Elvira, the Mistress of the Dark, is a well-known icon of sexuality and horror from the last century, appearing in 1981 on the Los Angeles local TV show Elvira’s Movie Macabre. Witty, raunchy, sexy – viewers recognise her from her high hairstyle, long, tight, revealing dress and big… eyes. Indeed, Elvira doesn’t even need eyes between her nose and her forehead, because the others, staring out of the neckline of her dress, attract so much attention that the rest of the look seems superfluous. But that was the original idea – to create an attractive diva for America’s favourite children’s holiday.
Elvira actually started her career as a horror presenter. A local Los Angeles channel was looking for a replacement for deceased host Killer Seymour for its weekly horror show, Horror Show Fright Night. They were looking for someone fresh and sexy, namely a female character, and it just so happened that they liked the ironic, California-style girl. It was Elvira, played by Cassandra Peterson.
Elvira’s look was not without inspiration. It was films that inspired Cassandra Peterson to create the Elvira we know. The actress’s make-up artist suggested taking inspiration from Sharon Tate, the protagonist of Roman Polanski’s 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers (hence the high hairstyle), and Mortitia Addams, who exudes a creepy sexiness. And so, Elvira was born, without a name, without an origin, becoming a ruler of darkness for whom space-time is not so important. After all, forty years into the character’s existence, Elvira is still known and remembered, at least in America or among those Lithuanians who grew up in the 1990s.
How else could we describe Elvira? We have already said that she is ironic and a sex symbol in popular culture, waving her big, innocent eyes that shine like the signs of Las Vegas itself, where it all began. Indeed, Elvira has no sense of shame and climbs on every good-looking man she meets. She doesn’t really cringe if a good-looking man pushes her away. And I wouldn’t say she has no self-esteem, because she knows how to deal with men who harass her – Elvira knows her worth. She doesn’t worry too much if her looks make people prejudiced. She is basically friendly, talkative, cheerful and even, you could say, generous at times (though never without self-interest). There are even, I would say, instances of naivety. Maybe that is why she is so funny. So unpolished that, apart from her big ‘’eyes’’, she would resemble a roadside plevea, so childish, so full of her own primitive instincts, that without joking about intimate parts, you would say that she is a five-year-old crazy girl. This contrast makes her interesting to look at.
Now Elvira is a real brand. Cassandra Peterson, when asked if she was tired of playing the same character for so many years, said: “Definitely not! Have you lost your mind?” That’s because she owns all the copyrights. Every penny from Elvira’s brand goes to the actress. You can even find Elvira’s still-operating online shop, which sells T-shirts, mugs, badges, magnets, phone pads and even men’s shorts with Elvira’s merchandise. On Halloween, Elvira’s costume is one of the most popular among children in America. Cassandra Peterson has starred in countless television productions, books, comics, video games and even calendars. She has gone from earning $300 a week to making millions from the character she created.
And yet, this success is not only Elvira’s, but also Cassandra Peterson’s, for whom the character is a perfect fit. Although in reality she is a reserved woman, Cassandra, when she is Elvira, is simply crazy. She can chatter and joke endlessly. She can also dance and sing. That’s because she used to be a drag queen at the Purple Cow bar in Colorado Springs in her youth, performing with other drag queens there. That’s probably where she learned her expressiveness. As the actress herself says, she was brought up by a bunch of crazy drag queens. It was this experience that eventually led Cassandra Peterson to Las Vegas. She was only seventeen years old at the time.
It was in Las Vegas that she met the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself, Elvis Presley, who advised her, “If you really want to be in the entertainment business, you have to get out of this city. You just sang with me and I hear you have a beautiful voice. You should start singing. When you are 24 or 25, you will be too old to dance. You have to take a different path if you want to stay in the entertainment business.” So, Cassandra packed her things and headed for Hollywood.
In 1988, the first Elvira film, Elvira: The Mistress of the Dark, was released. Cassandra Paterson had a few other film roles before that, but from 1988 onwards, her main work became playing Elvira. Elvira: The Mistress of the Dark is a horror comedy that continues the story of Elvira. While working as a host of a horror show, she receives a letter saying that she has inherited a fortune from her unknown aunt. And because Elvira doesn’t like her job (she eventually quits) and needs the money, the Mistress of the Dark is drawn to the small Massachusetts town of Farwell to claim her share of the inheritance. As it happens, all the older people in the town are the exact opposite of Elvira, i.e. embodiments of holiness, who are very concerned about morality, and of course the saints, when they see Elvira, immediately condemn her and try to get her out of town. But Elvira can’t leave yet because she has to sell her aunt’s house. In the meantime, she befriends the young people of the neighbourhood and an innocent young handsome boy, Bobby, whom she tries to seduce. Moreover, she makes an enemy, her witch uncle Vincent Talbot, who is not a very nice man. Elvira needs to find her witch nature and defeat her evil uncle.
The next film about Elvira was made more than a decade later, in 2001. It is called Elvira’s Haunted Hills. This film has no continuity with the first one – the time, the place, the plot are almost completely different. Cassandra Peterson and her then-husband and manager Mark Pierson spent three years trying to get funding from Hollywood, but finally decided to go it alone. They filmed in Romania and spent less than a million dollars.
This film is set in mid-19th century Romania. Elvira travels to Paris with her maid Zuzu to perform a unique show that will open Elvira’s door to the world of entertainment. However, they have no money at all, so they don’t mind when a carriage pulls up to take them. On board is an attractive young man who turns out to be a psychiatrist working for a local count. According to the doctor, the Count would be happy to give the young ladies a place to stay. Elvira, of course, is neither shy nor too young to make a big break. So, although she hides her enthusiasm, she accepts the offer. And then the whole thing boils over. It turns out that the Count had a wife who committed suicide ten years ago, and that wife, as if on purpose, resembles Elvira like two drops of water, so that the Count almost has an apoplectic fit when he sees the guest for the first time. And the rest of the castle’s inhabitants scream like mad when they see Elvira. The trouble doesn’t end there. It turns out that the entire Helsub family is under a spell, which sometimes causes them to go off the roof and behave strangely or have strange health problems. Elvira, as always, remains in good spirits and never stops joking, but eventually she has to face a real madhouse to escape the castle.
These films were followed by more productions about Elvira, but they were not very successful. Cassandra Peterson recently turned 70. She divorced her husband Mark Pierson in 2003 with whom she raised a daughter. However, some time ago, the actress announced that she had been living with a woman for nineteen years. She says that she has been hiding this fact all this time because she was afraid that Elvira’s fans might take it negatively and stop being interested in the actress. Cassandra thought that if it came out that the actress who plays the sex bomb and the seducer of men was in fact homosexual, the audience might not understand it. For the same reason, she also did not make her marriage to her ex-husband too public. However, in an interview, Cassandra says that she is now happy to have revealed the truth, because secrets make life difficult.
Elvira has become an iconic figure in American popular culture. And no wonder, because she emerged out of contemporary American culture, where Halloween is one of the most popular festivals and sexuality is like a label that marks Hollywood. Elvira is also the image of a strong, independent, modern woman who is pursuing a career and does not need anyone’s protection. And for the audience, she is entertainment fit for a late Halloween night.