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A Salute to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

A pop culture addict who loves to talk about movies, music, books, comics, and all of the other things that move and entertain us.

The woman who created Elvira, Cassandra Peterson, was born in Kansas in 1951.

The woman who created Elvira, Cassandra Peterson, was born in Kansas in 1951.

Who Is Elvira?

Cassandra Peterson was born in Kansas in 1951, a very bland arrival into the world for the Queen of Halloween. Of course, Peterson wasn't born as the seductive "Mistress of the Dark." When she was just a small child, she was scalded by boiling water and had severe burns on 35% of her body. Unfortunately, she was teased for the scars as she was growing up.

Grew Up Loving Horror

She says that as a child she was more interested in horror-themed toys than the Barbie dolls the other girls were playing with. It apparently didn't take her long to find at least some of her talents. As a teen she worked as a go-go dancer in a local gay bar. Dancing was to be her gateway to becoming an icon beloved the world over.

Elvira has made Halloween sexy for 40 years.

Elvira has made Halloween sexy for 40 years.

Las Vegas Breakthrough

At 17 she went on a trip to Las Vegas. She convinced her parents to let her see a show, and the story has it that the producers noticed her and approached her about becoming a performer herself.

Since she was underage she had to get her parents' permission, but they agreed and as soon as she graduated high school Cassandra was back in Sin City appearing in the show Viva Les Girls!

Cassandra and Elvis

While working in Vegas the future Queen of Halloween met—and briefly dated—the current (and eternal!) King of Rock and Roll. Elvis (E to his friends and confidantes, so I'll call him Elvis, or even Mr. Presley) suggested to Cassandra that it might be beneficial to her career to relocate to Europe.

She went to Italy, met Fellini, and began a music and acting career.

Besides singing in a couple of bands, she had a few small roles but it seems that even in her bit parts she had been typecast. She played a dancer in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and Fellini's Roma (1972). In 1974's The Working Girls she changed it up by playing a topless dancer. I've never seen that movie, but it just shot to the top of my must-watch list.

Bit Parts in Television

There were a few years between parts for her, but even on her return it seemed to be the same thing. She was in an episode of Happy Days titled "Burlesque," she played a sexy hooker in a show called Flying High, and a dancehall girl in Beyond Westworld. For those that don't know, before the HBO series there was a 1973 film, a 1976 sequel (Futureworld), and a 1980 TV series (Beyond Westworld).

The Groundlings

By this time Cassandra had made her way to Hollywood and joined improv group, The Groundlings. There she became friends with Paul Reubens (aka Pee Wee Herman) and the late, great Phil Hartman.

As an interesting aside, she auditioned for the part of Ginger for the third made-for-TV Gilligan's Island movie.

The Queen of Halloween is an American institution.

The Queen of Halloween is an American institution.

KHJ and the Birth of Elvira (1981)

In 1981 KHJ-TV (Los Angeles) decided to bring back their horror movie show. Stations used to show horror movies and they would often have hosts who were monsters or horror figures. Svengoolie is the current most popular horror host.

The original host at KHJ was Sinister Seymour, but he passed away. They originally wanted to bring back Vampira, but Maila Nurmi quit when they wouldn't hire her choice of actress to play the character. So the producers hired Cassandra, who ended up taking on the Elvira persona after her original idea to do a character based on Sharon Tate in The Fearless Vampire Killers was rejected.

Now there was some controversy with Vampira claiming that Elvira was a copy of her, and despite a court saying that was not the case I have to admit that it's not entirely false.

The Morticia Addams Influence

But here's the thing, both characters are kind of a copy of Morticia Addams, who was brought to life on television by Carolyn Jones. Maila has even admitted that Vampira was modeled on a cartoon character.

But where Vampira took the Morticia archetype into a spookier and more sinister direction, Elvira made her sillier and (if possible) more sexy. Elvira was also very much of the 80's with her big hair and valley girl patois.

Peterson is so anti-fur she once changed her license plate to read “BAN FUR.”

Peterson is so anti-fur she once changed her license plate to read “BAN FUR.”

Elvira as 1980s Phenomenon

Elvira caught on and became a big hit, first regionally and then nationally. Cassandra was able to license the character for comic books, pinball machines, and lots more. She also made several appearances on TV as the character, including on CHiPs, The Fall Guy, and Saturday Night Live.

Cassandra also got work playing characters who weren't Elvira, I don't want to give the impression that this talented and accomplished woman is a one trick pony. But even if she were, it's a trick I'd watch again and again. She even made a feature film of her own in 1988, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)

Her popularity has been so long lasting that she was able to make another movie in 2001 titled Elvira's Haunted Hills. That title is a perfect example of how Peterson is willing to both put Elvira forth as a sex object, and yet laugh at her sex symbol status at the same time. While she is very definitely a sexy woman, being able to joke about herself makes her even sexier.

"Elvira's House of Mystery #5" was published by DC Comics on March 18, 1986.

"Elvira's House of Mystery #5" was published by DC Comics on March 18, 1986.

Lifetime of Animal Welfare Activism

Cassandra has had a long career playing Elvira, and has even used the character to help with charitable work, doing fund raising for AIDS and animal welfare.

While she often made jokes about the movies she hosted, she wasn't someone who cynically cashed in on something she looked down on. She saw 1959's House on Haunted Hill when she was a kid, and loved horror movies ever since.

Champion of Vintage Horror

She not only championed and helped keep alive old horror movies, but she carries the torch for the horror host tradition. MST3K and Svengoolie might both exist without her, but I have to believe her presence made things a little easier for them.

For a little girl from Kansas, Cassandra has had a successful and eventful life, and has made millions of people happy along the way. For that I stand at attention (my bad attempt at an Elvira style sexual innuendo) and salute Cassandra Peterson, a.k.a. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

© 2022 Gracchus Gruad