When I connected with Cassandra Peterson over the phone, she was in Salem, Massachusetts, for an anniversary screening of her 1988 comedy Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it—or if you missed it in the first place; lots of people did—Mistress of the Dark is about Peterson’s outrageous titular character quitting her gig as a B-horror-movie presenter when the boss gets fresh and descending on suburban Massachusetts to claim an inheritance from her deceased aunt Morgana. In the small-minded town of Fallwell, Elvira’s brashness and bulging bosom make her an instant pariah, especially among the town’s moralistic female residents. In the end, Elvira stays true to herself, saves the town from her evil warlock uncle Vincent, and wins everyone over.
The movie wasn’t exactly a hit, but the 30 years that have elapsed since its release have been kind to the creepy, campy confection. “I watched the movie not long ago, because I got a Blu-ray version of it,” Peterson says. “I hadn’t seen it in quite a few years, and I was so pleased and happy.” Besides starring in the movie, Peterson was one of the film’s writers, and in true Elvira style, she says that working on it was “some of the most fun I’ve ever had without lying down.” Thanks to Elvira’s enduring popularity (how many characters that originated in the ’80s have 500k Instagram followers?) and ahead-of-her-time brand of feminism, the movie is enjoying a well-deserved second life.
Peterson has been playing Elvira for 36 years. Like her Mistress of the Dark character, she got her start hosting horror movies, right here in L.A. on KHJ-TV. Her low-cut gothic gown made her a sex symbol, but her take-no-shit attitude and sarcastic sense of humor made her an icon to a generation of adolescent girls. She says women, not horny old dudes, are her biggest fanbase. “I hear so much from women and girls that growing up Elvira was a huge hero for them, because she doesn’t give a crap about how she looks or if she’s sexy or whatever,” Peterson says. “She’s going to do what she wants to do, and she’s not going to put up with any B.S. from guys.”
In fact, Peterson sees a lot of her younger self in Elvira. Of her teen years she says, “I was just a smartass—showing off, wearing sexy clothes, not taking any crap from anybody. I was really pretty tough.” But she wasn’t one of the cool kids. Her mother owned a costume shop, so she was always wearing something ridiculous. She remembers being sent home from school one time for dressing up like Ginger from Gilligan’s Island.
“Elvira kind of represents all the people who don’t fit in, who feel for some reason—especially when they’re going through puberty or their teenage years—that something is wrong with them,” Peterson says. “Elvira represents a total misfit…She’s kind of an outcast, but she doesn’t care. I think it gives people like that the attitude of, ‘I don’t have to be so upset about it. I can just go my own way and be who I am.’”
Peterson came up in L.A.’s comedy scene as a member of the Groundlings, and enlisted fellow members of the troupe to be in and work on Mistress of the Dark. “I would’ve hired every single Groundling if there had been a role for them. Unfortunately, there weren’t,” Peterson says. Actress Edie McClurg, who plays Elvira’s excessively provincial nemesis Chastity Pariah, was a friend from Peterson’s improv days. “Edie’s not really like [Chastity], but she has little parts of her character that are like that. When I used to come to the Groundlings, I’d walk in and she’d stare at me for a moment, and then go, ‘Oh. Are you wearing a bra?’ I’d be like, ‘No, but what does it matter?’” Peterson recalls. “We thought, ‘Chastity Pariah is Edie McClurg in saturated form. She was so perfect and wonderful.’” During shooting, however, the cast’s ability to improvise was hampered by time and budget restraints.
Just as Elvira has maintained her icon status over the years, Peterson has held onto something even more valuable: the marketing rights to her character. “I’m very fortunate. I do a lot of conventions where I see a lot of other celebrities, people from Star Trek or Star Wars or whatever, and none of them own any of that,” Peterson says. “None of them can sell their merchandise. None of them get anything but a few pennies from whatever action figures or T-shirts they have. I lucked out so much to keep control.”
Besides traveling for screenings and working the con circuit, Peterson recently recorded voice role on a new EP from pop singer Kim Petras, along the lines of Vincent Price’s vocal cameo on “Thriller”; the song, “Turn Off the Light” came out last week. She also collaborated with Funko on a new Elvira cereal. She says, “I love that I have a cereal, and when you pour milk on it, the milk turns black! It has a little toy inside and a game on the back. It’s only available at Hot Topic stores, which is kind of odd, but apparently the first run sold out the day it came out, so they’re restocking it.”
Elvira is a huge part of Peterson’s life, especially in October, but if she could pick a different costume this year, she’d go in a very different direction. “I’d wear something much more comfortable,” she says. “A muumuu and flip-flops or something like that.”
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