Elvira – Shedding Light on the Mistress of the Dark
Being world renown as ‘The Queen of Halloween’ and ‘The Mistress of The Dark’ is no small accomplishment for any woman and it is comforting to know that these titles are bestowed upon such an extraordinary individual. Throughout history, several women have made a significant impact in the horror genre but one of them has earned a very special place in our hearts and her name is Elvira.
With a career that includes host of a television show, commercials, two self-titled movies, countless movie appearances, as well as live stage performances and a multitude of merchandise from action figures to pinball machines, The Mistress of the Dark has worked diligently to etch herself a place in the Horror history books, all the while making it look so easy.
The beauty and the brains behind Elvira, Cassandra Peterson, started her career entertaining people at an early age as a go-go dancer and a short time later became one of Las Vegas’ youngest showgirls. Following that, she sang for an Italian pop-rock band, toured with a nightclub revue and later joined the Groundling improv troupe were she honed her skills alongside comedic legends Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens. Upon landing a spot as a horror movie host, Peterson used her talent and smarts to make Elvira a household name throughout the world.
Scream Sirens Magazine was honored to have the opportunity to speak to Ms. Peterson on what is now the 25th Anniversary of her first feature film, about what lies behind the witty humor and infamous black dress and makeup that has become a symbol for modern Halloween fun and sexiness. This is what she had to say.
How did Elvira come to be?
I was in a group called the Groundlings, which is a big comedy improv group here in LA. A friend of mind told me about a gig, that a guy she knew was looking for a horror host to replace the horror host at local KHJ, Channel 9 in LA. They were looking to replace the horror host named Seymour who had passed away. She called me when I was on my honeymoon and I didn’t want to come back to do the interview. You know for most actresses, when you are out of town, that is when you get the big gigantic interview, then you cut your trip short and you go home, and then you don’t get it. I didn’t want to go because I didn’t want to interrupt my honeymoon for a job audition and when I got back she called me right away and said they are still looking, they haven’t found anybody, you gotta go in and do this. So I went for it and ended up getting a good job as the horror host.
I was looking normal, as myself anyway, I don’t know if that’s normal. So then they told me to come up with a look. My best friend was an artist and he was great at doing makeup, hair and art, he was brilliant. So he and I sat down and came up with a character that looked more like Sharon Tate in The Fearless Vampire Killers. I was going to have long red hair, kind of a ghostly pale look, and a tattered pink gown, kind of a dead girl look. So when we got in there and showed them the picture, they said, “nah nah, it has to be all black” you have to have black hair, you have to have a black dress. I thought at the time, everybody and their mother would come up with that look, but beggars can’t be choosers. So my friend designed another costume and it turned out to be the Elvira costume.
He based the hair on his favorite singer in the world, which was Ronnie Specter, from the Ronettes. He was in love with Ronnie Specter. If you look up pictures of her on the internet, I use to think her hair couldn’t be this high, there are pics of her with hair about double the height of my hair. My hair started out flat, but it just kept growing and growing. In the late eighties and early nineties, my hair was about double what is now. I can kind of tell what year it is in pictures by the height of my hair. Then it kind of settled down to a happy medium. He based the makeup on a Japanese Kabuki theatre book that he had. Then he made the dress as tight and sexy as possible, so it would get ratings you know.
Where does Elvira draw her horror influences?
It kind of developed as we went on, I didn’t really have anybody in mind. People are always bringing up Vampira, because she tried to sue me for stealing her gig. I really was not familiar with her and still to this day have never seen her host a horror movie, so I‘m not sure exactly what she did. Morticia Addams, I love the Addams family, but I don’t think Elvira acts that much like her, but obviously the look is there. You know, when somebody tells you to come up with a sexy, dark character wearing all black you don’t have a lot of choices.
Have you always been a fan of the Horror genre?
