“Denial is not just a river in Egypt” – Mark Twain
The oxymoronic concept of “reality television” often enough strains credulity, but the effect is especially conspicuous when it comes to reality television with a paranormal theme. Demonic voices, spirit possessions, poltergeist temper tantrums, and apparent portals to hellish dimensions all seem like credible excuses to break a lease, or at the very least sue the seller for non-disclosure. Yet, time and again, there’s always some family member who doesn’t believe in ghosts, or is in a complete state of denial regarding the preternatural phenomena that are afoot, and thus everybody suffers through escalating horror, until they finally reach the breaking point, pack up the car and head for less haunted climes, hoping that angry spirits are saddled with geographical limitation. When things start flying around of their own volition in my apartment and a creepy disembodied voice is demanding I “get out”, my standard operating procedure is to play the odds and act as advised. Sadly, such a simple and effective strategy is the exception, rather than the rule. Luckily, we have a few object historical examples that suggest reasonable courses of action when faced with an overt supernatural warning. A lot of heartache can thereby be avoided. Take the example offered by the famed Elliott O’Donnell, involving a prudent French tomb raider and his mummy, only one in a string of mummy encounters, where an alert archaeologist received a warning from a heavily bandaged revenant and relied on the all-to-obvious defensive tactic of paying attention.
Elliott O’Donnell (1872-1965) is best known as an intrepid ghost hunter and author of supernatural tales, but he led an adventurous life as a man of the world, working on the open range in Oregon, serving as a policeman during the Chicago Railway Strike of 1894, training for the theater at the Henry Neville Studio, serving in the British Army during World War I, and later appearing on stage and screen. With countless books, newspaper articles, and magazine features to his credit, O’Donnell was nonetheless regarded primarily as a fiction writer, and thus never approached by the Society for Psychical Research. Suspiciously, O’Donnell openly admitted to staging the occasional haunting with the assistance of his buddies in the acting community, and left no notes regarding his ghost investigations that could be found after his death. Don’t get down on him. Whether he exaggerated his tales or not, he nonetheless offers helpful advice on the optimum way to deal with mummy curses.
In one of Odonnell’s many visits to Paris, he encountered a certain Frenchman, recently returned from a journey up the Nile as far as Assiut (modern Asyut, Egypt), the capital of an administrative district of Egypt since at least 3100 B.C. Said Frenchman had the good fortune to explore the grand ruins of Thebes (a cultural center and the wealthiest Egyptian city in its heyday). And rich folks like to die as they lived. Ostentatiously, that is. Thus Thebes is the site of many an impressive necropolis, royal cemetery, and elaborate funerary complex. Europeans were still largely of the attitude, “I saw it first, so it’s mine”, and generally helped themselves to whatever artifacts caught their eye. O’Donnell’s French informant was a man of the times, and packed up some ancient goodies to take home, but was curiously adamant that he had not and would never bring back a mummy.
During one of my sojourns in Paris, I met a Frenchman who, he informed me, had just returned from the East. I asked him if he had brought back any curios, such as vases, funeral urns, weapons, or amulets. “Yes, lots,” he replied, “two cases full. But no mummies! Mon Dieu! No mummies! You ask me why? Ah! Therein hangs a tale. If you will have patience, I will tell it to you” (O’Donnell, 1911, p42).
In Thebes, the Frenchman had found a mummy lying in a lidless sarcophagus close to a mutilated statue of Anubis. He determined that the mummy was Met-Om-Karema, lady of the College of the god Amen-ra, and had her placed in his tent in preparation for transport. This was probably unwise. He was awakened in the middle of the night by a desperate sobbing and an intense white glow emanating from the mummy. The bosom of the mummy began to rise and fall.
