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The Untold Truth Of Elvira

There are some public figures who seem to have always been around, people everyone knows even if they are not familiar with their body of work. B-movie horror show hostess and scream queen Elvira is one such entity, instantly recognizable with her enormous black bouffant hairstyle and gratuitous cleavage accented by the plunging neckline of her skin-tight vampiress gown. But behind the vamp-camp drag image is a woman with a storied history, one that often takes a backseat to her biggest claim to fame. 

From her birth in Kansas in 1951, to her first stint as horror hostess on Movie Macabre, to her present-day fame as television, movie, comic book, and merchandise star, Cassandra Peterson seems to be consistently growing and building her image. As she continues to work well into her sixties, still as simultaneously campy and glamorous as ever, her fascinating history deserves a deeper dive.

Marked by fate to become Elvira

Many people with a penchant for the paranormal grow the fascination early on, their interests not aligning with those of their peers, marking them as an outsider. It was no different for a young Cassandra Peterson. As a very young child, she suffered scalding burns over 35% of her body that resulted in her needing to have a host of skin graft surgeries. This incident later caused her to feel marked, both physically and otherwise, as different, and began her fascination with monsters and outcasts

Ironically, her fame is largely based upon her beautiful face and figure, which she accentuates to great effect. Many people who don't know much about the woman behind Elvira would never guess that she had ever had any disfiguring accidents in her youth. And yet, without this particular accident, Peterson might not have grown into the woman who embraces the strange and the unsightly.

Go-go girl and drag dreams

Despite her early fascination with the macabre, Peterson didn't pile on the bouffant wig right away. As a teen, she loved dancing and knew that it was her destiny to become a showgirl. Before she was even legally allowed to drink, she had auditioned to be a professional dancer and made the cut, traveling all around the country dancing in bars and hotels. Because of this, she spent a great deal of her teen years surrounded by a pack of gay men and drag queens

It is no wonder that Elvira, so over-the-top with such an extra-large personality, while appealing to straight men as a sexual object, is also a huge gay icon. Peterson gives a lot of credit to her early performance days for the genesis of her Elvira character and the know-how to create an enduring camp persona. It must be both gratifying and surreal to be so thoroughly accepted by the community — also made up of outsiders like Peterson — who helped bring her up into the world of showy, glitzy, outrageous fashion and fun.

Elvira, singing sensation

Vegas nightlife wasn't Peterson's only pre-Elvira experience in performance. For a while in the early '70s, she was living in Italy — a seemingly far cry from the bright lights of working the nightlife. While in Italy, she got involved in music, singing for the Italian funk/bossa nova band I Latins 80. Examples of this group's music aren't easy to come by, but what does exist out on the internet shows Peterson's remarkable ability to sing well in Italian — not her first language. 

While making the musical rounds, Peterson also met legendary Italian film director Federico Fellini. She took a small, uncredited role in Fellini's 1972 film Roma, thus beginning her screen career — albeit in what is now considered a classic of Italian cinema, rather than the kitschy horror work for which she would become best known. She would continue to use her singing ability in her work as Elvira later on in her career, though!

How the Groundlings gave rise to Elvira

After Italy, Peterson found herself in Los Angeles, involved in the improvisational acting group the Groundlings. This group, established in 1974 and still going strong to this day, derives its name from the term used to describe theater-goers in Shakespeare's day, who were typically of the lower class and would sit or stand on the ground directly in front of the Globe Theatre's stage. 

Since its origin, the theater has boasted a huge and impressive list of comedic alumni, many of whom have gone on to become regulars on sketch shows like Saturday Night Live and MADtv. Along with Peterson, who largely constructed the basis of Elvira (minus the macabre) during her Groundlings days, alumni include Paul Reubens (who similarly credits his time in the troupe with the creation of his PeeWee Herman), the scathing and insightful Kathy Griffith, and the quirky and delightful Kristen Wiig. Peterson's experience in improv comedy would help secure her role as Elvira later on.

Writing Elvira

To some viewers, Elvira is thoroughly all about her sex appeal. For many others — particularly young women and gay men — she is the marriage of sexiness and intelligence. Peterson is to credit for this confluence, as she has had a very strong hand in developing this character. Though she initially auditioned for the ready-made role of a horror TV hostess, Elvira herself is a product of Peterson's own craft and creativity, her own over-sexualized, sardonic, weird and wonderful brainchild — not, as many might assume, the whims of some guy in Hollywood with a vampire fetish. 

