Elvira, the Mistress of the Dark and sometimes Surfer Babe, is back. Not that she ever really left. No, the iconic macabre movie host and host of Movie Macabre endures, and has done since 1981 when actress Cassandra Peterson first donned all black and smashed valley voice with Goth aesthetic, and proceeded to cheekily introduce the world to all manner of classic horror and cult oddity.
Pervading pop culture since her debut, Elvira has always been a little subversive and a whole lot of fun. The character’s seemingly incongruous nature and raditude have kept the “horror host” alive. And though we consume media far differently in a more technologically advanced world, it’s little surprise we still want Elvira butting in on said streams.
Elvira’s latest B-movie bonanza kicks off Sunday, October 19th on Hulu. 13 Nights of Elvira finds Peterson and her alter ego doing their thing and likely warming a lot of fans’ hearts in the process. I spoke with Peterson about Elvira, horror hosting and what it’s meant to her and all of us.
You’ve done this in various forms for years. Each time it’s revived, are you interested in doing things differently, or do you love to engage the comfort factor it holds for many?
A little of both, actually. There’s a lot of nostalgia surrounding the Movie Macabre series and Elvira. If you knew the times every day that I get approached by fans who say, “Oh my god, I watched your show with my mom. I watched your show with my dad. It was a family thing.” It’s very crazy. It has a lot of nostalgic factor. I do try to keep that in, but we also changed it up a little bit this time. It gets a little more edgy.
For one thing, if you’re on Hulu, there’s no standards and practices — I certainly have no standards, so that’s perfect for me. We’re also a little more fast-paced. Shorter bits, quicker. And a lot more pop-ins during the movie, so that people continue to watch. The older movies are a little slower; everybody has a short attention span nowadays. We try to add a little bit, but keep it the same. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk.
Throughout your entire career, how involved were you with programming the films?
The one part that I can’t be very involved with—I am in one way—that is acquiring the films. You get whatever you get. I have a bit in my show where I’m picking films out of the trash can. It’s almost exactly… There’s always so many films from the trash can! You either use them or you don’t use them. They’re really, really hard to get. Hard to acquire, hard to find. If they’re public domain, they have another problem and that is they’re not mastered well for television, especially in an HD world. Those films are just not the quality that you need for TV. I know because I just spent many, many thousands of dollars re-mastering 26 films from my last foray into this, my Movie Macabre series that was syndicated in 2012.
It’s tricky; finding the films is the really hard part. We were lucky to get this collection, mostly from Charles Band. He’s done a lot of films that kind of have a cult status. So we really lucked out getting these films at a price that we can afford, because I think Charles also realizes this gives new life to his films, especially for people who haven’t seen them before. It really worked out perfectly. I think it’s gonna hopefully be awesome.
Looking at the films you’ve shown over the years, there’s a great balance between total shlock fun stuff and interesting, strange titles that I imagine you really introduced people to. Things like Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural and Psychomania.
Some of them blew me away, things I hadn’t heard about that were just foisted on me and later I go, “Holy crap!” Like Peeping Tom and Carnival of Souls. A lot of movies that I don’t think I—or a lot of other people—would have ever gotten the pleasure, or displeasure, of seeing had they not been dumped on me.
How has Elvira changed for you throughout the years?
I’ve come to appreciate her a lot more.
In the beginning, it was kind of like, “Oh, I got a job!” First I was thrilled to just have a job. Being a struggling actress, any job is fantastic. So, right off the bat I thought, this is so great to have a weekly job where you get a paycheck for the first time in my life. Then, it became a little bit of drudgery. I guess I got used to it, I got a little spoiled. Then, as time goes on, I grew to appreciate more and more this character, and being able to be this one character that has had such an impact on people. It’s pretty crazy. There’s people that I meet, who say “I grew up and you were my idol. I wanted to be you. You changed my life.” It sounds ridiculous, but it had such a huge impact on so many people who felt displaced or outcast. They somehow connected with Elvira and felt like if I could become a normal persona and win in the end, so could they.
Elvira is very fun by nature, but there are layers, from the horror look mixed with a very pop sensibility. It speaks to people who aren’t just one thing.
It really does. People always say, “What’s your audience?” And I go, “You tell me!” I have many, many older people around my age who are fans, and that’s nostalgia. Then there are a lot of younger people who grew up watching me. It was a family thing, they saw me with their mother, their dad, or their grandpa, their grandma, their aunt. It was something they did as kind of a ritual when they were young.