I was a huge fan of horror, as early as second grade when my cousin took me to see The House on The Haunted Hill with Vincent Price, that movie changed my whole outlook about everything. It was amazing! I was about seven or eight years old and I fell in love with it and I would make my cousin take me every one of the Roger Corman movies with Vincent Price in it. I was in love with movies like Tomb of Ligeia and Haunted Palace. When my sister was collecting Barbie dolls, I was making monster model kits, which is kind of odd for a girl back then. I always say if there would have been such a thing as Goth back then I would have been it. I was a curious kind of misfit. I wasn’t real social or anything, I was kind of a geek and a nerd, so I really got into that whole world. Thank God, because you definitely couldn’t have been a horror host without being into those movies. I still like the old campy black and white ones I grew up with; they are like comfort food if you’re feeling really tired or sick and you want to sit down and the couch and watch something. I just love watching those movies; they make me feel like I’m going back to my childhood.
We know you have previously talked about how Elvira has three elements to her; she is sexy, funny, and dark, all at the same time. Your humor has an amazing sense of comedic timing and satire. Who are your comedic influences?
When I was a kid, I was madly in love with the three stooges. It is very slapstick and very kind of old fashion, I grew up with the three stooges and my other favorite comedians were Phyllis Diller and Lucille Ball. When I was a little kid, I just loved them, and I would watch everything that they were on, or when they came on the Ed Sullivan show I made sure I was watching. They were big influences on me.
We wanted to ask about the business and marketing aspects of your career. We are completely awed by how you balance all aspects of your life, being Cassandra Peterson, a mother, a partner, a businesswoman and living in the light as Elvira. How have you survived and pushed yourself to be so successful over the years?
Yeah I wish I could say that it was this big diabolical plan that I came up with, but it really wasn’t. I have to hand it my ex-husband and his partner who were managing me and insisted on holding on to all the rights. That was the number one thing that makes me different from everybody else is that instead of a studio owning the rights, I owned the rights. That station, KHJ, could have kept the rights. We were able to get the rights piece by piece because they were so cheap. Every time a contract came due, they didn’t want to give me a pay raise so we decided to ask for more rights and that went on and on, until we owned all the rights. It’s a damn good thing because a few years later they lost their license. When I was working through them, I was making like 300 bucks a week.
Have you seen a rise in female horror fans, or moreover female fans of Elvira?
Strangely enough it seems like I do, but It’s really odd that back when I was on KHJ, in the local market, they did demographic surveys and they found out that I had a bigger female fan base than male fan base. Everybody assumed it was all horny old guys watching the show. Strangely, the products that were advertised during the show were mostly geared towards women, even though I was on at midnight on Saturday then again 1 o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday. My biggest audience was women 18-35; and that was the early eighties.
One thing I have noticed going to horror conventions and doing all the public appearances that I do is that I see more and more women being in the horror world and doing all the different types of jobs that have to do with horror; makeup artists, actresses , you know, everything. There are definitely more females! When I started, I remember there were mainly just guys in black t-shirts showing up.
You have started a partnership with Peaches Christ; can you tell us how that came to be?
Peaches called me one time, I didn’t know her, and she had me come to San Francisco to do Midnight Mass, a really popular local show. At midnight, she would show movies, and everyone from John Waters to Tura Santana would come to see the show. It’s really awesome, the theatre is always packed. She would screen movies and have the director and or people involved come and talk about it. I went to do Mistress of the Dark there and we just clicked. I love drag queens; I’ve been around them all my life, so we became really good friends.
His name is Joshua Brunel, he directed a new film that is called All About Evil, which he gave me a part in, as myself, and I played a mom. It was really hard to do, it was really hard to be a normal person and not be funny. It’s very awkward for me to be myself on film or television, it feels like I’m naked, Elvira is a great shield to put over yourself. You know, you put the hair and the makeup on and suddenly you’re this awesome strong woman. It’s like wearing a mask, you know how crazy people act on Halloween. You’re in a costume and it’s this all-new sense of confidence or bravado. Yeah as myself, it was sort of stripped away and it was very difficult to do that part; but he kept begging me and begging me and I finally gave in.
