Since 1981, actress Cassandra Peterson has led a double life: After landing a gig as the horror hostess at a Los Angeles television station, Peterson developed the character of Elvira, a high-haired, deep-bosomed "Mistress Of The Dark" who mixed double-entendres, cheesy B-movie references, and a hint of menace. The character was not only a hit locally, but nationally, with a series of cameos, talk-show appearances, endorsements, videotapes, and guest-hosting jobs catapulting her to stardom. In 1988, Peterson made her starring motion-picture debut in Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark, an entertaining, underrated film in the '80s-teen-comedy vein. While the years following its premiere have not seen Peterson fronting as many high-profile projects, she has kept Elvira in the public eye thanks to talent, shrewd management, and sheer likability. Peterson's current projects include a series of haunted houses, the first of which opened in Atlanta last year; a 3-D IMAX film (Encounters In The Third Dimension) that's set to make its debut this summer; another IMAX film (Thrill Ride), about the making of her motion-control ride ("Superstition"); a series of toys and models; a guest appearance on Nash Bridges; an award-winning microbrew (Elvira's Night Brew); a series of books; a comic book; a website (www.elvira.com); and so on. Peterson recently talked to The Onion about the state of Elvira, why she no longer represents Coors, and Federico Fellini.
The Onion: To what do you credit the ongoing popularity of Elvira? It seems a lot of over-the-top characters disappear once their novelty has worn off.
Cassandra Peterson: That's true. Hmm… Let's see… What do I credit it to? I don't know. I'm as shocked as anyone. Every year, when I get more gigs, it's like, "Wow, you're kidding. It's still happening." One thing that certainly doesn't hurt is being sort of tied to a holiday. I think I've become a little bit like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus: People expect me around that time of year, around Halloween. I think people enjoy the character and all that, but the longevity is hard to explain.
O: Well, it's a great character.
CP: And the people don't see her all the time, all year 'round, as much, because we're in the horror genre. And there aren't that many people around anymore who are tied to the horror genre. The Vincent Prices and the John Carradines have all passed away. So, it's nice to have one around.
O: The horror genre isn't quite as fun anymore. You seem to be trying to maintain the spirit of the fun of it.
CP: Yeah. I lean more toward the B-movie side of the horror genre, not the Scream type of horror. I don't even classify those as horror films. I classify that as the evening news.
O: I saw that you made an appearance at some sort of goth convention. Do you feel a kinship with the goths at all?
CP: Oh yeah, very much. I feel like Queen Of The Goths when I go to these things. Of course, my look has been around with a lot of other characters over the years—Morticia Addams and whoever—but I think [we] are definitely characters that started the whole goth thing happening, the look anyway.
O: The goths seem to take themselves so seriously, though.
CP: They do, you know? But I'll tell you, I've been to a few goth conventions and goth clubs, and I've had a lot of fun. I really have. Some of them do take themselves seriously, but then there are some who have a lot of fun with it. So, I was happily surprised to see, in the last few times I've appeared, that they really do have a sense of humor, most of them, and I had a great time. You're right that there are a few… Like, I remember when Siouxsie & The Banshees were out in the '80s. Now, there's a gal who takes herself seriously. No fun with the character there.
O: You never met her, I take it.
CP: No, I didn't.
O: It seems like that would be an interesting encounter.
CP: Yeah… She said kind of a negative thing about me in an article once. I was a big Siouxsie & The Banshees fan. She said I was [in dark monotone] "making fun of the whole movement." I'm like, "Hello! First of all, I was doing this about 10 years before you. Second, like, lighten up, okay?"
O: You write your books with John Paragon, who has written a lot of stuff with you.
CP: We've written almost everything together since the beginning.
O: What's the creative process between you two like?
CP: On the film, or whatever, we work together in an office. On the books, he'll write a chapter and I'll write a chapter. We write so similarly: We both know the character so well. He is part of the character, too.
O: The book I read reminded me a lot of the Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark movie. It's been 10 years since that premiered. What's your feeling on the experience 10 years later?
CP: I still love the movie, and I think it really worked. I think it was, you know, Elvira. It may not be the greatest movie ever, but it was Elvira, you know? And if you don't like it, then you don't like Elvira. We're trying to get another movie together—we have been for 10 years—and it's been going through development hell. Starting a project here, and then the place goes bankrupt, and starting another one, and they get a new owner… It's just been unbelievable, for 10 years. We're in the process of trying to make one that we just wrote, and trying to make it independently.
O: Would that be a direct sequel to the previous one?
CP: No, it wouldn't have anything to do with the first one, really. It would still be the same sort of stuff.
