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Elvira, Mistress of the Dark returns in a new book that also recalls an earlier contender for dark queen of late-night horror

In her new book, Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark, Elvira actor Cassandra Peterson recalls meeting Maila Nurmi, the creator of Vampira, the first U.S. late-night horror host. It was the summer of 1981, and Nurmi had been approached by KHJ-TV, the Los Angeles local station that aired The Vampira Show in a brief iteration following its cancellation by KABC in 1955. The show didn’t last – all told, Vampira would remain on air for little more than two years, with a later appearance in Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 from Outer Space – but Nurmi’s impact would be profound.

The Vampira Show, and its earlier promo, Dig Me Later, Vampira, introduced a staid U.S. society to a mistress of the dark who truly lived up to her name. Clad in a flowing black dress, her waist cinched almost inhumanly tight, long black hair down below her shoulders and fingernails like daggers, Vampira emerged from a swirling cloud of dry ice in 1954, approached the camera and let out a piercing scream that put staid, conservative 1950s America on notice: the cultural repression of female sexuality was about to be upended by an unknown performer of Finnish extraction who reached into viewers’ subconscious and slapped it around furiously, all while engaging in campy repartee about B-grade horror fare.

Elvira was basically Vampira with more cleavage and a less threatening demeanour. Peterson’s character tempered Nurmi’s bondage aesthetic by ratcheting up the camp, replacing sexual subversion with Valley Girl speech, an outlandish push-up bra, and PG-rated come-ons guaranteed not to disturb the sensibilities of the young men in the audience: “I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but hey, some of us got brains, and some of us just got a couple of nice consolation prizes.”

Peterson quotes that line as one of her ad-libs in her audition to be the latter-day Vampira on KHJ-TV; landing that gig not only launched the former Vegas showgirl into her most iconic role, it also precipitated the meeting with Nurmi, who would have been in her late fifties at the time. Peterson’s description of the encounter is not, to say the least, overly generous:

It was plain to see from the photos she shared that she’d once been a very statuesque and beautiful woman, but it was also clear that she’d lived a very hard life. She had only a tooth or two left in her head and she rambled on incoherently about subjects that didn’t relate at all to what we were there to discuss. She talked a lot about her relationship with James Dean, but in the present tense, as if it was ongoing. I wasn’t all that familiar with James Dean, but I knew enough about him to know he was dead. It was sad to see an older lady like her alone and down on her luck.

The condescension here is breathtaking, though not altogether surprising: in the days before what would become Elvira’s Movie Macabre was set to air, Nurmi (who died in 2008) had her attorney contact KHJ-TV to alert them that she would not agree to allow the station, which had cast Peterson against Nurmi’s wishes (in Peterson’s own account), to use the Vampira name. Once Elvira became a cult hit, Nurmi initiated a lawsuit against KHJ-TV and Peterson, claiming they stole her character. The suit was eventually settled in Peterson’s favour, with the court claiming, rightly, that a “likeness” should be read as meaning an exact copy in all aspects, “not merely a suggestive resemblance.” If Peterson employed aspects of Nurmi’s look, this was little different from Nurmi modelling her own appearance as Vampira on the cartoons of Charles Addams. Or, as Peterson delicately puts it in her book, “hypocritical much?”

What the acrimony papered over, ironically, is how much Nurmi and Peterson shared in common. As W. Scott Poole writes in his cultural study Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror:

Like Nurmi, Peterson also fled small-town life (Colorado, instead of Oregon) and had a brief career in Vegas where, again like Nurmi, she met … Elvis Presley. She had had some contact with gay male subculture when, as a high schooler, she worked as a dancer at a local gay bar. Peterson shared Nurmi’s concern for animal rights, later becoming a PETA spokesperson. She had a number of bit parts in larger films, including a small role as a showgirl in the Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever.

Equally interesting, however, is where the two performers diverge. As Poole notes, Peterson’s iconic character extracts all of the subversion and danger that made Vampira such a provocative comment on conservative, patriarchal 1950s U.S. society, replacing it with an easily acceptable version of female sexuality that fit right in with the similarly uptight Reagan era in the 1980s. “Also unlike Nurmi,” Poole writes, ”the character [Peterson] created, or that was created for her, had none of the subversive, aggressive power of Vampira. She was a valley girl in goth drag.”

This accounts for one reason Elvira found a mass popularity that eluded Vampira in her brief television lifespan. As Poole points out, Nurmi’s character was a poke in the eye of a culture that promoted the subservient American housewife ideal in advertising and on television sitcoms like The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy. Where Peterson cultivated the look and demeanour of a pin-up, Nurmi consciously courted aspects of bondage fetishsm, appearing in one ad for The Vampira Show “draped on top of a coffin,” with a tagline that promoted her as “YOUR PIN DOWN GIRL.” The scream with which Vampira opened her show was an explicit commingling of terror and erotic pleasure. “She always followed up her macabre scream with the words ‘screaming relaxes me so,’ a double entendre that even adolescent audiences, maybe especially adolescent audiences, cold not misunderstand.”

Poole references nods to BDSM and dominatrix regalia in Nurmi’s persona, as well as the ever-present phallic symbols inherent in daggers and, not incidentally, Nurmi’s stiletto-like fingernails. He writes:

Nurmi’s willingness to link terror, desire, and a parody of bondage and restraint are not simply the products of her own creative genius, fertile as that genius might have been. The experiments she carried out with The Vampira Show are the whitecap of a particularly powerful wave building across the placidity of postwar America. Amid dreams of abundance and promises of serenity, a yearning underside of American culture clawed its way to the surface.

It’s safe to say that by the time Elvira made her debut, Reagan’s morning in America had forced all that darkness back underground. The wave had broken, replacing Vampira’s undermining of sexuality and masculinity with a character who wilfully indulges in witticisms such as, “Yes, it’s me … the gal who put the ‘boob’ back into ‘Boob Tube.’ ” Not exactly the kind of attitude that is calculated to make the patriarchy quake in its boots.

Poole’s volume is valuable not so much as a biography of Nurmi – something Poole never intended it to be – but as a cultural snapshot of America in the 1950s and the degree to which Vampira, in a few short months on air, upended conventional notions about the family, the state, and sexuality – something the best horror is adept at doing. Peterson’s memoir, on the other hand, is a tired, ill-written volume that spends the bulk of its time dropping names: from romantic dalliances with Tom Jones and Robert De Niro to the time Michael Jackson told her he wanted her to do the spoken-word part of “Thriller” to meeting her personal icons, Elvis and Vincent Price, to auditioning Brad Pitt and Hilary Swank before either was famous (and rejecting both in favour of actors who have since disappeared from view). All of which makes her criticism of Nurmi’s fixation on James Dean a bit rich. Or, as Peterson herself might put it, “hypocritical much?”

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