Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A cursed brand...

Boris Karloff as the mummified Imhotep in The Mummy (1932)
Tattered, moldy bandages, a partially decomposed body, hollow eye sockets, and a lipless, toothy face—along with a mindless stomp towards an almost primal goal—these are the hallmarks of the mummy. It is one of the original undead creatures that scare the bejeezus out of us. Well, actually, they’re very dead. After all, the vital organs of a mummy have been removed, and its body drained of its vital fluids. Even the brain has been drawn out through nasal passages. But Egyptian curses somehow enable the mummy to reanimate. And it is this nemesis of the Egyptian-dessert adventurer that has become a horrifying subject in novels and adventure stories, beginning in the early decades of the 19th Century. Its brand enjoyed further reincarnation in the form of black and white horror films throughout the first half of the 20th Century. Then, as if called by chants from the Book of the Dead, the mummy brand reawakened due to the popularity of films like the Brendan Frasier Mummy series. Now, the mummy brand is called to rise with the 2017 The Mummy remake with Tom Cruise.

Imhotep reanimates in the 1999 version of The Mummy
The mummy’s initial service in the horror genre began with The Mummy! Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. This science fiction novel made mummies weird right from the start. Written in 1827, Jane C. Loudon added an odd twist, dropping an ancient mummy into the 22nd Century. It’s like a demented Buck Rogers. Of course, Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame) did his part to stoke the horror perceptions of the gift-wrapped demons. Together with other storytellers, Loudon and Stoker built the foundations for mummy awareness. But what spurred fascination with these mindless, stomping corpses of the past?

Carter examining Tutankhamun's remains (1922)
Archaeologist Howard Carter and Pharaoh Tutankhamun partnered up in 1922 in a way that brought mummies to the forefront. Carter and his team discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. But the earned academic notoriety of the find was unraveled by the weird stuff that began to happen to Carter and his team. One of the first things was that Carter dispatched a messenger on an errand to his house. En route, the messenger believed he heard a faint human cry. Once inside Carter’s house, the messenger saw a birdcage with a cobra inside. Cobras symbolize Egyptian royalty, and the fact that it ate Carter’s canary just fanned the flames of local rumors about a curse. Creepy, yes, and it gets better.

Some members of Carter’s team suffered what were considered untimely or mysterious deaths. Lord Carnarvon was the first, having died from an infected mosquito bite. Just before this happened, a letter was published in a magazine that quoted an obscure book, stating that "dire punishment" follows any breach of a sealed tomb. The letter was largely ignored until Carnarvon’s death, and then the media went nuts, exaggerating the story with reports that a curse had been found in the Tutankhamun’s tomb. While untrue, more weird stuff happened, such as the home of Carter’s friend, Sir Bruce Ingham, twice burning down. The theory was that the fires were the result of Ingham having had a paperweight made of a mummified hand recovered from the tomb. An unfortunate personal tragedy, yes, but the reality is that only eight of the 58-team members died unusual deaths after opening Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Boris Karloff as Imhotep (1932)
Despite the lack of any real correlation to opening the pharaoh’s tomb, the story gave a budding Hollywood all kinds of inspiration, really sealing the brand awareness and attributes for mummies. And much of that is owed to an early 20th Century actor named Boris Karloff. He starred as Imhotep in the 1932 film The Mummy, which inspired the Frasier remake in 1999. Vintage movie fans talk about how Karloff really created the image and set the expectation for reanimated mummies well into today. The camera holds on Karloff, lying still in his crypt, then, an eye slowly opens. His hands begin to move with the resistance of a 3700-year slumber. It's barely a glimpse of the creature before the camera follows bandages dragged on the floor, as if they are trailing behind the lumbering zombie. In 1932, that could scare the hell out of an audience. This single portrayal led the way for a series of films featuring the immortal corpses. Audiences dug it, and still do—hence Tom Cruise willing to get behind a remake.

The reality of mummification was that it was designed to prepare the mortal body for the afterlife—not reanimation in this world. Additionally, it was an understandable extension of natural mummification that ancient Egyptians observed from the dessert conditions of their environment. They just built on it, adding tradition, custom and ceremony around it. In some cases there were curses, which were used to scare off grave robbers and tomb raiders seeking riches. Although, those curse really don’t distinguish thieves from archaeology. Still, curses didn’t involve mummies reanimating and stalking those who violated their resting place.

The realities of Egyptian culture aside, the use of mummies in the horror genre have wrapped the brand in a supernatural veneer, and preserved its ghoulish equity. Mummies are part of the pre-zombie, pre-slasher horror triad. Triggered by full moons, they rule the night with vampires and werewolves, challenging our courage and resolve when alone, sitting in front of a flickering screen, hearing the floorboards creak, and catching a faint, moldy scent in the room.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

A brand that sucks

The black cape; a thick, eastern European accent; one inch, needle sharp fangs, and a mad, hypnotic glare—unmistakably, these are elements of the look and feel of a horrifying medieval terror, the thief of souls, the Prince of Darkness ... Count Dracula.

Little about this character remains unwritten, unstudied, untold. Bram Stoker was not the first to write about vampires, nor will he be the last, but he was the first to tell the tale of Count Dracula, as well as develop specifics to the modern vampire brand. According to Stoker, Dracula is at the core of what the vampire brand is all about. And what he began with was not fantasy, but a very real character from history. His name was Prince Vlad III. Popular history knows him as Vlad the Impaler. He was a 15th-century Romanian general and, believe it or not, a once celebrated defender of the Christian faith against the invading forces of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. The question is: how did a defender of the faith turn into a terrifying brand of the dark side?

