Throughout the 1800s, the new archaeological discipline of Egyptology fed a keen public appetite for stories about pyramids and mummies. An 1869 story by Louisa May Alcott, “Lost in a Pyramid,” recounts an archaeologist bringing down a curse on himself when he destroys the mummy of a young girl. “I sometimes wonder if I am to share the curse,” recounts his assistant later, “For I’ve a vein of superstition in me, and that poor little mummy haunts my dreams still.”
Mummies have haunted popular culture ever since. By the time of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, the idea of a “mummy’s curse” was already well established in early cinema. Mummies have been Hollywood staples since horror superstar Boris Karloff starred in The Mummy in 1932. The 1999 movie The Mummy and its sequel The Mummy Returns continued the trend of the mummy as a tormented, vengeful being caught somewhere between life and death.
Why did the Ancient Egyptians develop this costly, and to contemporary eyes, ghoulish ritual? Only by stripping away modern associations can the significance of mummies be understood. Objects of awe and mystery, they were created out of respect both for the gods and the deceased, and regarded as a natural continuation of the journey after death.