Then, there’s all the new people. I’m happy to say my crowd of fans is getting younger and younger. For a while, I thought they were all going to die off [ laughs]. Now, they all seem to be mostly in their teens and 20s. Also, I have a huge gay audience, which I love. I speak to them in some different way, obviously. I am just so thrilled with the character now that I feel like I did something worthwhile in the world, not just made money as an actor. I actually had an impact on people and, if nothing else, made people smile for a few minutes.
And the impact that I think I’ve had on women and girls has been maybe my favorite thing. So many girls come up to me, and women, and say “You made me want to stand up and be strong and show that I can be sexy and still be strong.” That part is probably my favorite part of the whole thing.
You are inspiring, and there’s this pervasive rumor that women don’t love horror. It’s totally inaccurate.
Totally. If people did more horror aimed for a female audience, instead of a pubescent male audience, they would be there by the droves. Women love horror. I remember going to Comic-Con a million years ago, when there wasn’t a damn woman in the crowd. I felt like the Lone Ranger there. I would go to Comic-Con when it was just in this little hotel, and there were no women. And once things started being made for women, women started coming.
Is it cool that Elvira endures in a consistently changing media environment?
I’m pretty amazed by that all the time, because it is a very old school concept. Horror Hosting is a very 1950s kind of thing. So, the fact we’ve been able to keep this alive. And I did have some downtime, but you keep cranking away and modeling it to this, changing it up, doing it a little differently and you’re able to continue to work. I’m really feeling a little cocky right now. I’m thinking the character is going to endure, even without me doing it. I really think the “brand,” if I can call it that, will continue to go on without me and that it is enough of an icon that I don’t need to be there doing it every minute. I think it could continue in animation, comic books, any kind of literature at all. I’m giddy.
And on the internet, I have so much footage I could probably use for the next 100 years. I wouldn’t run out of stuff to revamp. So much footage, so many photographs. I spend a zillion dollars a year in storage!
It’s interesting you bring up that Horror Hosting is an older sensibility. Do you think Elvira endures because, even from the beginning, you were adapting.
Possibly. I think certainly the look and the costume… People would compare me all the time, “Oh, she’s doing Morticia Addams. Oh, she’s doing Vampira.” Yeah, I’m wearing black. I’m a spooky gal, what color are you gonna wear? Even then, in the ‘80s, we made the whole character a little bit edgier. It was kind of a ‘50s idea with an ‘80s, edgy look. We had the little leather brace. I had the big, giant hairdo. I had super, super sexy, much edgier costume than Morticia or Vampira, and tried to take that image and put a modern spin on it.
And I wanted to keep the look the same way. I liken it to Superman or Batman, you change it just ever so slightly, but you don’t take away the parts of it that people really connect with, which would be the cleavage and the hair. Elvira without those two things would not be Elvira. Now, we’re not changing the look so much, but changing content-wise; this Hulu show is definitely a little bit more edgy and fun. It was written by the first writer who ever wrote my stuff, John Paragon, who was from The Groundlings and also plays Jambi the Genie in Pee Wee’s Playhouse and he also was the director of Pee Wee’s Playhouse [Paragon also plays longtime Movie Macabre character “The Breather”]. He wrote it and hasn’t written with me for a long, long time. He came back to do this show. It’s really fresh and a lot more 2014 than anything I’ve done before.
What non-Elvira role has been your favorite?
I don’t do many roles, mostly because of time and only if someone calls me up and asks me to do it. I don’t go on interviews, I don’t have an agent. I don’t pursue that. My favorite role, however, that I felt was a really, really fun, different, unusual movie has got to be one I did for my friend Joshua Grannell, aka Peaches Christ: All About Evil.
It’s great to have a gay concept horror film. I liken him to William Castle meets John Waters. [It was] something completely different and I love that I play the only, truly straight character in the movie. I rarely play a normal person! It was fun and also kind of scary, for me. It was something I really hadn’t done before.
What’s the wildest place Elvira has taken you?
Oh my god. It’s crazy the things you end up doing; appearing on Saturday Night Live, being in my own float in the Rose Parade; ringing the closing bell for the New York Stock Exchange, that was pretty bizarre. The kind of things you think about, like meeting Michael Jackson at the Grammy Awards. Introducing bands back in the day like Mötley Crue and White Zombie. I’m always kind of slapping myself, going “Is this for real?”
For much more on Elvira, visit Elvira.com and The Real Elvira on Twitter. You can also pick up her Halloween 7”, Two Big Pumpkins, whose B-side, 13 Nights of Halloween, was written by Fred Schneider of the B-52’s.