A frightful terror seized me. I tried to shriek to my servants; I could not ejaculate a syllable. I tried to close my eyelids, but they were held open as in a vice. Again there came a sob that was immediately succeeded by a sigh; and a tremor ran through the ﬁgure from head to foot. One of its hands then began to move, the ﬁngers clutched the air convulsively, then grew rigid, then curled slowly into the palms, then suddenly straightened. The bandages concealing them from view then fell off, and to my agonized sight were disclosed objects that struck me as strangely familiar. There is something about ﬁngers, a marked individuality, I never forget. No two persons’ hands are alike. And in these ﬁngers, in their excessive whiteness, round knuckles, and blue veins, in their tapering formation and perfect ﬁlbert nails, I read a likeness whose prototype, struggle how I would, I could not recall. Gradually the hand moved upwards, and, reaching the throat, the ﬁngers set to work, at once, to remove the wrappings. My terror was now sublime! I dare not imagine, I dare not for one instant think, what I should see! And there was no getting away from it; I could not stir an inch, not the fraction of an inch, and the ghastly revelation would take place within a yard of my face. “One by one the bandages came off. A glimmer of skin, pallid as marble; the beginning of the nose, the whole nose; the upper lip, exquisitely, delicately cut; the teeth, white and even on the whole, but here and there a shining gold ﬁlling; the under-lip, soft and gentle; a mouth I knew, but—God!—where? In my dreams, in the wild fantasies that had oft-times visited my pillow at night—in delirium, in reality, where? (O’Donnell, 1911, p45).
One peculiarity of the Frenchman’s story was that he insisted the mummy then smiled and made eye contact, and that he then recognized the eyes of his mother, as if things had not taken a creepy enough turn. The impression did not last, though.
Sick with repulsion and fear I looked up, and there bending over and peering into my eyes was the face, the ﬂeshless, mouldering face of the foul and barely recognizable corpse! With a shriek of horror I rolled backwards, and, springing to my feet, prepared to ﬂy. I glanced at the mummy. It was lying on the ground, stiff and still, every bandage in its place; whilst standing over it, a look of ﬁendish glee in its light, doglike eyes, was the ﬁgure of Anubis, lurid and menacing. The voices of my servants, assuring me they were coming, broke the silence, and in an instant the apparition vanished. I had had enough of the tent, however, at least for that night, and, seeking refuge in the town, I whiled away the hours till morning with a fragrant cigar and a novel. Directly I had breakfasted, I took the mummy back to Thebes, and left it there (Carrington, 1920, p203).
The message was fairly clear. Take the Canoli. Leave the mummy. And for once, in contrast to almost every horror story since, our Frenchman had the good sense to put the mummy back. And he lived to see another day. Interestingly, the first recounting of an apparent mummy curse was written by apothecary and embalming expert Louis Penicher in 1699 (a full century before we began to decipher hieroglyphics, thus we couldn’t even read the nicely worded statements of what would happen to those who disturbed a mummy, scrawled helpfully all over the tombs). Penicher reported that a Polish traveler bought two mummies in Alexandria, stored them in the ship’s hold and headed for home. He was subsequently haunted by visions of the mummies and the voyage plagued with stormy seas, until he wised up and tossed the mummies overboard, after which order was restored.
Rationalists will assure you that there is no such thing as ghosts, you won’t be eaten by anything supernaturally nasty in the dark forest, you won’t find demons looking to cut a deal at the crossroads, and there is no such thing as mummy curses. Until of course, they prove otherwise, at which point they shrug, shuffle their feet, and talk about the value of peer review. Folklore, on the other hand, is a vast early warning system that is less concerned with empirical evidence than offering you odds on whether you survive an encounter with the preternatural or not. It’s one thing to be rational. It’s another to rationalize away the as of yet inexplicable. Mummies may not walk, but if you happen to have one in your possession, and find yourself faced with visions of moldering corpses looking to strangle you, do yourself a favor – put it back where you found it.
Carrington, Hereward, 1880-1959. Phantasms of the Dead: Or, True Ghost Stories. New York: American Universities Publishing Company, 1920.
O’Donnell, Elliott, 1872-1965. Byways of Ghostland. London: [s.n.], 1911.