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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

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. Actually, they’re very, very dead as all the vital organs of a mummy have been removed and its body drained of 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 pulp fiction since 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. The mummy brand is now 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.

Originally published 2016, revised in 2017

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Howling Brand

A rumbling growl, a musty odor of wet fur, piercing eyes that glow in the dark, and a thirst for blood that rivals even Dracula—these are the classic signs of ... the werewolf! By definition, a werewolf is simply a human that transforms into a wolf or wolf-like creature. Depending on the story told, the transformation can either be intentional or the result of a curse. Another name for this beast is lycan (short for lycanthrope), made popular in the modern horror genre. But werewolves are ancient—more ancient than vampires and at least as old as mummies. Indeed, ancient texts reveal very real beliefs in werewolves.

In Histories, written by the ancient historian Herodotus, are references to a Scythian tribe that morphed into werewolves once each year, changing back after a few days. The Greek geographer Pausanias mentioned the tale of Lycaon, a man transformed into a wolf because he had ritually murdered a child. The Roman poet, Ovid, also wrote of Lycaon in his epic, Metamorphoses. The wolf transformation was punishment for his crime. Ovid recounts other tales of men who roamed the woods of Greece in wolf form.

Lycaon transformed.
These and other works probably helped fuel the werewolf in European folklore, which ultimately crept over to the colonies. Now here's a an interesting nibble—belief in werewolves developed in parallel to the belief in witches sometime in the Middle Ages. Like the witchcraft trials, there were trials of supposed werewolves during 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Accusations of lycanthropy (transformation into a wolf) were mixed with accusations of wolf-riding or wolf-charming. "Wolf-charming" sounds like something from the 2011 film, Red Riding Hood, in which Amanda Seyfried did a fair job smoothing the beast's fur. The film, however, well illustrates the paranoia of Medieval times.

One of the leading attributes of the werewolf is it's drive to transform during a full moon. For the most part, that is a 20th Century development, and likely one associated with the idea that wolves (or hounds in general) howl at the moon. The first movie to feature the transformative effect of the full moon was the The Wolf Man in 1941. The werewolf character was played by famed horror actor, Lon Chaney, Jr. This was the movie launching the werewolf into public awareness. Chaney's character is bitten by a beast. It is later revealed that the animal was actually a werewolf, causing Chaney to ultimately transform into a wolf at the first full moon. Indeed, throughout the movie, villagers recite the following poem:  
Lon Chaney, Jr. as The Wolf Man (1941)
 Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his  prayers by night; May become a wolf when the  wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is  bright.
One of the common weaknesses of the werewolf, as everyone knows, is silver—particularly silver bullets. This actually appeared sometime during the 19th Century in German folklore. The idea was picked up by Bram Stoker in his Dracula and related works.

Werewolves were once tortured souls, unable to control their beastly tendencies or endured their condition due to being punished for some horrid offense. This theme was central to the 2004 film, Van Helsing. But in most contemporary werewolf renditions, however, they are malevolent, such as those in the novel The Howling and its subsequent sequels and film adaptations, along with the Underworld film series. Furthermore, werewolves go from being beastly-looking men to actually becoming four-legged monsters with uber-aggressiveness, super-human speed and strength, as well as accelerated healing.

What's the takeaway? Pack silver in your clip, along with raw steak and plenty of Milk-Bones.

Originally published Oct 2016.