Elvira Is Staying Home for Halloween This Year

“Everybody thinks you’re a weirdo, but the thing about Elvira is she just keeps going on about her business," the horror icon tells InsideHook

October 27, 2020 6:01 am
This horror icon offers a lesson in being responsible during a pandemic.
Aaron Rapoport / Romolo Tavani

For the first time in 40 years, Cassandra Peterson will be home for Halloween. Normally the actress, in sky-high stilettos, plunging neckline, positively fatal red lips, and towering black wig, would be found out and about as the character who has become her calling card these last few decades: the one and only Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Forever the “Queen of Halloween,” Peterson has become synonymous with the holiday, the curves and legs for days we’ve come to adore never too far from the ghouls and goblins with faces only a mother could love. 

But even as she stays home, Peterson is keeping busy. ‘Tis the season, after all. Elvira’s winking high camp has taken to the virtual realm as she released her new music video, “Don’t Cancel Halloween,” on October 13. She’s revived her online “Bootique,” prepared a comic book series she’s co-written for Dynamite Comics, and is readying the second and final draft of her autobiography, which has been in the works for 15 years and will be out in 2021. In addition to her countless interviews and appearances this time of year, Peterson will also be on hand on October 30 as Elvira to present “In Search of the Sanderson Sisters: A Hocus Pocus Hulaween Takeover,” a virtual benefit for Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project also starring Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Martin Short, George Lopez, Jennifer Hudson and many others. “I never thought these words would come out of my mouth, ‘Here’s Meryl Streep,’” Peterson tells InsideHook. “It’s like, what??” It’s not bad for a girl from a farm in Randolph, Kansas, whose population as of 2018 was 158 people. 

“I definitely did grow up feeling like a misfit, not fitting in,” she says. As a child, Peterson had been burned badly, with visible scars that covered a not-insignificant portion of her body. In a quirky twist of fate, her family also ran a costume shop in town and she’d dress in the costumes year-round, not immune to more teasing and bullying. But she developed a sense of humor because of it. “Even when I was a little kid in school, I deflected a lot of being bullied by making self-deprecating jokes about myself, and it served me really well as a kid and as a teenager,” she says. Feeling like a misfit would ultimately become one of her biggest strengths, eventually leading to the Elvira character. In fact, in her 1988 film Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, she is in some ways an original misfit queen. “As [Elvira] says in the movie, she doesn’t even fit into that dress,” Peterson says. “Everybody thinks you’re a weirdo, but the thing about Elvira is she just keeps going on about her business, doesn’t let it affect her, doesn’t cave into the bullies, just forges ahead … ‘I’m gonna just go ahead with my plans and my dreams and my projects and let them say or do what they want. I think it’s very much my real life translated into Elvira.”

Before Peterson became the horror-camp-comedy-glamour icon she’s been for the last four decades, she had already been in show business for 16 years. At 14, she became a go-go dancer — 1960s go-go boots and fringed-skirt style, different than what we know today — after getting second place in a dance contest for 1960s television show “Hullabaloo.” She began touring the country and go-go dancing, driving at not even 16 years old to places like North Dakota. At 17, she took to Las Vegas and became the city’s youngest-ever showgirl at that point. She was only there a year, and probably would have stayed if Elvis, who she met and went on a date with in the late 1960s, hadn’t encouraged her to spread her wings and take vocal lessons. She lived in Italy, singing in bands and later appearing in Federico Fellini’s Roma. She danced in the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. She was the lead nude dancer at the Miami Beach Playboy Club show, “Fantasies of Love Au Naturel,” all before she even moved to Los Angeles in 1972. There she lived with a former boyfriend in a house they rented for $90 a month in Beechwood Canyon, and eventually found historic L.A. improv comedy troupe The Groundlings, joining comedy luminaries like Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens for four and a half years.

“It’s one of those things, people say they saw a play or they saw this or that and a lightning bolt hit them of, ‘That’s what I wanna do,’ and that’s just what happened to me, it felt right. I think comedy made me feel good when I was little and it just felt like, this feels like home to me, this is a good fit,” she says. She never went after a dramatic role after that and decided to only pursue comedy. 

Elvira was ultimately a product of Peterson’s time at The Groundlings, a dumb Valley Girl character she had developed, and led to an audition hosting horror movies at television station KHJ-TV’s “Movie Macabre.” The role was hers, and she’d co-write jokes for it with longtime writing partner John Paragon, also doing the makeup and props herself. Soon Elvira was off and running in a multitude of ways between 1981 and 1986: the station gave her only small raises —from $350 to a $500 per-week ceiling — so instead she asked for more and more rights to the character until she had them all. Elvira belonged, and still belongs, to her. It took some time —“I was doing Elvira a long time before I had enough money to even drive a decent car or buy a house,” Peterson says — but ultimately she monetized the hell out of it and continues to, appearing everywhere from Coors advertisements to novels co-written with Paragon to collaborations with streetwear brand The Hundreds. She even made “The Elvira Show” pilot for CBS in 1987, and though the show never aired, you can watch its single episode on YouTube

The iconic Elvira: Mistress of the Dark film came out in 1988 and remains a camp-horror classic. In it, Peterson is a tough and unapologetic bombshell goofball, a woman in control in the horror world where few women had been to that point. A longtime fan of horror films starting with 1959’s The House on Haunted Hill, Peterson had mostly seen women as casualties growing up. “There were very few of those movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s [with empowered women]. I really hate that part of it. The women are always the victims and that changed very, very much as time went on. I think it’s changing more all the time,” she says. “I would like to think that people who watched the show got the drift that I’m a female in horror that doesn’t give in, doesn’t bow down to guys, and is certainly not a victim, stands up for what she wants.”

Such a stance on screen and film made Elvira beloved by both men and women, this unabashedly sexy woman who made being a witch look cool, not haggard (this is a reason my own mother loved her, she tells me, and dressed me up as Elvira as a toddler). “Elvira really taught me how to get a lot more courageous and a lot more self-confidence,” Peterson says. And at 69, she’s been able to defy the rigid boxes into which the entertainment industry still tries to force women: a longtime sex symbol for the ages, a goth glamour rockstar every man wanted and every woman wanted to be, and vice versa. “I’m a woman,” she says. “I like to show it off.”

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.