Elvira's World

Cassandra Peterson is pushing 60 and still Mistress of the Dark

“I’m getting nervous,” Peterson tells the director while waiting for the green light on the day’s first shot. “I don’t want to be here at 3 in the morning.”

“Cue fog!” the director yells. The first take rolls at around 12:30 p.m. Peterson has been there for two and a half hours, which is how long it takes her to become Elvira.

“It’s kind of really slow and intense,” Peterson says. “First, I have to put on a lot of white makeup to cover all my body parts, all the parts that are showing—quite a large area,” she says and chuckles. She does her own makeup (“I gotta do it myself ’cause people don’t know how to do it!”), touching herself up with a hand mirror between takes. “The thing that takes me the longest is actually doing the eye makeup—there’s a lot of shading. And there are a couple of wigs, lots of eyelashes; I think I wear four pairs now. And then, getting into the Dress.”

Kevin Scanlon
Kevin Scanlon

The Dress is legend, a marvel of modern engineering. For nearly 30 years, Elvira has worn versions of the same slinky black gown, cut ridiculously low up top, slit unthinkably high on the thigh, cinched impossibly tight at the waist and held there by a girlish utility belt, which, these days, she buckles with a petite dagger. The Elvira Dress, or some variation of it, is one of the all-time top-selling Halloween costumes—the original and now-default slut-next-door look. But when Peterson wears it, the dress is more than simply sexy—and not just because of the secret-weapon push-up bra she sports underneath. That dress and that body paired with Elvira’s over-the-top, hokey, rib-nudging humor create a creature that’s at once sexy and a gloriously silly, over-the-top mockery of the notion that female sexuality could be threatening.

Her figure is indistinguishable from the Elvira cardboard cutouts that Coors planted in 7-Elevens nationwide when Peterson was its spokeswoman in the late ’80s to mid-’90s. Peterson’s comeback isn’t a Betty White-esque embrace of age as kitsch; it’s also not really about asking Elvira’s original audience to tap into their nostalgia. Peterson hopes that by re-creating Elvira as she was—confirming the alter ego’s status as a live-action cartoon character who rarely changes clothes and doesn’t age—she can introduce Elvira to younger generations and thereby lay the groundwork for Elvira to continue on without Peterson, indefinitely.

Elvira’s beyond-iconic look wasn’t Peterson’s first choice for the character. Her longtime best friend, Robert Redding, who died of AIDS in 1986, sketched the Morticia Addams-meets-Ronnie Spector template for Elvira when KHJ rejected Peterson’s initial concept. “I had really long red hair, and I loved that [Roman Polanski] movie Fearless Vampire Killers. I loved Sharon Tate. I wanted a really pale, ghostly look: big, dark eyes and white lips—like a dead girl. And they didn’t like that at all. They said, ‘No, it has to be black hair; you have to have a black dress.’

“It was a bummer because later, Vampira gets all geared about it. Like, excuse me, that’s not even a costume I wanted to do.”

By Vampira, Peterson means Maila Nurmi, the circa-1950s pinup model-turned-local TV horror host (and later, co-star of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space), whose spooky-sexpot shtick preceded Elvira’s, although Peterson has always claimed the similarities in the characters come from both actresses ripping off Charles Addams’ Morticia. In 1987, the Los Angeles Times ran a story sympathetic to Nurmi’s claims that she was forced to live on Social Security checks while Peterson made big bucks off a stolen act. Nurmi said KHJ had initially contacted her about doing a new show and negotiated over specifics for three months, but when Nurmi declined to sign over the rights to the Vampira character, she was shut out and Peterson was brought in. Nurmi filed a lawsuit against the Elvira camp the following year. “Boy, has the devil got that bitch—it’s the devil in her blood,” Nurmi said of Peterson in a 2005 interview with Bizarre magazine. “Initially, they wanted me. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t want Vampira to be anything but perfect. I certainly didn’t want her to be portrayed as a slut.”

In August 1989, the Times reported that Nurmi’s own lawyers had petitioned to withdraw from the appeal because Nurmi was no longer responding to attempts to contact her; a District Court decided in favor of Peterson that same year. Nurmi died in 2008—and apparently remained bitter to the end.

Nurmi might have had a legitimate claim, but the way she handled it—painting herself as a victim of both Hollywood’s neglect and the opportunism of a sell-out “slut” and “bitch”—only underscored the difference between Vampira and Elvira. Peterson is nothing but proud of her shameless self-promotion and ancillary market reach—not to mention Elvira’s sexual bravado. And I can’t imagine that either Elvira or the actress who plays her would ever let a rival stand in her way or let herself assume the role of victim.

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