O: I hope it would still have Edie McClurg [the talented character actress generally given snoopy-neighbor and school-secretary parts in such projects as Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Hogan Family] in it.
CP: [Laughs.] I hope so. Who knows? I hope there's a part for her. We have a working title right now—Elvira vs. The Lesbian Vampires From Outer Space—so I don't know how Edie will fit into that. We'll see how she feels about that.
O: A lot of people probably don't know that you were in a Federico Fellini movie [1972's Roma].
CP: Yeah, that's for sure. That was a lucky accident. I was over in Italy, starving, walking around with my friend, and I saw a bunch of lights and things going on. We walked over there, and we actually knew the assistant director. We'd met him in Las Vegas when I was a showgirl. His name was Stuart Birnbaum, and he was over there assistant-directing with Fellini; it was hard to believe. And he introduced us to Mr. Fellini, and [Fellini] said, "Oh, do you want to be in the film?" And the next thing we knew, we were in the film. It was amazing. I didn't even speak Italian at that time, and Fellini would shout the directions in Italian, and then come over and tell me what they were in English. It was amazing. He was so nice, so accommodating, so friendly. I just loved him. And he'd always seemed like this weird, scary kind of guy. I was a big fan of him before I met him, and I was so intimidated by him. Then, once you got to know him, he was just this jolly, heavy-set Italian. So much fun. So sweet.
O: And you were the lead singer for an Italian rock band for a while, right?
CP: That happened almost as a result of being in [Roma]. After the film, I was working at Cinecittà, which is the big film studio in Rome. I met some other people and got a little part in this movie, a little part in that movie, and ended up meeting a songwriter in one of the movies; the songwriter had some friends who had a band. And their lead singer, a woman from the United States, had just gotten married and left, so they were desperately looking for another singer. I auditioned for that, and got that part, and traveled around with them for about a year and a half.
O: Did you do any recording?
CP: They did. They had an album. It was so dorky. [Laughs.] I was not on the album. I never recorded with them. It was kind of like covering pop tunes that were American pop tunes, but changing the lyrics to Italian. They just worked all the time, one or two nights here and there at nightclubs or in shows all over the country.
O: Before that, you were actually one of the youngest showgirls in Las Vegas.
CP: Yeah, I think so. Maybe still, even, because I was 17 and had to get a signed thing from my parents—it was pretty unbelievable that they did it. But that was under severe threats from me.
O: It was the '60s, too.
CP: It was the '60s; that's so true. And I had already been a go-go girl for three years. [Laughs.] It wasn't that big of a leap, you know?
O: I read something about some sort of incident with someone trying to swindle you out of an appearance by promising Pamela Anderson Lee.
CP: That was so weird. I was with Coors. I finally broke off my relationship with them—we left them, by the way. They did not fire me. We left. They were just getting… You have to know Coors to deal with Coors. They would actually call me The Daughter Of Satan and stuff like that, you know? I was like, okay, well, this is pretty hard to deal with these people.
O: Well, they're a bunch of right-wing loonies, aren't they?
CP: Ooh, you can't even believe it. I guess some of the ad executives told us later that they held up an Elvira poster they made for one of the Halloween campaigns—which was one of the most successful campaigns they ever had… They showed the poster to the head guy at the time, a member of the Coors family, and he said, "I see demons there." I mean, how do you deal with that?
O: So instead they went with the wholesome, clean-cut image of Pamela Lee.
CP: Yes, that's right. They went with somebody who was really, really wholesome. I have nothing bad to say about Pamela Lee or anything—I'm sure she's a wonderful person, and I've actually heard some very, very nice things about her—but man, if you're going to switch, like, "Hello!" And that was fine if they went with Pamela Lee, or if they went with Ruth Buzzi. I didn't care. But then they called her "The Queen Of Halloween," and that really ruffled my feathers. I'm going, "Pamela Lee may be a lot of things, but she ain't The Queen Of Halloween, okay?"
O: Now, you were supposed to appear at some gay club, and they tried to offer Pamela Lee instead.
CP: Yeah, I got a big appearance. They were paying me quite a bit of money in Denver; it's the biggest gay disco in America, apparently. I had an appearance there, and I was doing some other appearances in town, as well, so the timing worked out great. And a couple of days before I was to appear, somebody from Coors showed up and said, "If you'll take Pamela Lee instead of Elvira, we'll give her to you for free. We'll pay her fee, we'll pay her way out here, and you won't have to pay Elvira." And the guy there said, "What the hell would we want Pamela Lee for at a gay disco? What are you talking about?"
O: I heard somewhere that you get a lot of letters.
O: What kind of letters do you usually get?
