Elvira's World

Cassandra Peterson is pushing 60 and still Mistress of the Dark

And the men? Mention Elvira to a straight male between the ages of 25 and 45, and he’ll smile and sheepishly admit the Mistress of the Dark’s role in his sexual fantasies of long ago. “So many people tell us, ‘I had two posters in my teenage bedroom,’” says Courtney Smith, one of the new Movie Macabre’s publicists. “‘Claudia Schiffer on one wall, Elvira on the other.’”

That Peterson has become the subject of sexual fantasies is a kind of neat revenge for a woman who was once made to feel like a freak. “Pretty people don’t have to be funny, you know,” she says. “You can go into comedy being really overweight, have bad acne.”

Or covered with scar tissue. As a child, Peterson was playing in her family’s kitchen and accidentally tipped over a pot of boiling water. She was left with burns covering 35 percent of her body. Much of the skin hidden by the Dress is still scarred. “I had bad scars, and I was made fun of all the time when I was a kid,” she says. “I used humor as a way of getting around it.”

Kevin Scanlon
Kevin Scanlon

She also sought escape in the very same films she’d eventually mockingly present as Elvira. “If I weren’t into horror movies, I would never do this show—I have to watch way too many of them. When I was really little, my favorites were all the movies that star Vincent Price, that Roger Corman did. House on Haunted Hill was my No. 1—I had recurring nightmares for, like, a year. But I loved them. I wanted to go all the time. I was really into Twilight Zone and The Addams Family. Addams family versus the Munsters family—it’s like the Beatles or Stones; you have to pick one side.”

It’s no wonder Elvira has become an idol for disenfranchised youth. “People come up to me at conventions and say, ‘I was such an outcast; I felt like such a geek, and when I saw you, you made me feel like such a normal person.’ It’s my favorite thing to hear because that’s how I felt when I was a kid. If Goth had been around, I would’ve definitely been Goth. But there wasn’t such a thing, so I was just weird.”

*     *     *

“The duplicitous doctor is doing something devious.”

On set, Peterson flubs her first few takes and is flustered. “God, what is wrong with me?” she mutters. “Not a good way to start out here.”

But soon she finds her groove, impressively spitting out the script’s many tongue twisters. By the second setup, she’s essentially directing from within the frame, occasionally consulting Biaselli on line readings. The actual director’s field of jurisdiction seems limited to the camera man and the guy manning the fog machine.

Peterson seems to be thriving in the DIY environment. After nearly 30 years of accepting some degree of compromise—with KHJ, which was simultaneously tight with money and apathetic about expanding the Elvira business; with corporations such as Coors, which hired Elvira as its spokeswoman, well-aware of her image, only to ask her to cover up her cleavage; with ex-husband/ex-manager Pierson—Peterson seems to get a kick out of her newfound total control.

“The bad part is I don’t have the money of a giant studio behind me,” Peterson muses. “The good part is I don’t have the money of a studio behind me. When they give you a lot of money, that buys them the right to say what you do and how you do it. You either get the money and you don’t have the say-so, or you get no money and you have all the say in the world, but you can’t afford to do what you want.”

The two Elvira movies, polar-opposite experiences, taught her that difference. Mistress of the Dark was funded by NBC and was to be distributed through a company called New World. Peterson wrote the script with John Paragon, a fellow Groundling alum who had been a key writer on Movie Macabre and played Jambi the Genie on Pee-wee’s Playhouse (he’s currently working with Paul Reubens on the upcoming Pee-wee Broadway show). Team Elvira was hoping the film would function as “a backdoor pilot,” which could lead to an NBC sitcom. “There were a lot of daily fights about ‘Can we do this, can we do that, can we NOT do that?’” Peterson recalls. “We wrote a whole movie with no teenagers in it, and suddenly, NBC comes in and says, ‘Well, if you’re gonna market this to teenagers, you have to have teenagers in the movie.’ I loved doing that movie, but I fought viciously over it.” In the midst of filing for bankruptcy, New World dumped the film on just 150 screens in September 1988. Needless to say, the NBC sitcom never materialized.

Despite the fights and financial failure, Peterson is proud of Mistress—as well she should be: a freaks-liberate-repressed-small-town flick gloriously fueled by Peterson’s feel for the themes of outsider angst and horror-as-escape, it plays today like the apotheosis of the character.

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