From that fateful audition for a role as a horror hostess on a local Los Angeles television station in 1981, Cassandra Peterson’s alter ego quickly rose to become an international pop-culture phenomenon synonymous with Halloween and the double entendre. For over three decades the Elvira brand has been responsible for numerous films, TV appearances, commercials, specials, and endless merchandising, including yearly live shows at Knott’s Scary Farm since 1982. Last year saw Elvira’s appearance at the seasonal Halloween event take a final bow, though it by no means signals that Elvira’s hanging up her wig. With an autobiography and animated series in the works, Elvira won’t be retiring anytime soon, even though Peterson promises she will every few years or so.
Not that we’d want her to. The character of Elvira is the perfect contradiction that only someone of Peterson’s wit and grace could accomplish; the sexy vixen with the valley girl’s cadence and buxom curves that belies a strong, independent woman beneath. She never conforms to expectations and isn’t afraid to be herself. Between that fearlessness and her love of horror, it’s easy to see why she’s become an idol of many. In celebration of her enduring and fascinating career, here are 10 things you might not have known about the Mistress of the Dark:
House on Haunted Hill started her horror obsession
When Cassandra Peterson was in the second grade, her cousin took her to see House on Haunted Hill. It gave her nightmares for weeks, much to the dismay of her parents, but it also spurned a lifelong love for the genre. Vincent Price became her hero, so she started going through his catalog of films before moving on to Hammer horror and reading Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. The film and its famous star would have such a lasting mark on Peterson that it’d influence much of her work; Elvira’s Haunted Hills was not only dedicated to Vincent Price, but it spoofed many of his films. On a larger scale, she considers Elvira to be a cross between Price and actress Mae West.
A horrific childhood accident helped create her trademark humor
When she was two years old, Peterson was playing in the kitchen and accidentally tipped over a pot of boiling water full of Easter eggs. It resulted in severe, third-degree burns that covered about 35% of her body and left her with visible scarring. That visible scarring, and her horror obsession, made her a target for bullying among children during her school years, some even creating songs about her being a monster. She developed her razor-sharp sense of humor as a coping mechanism, giving her the last laugh against her harassers considering how integral humor is to her career.
The accident is partially responsible for Elvira’s trademark dress
Elvira’s dress is so iconic that it remains an all-time best-selling costume during the costume season. The slinky black dress with a plunging neckline, cinched tight at the waist with a belt, and slit high on the thighs fits her sexy persona, but its design was far more practical than it would appear. With scarring covering 35% of her skin, that slinky dress covers just about every bit of skin sporting scar tissue from that childhood accident.
The irony behind Maila Nurmi’s lawsuit against Peterson’s Elvira
Maila Nurmi, the actress behind horror host Vampira, famously filed a lawsuit against Peterson, claiming that Peterson had stolen Vampira’s likeness in creation of the Elvira personality. That both borrow from Morticia Addams of The Addams Family also isn’t lost on many. What’s not so well known, though, is that Elvira’s final look wasn’t what Peterson really wanted, at least not in the first place. Peterson originally intended for Elvira to resemble Sharon Tate’s character from Fearless Vampire Killers; extremely pale and red-haired. The producers shot it down and insisted she go with an all-black look.
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was conceived as a hopeful back-door pilot for a sitcom on NBC
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was funded by NBC and to be distributed by a company called New World. Peterson wrote the script with John Paragon, fellow alum of improv group The Groundlings and more recognizably Jambi the Genie from Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Being funded by NBC meant a lot of fighting for her vision, like whether or not to include teenagers in a film aimed at teenagers. When it came time for the film’s release, though, New World was in the middle of filing for bankruptcy so Elvira, Mistress of the Dark only made its way into 150 theaters. The sitcom on NBC never happened.
Her sitcom dream did happen in 1993. Almost.
When approached by a CBS TV executive, who wanted her to develop a weekly sitcom around Elvira, she quickly re-teamed with Paragon to create and write the sitcom. Veteran TV writer Anne Beatts came aboard the project, which likely gave CBS the impression they’d be getting a light-hearted comedy to appeal to a younger audience based on Beatts’ previous works. Clearly, they weren’t as familiar with Elvira as they thought who of course showcased her trademark boob jokes. The pilot was shot in front of a studio audience, and then it was presented to the studio execs. They hated it, freaking out over the amount of cleavage alone. The first full season order was canceled, and the pilot never aired.
She had a reality show
In 2007, Fox’s Reality channel on cable premiered The Search for the Next Elvira, a reality competition series where Peterson and two male Elvira impersonators judged auditions in the style of American Idol. The contestants competed in challenges where they would employ double entendres or sell Elvira products until it came down to an audience vote on the “unlucky 13” winner. April Wahlin was crowned the winner, a title that was meant to have brought the extra Halloween gigs that Peterson herself wasn’t able to fit into her schedule, but fans were unresponsive to the concept once in practice.
She’s not a fan of slasher movies, at all
Despite being a life-long horror fan and having hosted over 272 episodes of Movie Macabre, there’s one sub-genre of horror that Peterson can’t stand; the slasher. It’s not the blood and gore, as she’s a fan of gruesome horror. It’s that she prefers her horror to maintain a level of fantasy, stating that she feels having to employ the use of your imagination makes it all the more frightening. The film she finds the scariest is The Exorcist, because of the fantasy element. But as for slashers and home invasion movies? She considers that more in line with the nightly news, not horror.
We can thank Elvis Presley for Elvira
At the age of 17, Peterson was performing in Vegas as a showgirl, where she met Elvis. She went to his hotel room where they sat down together and sang while he played the piano. Enjoying her voice, he told her she didn’t belong in Vegas, that she should stop performing as a showgirl and pursue singing. Had it come from anyone else, Peterson might have balked. Instead, she heeded his advice and went to Europe to pursue a singing career. After landing acting gigs in Europe, she eventually returned to stateside to continue acting in Hollywood.
Vincent Price taught her how to cook fish in her dishwasher
Peterson eventually met and became friends with her childhood idol in the years before he passed. Price was almost as well known for his culinary legacy as he was his distinctive acting career, and imparted a recipe to Peterson for wrapping fish in aluminum and putting it in the dishwasher while the machine washed your dishes. When the cycle is done, the fish is perfectly steamed, at least according to Peterson. It’s the type of story that conveys an endearing friendship between two horror icons, both sporting a quick-witted humor.