Cassandra Peterson is the person behind pop culture icon Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. And as the horror hostess, she’s known for her gothic, all-black and rather risqué look. But Peterson’s got quite a different aesthetic from Elvira, as it happens, meaning Elvira’s appearance had to be created from scratch. And, in fact, the story of how the actress came to embody her role is a fascinating one.
Even so, Elvira was never intended to become an enduring character; it was all a matter of fate. In 1981 a revival of the ’50s The Vampira Show was in progress, but its original hostess Maila Nurmi quit the project after producers rejected her suggestion for the lead role. So, the showmakers sent out a casting call for their leading lady – and among the hopefuls vying for a shot was Peterson.
And the rest, as they say, is history, as Peterson landed the part and began hosting Elvira’s Movie Macabre in her alter ego. The contrast between her gothic look and Valley girl personality was hilarious, and her sex appeal was a major draw too. Plus, Elvira herself would become a hit, with her name and likeness ultimately popping up on everything from calendars to pinball machines.
But, interestingly, the roots for Elvira had been in Peterson’s life from the very beginning. You see, her mother had been in charge of a costume shop, and little Cassandra had loved to dress up in the outfits there. In fact, she wore outlandish costumes everywhere – even to church. However, something else had shaped her childhood too: a horrible accident that left her permanently scarred.
As a toddler, Peterson had clambered onto a chair in her mother’s kitchen and accidentally pulled a pan of boiling water over herself. As a result, she received third-degree burns to 35 per cent of her body; her neck and shoulders – areas typically visible in day-to-day life – were the most affected.
And the scarring from the burns was a big concern for Peterson as she got older. In 2014 she told Den of Geek, “I worried that if kids could see [the scarring], I’d be made fun of. And I quickly learned to make jokes about it, to use humor to not get bullied. There were two ways to deal with it: you could crawl into your shell, or you could be funny and make a joke about it yourself.”
Indeed, that sense of humor was one of the things that helped Elvira take shape. Another was Peterson’s deep love of horror. “Once I saw Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill, I was hooked on horror movies,” she told Den of Geek. “I fell in love with them. And the next thing I knew, I was buying Famous Monsters model kits. And I was completely into that, which was kind of odd for a girl back then.”
Then, once Peterson became a teenager, she threw herself into another weird world: showbiz. She headed to Las Vegas and became a showgirl, despite the fact that she was 17 and thus underage. And during that time of her life, she even encountered Elvis Presley, who told her that she should consider a career as a singer.
But as it happened, Peterson’s true calling lay in the intersection of horror and comedy. In the ’70s she started to perform music and comedy in nightclubs, which led to her becoming part of the LA improv group The Groundlings. And as one of The Groundlings, she developed a witty Valley-girl character, who would gradually evolve to become Elvira.
Later, once Peterson won the horror hostess job, it was down to her to come up with her character’s distinct style. So, first, she took Sharon Tate in The Fearless Vampire Killers for her inspiration; handily the late star was a redhead in the role, just like Peterson was. But the producers didn’t like the look.
Next, Peterson turned to her friend Robert Redding. “My best friend at the time was an artist, and he drew a picture of what he thought [Elvira] should look like,” Peterson told Oprah: Where Are They Now? in 2014. In particular, Redding thought that the character should have black hair; Peterson was reluctant for this to happen, however, unless they could put a spin on it.
“Robert came up with the hairstyle that was based on his favorite rock hair of all time, Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes,” Peterson told Den of Geek. “Her hair style was known as the ‘knowledge bump.’ [And] he got the makeup out of a Kabuki makeup book.” In the end, that was very much the right choice for Elvira.
And in her Den of Geek interview, Peterson also spoke about Elvira’s famous dress. “We made the dress as tight and sexy as possible for the ratings,” she said. “We took that in and they said, ‘That’s great, can you make the slit higher? Show more leg?’ I looked at it and said there’s no way in hell they’re going to let me wear this dress. But they loved it.”
In fact, the dress did end up causing some consternation. “Every week, we’d get complaints that my cleavage was too low. And I would come back in the next week, and they’d ask if I made the cleavage higher,” Peterson told Den of Geek. “I’d say we fixed it, and they’d say, ‘Oh, thank God.’ Every single week I’d tell them that we made it higher, and every single week they’d say ‘Great.’ And I never changed it.”
There was, however, one problem with Elvira’s look. Before Movie Macabre started filming, the producers got a cease and desist notice from Nurmi, who had earlier quit the project. She objected to Elvira’s appearance, saying that it was too much like that of her own character, Vampira. And as it happens, the matter ended up going to court.
“The character [Peterson] is playing is 75 to 80 per cent Vampira – some parts are missing, some things have been added,” Nurmi told the Los Angeles Times back in 1987. “They’ve taken a large part of Vampira and added these lowly commodities and given it a wider common denominator but, in so doing this, destroyed the character. I resent their taking my product and doing that to it.”
However, it turned out that the law was on Peterson’s side. “The Court finds that the defendants did not appropriate the plaintiff’s name, voice, signature, photograph or likeness,” was the ruling announced in official documents in 1989. Nurmi’s case was therefore dismissed, and Peterson was free to play Elvira for as long as she liked.
And Peterson would end up playing Elvira for decades, with two movies also made featuring the character: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark in 1988 and Elvira’s Haunted Hills in 2002. Furthermore, although Peterson did do some acting work as herself during the height of her success, she was first and foremost known in her most famous role.
Sadly, though, Redding, the man who contributed so much to Elvira and her design, didn’t live to see her success. He passed away from AIDS in 1986, and the first Elvira movie is dedicated to him. “Robert had a huge influence on my life. Not just with the Elvira character, but a million other things,” Peterson told Gay Vegas in 2015.
But surely Redding would be pleased to know how far-reaching and popular Elvira eventually became. And Peterson’s beloved character is still alive to this day; in July 2017 new merchandise was announced, including a comic book series starring the character. In the end, then, Peterson’s transformation into Elvira, helped along by Redding, turned out to be something truly special.