Cassandra Peterson first graced TV screens with her campy and vampy horror host Elvira in 1981. She never thought that the wise-cracking Mistress of the Dark would be anything but a temporary job that could pay her rent. The character’s popularity has risen steadily throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s and continues today. With Elvira, Peterson has created a pop culture icon. In recent interviews, she said that she was surprised at the character’s continuing popularity. She credits Elvira’s association with Halloween as well as the Internet with introducing her to a new generation of fans.
While she didn’t consciously choose it, she always wanted to be the Queen of Halloween. In a 2016 interview with Build Series, she told an interesting story. While she was working on her photo biography, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (2017), her mother sent a photo of Peterson from when she was about 5-years-old. She said that she was dressed in a black and orange crepe paper costume with a crown and scepter. Her mother asked her if she remembered what she wanted to be. Peterson said she couldn’t remember. Her mother said, “You wanted to be the Queen of Halloween.”
In an interview with RuPaul in 2013, Peterson said that grew up in the rural farming community of Randolph, Kansas. It seems that Halloween was in Peterson’s blood. Her mother and her aunt opened up a costume shop when Peterson was about 7-years-old. Peterson said that after that, she dressed in costumes almost every day even when going to school.
Peterson told Huff Post in 2018 that her love of horror came about after her cousin took her to see House on Haunted Hill, starring Vincent Price. Peterson recalled, “I had a love/hate obsession with the movie and with Vincent Price. I was in second or third grade and I came home from that movie and had nightmares every night for a month. But at the same time, I was obsessed with it.” Unlike other girls her age, she asked for Frankenstein and Dracula model kits instead of Barbie dolls.
In a 2005 interview with WENN (World Entertainment News Network), “Elvira: ‘Burns Made Me What I Am Today,’ “ Peterson shared a traumatic experience from childhood that caused her to feel like an outsider. Her mother was boiling water for eggs to color for Easter and Peterson pulled the pot of boiling water down on herself. “I was severely burned, and I felt a little like a monster myself,” Peterson recalled. “Thirty-five percent of my body was skin-grafted, and I spent three months in the hospital. I think I related to people like Frankenstein and The Mummy. The burns made me feel like an outcast and a loner. I certainly was not popular. I was a major geek.”
Despite being a “major geek,” Peterson began her career in entertainment young. She started as a go-go dancer at age 14. At the time, go-go dancers weren’t topless dancers but wore mini dresses and knee-high go-go boots. Peterson liked to dance and found out about an audition for go-go dancers at a nightclub. Peterson got a job dancing at Club A-Go-Go in Colorado Springs. From there, she got an agent who sent her out on gigs during school breaks in Wyoming and North Dakota. Peterson danced in Holiday Inns, an Army base, and an Air Force academy.
She finally ended up dancing as a showgirl in Las Vegas at age 17. Peterson said that she was the youngest showgirl in Las Vegas history. It was in Las Vegas that the future Queen of Halloween crossed paths with the King of Rock n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. It was 1970 and Peterson was performing in the show, “Vive Les Girls” at the Dunes Hotel. She, along with the other dancers, was invited to a party at Presley’s hotel. She said that she spent the entire night talking to Presley and that he encouraged her to get out of Las Vegas. He suggested that she start a singing career.
Peterson took Presley’s advice and started singing lessons. She soon incorporated a song into the Vegas show. Her first number was “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Peterson told Huff Post, “It was really sexy and really racy and it was called the ‘lesbian number’ because all the girls were wearing men’s suits and they danced with this other girl and I was singing.” Peterson lived in Italy briefly during the early 1970s where she landed a gig singing with Italian funk/bossa nova band I Latin ’80s. While in Italy, Peterson also landed an uncredited role in Federico Fellini’s film Roma (1972).
Peterson eventually landed in Los Angeles where she became part of a comedy troupe, The Groundlings. Groundlings alumni include Paul Reubens who created another popular 1980s character, Pee-Wee Herman, as well as many Saturday Night Live alumni such as Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and the late Phil Hartman. Peterson played a character described as a bubble-headed “valley girl.” Producers of a local late-night horror show, Movie Macabre, were looking for a horror movie host and had seen Peterson’s valley girl character. She auditioned and was told to give her Groundlings character a spooky twist. At first, Peterson was confused. What could her airheaded valley girl have to do with a spooky horror host? Peterson was asked to put together a spooky look for her valley girl persona. Peterson compared her first idea to Sharon Tate in The Fearless Vampire Killers-–long red hair with a long pink dress with ghostly white lips and dark eye makeup. The producers didn’t like it and told Peterson that the character’s hair and costume had to be black.