CP: Well, I actually have stopped looking at them. For a few years, I looked at them. And then the volume got too big to handle, and we gave it to a fan-club service that does it. So I don't really get to see all the goofy letters anymore. But I have some real doozies, I'll tell you. I put them in a file… There's some amazing stuff. I was getting a lot of mail back then from, oh, like, prisons. Motorcycle gangs and stuff like that. Also, it was funny: I would get almost as much mail from policemen and firemen as I would from prisoners. That was always strange to me. Now, mostly we get hits on our website, so I don't have as much direct contact. But one thing I have gotten is a huge collection of photos people have sent me of their Elvira tattoos. I have a huge collection of those.
O: Do you find that flattering?
CP: Oh, yeah. My God. I find it the sincerest form of flattery. If someone really likes you, they tattoo your picture on their chest, don't you think?
O: I couldn't say, really.
CP: I also have a large collection [of photos] from people who painted their cars, their boats, their planes, their motorcycles, with Elvira images. Also, a huge collection of pictures of people dressed as Elvira, which is really scary. I mean, kids, guys, girls, dogs, you name it. Those are pretty interesting. I've got a lot of artwork that people send me, also—pictures they have drawn of Elvira. Some are incredibly good, some really bad, some really, really bizarre and interesting. Those are things I get that I enjoy now, because, like I say, I'm not able to sit and read them all now.
O: Do a lot of people confuse you with the character you play?
CP: Oh, yeah, definitely. In the beginning, I was getting a lot of pictures of people who were, like, the heads of Satanic cults, who thought I was the High Priestess, you know? Plus, I go to a lot of monster and horror conventions, and those people sort of think that [Elvira is] me.
O: Do you enjoy doing public appearances?
CP: Yeah, I do. I always have a fun time. It's always a really nice crowd. I never have trouble, knock on wood. They're always fun, and they always love me, so it's really nice to meet with them and talk to them and do that. I never mind that. I do a lot of appearances. I'm doing RuPaul's show this week, so I pretty much get up in that drag maybe once a week. People think I hibernate after Halloween and don't do anything until the next October, but I work pretty steadily all year. Granted, Halloween time in the fall is really insane.
O: How has Elvira changed over the years?
CP: Well, my hair has gotten higher. That's sort of the way I judge what year it was. I go, "Oh yes, that must have been 1984; my hair was medium high." At one point, it got kind of like a conehead, and I had to bring it down a little. It's become easier for me to be the character—not so forced. It's become second-nature to me, and I know exactly what she would do, what she wouldn't do, how she would react, what she would say. It's so second-nature that I never have to sweat about it before I do a show or an appearance.
O: It's always struck me that at heart, she's very sweet.
CP: Yeah, deep down. Sort of like the hooker with the heart of gold: a tough exterior but a real soft spot underneath. I think that's why people like her, because there's a vulnerability about the character—not just this straight-ahead, horror, come-in-darling-let-me-drink-your-blood sort of thing. She has a sense of humor, and she's very vulnerable. I think that's why women like the character, too. She's not like, "Wow, I'm a sexy babe and look at me; I'm after your man." She's more accessible to women.
O: She's not really a vamp.
CP: Not really. She tries to be, but she screws it up all the time.
O: I read somewhere that you've actually thought about retiring as Elvira…
CP: Yes, I think about that every day. [Laughs.]
O: …and having somebody else play the character.
CP: Yeah, we've thought about that. Some time, in the future… People always say, "When are you going to retire?" And I go, "Uh, last year." It's weird. I sort of intend not to do it too long, and then every year, there's as much work or more, or more opportunities, and I just keep doing it. I'm always thinking it's going to slow down, and it does not slow down. If anything, it's sped up. So I just keep plugging along. I'm going to be pretty pathetic here in a few years, but at some point, when I do get really pathetic and I can't stay in the dress that well anymore, I think the character could continue without me doing it. I think there's enough merchandise and images of Elvira that are illustrations—in my comic book, and the pinball machine, and the books. All that stuff doesn't require that I be there to do it. I don't have to dress up and go anywhere to have those things around and keep Elvira's image in the public eye. So I think we could still do those sorts of things—do cartoons, shows, books, records, and whatever—and just continue to do it. And eventually, we'll get someone else who could probably play the character and do appearances, just like Bozo The Clown. I hate to compare myself to Bozo, but that's just about the only comparison there is, where you have a camp and train all these people to be Elviras. Who knows? We have been approached by Universal, who asked about having an Elvira stroller—you know, one of the people who walk through the park. Right now, they have Frankenstein, and Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie Chaplin, and things like that. To get an Elvira would not be a bad idea. It wouldn't be me, of course.