BY TRISTA EDWARDS
CURATED BY PATRICIA GRISAFI
I was probably around ten years old one night when I sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor twisting the knob of a small old Sylvania television.
It was the early 90s but the television was decades old and I had remembered we’d had it since always. My parents recently let me have it in my room and it felt like a tremendous treat. I could now stay up late at night on weekends and host my own one gal slumber party. With the rabbit ears placed just so, I could get a pretty clear picture on at least three or four channels of the ten or so on the knob. Despite the limited selection of quality late night programming, I still adored the absolute thrill of being able to lie in my bed and watch TV. A treat that surely has now lost its luster as time and technology and the availability of any variety of media consuming devices has made this particular activity no longer an indulgence but just a way of life.
I remember on one particularly frustrating Saturday night I was feeling particularly bummed out with every hard click of the knob.
Static. Static. Static.
I was getting worried that Saturday was going to come and go and soon it was be Sunday (one day closer to school…barf) and I would waste my final proper night of the weekend having to go to sleep.
And that’s when I saw her for the first time.
Hello darlings. Come in! Come in!
A vampy enchantress with hypnotizing cat-eye make-up and a towering jet-black beehive reclined prostrate on a red velvet gothic sofa. Her dress was tight, black, and low cut. Her skin was deathly pale, almost shining out from among the darkness. She would introduce a delightfully cheesy old horror film with quips and puns and one-liners galore. Occasionally she would interrupt the film or lead in from a commercial break with another snarky comment about the quality of the film or the less than mediocre acting.
I was instantly mesmerized. Hooked. She was a vision. Dark, funny, beautiful, carefree, rebellious. She possessed this aurora of confidence that tantalized my younger self…and still does.
I became a fan immediately.
Elvira is the brainchild of Cassandra Peterson, a former Las Vegas showgirl who lived some pretty wild younger years touring Paris as a dancer, dating Elvis and Tom Jones, and performing improv at The Groundlings before making her way to the "Mistress of Darkness."
It is even rumored that Peterson is, in fact, the young go-go dancer on Tom Waits' album cover for the 1976 record Small Change. Peterson herself thinks it is her, says the woman looks like her, but that she has a difficult time remembering her wild 70s and that she doesn't feel 100% comfortable claiming for sure that she is the young woman in Waits' dressing room.
Following the 1981 death of KHJ-TV L.A. horror host Larry Vincent, AKA Sinister Seymour, producers decided to scout out a female host as his replacement. The studio tried to revive The Vampira Show but when the station would not cast Maila Nurmi’s, AKA Vampira, number one choice for her replacement (Lola Falana), the station opened up casting calls for a new horror hostess.
Enter the gothic valley girl Elvira. The character surfaced as a ditzy yet domineering seductress—an amalgamation of vampire and 80s punk aesthetic after producers rejected Peterson’s original look and concept to make Elvira in the image of Sharon Tate’s character in The Fearless Vampires Killers, or-Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck. Perhaps maybe as a way for Peterson to utilize her natural red hair as part of her character. See the stunning resemblance below between Tate (L) and Peterson (R). However, Elvira ended up a far cry from channeling this dreamy Renaissance look.
In addition to horror hosting and acting in films, Peterson has been performed live as Elvira at Knotts Scary Farm in Buena Park, CA since 1983 (with the exception of one ten year hiatus) for the amusement park's annual Halloween festivities. The performance includes a number of song and dance routines, comedy, and reenactments of fan favorite scenes from her film, Mistress of the Dark.
This year was the "Queen of Halloween's" final run of the show, choosing to retire the performance after over thirty years. I was absolutely giddy with excitement to travel to the park and be present for one of her final trailblazing shows.
So here's the thing about Elvira since many people have asked me before how I can love a seemingly objectified woman who flaunts her breasts and acts like a "bimbo."
Well, first, flaunting one's breasts has never been a problem in my eyes.
Also, she's camp. Pure bawdy camp. And I love it. To me, Elvira epitomizes the ultimate camp factor of Halloween in that she represents the juxtaposition of the holiday's, let's say expected, (high), goth motif paired with, let's say unexpected (low), happy-go-lucky personality.
She's a disrupter.
She shows us that you can be goth and happy. And this brings its own kind of value. Especially to a young girl like me who has always been attracted to the dark and the macabre but for all intents and purposes was a fairly happy child.
Also, Elvira is someone who comes across as having sole possession over her body. She jokes about her sexual escapades with pride and candor. She dresses for herself. She pursues men. She takes no crap from sexual harassers or assaulters. She even carries a bejeweled knife around her waist to stave off creeps.
As the result of an accident that happened when she was a child, Peterson received horrible burns all over her body. She had multiple surgeries growing up to remove the scars and claims that Elvira only "shows her best parts." Peterson has stated that becoming Elvira was in many ways a step towards reclaiming her body in the face of the physical trauma.
I mean, that's pretty powerful stuff.
As a businesswoman, Peterson is a brilliant mistress of branding. She owns all the rights to her character, which is, especially these days, extremely rare in the entertainment business. Elvira lives in comic books, pinball machines, calendars, posters, glassware, make-up lines, jewelry, and a recent beautiful coffee table book that showcases 35 years of Elvira's evolution through candid, personal, and professional photos. Peterson also recently partnered with Pin-Up Girl Clothing to release a series of Elvira-inspired gowns. All of which I must own...some day...some how.
She is Elvira. Elvira is hers.
So here's this woman who has created an empire out of Halloween, horror, and camp and at age 66 is still a babe, has always been a babe, will always be a babe, rocking it on stage in a spectacular burlesque that reads as part love letter to her fans and part farewell to an era. Although Elvira herself is not retiring from the public, the show will surely be missed and a huge tradition to fill.
I count myself extremely lucky to have witnessed this part of Halloween history and celebrate one of my personal heroines take the stage one last time.
Trista Edwards is a contributing editor at Luna Luna Magazine. She is also the curator and editor of the anthology, Till The Tide: An Anthology of Mermaid Poetry (Sundress Publications, 2015). She is currently working on her first full-length poetry collection but until then you can read her poems at 32 Poems, Quail Bell Magazine, Moonchild Magazine, The Adroit Journal, The Boiler, Queen Mob's Tea House, Bad Pony, and more. She creates magickal candles at her company, Marvel + Moon.
Patricia Grisafi, PhD, is a New York City-based freelance writer, editor, and former college professor. She is currently an Associate Editor at Ravishly and a contributing writer and editor at Luna Luna. Her work has appeared in Salon, Vice, Bitch, The Rumpus, Bustle, The Establishment, and elsewhere. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Tragedy Queens (Clash Books). She is passionate about pit bull rescue, cursed objects, horror movies, and designer sunglasses.