Peterson has writing credits on many of Elvira's biggest appearances, including her very first film, the simply-titled Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. For the Movie Macabre series, she helped with many of the jokes, along with fellow Groundlings alum John Paragon, after watching the features together. She currently has an animated film script that she's ready to pitch, as well as an animated television show in the works! Maybe once the film is made, it'll turn into a Halloween classic like The Nightmare Before Christmas or It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

Literary lady

Writing for the screen isn't Peterson's only literary claim, however. She has co-authored three novels with John Paragon: Transylvania 90210, Camp Vamp, and The Boy Who Cried Werewolf. These were all credited as being written by Elvira, and all centered on the character's adventures. Originally published in the '90s, these books were out of print for years but have resurfaced in e-book format for the modern pulp horror fan. 

In 2016, Peterson published Elvira, Mistress of the Dark: A Photographic Retrospective of the Queen of Halloween. She currently has an as-of-yet untitled autobiography slated to come out in October of 2020, which she has allegedly been working on for 15 years! This book will hopefully provide fans everywhere a more intimate glimpse of Peterson's life before Elvira, as well as some in-depth explorations into the realities of working as a pop culture icon for nearly 40 years.

Cassandra without Elvira

Obviously, Peterson is best-known and best-loved for her portrayal of the hilarious scream queen, but she has also appeared in non-Elvira roles, even after the character's debut. In fellow Groundlings alum Paul Reubens' Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Peterson plays a small but memorable role as "Biker Mama" in a scene where Pee-Wee endears himself to a seedy bar full of rough-and-tumble bikers. It seems appropriate, in retrospect, that she has become a huge sensation among both bikers and tattoo artists and aficionados. 

In 2010's All About Evil, Peterson stays true to her comedy-horror roots in an absurd gorefest. And though it's clear that she's capable of moving beyond her black-clad seductress shtick, she does seem most comfortable — and like she's having the most fun — when she's the face of the bouffant and bosoms. But live-action is not the only venue for an actress with a talent for adapting to fit a role.

Voice of the vampire

Like horror, animation as a medium is frequently dismissed as not worthy of serious study or consideration when it comes to discussions about influential media. However, many actors have found a niche within voice acting that has allowed them to move out of playing the same role (or type of role) over and over again. Peterson is one such actor, though she has certainly lent her voice as Elvira to both cartoons and video games (and she does seem to enjoy sticking to horror-related media). 

She's appeared in several Scooby-Doo endeavors, both as Elvira and as other spooky ladies. In 2005, she appeared in an episode of Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go! called "Season of the Skull." This episode draws from a couple horror classics, including The Wicker Man and An American Werewolf in London — references its audience of young viewers probably wouldn't pick up on, but which suit Peterson's reputation quite well. On the less obvious end of the casting spectrum, Peterson was involved in the most recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television series playing the role of the Utrom Queen, an alien who uses a humanoid disguise, over six episodes. 

Veggie vamp

As Peterson approaches 70 years old, it is remarkable to note how ageless she seems. She continues to don the Elvira drag with grace, crediting her slim figure and youthful appearance not on draining the blood of virgins as one might surmise, but on good clean living — including yoga, regular running, and maintaining a vegetarian diet. Her diet isn't just about keeping trim, however. She has publicly advocated for a vegetarian diet for animal rights, even filming an ad for PETA where she admonishes a zombie who is taking a bite out of a recent corpse. "Silly zombie, flesh-eating is for worms!" the Mistress of the Dark exclaims, encouraging viewers to eschew meat. It seems incongruous that a figure who is best known for hosting horror movie marathons would be so conscious about her impact on other living creatures, but such incongruity adds to Peterson's charm and mystery. These days, it seems she does eat some meat, but she's still focused on keeping it primarily fruit and veggies.

Vampira vs. Elvira

Part of what makes Elvira so appealing is the fact that she's a parody — of horror on the whole, but also very much on the concept of the seductive vampiress/sorceress. Younger generations might liken her to Morticia Addams, and while that assessment isn't wholly incorrect, it is probably fair to say she owes a lot more to Vampira, the camp TV creation of Finnish American actress Maila Nurmi. Vampira, like Elvira after her, was the host of her own 1950s horror show, The Vampira Show. Fans of bad B-movies might also remember her appearance in Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space

Nurmi was not a fan of Peterson's new vamp tramp on the block, even going so far as to take Peterson to court. The case was ultimately dismissed, panning out in Peterson's favor, but Nurmi continued to harbor resentment until her death in 2008. For Peterson's part, it seems she never intended to plagiarize Vampira and in fact had a great deal of respect for the character, but her incredible success with Elvira does rub salt in the wounds Nurmi harbored from her own declining career that paved the way for Elvira to be the success that she has become. One imagines that Elvira simply struck the airwaves at exactly the right time to hit it big — and knew how to follow the money.