Vlad was born in 1431, the son of Vlad II, a nobleman. Suffice it to say that Vlad's family lines were loaded with quality, homegrown blood from the Transylvania region, which is in today's Romania. Because his father was called, "Dracul," Vlad was called "Dracula," meaning "son of Dracul." According to David Johnson, who wrote an educational piece for titled, The Terrifying Truth About Dracula, both men were a part of the Order of the Dragon, a militaristic society of nobles with the expressed purpose of defeating anti-Christians, but mostly the Ottoman Turks.  Johnson writes, 
"Dracula" is Romanian for "son of Dracul." Therefore young Vlad was "son of the dragon" or "son of the devil." Scholars believe this was the beginning of the legend that Dracula was a vampire.
Johnson also writes that Dracula's life as a noble was not all bonbons and caviar. Indeed, his homeland lay between the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian-Hungarian Hapsburgs, meaning that political strain was always a thing, along with an irritatingly persistent threat of war, if not a state of war. Not so different than Caesar, Dracula found himself imprisoned more than once. The Turks humiliated him by hauling Dracula off in chains. And then again by the Hungarians, who murdered his father and blinded his brother before burying him alive.

Having your family slaughtered in gruesome fashion is not so much a justification, but at least some reasoning behind Vlad's transformation into a bloodthirsty ghoul on the battlefield. 

Dracula's preferred method of torture was to impale victims made up of political opponents or those captured on the battlefield, and leave them to slowly slide down a wooden spike in agony and without mercy, until they bled out—hence the nickname, "Vlad the impaler." Death often took days. The near dead and corpses were left on the spikes as birds pecked and tore at their rotting flesh. It was a ghastly site intended to have impact. And it did. Once a Turkish advance was thwarted because the foul stench was too much for the sultan.

Dracula's earthly rein over Transylvania lasted from 1448 until his death in 1476. Twice his rule was challenged and twice he reclaimed his throne. While the Vatican disapproved of his methods, it did praise Dracula for defending Christianity. And his methods were intense.

Now, things really start to take creepy shape with one report stating that Dracula ate a meal amidst hundreds of impaled victims, having actually dipped his bread in human blood. But the demonic brand transformation doesn't stop there. When the Turks defeated Dracula and his forces in 1476, they severed his head and displayed in Constantinople. His body was buried in a monastery near Bucharest. It was in 1931 that archaeologists rediscovered the site and found a casket, presumably Dracula's. Among the adornments of the skeleton, was a faded silk brocade, similar to a shirt depicted in an old painting of Dracula. But the kicker is this, those remains have since disappeared without a trace, leaving the whereabouts of Dracula unknown.

Much of this, except for Dracula's vanishing skeleton, weave into Stokers lore of the vampire. Count Dracula was very passionate about his warrior heritage, emotionally proclaiming his pride. And he was primal and predatory in his views, as you might expect the real Dracula to be, given the conditions in which he lived. It is interesting that Stoker writes Dracula as pitying of us ordinary humans for our revulsion of our darker impulses. Vlad certainly embraced dark methodology in his efforts.

There are some interesting ironies to the Dracula brand. One is that he can only be killed by decapitation preceded by impalement through the heart with a wooden stake. Dracula was decapitated, and perhaps it is symbolic that it is a wooden stake, an ode to Vlad's many impaled victims, that is needed to kill the demon. And then there is blood. All that Dracula needs to survive is fresh blood, which rejuvenates him, but isn't required frequently. 

Watch any Dracula or vampire horror flick and the vampire brand will quickly reveal itself. Indeed, I leave it to Abraham Van Helsing for detailing the attributes of Count Dracula, along with Buffy Summers and teams of others to wage their nocturnal wars against the Prince of Darkness and his horde.

Originally posted 21 October 2015. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

BIH Presidential Debate Special

As the U.S. presidential election heats up with the first national debate, compare your favorite (or least loathed) candidate to these icons from American presidential history.

George Washington - No lie—George Washington was a man well prepared to lead our nation against the British. If there was one better, he never surfaced. Not only did he serve our budding nation with honor—his leadership demonstrated deep conviction for that which he fought.

Abe Lincoln - Just a little bigger —Abraham Lincoln was never a soldier, but he studied hard about military history and tactics while leading a nation through a divisive war. And for his duty, he gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Theodore Roosevelt—Some would argue that Teddy Roosevelt was the greatest U.S. president of the 20th Century, perhaps of all time. Few presidents have had as much impact on the evolution of American status, policy—both foreign and domestic, while influencing future presidents of both major parties. For this one, it took three entries to tell his story.
A bully brand        The bully pulpit         The old lion

Franklin Delano Roosevelt – FDR, as he was known, is held up as one of the greatest of the U.S. presidents. Elected to office four times, Roosevelt presided during the Great Depression and World War II, all while battling a crippling disease. Like his cousin, Teddy, Roosevelt has lasting influence on American politics, even today. Many of his Depression-era programs remain in effect, leaving his legacy both revered and reviled.
A new deal           A new deal for new hope