The Dark Mistress Writes a Memoir…
By Don Stradley
Elvira and Cassandra Peterson have been around for a long time.
Elvira, as you probably know, is the raven-haired wiseass that hosted late night horror movies on cable television for many years. Peterson, the woman who portrays Elvira, is the author of Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark, which recounts everything from her time as a go-go dancer to the creation of her witchy alter ego, the most famous glamour ghoul of them all.
Peterson attributes the otherworldly success of Elvira to a combination of things. “She’s sexy, spooky, and funny,” Peterson says. “I don’t know if there’s another character out there containing those three elements. Elvira appeals to a lot of different people. She appeals to people who are into horror movies; she appeals to kids, because she has a very Three Stooges kind of vaudeville humor; and she appeals to old dudes who like to see cleavage.”
Elvira’s Movie Macabre ran for 137 episodes from 1981 to 1986. The curvy quipster began her reign on KHJ-TV in Los Angeles, but would soon be known throughout the country, mocking such lurid fare as The Thing With Two Heads and The Werewolf of Washington. Since then, Elvira has never gone away. Along with starring in two feature films and several commercials, she’s returned for various incarnations of her show, most recently for such streaming services as Hulu and Shudder. Some of Elvira’s best work can be seen right here on The Film Detective.
Since her debut, Elvira has spawned a cottage industry, her image appearing on greeting cards, posters, comic books, and even a line of wigs and makeup. She has hosted Saturday Night Live, hawked Coors Light Beer, and licensed her name and image to more than 400 products. Thanks to Elvira, Cassandra Peterson no longer had to pound the pavement in search of acting jobs.
“It took off right away and I was not expecting it,” Peterson says. It was an era of new cable channels, with homes enjoying access to programming that
hadn’t existed just a few years earlier. How else could the likes of Hulk Hogan, Morton Downey Jr., and Elvira become part of the national lexicon if not for cable TV?
“Unless you were on one of the major networks in a big show that they were funding and creatively controlling, you couldn’t get seen,” Peterson says, admitting her own show wouldn’t have worked on a major network. Cable was the key. “If not for that,” she says, “I probably wouldn’t be around.” In recent years, streaming services stepped in where cable had once been. “I felt my character waning, but with the advent of the internet, here I am again.”
Despite her character’s silly nature, there have been occasional dramas behind the scenes, the most notable one involving Maila Nurmi, who had hosted her own show as Vampira in the 1950s. Nurmi saw too many similarities between Elvira’s show and her own. “She got so angry that she decided to sue me and the station for stealing her character,” Peterson said. The lawsuit created anxiety but came to nothing. “I still owe a lot to Vampira. She was the first horror host ever. She set the whole thing up for the rest of us to follow.”
Forty years after her debut, Peterson is still in demand as Elvira. Her memoir is a hot seller, and she recently posed for billboard ads in Los Angeles and New York. The book attracted an avalanche of publicity for some revelations about her personal life, namely a same sex relationship with her personal trainer. Though Peterson considers her book to be a showbiz tale, she knew her love life would draw attention.
“Anything relating to sex is what they go straight after, so I knew those things would be the big headliner,” she says. “I fell in love with a woman. I don’t know what to say about it. We’ve been together nineteen years and it’s been really great.”
In her free time, Peterson enjoys watching documentaries and reading autobiographies, but pegs herself as “too busy to watch TV.” An exception is her ongoing love for old episodes of The Twilight Zone. “I watched it when I was a kid. There’s something about it, I just love them. It feels like comfort food to me.”
Otherwise, television doesn’t interest her. In fact, Peterson opened our recent zoom meeting with a warning. “Don’t ask me anything about movies,” she said. “I don’t remember details. They’re all mush to me.”
If recalling the nuances of The Brain that Wouldn’t Die is difficult, she had less trouble remembering details for her book. Writing it, however, was a bumpy task.
“There were moments where I had a blast, and there were moments where I had to pull the words out of my brain. I’d say three quarters of it is me getting into show business. My childhood was pretty wacky; I had a great time writing about that. Other parts were harder. I had a difficult relationship with my mother. I had a bad marriage that eventually ended in divorce after twenty-five years. There were ups and downs. I tried to make it entertaining.”
Peterson says the public remains intrigued by Elvira largely because of her show’s simplicity, just “a couch and a couple of candelabras.”
“Until I came along and our show was syndicated to all of these little cable stations, that was the first time a lot of people had seen a horror host that wasn’t just filmed in their little town. People still think I was in their city. It’s so funny how many people think, ‘Hey, you used to do your show in Chillicothe, Ohio, right?’ And I say, No. But so many people do think I was their own local horror host.
“I think that’s part of the appeal. Our show looked like it was filmed in somebody’s basement. It seems friendly, it’s low budget, not big and splashy with a ton of money put into it and CGI. People enjoy that.”
Yes, like comfort food.
Watch episodes of Elvira's Movie Macabre, now on The Film Detective app.