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Brian P. Easton

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A Tale of Two Mummies
by Brian P. Easton   

Last edited: Monday, August 05, 2002
Posted: Monday, August 05, 2002

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A comparison and contrast of Universal Studios' two Mummies; Imhotep and Kharis. The author explains their similiarities and differences, and offers commentary on the psychological signifigance of their respective character types.

Chances are, you're a monsterphile.  If you are, you'll probably find occasion to talk about the Mummy: the ancient, risen Egyptian determined to wreak vengeance upon the desecrators of his cursed tomb.  Most people will know who you're talking about.

But do they really?  I've responded to many a mummy-remark with the question, "Which Mummy are you talking about?" 

It's a frequently neglected nugget of monster lore that Universal Studios, the primordial pool of classic monsters, brought two Mummies back from the dead, through the auspices of ancient magic.  These two interpretations of the same creature were as different from one another as papyrus and pyramids.  Monster fans the world over know these Twins-from-the-Tomb as Im-Ho-Tep and Kharis. But what makes them so dissimilar, and why two of them?  A comparison of our Bitumen-Buddies seems to be in order.

In 1932, Boris Karloff brought his genius to the role of  Im-Ho-Tep in The Mummy. This original Universal classic tells the story of a High Priest, Im-Ho-Tep, and his love for the Pharaoh's daughter, Anck-es-en-Amon. Upon her death, the Priest sought to resurrect his love with the Scroll of Thoth, stolen from the temple of Isis.  He was buried alive for his sacrilege, doomed to the "nameless death" that meant condemnation in the afterlife as well.  

Some 3700 years pass, and we are introduced to an archeological expedition and the excavation of the mummified remains of Im-Ho-Tep. When the Mummy first returns to life, he frightens a hapless Oxford student into madness. But that is the last time we see the Mummy as a shrouded monstrosity.

His next appearance comes ten years later, to another expedition, in the person of Ardath Bey, a "modern"  Egyptian.   And while Ardath Bey is a disturbing figure, with haunted eyes and withered flesh, he is not the stumbling abortion that staggered  from his crypt a decade before.   The Karloffian Mummy is a subtle, devious monster whose powers lie not in brute force, but in guile and occult agency.  In such regards, Ardath Bey is quite similar to one of Universal's earlier fiends, Count Dracula.  Like the vampiric Count, Ardath Bey weaves a web-like spell  to accomplish his villainous ends and, like Dracula, he confronts his adversaries with a disquieting exhibitions of composure and severity.

Even Abraham Van Helsing  is an archetype for Dr. Muller, the Mummy's chief opponent. Appropriately enough, both characters are portrayed by Edward Van Sloan.  Karloff's Mummy is driven by an obsessive love for his ancient Princess, reincarnated in the form of  Helen Grosvenor, played by Zita Johann.  His only objective is to be reunited with his beloved, for whom he has endured unspeakable punishment.  He is resisted by heroes unsympathetic to the plight of a resurrected Mummy, and unwilling to part with one of their own--reincarnated Anck-es-en-Amon or not. 

Though his plans to slay Helen and raise her again as a fellow-immortal are sinister, and his motives selfish, there is a spark of romance beneath the repugnance. It is easier to judge the Mummy leniently since we can all appreciate a lost love, and the pain that accompanies it.  Perhaps Ardath Bey, though misguided and eerie, is a tragic soul, deserving of our sympathy as well as our fear.

Upon Ardath Bey's debut, it is apparent that he has shed his cerements; funeral wrappings have been sloughed in favor of contemporary garb.  Not only is he articulate, but intelligent, and possessed of a personality, however creepy it may be.  But even this does not make Ardath-Bey what he is; rather, it is reflective of who he was.  It would, even in his state of living death, be beneath the station of a High Priest to continue in the rags of an ignominious death.  Ancient as he is, Ardath Bey still reasons and conducts himself from the perspective of a venerated caste.

It would not have been expedient to seek his goal as a terrifying beast.  Ardath Bey is no crude monster, and his sagacity would have been self-defeating, had he been swathed in moldy linen.  So, he becomes one of us, complete with memories and feelings; therein, lies the horror.

Horror is the quiet sense of dread that crawls in like a baleful fog.  It is a masked face staring back from the shadows of a deserted theater, or the endless walk home when footfalls pad behind you, yet belong to no one. The Mummy's plot, and central character, rely on horror to create a psychological quicksand that tugs us gradually, but certainly to an unforeseen climax.  Karloff's Mummy doesn't reach out and seize us by the throat. He carefully slips a familiar hand about our shoulder, that slowly creeps and tightens, until, by the time we would scream, it is far too late.  Only then can we reflect back to the scene where fear spawned insanity, and see the difference between horror and terror.

From 1940 to 1944, Universal Studios breathed life into its Mummy genre four more times.  But those four films, The Mummy's Hand, The Mummy's Ghost, The Mummy's Tomb, and The Mummy's Curse, were not sequels to the original.

