagger traits, the most telling of which is their conspicuous reliance on standard espionage techniques rather than magical powers. In a sub-genre renowned for endowing mysterious Middle Easterners with supernatural abilities, there is very little of the mystical about the men who control Kharis. In spite of their quasi-religious pronouncements about occult curses and the terrible anger of the gods, these priests are completely materialistic in their methods. Instead of gazing into their magical pool, they employ an invisible army of agents in foreign lands to collect valuable information. Rather than using hypnotism to conceal themselves and gain the cooperation of their enemies, they clandestinely enter the American work force and pose as harmless working stiffs. Completely mundane means of transportation, like trains, ocean liners and rowboats supply their traveling needs. And in a pinch, these priestly gentlemen forgo magic spells and resort to using concealed weapons like knives, revolvers and hypodermic needles in order to attain their objectives. Even their predictable penchant for trying to get cozy with the leading lady became a standard cliché in the spy thriller genre. By all accounts, these men are more like secret agents than priests of an ancient cult, and this demythologizing brought them more in line with something very threatening and real to American audiences of the early forties.
    As another example of the demystification process that helped the new mummy series more closely fit the anxieties of the times, The Mummy’s Hand introduces the use of tana fluid, a medicinal rather than magical method of awakening and controlling the mummy. In the magnificent Egyptian-kitsch temple set used in The Mummy’s Hand (and originally designed for James Whale’s Green Hell) we see a feeble Eduardo Ciannelli order George Zucco to open a copper box concealed in the base of a statue. The box is filled with withered leaves, and he carries some back to the elderly High Priest. As steam from the bubbling leaves wafts mysteriously up toward the shadows, Ciannelli explains how Kharis must be fed tana fluid “once each night, during the cycle of the full moon.” This quasi-medical procedure has enabled the Priests of Karnak to keep Kharis in a state of suspended animation for thousands of years, and reflects a contemporary suspicion of doctors and their methods.
    Robert Jay Lifton, in his book The Nazi Doctors, explains how the medical establishment became increasingly corrupted throughout the twenties and thirties by pseudo-scientific racial theories that were popular not only in Germany but in America and England as well. By the late thirties and early forties, rumors of ghastly medical experiments began to filter out of Nazi controlled territories. Insecurities generated by these vague reports helped to fuel the mad doctor genre in America, and movie patrons were offered a whole pharmaceutical cornucopia of dangerous medicinal plants, extracts and substances by film makers willing to exploit contemporary medical malaise. Tana leaves sprout malignantly alongside the Invisible Man’s monocaine-producing plant and the werewolf’s mariphasa lupina lumina flower in Universal Studio’s lush garden of horticultural horrors. The tana plant’s medicinal nature was heightened by several details given in the films. As with any proven medication, a therapeutic dosage range had been established for the tana drug, and the various priests supply directions for its safe administration like cautious pharmacists: take no fewer than three leaves, no more than nine. They even warn against an accidental overdose, which produces unwanted side effects in the form of uncontrollable homicidal impulses. Tana extract can even be injected under the skin of non-mummies, via hypodermic needle, as a kind of prophylaxis against the aging process. It is the age-inoculating property of tana fluid that inevitably lures the various High Priests of Karnak to their dooms, for they attempt to use the stuff to immortalize themselves and their chosen girlfriends and thus repeat the mistake made by Kharis himself. Dramatic scenes in two of the mummy films involving gleaming tana-filled hypodermic needles hovering above bound female victims are especially relevant at a time when lethal phenol injections had become the chief modus operandi of the Nazi doctor.         The Mummy’s Tomb, filmed and released within a year of Pearl Harbor, incorporates all the war related themes of the previous film butTombPoster1.jpg (81639 bytes) reveals a much greater degree of paranoia. By now, America had entered the war, and thousands of young men had embarked to fight on foreign shores, leaving stateside families and sweethearts home alone to fend for themselves. America’s sense of immunity from military assaults on its own doorstep had been shattered, and the incessant air raid drills served as constant reminders of the successful Japanese sneak attack. It is in this atmosphere of vulnerability, heightened to fever pitch by the sound of sirens wailing through homes darkened by blackout curtains, that High Priest Turhan Bey and Kharis stage their invasion of Mapleton, Massachusetts. Significantly, most of the mummy’s victims in this film are silver-haired senior citizens exactly like the mothers, fathers and grandparents who kept the home fires burning while their children went off to fight in the war.