Peterson decided to consult with a friend of hers who was also an artist named Robert Redding. Redding made several sketches of what Peterson’s horror host should look like. He helped Peterson put together a make-up look from a book on Kabuki theater make-up. Elvira’s now-iconic jet black sky-high bouffant was inspired by Ronnie Spector, from Redding’s favorite 1960s all-girl singing group, The Ronettes. Peterson still had a day job as a temporary secretary and was going on auditions while filming Movie Macabre once a week. She assumed not many people would watch her midnight movie show. She was just happy that her pay covered her rent. Then, Peterson began to receive phone calls from people requesting her to appear at their businesses and events. This was the era of landlines and phone books. Peterson, whose name appeared on the credits at the end of the show, was listed in the phone book.
She told the Huff Post that, “We had to have the phone disconnected and have our number changed. It was mind-boggling. I thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’ The show was kind of ridiculous to me and I wasn’t making any real money from it. I thought it was fun, but I didn’t think it was going to be a career-defining moment. I thought, ‘Awesome. This job can pay my rent.’ Little did I know.”
Peterson built up her empire slowly. After seven years, her show was in syndication. While the station wouldn’t give her a raise in pay, they granted her rights to make appearances as Elvira and to have her own fan club. Gradually, she acquired 100 percent of the rights to the Elvira character. From appearances and the fan club, she built up her line of Elvira merch.
“We didn’t feel bad about it because I was being paid so incredibly little. It was the station’s No. 1 rated show! They were taking advantage of me!” Peterson told Huff Post, “I did the first 3D television show that had ever been broadcast and they sold 3D glasses at 7-Eleven. I think they sold the glasses for $3 a pair and the show only aired in LA and I think they sold something like 2.7 million pairs of glasses. So multiply that by three—that’s a lot of money—and I got…$350 dollars! So when people say I cheated the station out of the rights, I say, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”
Peterson retains all rights to Elvira and profits on all Elvira merch which is why Peterson doesn’t regret being typecast. When she first started playing Elvira, she figured that the horror host gig would cover her rent while she still auditioned for “real” acting jobs. When she thought it through, she realized that pursuing a “real” acting career actually wouldn’t be as lucrative as continuing to play Elvira. She thought that if she took a chance in, say, a TV show that wasn’t picked up, she would be working through the fall (Elvira’s peak season) making less money. She realized that with Elvira she was “sitting on a gold mine.”
Besides Elvira’s look, Peterson also is credited with writing most of the Mistress of the Dark’s quips and jokes for Movie Macabre. She and another Groundlings alum, John Paragon, wrote jokes after watching the films together. She and Paragon were part of the team that wrote Peterson’s first feature film, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988). Peterson and Paragon also wrote three novels about Elvira’s adventures: Transylvania 90210, Camp Vamp, and The Boy Who Cried Werewolf.
Peterson has appeared in other films and has lent her voice to cartoons. She appeared as a biker in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) with Groundlings alum Paul Reubens. She’s also lent her voice to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series. In 1988, Peterson and Elvira hit the big screen in Elvira: Mistress of the Dark and 2001’s follow up Elvira’s Haunted Hills. Peterson told TooFab.com in a 2020 interview that she has plans for the third installment of Elvira’s campy adventures but the Mistress of the Dark’s next film may be animated instead of live-action.
With fame usually comes controversy. Peterson and her alter ego came under legal scrutiny when Maila Nurmi, aka 1950’s TV’s Vampira tried to sue her. A 2008 nwi.com article, “Vampira, aka actress Maila Nurmi’s passing rekindles memories of Elvira rift,” recalled that Nurmi alleged that Peterson’s Elvira was nothing but a copy of Vampira. When trying to come up with a name for her horror host character, Peterson and her team all put names in a hat. “The name ‘Vampira’ was the popular draw, but when the television station creating my show and myself went to register it, we found it was already held by an actress named Nurmi Maila, who wore this female vampire costume and hosted a local horror movie show in L.A. in the 1950s,” Peterson said. Peterson decided to contact Nurmi and the two met. Nurmi was even willing to allow her to use the name Vampira—for an exorbitant amount of money. So, Peterson decided to come up with a name on their own. In the end, Nurmi lost the case.
Cassandra Peterson achieved her childhood dream. As Elvira, she’s been the undisputed Queen of Halloween since the 1980s. Peterson has been introduced to a new generation of fans thanks to Internet exposure as well as being part of the Halloween tradition. After 40 years, Peterson’s answer to those who ask if she’s ready to hang up the skin-tight black dress and bouffant wig, she told Huff Post, “Hell to the no! Are you out of your mind?”