Rising from his own sarcophagus came the second, more familiar Mummy, Kharis.  Played once by Tom Tyler and thrice by Lon Chaney Jr., Kharis became the monster culture's "Mummy of choice," displacing Karloff's.

Maybe Kharis captured our imagination because we could better appreciate him as a true monster, or because he had headlined more films.   Whatever the reason, the public's conception of a living Mummy changed with the Mummy himself.   Even today, most photographs of  Karloff's Mummy depict the briefly seen Im-Ho-Tep, still wound in his grave-shrouds, not the pseudo-modern Ardath Bey.  The recently released US postage stamp illustrates this point.

We're first introduced to this new Mummy in, The Mummy's Hand, which billed Tom Tyler, better known for his roles in westerns of the day, as Kharis.  With a few notable exceptions, the origin of Kharis mirrors that of  Im-Ho-Tep.  It is as though Universal was not satisfied with The Mummy and decided to make the whole film over.

Kharis is a Prince of a royal house (not a High Priest) who steals the mystic tana leaves (instead of the Scroll of Thoth) to raise his beloved Princess Ananka (rather than Anck-es-en-Amon) from the dead. He is discovered and buried alive for his sacrilege, but also has his tongue severed, which offers an interesting metaphoric attack on the character-type of Ardath Bey.  Originally buried with Ananka, the priests of Arkham later take his body to a secret cave on the other side of the mountain.  For 3,000 years this clandestine priestly order provides Kharis with tana leaf fluid, which preserves in him a spark of life. Only during the cycle of the full moon is he given enough of the elixir to mobilize him.  His sole purpose: to protect the tomb of Ananka, and punish those who would disturb it.  (I suppose it would've been unfortunate if someone had decided to loot the tomb during the other twenty-seven days of the month.) 

If Karloff's Mummy resembled Dracula, then Tyler and Chaney's character followed the pattern of the Frankenstein Monster. Like the Monster, Kharis was a slow-moving, powerful brute, with a penchant for throttling his victims.   And while we may hesitate to call either of them "mindless," there are obvious parallels in their shared mental capacity.   But, while Dr. Frankenstein could not bridle his creation, and the Monster would have rather been left alone, Kharis is an obedient servant with a murderous mandate.

The most conspicuous distinction between Ardath Bey and Kharis is their appearance.  Unlike his predecessor, Kharis is perfectly content to wander the dunes and bogs in his  mortuary tatters.  This contrast unravels a theme of master and subject between the two Mummies.  The Karloffian Mummy continues to use Egyptian sorcery with the mien of a High Priest, where Kharis is in bondage to such magic and its practitioners.  If he had once been a Prince, he is now tragically reduced to a slave. 

In silence, Kharis obeys his current master with a kind of mechanical loyalty. Yet, beneath the petrified veneer of the centuries, in The Mummy's Ghost, his own volition flares when he discerns the film's femme fatale is the reincarnation of his ancient Princess.  Kharis defies his master, who has decided to make Ananka his own, and throttles him for his insult.  During this insurgence, we realize that Kharis has defended Ananka's tomb for these millennia not only at his masters' bidding, but as a labor of his own eternal love. That realization can make him pitiable, if only for a moment. 

Never the gaunt or scheming Mummy, like Karloff's, the Tyler/Chaney creature is a shambling terror.  With fossilized hands yearning for his victim's throat and grave clothes trailing behind him, Kharis embodies a kind of fear absent in the strategies of Ardath Bey.

Terror, as opposed to horror, is the devil that emerges from nowhere and steams up your glasses. Or the nightmare that wakes you in a cold sweat, screaming.  Terror makes blood run cold and adrenaline surge hot.  Unlike the nameless, foreboding mystery that horror implies, terror is the moment when the monster has a face and its intentions are frightfully clear. Kharis is the epitome of such fear.  Although silent and methodical, there is no mask to his purpose, and no cunning to his methods.  As was said of another monster, from another era, "He can't be reasoned with...bargained with. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and he absolutely will not stop until you are dead."

The differences between the two ancient Egyptians are myriad, but not irreconcilable.   Both Im-Ho-Tep and Kharis loved their respective Princesses enough to risk the wrath of the gods for them.  Both were nearly identically punished for their atrocities.  And both rose again as living Mummies for the sake of their beloved.

The Mummy legend endures as surely as the Mummies themselves.  Universal has re-invented Im-Ho-Tep with their 1999 remake of, The Mummy.  Their latest contribution to the genre is its first big-budget treatment.   In 1998, Carousel Picture Co./Cine Grande Corp. also released, Talos, The Mummy.  Both films depict their Mummy as a powerful force of evil, like Karloff's, instead of the brutish Kharis.  With this new "Mummy Revival" it seems the worm has turned.  The Karloffian-style mummy now stands to recapture popular perceptions of what a living mummy should be.

For the sake of variety I, for one, hope the tradition of Kharis will endure as well; the world needs both kinds.

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Reviewed by m j hollingshead 9/19/2002
enjoyed the read
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