    With his aura of mystery, suave mannerisms and hidden agenda, Turhan Bey exhibits all the spy-like characteristics of his priestly predecessor. He obtains a job as a cemetery caretaker through the machinations of other unseen agents of Karnak planted earlier in the states, and even mingles with the natives of Mapleton. At one point we see him seated at a crowded local restaurant, blending with the patrons and stealthily eavesdropping from behind a cup of coffee while Wallace Ford carelessly broadcasts his belief that a mummy is behind the murders at the Banning house. Hearing this, Turhan Bey rises and quickly leaves, as though to secretly communicate this bit of overheard information to his superiors and await their instructions. In the very next sequence, the overly verbose Ford himself is strangled by Kharis as if to underline the urgent truth of the WWII slogan “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” Foreign spies could be anywhere, and cautious Americans should look for clues to their presence. Turhan Bey eventually makes a fatal slip. We learn that he has read passages from an “Egyptian Bible” to an elderly Mapleton citizen. Just as surely as discovering a copy of Mein Kampf beside a neighbor’s ham radio set, this clue leads the mob to his door, and Turhan Bey goes down in classic secret agent style with gun in hand.
    The Mummy’s Tomb
contains some of the most blatant references to the war ever seen in horror films of the period. The most obvious example occurs when John Banning answers the doorbell and is served with a draft notice, all to the blaring accompaniment of loud, patriotic music. When viewed today, this scene appears to be a kind of parenthetical insert, almost like an intermission message in the form of a patriotic advertisement that has no continuity with other parts of the film. But this is only because viewers today have lost touch with the zeitgeist of 1942 and no longer subliminally sense all the other war-conditioned features embedded in the movie. One of these, the use of newspaper front-page headlines to describe events and public reactions in Mapleton, was frequently used in newsreels at the time to report important military actions overseas, and reflected the popular compulsion to keep abreast of late-breaking developments by reading the papers. One of the headlines in The Mummy’s Tomb is strangely prophetic of the eventual outcome of the war. “Reign of Terror Ends in Flames” it reads, neatly expressing the hopes of Americans and predicting actual events to come in Hitler’s burnt out bunker. The theme of receiving telegrams is also prominent in The Mummy’s Tomb—two are received in the film—and mirrors the dreadful fear of getting a fateful cabled notification about the death of a loved one on the front.
    All the basic paranoia about spies and invading enemies remains present in the last two films of the series. In The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) the harried citizens of Mapleton even organize nightly watches that must have reminded viewers of the civilian reconnaissance squadrons posted in their own hometowns to scan the skies for enemy planes. “We’ve all got to do what we can,” explains one man while trudging off to walk his beat on the Mummy Patrol, his choice of words echoing the sentiments of another famous slogan of the period. But by the time these two final mummy films were released, the war fears were changing and a new kind of anxiety was being felt. The titles of the films hint at this modification. Whereas the first two film titles stressed the physical dangers of the mummy’s strangling hand and his priest-guarded tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse (also released in 1944) suggest more supernatural and psychological perils.
    When we remove the last layer of bandages from Kharis, such differences stand out. The priests sent to American shores now exhibit more spiritual qualities: John Carradine prays for, and receives, a wind-blown mystical sign from Amun Re, and Peter Coe recites his lines like a dreamy Oriental swami. But for the first time in the Kharis series the character of Ananka becomes the major focus along with the theme of reincarnation, which now functions as a metaphor for a social phenomenon that became painfully prominent during the war years. Ananka is definitely a woman trying to start her life all over again after a tumultuous romantic upheaval, and, like many women whose love lives were blasted apart by the war, finds it difficult to break completely free from the past.
    It doesn’t take much imagination to understand what went through the minds of some viewers as they watched a frantic Ananka fleeing before the unwelcome advances of the limping, unwanted Kharis. Any woman who had ever “Dear Johned” a boyfriend overseas in order to begin a new life with another lover knew instinctively who Kharis and Ananka really were. There were more than just physical casualties in the war. Marriages and relationships were also wounded and destroyed, and the basic plot of the legend of Kharis revolves around just this sort of romantic trauma. It therefore enabled viewers to see some of their own personal sexual problems in these films. People caught up in extramarital affairs while spouses risked their lives in distant lands found in Kharis a powerful symbol of guilt and anxiety. For some who had actually lost their partners in the conflict, Kharis could play a role similar to that of the murdered husband in Emil Zola’s novel Therese Raquin, whose rotting corpse kept appearing every time the unfaithful Therese tried to make love to her new husband.
    Anxiety about the return of a vengeful betrayed lover or fear of being emotionally overwhelmed by memories of a lost one provide the psychological shudders that wait beneath the deceptive B-movie veneer of Universal’s last two mummy movies. The Mummy’s Ghost becomes especially confrontive about such themes by explicitly presenting its version of the Kharis saga as a romantic triangle involving a conflict between a new boyfriend and an old dead one who refuses to stay buried. Remove the standard horror trappings from this film and you end up with an essentially sad story about how old, tragically ended relationships can interfere with new ones. The lovely Ramsay Ames portrays Amina Mansori/Ananka as a kind of guilt-ridden war widow, haunted by memories and dreams of the past. Even the slightest mention of her old homeland fills her with an all-encompassing sadness. Vague, unspecified feelings prevent Amina from accepting her new suitor’s offer to elope with her, and she can’t even enjoy making out with him in his car because of the oppressive shadow of her former lover. Amina’s new boyfriend Tom tries to be patient while they wade through this emotional morass, but his occasional moments of irritability and defensiveness betray a gnawing sense of insecurity and even guilt about their relationship. At some level, Tom seems to realize that he is just an interloper trying unsuccessfully to fill another man’s shoes. After making a last futile attempt to pull his haunted girlfriend into the here-and-now, Tom reluctantly lets the relationship go and Amina remains mired in the past with the ghost of her old love.