We worked so well together and had so much fun that we came up with this idea to do a film festival, because he had made an independent horror film and I had made an independent horror film. It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, I think, next to childbirth maybe. I don’t know, it might be harder than childbirth; a lot less people do it. We both understood how hard it is to get your film out there when you are an independent filmmaker. So we decided why don’t we make a film festival so some of these independent filmmakers could get a lot more PR and get there films out there and get them seen. It was a big endeavor but I hope we can pull it off again. We need a lot more time and a lot more money to do it the way we would like to do it.
So do you see yourself doing another independent Elvira movie again?
Ya know, I don’t know. I have been talking to Sam Irvin, the director of Haunted Hills, whom I absolutely adore, and we were thinking about putting a film project on Kickstarter to raise funding to do another movie, something really cool and low budget. You know when I see someone making a film with more imagination than money, like the one that won at our film festival; they made that film for $8,000. Haunted Hills cost me a million dollars, and my first film cost 13 million and thank God I didn‘t have to pay for that. When I see someone making a film with more imagination than money it makes me go… what the hell, why not! You know it kind of bums me out that all the movies now use more CGI and that the whole budget is spent on the special effects, and I am getting tired of that in the horror world. In fact, some of the scariest movies I have seen in my life have had no special effects really. I remember this movie called Wait Until Dark, and this Ingrid Bergman movie that scared the living crap out of me called Sighs and Whispers, it’s not a horror movie but it just happened to be the scariest damn movie I’ve ever seen. The Haunted (the original), these movies have no CGI special effects and they were so disturbing.
You have done so much in the industry over the years as an actress, a producer, a writer, and a director. Can you offer any advice about what it takes to be in the industry, or what it takes to do anything independent?
The main thing is, the advice that I give to anyone that wants to be in show business or really any business, whether you want to be in any genre, horror or not, the main thing is persistence. That’s what I tell everyone, just be persistent. It’s about never giving up, keep going and even though you might be starving , or you don’t have a great place to live, or a great car to drive , it’s all about persistence and doing something every day that furthers your goal and going in that direction. Most of my girlfriends when I was an actress gave up and were dropping by the wayside at 26, 27, and 28 years old and I just kept going and going. I was 30 years old and I had an agent literally say to me “I don’t want to handle you, you’re too old for this business honey, when you’re 30 your washed up “, and I got Elvira a few weeks after that. I was just like, thank you God; I would have been paying that stupid agent 10 percent of my income now.
Just don’t give up, and I know people get tired of living with the struggle and I understand, but if you’re really, really into it and you also keep educating yourself about what you’re doing every day, if you keep going then you eventually will make it. The bottom line is less about talent and more about persistence. There are a billion people that are talented, but some of them never work or maybe never will and there are a billion more people who are persistent and get there because they never gave up.
What is the legacy you would like Elvira to leave?
Well I think the most important thing about Elvira really is not so much the horror aspect, but that so many women look up to me. I am always shocked at how many women and girls come up to me when I do a personal appearance and tell me that Elvira is ‘like an icon or idol that I look up to and want to emulate.’ At first, this struck me a strange, but then I understood that Elvira represents a strong confident woman. She stands up for what she believes in and doesn’t back down and doesn’t take any crap from guys. I made a very conscious decision that in the two films I did, never to have the guy come save her. This sends a message that she can stand up on your own two feet and do it for herself. That is the part that I am most proud of about Elvira, that she actually is kind of a strong but sexy symbol to women. Elvira is one of the few characters that is actually sexy but strong. So I see how women and girls relate to her and I think she is a positive role model. My legacy is that I leave a positive role model for girls, to grow up knowing they can do and be what they want to be.
Where do you see the future of Elvira and Cassandra Peterson and in what direction would you like to go?
I would love to get something in animation going, getting Elvira animated whether it is television or film. This year I am making it a goal to write my autobiography, I have been wanting to do it for years and years but have never got around to it. A low budget film would be fun to do and possibly a reality show that I am thinking about developing.