Mommy, Mummy, and Me
For: Kathryn R. McManus
1904 – 1989
It was a warm August night in 1945. We usually had meals together as a family but this particular night everybody was out, and it was just Mother and I – home alone for the evening. About mid-afternoon, she said, “Let’s have an early supper and catch the bus into town to see that new Disney movie at the Fitchburg Theater.” It was music to my eight year old ears. “Let’s do it!” I yelled, and the plan shifted into implementation mode. We tidied up the house, had a light supper, dressed for the movies, walked down the Church Hill to the bus stop, and caught the F&L trolley into downtown Fitchburg, nearly three miles away.
The bus stopped in front of the Fitchburg Theater, and my joy turned to gloom. The movie had changed, and the Disney film was no longer playing. In its place was something called, “The Mummy’s Ghost” starring Lon Cheney, Jr. Mother didn’t know what it was either, but she said, “Well, we’re here. Let’s go see it.” I immediately agreed and bought popcorn and candy at the Carmel Corn Store, while she purchased the tickets for herself ($.25 cents) and me (“Under Twelve, 12 cents”). We went into the darkened movie theater and took our seats.
I always liked to look around movie theater interiors before the lights went down. I hoped to see a movie star, or at least someone rich and famous. They called these theaters “movie palaces,” and they lived up to that name. The stage had rich, heavy drapes that concealed the screen and dramatically opened just as the movie began. There were huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and beautiful pictures and murals painted all along the walls. The ceiling was dark, like the sky, but there were little lights set way up there that twinkled like stars. I used to wonder how they ever replaced the bulbs when they burnt out. It was so high.
The people who worked in theaters all wore military type uniforms and carried flashlights. The ticket taker had wide shoulder boards on his long Navy coat and wore a nautical cap with gold braid that made him look like an admiral. I thought he had the best job in the world.
We were just in time. The lights went down and the movie began.
I learned later that the first Mummy movie was made in 1932. It was a horror classic starring Boris Karloff. It was a great success on the “B Movie” circuit. The film we saw was a sequel, starring Lon Cheney, Jr., made in 1944. Mr. Cheney went on to later fame as The Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein, and other such characters as you would not like to find hiding in your bedroom closet or under your bed.
The plot was simple: An American museum swiped the mummy of the lovely Princess Ananka from her Egyptian tomb – and Lon the Mummy was determined to get her back at any cost. Lon was ready and able to kill half the town if he had to, usually at night, and by sneaking up behind them with his one good arm outstretched and reaching for their throat. He could only drag his bandaged, aching body about six feet every minute but, fortunately for him, no intended victim ever looked behind them as they roamed their remote family grounds, alone in the middle of the night, for whatever obscure reason compels people to do that.
Then there was the dummy college professor (Sir John Whemple) and the Tana leaves. Tana leaves only grow in sacred Egyptian gardens. They are like tea leaves, and if you brew six of them at midnight, it summons the Mummy who kills you, drinks the Tana tea, which empowers him, and then he goes off looking for more trouble. Sir Whemple didn’t believe this and brewed the leaves in his home at midnight. He did this, naturally, with his back to the open French doors, while he laughed at the curse, and the you-know-who is creeping up behind him. Everybody in the Fitchburg Theater was yelling, “Turn around and look, stupid!” He didn’t, and Sir Whemple soon chuckled his last chuckle.
A sidebar, if I may: A Mummy’s speed is measured in “MMPH.” That’s “Mummy Miles per Hour.” Mummys are slow, and they smell moldy. They are also old, sore, and drag loose bandages behind them that you’re sure they’re going to trip over like I did on my sneaker’s shoelaces. Mummys are not even particularly quiet. They groan a little bit as they move, but not enough so that anyone would turn and look to see what smelly, moany thing was creeping up behind them. The victims were all early proponents of the Satchel Page philosophy of Life: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”
Now – this speed thing all changes in some Einstein’s Relativity way when the camera is off them. One townie character, for example, sees the creature coming for him. He jumps into his 1941 hopped up Ford coupe, and takes off down the road at high speed, for several minutes, taking corners on two squealing wheels and all. Then, for some reason, he stops to rest. The Mummy’s arm immediately comes through the driver’s window, grabs him by the throat, and you know the rest. It’s never clear how old Lon, the turtle-paced Mummy, got there so fast. Did he hitchhike (and who would have picked him up)? Had he a Mummy scooter? It was never explained.
Anyway, the Mummy gets the princess, they either escape or jump into a bog (I forget which; actually, there were about five of these films in the series and, in later years, I saw them all – and got most of the plot details mixed up). In the film’s happy ending, life in the little township goes back to normal, if with a seriously reduced population.
I was terrified. My mother was embarrassed for bringing me to such a film, but, like me, she was enthralled, eyes glued to the screen, and determined not to leave until the movie ended. I was under the seat most of the time anyway, so that wasn’t an issue at the time. To this day that Mummy movie is my definitive horror film, and that includes The Exorcist and all those slice & dice sequels too. And – you didn’t even see any blood and gore in the Mummy series. The camera always showed a treetop swaying in the wind or something like that just as the Mummy sprang on his next victim. You had to imagine what happened. That was the worst of all.
I spent that night in my bedroom with the light on, and the hall light on, and the closet light on. I had my father’s flashlight. He came in and lay down beside me for a while. He told me how his father and friends used to tell Irish ghost stories on Christmas eve, and how one time he was so afraid that he couldn’t go to bed even though he knew Santa Claus wouldn’t come until he did. I laughed at that. We talked for a while and then I fell asleep.
My parents came in several times to check on me and Penny, our Irish Setter, slept on the foot of my bed. I got through the night okay. That was my last horror film for a while, and I’ve been a bit twitchy ever since.
I read in later years that the Mummy movie was very Freudian. I didn’t know what that meant then and I’m not sure now. I also read it’s a condemnation of Godless science. Maybe that’s true too. There was also a thought about not taking away the history of another culture just because you can. That’s still an issue today. I think the moral is much simpler: If you smell some moldy, groaning thing dragging behind you through the woods late at night, at least look back and then start running. And don’t jump into a car. You might outdistance them on foot, but in a fast car you’re going to end up as road kill
The Mummy franchise was so good they remade it a couple of times: First in 1959 with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I saw those in college and they were pretty good. Then again in 1999 with Brendan Frazer. He was pretty good too, although the special effects and graphic violence never lived up to what Lon Cheney, Jr. made me see in my head.
I give the original Mummy series a “thumbs up.” The whole series is now available on DVD. Rent them some night and see for yourself.
Three tips: (1) Don’t watch them alone. (2) Don’t brew any Tana leaves at midnight with the doors open, and (3) every so often – look behind you, just in case.