Mummies assaulted me on the train last week. I wish it was as funny as it sounds. Some local museum (I suspect the Field) is hosting an exhibit, and the blue posters seem inescapable on the CTA. I can’t actually tell you more than that, because I am too terrified to look. The two preserved heads on either end of the ad are just too much for me.
As soon as I saw them, the physical reaction was instantaneous. I felt nauseous, claustrophobic, shaky, dizzy, cold. I couldn’t look anywhere but down at my knees without seeing them: the ad reflected in the window next to me. At least three stations displayed the ad on the platform, much bigger than an overhead car poster. As soon as I got to my stop, I ran into a convenience store for Cheez-Its, my ultimate comfort snack. I stress ate all evening, exhausted by the tension of trying to avoid those mummified faces, and knowing I’ll be repeating it until the CTA bothers to take them down.
Mummies are my bugbear. I literally cannot comprehend how they don’t repulse and terrify everyone else. They’ve haunted me my whole life. First was Ötzi the Ice Man, the oldest known mummy, who was found in the Austrian Alps when I was 6. PBS aired a special on the discovery, and I sat down to watch with my parents. When I saw the Ice Man’s skin, discolored and distorted and very, very dead, I shot out of the room. From then on, I could never abide mummies. When I received a gorgeous Dorling Kindersley Illustrated History of the World one year for Christmas, I had my parents go through it first and tape over any images of mummified bodies. (They knew to go through Egyptian history; that was when I learned they had mummies in Peru.) When my sixth grade teacher had us transform our classroom into an Egyptian pyramid, I learned to studiously avoid the pictures taped up on the wall; obliging classmates would bring the DK Mummy book up to me and shove it in my face.
When I was 13, we took a trip to London, my first. One day we went to the British Museum. I thought I would be safe in the Norse and Celtic wing, among the beautiful metallurgy and woodwork. Instead, I turned a corner and came face to face with a human sacrifice who’d had his throat slit and been dumped in a bog more than a thousand years ago. My mother stayed up with me all night. I was too scared to sleep.
This all begs the question: what did mummies ever do to me? I think of Nora, our basset hound. Once when she was a puppy, the divider gate fell on her; her whole life after, she skittered out of the way if the gate began to tip. Haven’t I outgrown my horror of mummies? Two of my favorite TV shows, Fringe and Supernatural, both frequently show old bodies in varying states of preservation, often freshly exhumed. I can mostly deal with those. Then again, these CTA ads have no Jensen Ackles or Anna Torv to distract me. There’s just those sunken, leathery, grimacing heads.
The reasons I am scared of mummies have not changed since I was small. Of course, yes, they’re horribly ugly, all bared teeth, caved-in skin, ragged flesh and protruding bones. But even as a child, I could not reconcile the mummy’s appearance with the fundamental fact that these had been people once. Knowing all the grim details of how the ancient Egyptians “perfected” mummification, down to the canopic jars and the removal of the brain through the nasal passages, only made it worse. These terrifying things had once been people. They laughed, they felt things, they had friends, they made choices, they grumbled about the weather — they were people, and now they were shriveled and mottled and not even whole. We even know individual names, in some cases: this shell was Nebemakhet. He wrote poetry. He loved his wife. He died four thousand years ago. Here he is.
This seems like fairly standard dead body horror. I have also, for instance, never been a huge fan of zombie stories. But zombies, while stomach-churning, don’t fill me with the same terror that real mummies do. The key difference, I think, is that mummies consented to mummification, enthusiastically. Perhaps there’s some cultural element at work, given the kind of Jew I am — letting any body go unburied for more than 24 hours is incredibly discomfiting to me — though I wouldn’t assign that too much credit. People with great interest in mummies have explained their perspective to me, how the thrill of a mummy is precisely because it’s a connection to another time. I really cannot let go of that transformation, from living human being to husk: the continuity of the person and the choice to embrace and glorify such an end is the source of its horror.
I never thought I would need to desensitize myself to mummies. We don’t see them often unless we seek them out, so I was always certain I could merrily go through life avoiding them. In stories, confronting fears of this magnitude becomes a plot point. The past week or so has not cured me of this fear, and it has not helped me control it. I have to check train cars when I get on, and if the ads are up, I have to position myself so they’re out of sight, mostly out of mind. Even then, if I can people-watch, I wonder what my fellow riders are thinking of those images. Do they notice? Do they care? Are they are surprised as I was? Are any of them scared too? And if it’s not mummies for them, what am I missing? Who wishes they could look and blithely forget what’s there?