The Famous '50s Horror Classic That Led To The Creation Of Elvira

Sir Graves Ghastly. Morgus the Magnificent. Sinister Seymour. Count Gore De Vol. Svengoolie. Vampira. With their campy outfits, creaky sets, and even creakier jokes, horror movie hosts have been adding their personal touch to old B-movies and creature features since the '50s. The appeal is obvious; who doesn't love staying up late to watch a scary movie with friends and riffing on the bad dialogue and wonky special effects? These shows came with a creepy pal to do the roasting for you, and the format reached its peak in the '70s and '80s, from where the most famous horror host of them all emerged: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

With her pale skin, severe makeup, towering hairdo, and intense cleavage, Elvira's creator Cassandra Peterson smartly counterbalanced her vampish style with a sarcastic Valley Girl persona, rattling off one-liners, double entendres, and knowing asides. The character quickly became a cult favorite and exploded in popularity during the '80s, going from cracking wise about "The Thing With Two Heads" to co-commentating at Wrestlemania with Jesse Ventura, to her own feature film, "Elvira: Mistress of the Dark." She transcended her beginnings as a horror host to a genuine horror icon in her own right, as instantly recognizable as Freddy, Jason, or Michael Myers.

Elvira remains popular over 40 years since her debut on "Elvira's Movie Macabre," with Peterson displaying her warmth, wit, and intelligence in regular interviews and chat show appearances. But what was her inspiration for the character in the first place?

Peterson's first horror movie changed her life

Peterson suffered a terrible injury as a toddler, when a spilled pan of boiling water left her with third-degree burns on over 35 percent of her body. As she told WPR:

"My mother was dying Easter eggs, and she was outside, and we had a bunch of eggs boiling in a big cast iron kettle on the stove... I pulled a chair over, climbed up to look in at whatever was bubbling around there on the stove and must have lost my footing because I grabbed the pot and pulled it over on me."

She was lucky to survive such bad scalding at such a young age, and kids at school later bullied her about the scars, making her feel like a misfit. That changed when her cousin took her to the cinema to watch her very first scary movie, "The House on Haunted Hill." She continued:

"It changed my life. I've talked to other people, fans, who have scars and disabilities. And I guess they kind of see a fellow creature in horror movies that they feel it's like them."

From then on, Peterson became a horror movie fan, avidly watching the latest releases from Hammer, collecting figurines of famous monsters, and reading horror magazines. This would all feed into her Elvira persona in the future, but first, a very different kind of movie took her early career in a different direction. That movie was "Viva Las Vegas" with Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret.

A little career advice from The King

Peterson started out go-go dancing at the age of 14, performing in a Colorado gay bar called The Purple Cow where she was "raised by a pack of wild drag queens" (via San Francisco Bay Guardian). She worked with two drag artists named Mr. Bobby and Tawny Tan who also got her to perform in drag too. From there, she was inspired by Ann-Margret's performance in "Viva Las Vegas" to travel to Sin City and become a showgirl, persuading her parents to sign off on the contract as she was only 17 at the time. As "the youngest show girl in town," Peterson met huge celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, and briefly dated Elvis Presley. In a neat quirk of fate, the guy whose movie brought her to Vegas in the first place gave her some life-changing career advice. She told Oprah (via Huffpost):

"He is 100 percent responsible for me getting out of Vegas and going on with my career. Elvis said to me, "You don't want to stay here, this is not a town you should be in." And I don't think if that had come from anybody but Elvis I would've done it."

Her early film roles were variations on a theme, playing a showgirl in "Diamonds Are Forever" and a topless dancer in the sexploitation flick "The Working Girls." She also spent time in Italy, where she fronted two rock bands and met the famed auteur Federico Fellini, who gave her a small part in "Roma."

The Groundlings and the first inspiration for Elvira

Back in the States, she continued her music career touring with the Mama's Boys which, as she described in her book, "Yours Cruelly, Elvira" (via Julien's Auctions):

"Consisted of myself, six gay men, and, for a short time, a token straight guy...[It] was perfectly poised to fill the burgeoning need for gay-centric acts at the many discos popping up across the country."

Her first major step toward the Elvira character came when she joined The Groundlings, an LA-based improv troupe that was founded to give performers a space to work on their routines. Attending at the same time as Phil Hartman, John Paragon, and Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens, Peterson started developing a Valley Girl routine that would directly inform her Elvira character. She remained friends with some of her Groundlings alumni, making a small appearance in "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," while Paragon later co-wrote the screenplay for "Elvira: Mistress of the Dark."

Peterson finally went full-on Elvira when she answered a casting call when the producers of the horror show "Fright Night" decided to bring it back, six years after Larry Vincent, AKA Sinister Seymour, passed away. Maila Nurmi, better known as '50s horror host Vampira, was originally approached, but she walked away from the project when her chosen replacement, Lola Folana, was rejected by the bosses.

In came Peterson, who created the Elvira character with her best friend. Visually, she was very similar to Vampira's character, and "Elvira's Movie Macabre" first aired in September 1981. Soon after, the cease and desist letter arrived...

Vampira vs Elvira

These days, Maila Nurmi and Vampira are perhaps best remembered by fans of Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" and the Z-grade auteur's masterpiece, "Plan 9 From Outer Space," which it lovingly recreates. Like many of Edward D. Wood Jr's collaborators, Nurmi never found much success during her career and tried taking Peterson to court for ripping off her act. It's easy to sympathize with Nurmi because there is a distinct similarity between Elvira and Vampira, although their personalities were much different. Vampira played a far more macabre character, herself inspired by Morticia in Charles Addams' comic strip, whose droll delivery managed to make even the hoariest horror-based gag work.

Elvira's style was broader and more innuendo-laden, with Peterson's sharp intelligence shining above all the boob jokes and dumb sight gags. The court rejected Nurmi's claim, and Elvira went on to become a genuine '80s pop culture sensation with her distinctive image going well beyond TV and movie appearances. She peddled beer for Coors at Halloween, graced a pinball machine, and appeared in an Atari video game, among many other tie-ins and endorsements. 

Elvira remains a popular cult figure to this day, especially around Halloween time. Her journey from horror-loving kid to the late-night horror "hostess with the mostess" came full circle last year during a 40th anniversary movie marathon for Shudder. After her own movie, "Elvira: Mistress of the Dark," she turned her playful wit on the movie that started it all, "The House on Haunted Hill."