Curse of the Mummy

100-year-old folklore and pop culture have perpetuated the myth that opening a mummy's tomb leads to certain death.

The mummy of King Tut, shown here, gets credit for popularizing the pharaoh's curse, but the myth's origin has been traced to a London stage act performed a hundred years before the boy king's tomb was excavated in 1922.

Movie mummies are known for two things: fabulous riches and a nasty curse that brings treasure hunters to a bad end. But Hollywood didn't invent the curse concept.

The "mummy's curse" first enjoyed worldwide acclaim after the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, Egypt.

When Howard Carter opened a small hole to peer inside the tomb at treasures hidden for 3,000 years, he also unleashed a global passion for ancient Egypt.

Tut's glittering treasures made great headlines—especially following the opening of the burial chamber on February 16, 1923—and so did sensationalistic accounts of the subsequent death of expedition sponsor Lord Carnarvon.

In reality, Carnarvon died of blood poisoning, and only six of the 26 people present when the tomb was opened died within a decade. Carter, surely any curse's prime target, lived until 1939, almost 20 years after the tomb's opening.

But while the pharaoh's curse may lack bite, it hasn't lost the ability to fascinate audiences—which may be how it originated in the first place.

Birth of the Curse

The late Egyptologist Dominic Montserrat conducted a comprehensive search and concluded that the concept began with a strange "striptease" in 19th-century London.

"My work shows quite clearly that the mummy's curse concept predates Carnarvon's Tutankhamen discovery and his death by a hundred years," Montserrat told the Independent (U.K.) in an interview some years before his own death.

Montserrat believed that a lively stage show in which real Egyptian mummies were unwrapped inspired...

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