    Less sensitive in its subtexts, The Mummy’s Curse focuses on more gritty issues, and presents a series of vignettes laden with hidden sexualCursePoster.jpg (69090 bytes) innuendo for a period especially plagued with dysfunctional relationships. The film opens in a rum soaked rowdy café where Tante Berthe, the married proprietress, sings and dances flirtatiously with her customers. One of them, a man named Cajun Joe, jokingly suggests that she abandon her husband and run away with him. This teasing invitation to marital infidelity hints at the unconscious malaise upon which the film rests. Laughing at Joe’s indecent proposal, Tante Berthe comments meaningfully that it would be no fun having a husband a lot older than herself. Her words perfectly illustrate the predicament of Ananka, who reawakens to find herself still shackled to a much older man who is no fun to be with at all anymore. And, in The Mummy’s Curse, Ananka is definitely a girl who likes to have fun.
    Whereas Ramsay Ames portrayed Ananka as moody and depressed, Virginia Christine’s version of the reincarnated Egyptian princess resembles a shell-shocked lady of the evening! This very lost woman’s nightly habit of roaming aimlessly from tent to tent in the archeologist’s camp, falling into the arms of anyone she happens to meet, comes across as a veiled insinuation of sexual promiscuity. In this light, an earlier scene of Cajun Joe carrying Ananka’s semiconscious and provocatively attired body into the back room at Tante Berthe’s Café takes on a new level of meaning. He hesitates with her before the café’s main entrance, as though worried about being seen, and decides to sneak in through the back door. This opens significantly onto a bedroom where Cajun Joe immediately lays the unresisting girl on the bed. She looks like a very inebriated barfly, drunkenly submitting to the advances of one of Tante Berthe’s lecherous patrons. A few scenes later, Ananka awakes in the camp doctor’s tent, groggy, confused and unaware of how she got there, as though sobering up from a night of boozy bed hopping. Other scenes showing Ananka straining her ears for the sound of the dragging footsteps of Kharis make her resemble an unfaithful wife, anxiously anticipating the sudden arrival of her jealous husband. This aura of unfaithfulness is augmented by other symbolic examples of betrayal which appear in the film, the most notable of which is the knife stuck prominently in the back of the film’s very first victim. And the fact that a visit from Ananka almost invariably spelled doom for those foolish enough to spend an evening with her sent a subliminal warning against getting involved in extramarital entanglements.
    In the last two Universal mummy films, Kharis and Ananka functioned as scarecrows on the battle scarred Lover’s Lane of WWII America; grim reminders of the dangers awaiting couples whose relationships had been touched and twisted by the conflict. But the war ended less than a year after The Mummy’s Curse appeared in theatres, and the anxieties which supplied the Kharis series with its subconscious shivers soon dwindled beneath the looming mushroom clouds of another kind of horror. In an eerie coincidence, Virginia Christine’s famous emergence from the swamp, with her blackened, mud caked body staggering painfully beneath the rays of a blinding sunburst, disturbingly foreshadows images of radiation burned A-bomb survivors in John Hershey’s Hiroshima. As newer, nuclear fears replaced the older ones, the key to understanding the saga of Kharis was forgotten.
    Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Kharis series remains largely uninterpreted today, and writers typically focus only on production details, plot synopses and anecdotes when documenting these films. But a Rosetta Stone that helps reveal the mummy movie’s deeper meanings can be found in a study of the social/historical milieu in which they were made. As any Egyptologist will tell you, the context in which an artifact is found always contributes to a greater understanding of its significance. Kharis, scorned by many as a simple uni-dimensional stage prop, exhibits a surprising complexity when viewed in the light of his proper time and place. He wore many faces throughout his four films: the resurrected German warrior sent by secret agents to kill Americans; the haunting ghost of a spouse killed in action; the vengeful husband who murders the lovers of his cheating war bride. Audiences of the forties could wrap their own fears and romantic traumas in his bandages, safe from prying eyes, and probably even found some inspiration in his sheer determination and endurance. For as the Priests of Karnak say, in spite of his constant rejections, endless futile wanderings and countless betrayals, Kharis never really died.


--William Max Miller

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