Cassandra Peterson brought Elvira, Mistress of the Dark to life in the early '80s as the host of a late-night TV show that would broadcast old horror movies, with Elvira introducing the features and interrupting them with comedy bits. Between the actress' comedy chops, the growing community of TV-owning horror fans, and Elvira's now-iconic plunging neckline, it wasn't long before she became a national sensation. After serving as a host for years, starring in feature films, and being emblazoned on countless pieces of merchandise, Elvira is as famous nearly 40 years after her debut as any sadistic killer that horror films have offered us over the years.
For 35 years, fans could enjoy a live stage show at Knott's Berry Farm hosted by Elvira, with Peterson having officially retired from the gig back in 2017. Luckily for fans, this wasn't to step out of the spotlight, as she is currently writing her autobiography, developing an all-new Elvira movie, as well as working on an animated TV series, with her retirement from the amusement park freeing up more months of the year to bring new projects to life.
ComicBook.com recently caught up with Peterson to reflect on the development of the character, her personal connection to Halloween, and what's on the horizon for fans to look out for.
Photo Courtesy of Jenny Anderson/WireImage
ComicBook.com: You've been talking about writing your autobiography for years and, earlier this year, finally said that it will likely hit shelves next fall. Any updates on how that project is coming along?
Cassandra Peterson: I got a book deal, a book publishing deal from my autobiography a couple of months ago in New York City. I actually got a bidding war from three publishers going and I signed with a publisher. I can't name the name because they want to announce it first. I'm not allowed to announce it until they do, but I have a deadline now for my autobiography, which I've been writing for 15 years. I just talked to Larry Karaszewski, who's like a real top-tier Hollywood writer. He wrote the Ed Wood movie and a million other things. But I was just talking to him and he goes, "You know, if they give you 15 years, a deadline for 15 years, that's how long it'll take. If they give you one for three days, that's how long it'll take, because that's the way it works." So he said, "It's a good thing you have a deadline or you'll never do it."
And next October is when we can expect it to come out?
That's when it has to come out. I have a deadline a few months before that, actually for February. That's my deadline, so they have time to edit it, print it, blah blah blah. And so, I'm working like a fiend on that. There is a lot to be done. And doing that at that same time that I'm trying to do this movie project is driving me out of my mind.
Another project we've gotten some reports about is something in the realm of animation, which you've put on hold to focus on a new live-action movie. Is there anything you can share about the animated project?
I've worked on that for over a year with a couple of really amazing writers, animators. Gosh, it's almost been two years we've been working on that. That can come out anytime, even after I'm dead. But I got to make hay while the sun shines here. While I'm still doing Elvira, dressing up as a character, if I'm going to do a live-action thing, it's got to be fairly soon.
I'm in a little bit of a tizzy over here trying to work on two major things at once.
And this is likely one of your busiest times of the year, with Halloween approaching and all.
I seriously had to curtail all my upcoming appearances at places and conventions that I do. And on my Halloween thing, I really had to squeeze it down to just a few because I don't have the time.
Last year was your first Halloween season in decades where you weren't performing at Knott's Scary Farm. Was it a relief to not have that commitment or did you miss performing in that show?
It was both a relief and it was sad. I miss performing for live audiences, that's what I've done a lot of my whole life. I really, really enjoy that. The other side of it is, though, it's pretty damn grueling and it's just something that I got to a point of like, "Oh, man." If I need to try to whittle it down to, "What do I really need to concentrate on, what would get me the most bang for the buck?" And probably appearing live, which takes me from August through the end of October to work on, without working on anything else, that's just too big a chunk of time for the payback. I think it's time for me to focus on the projects that really matter, which would honestly be my autobiography and one more Elvira film.
But I do miss Knott's, I got to say. Performing there was really fun. Really grueling, but really fun.
I see you've still found time in your schedule to appear at the Salem Film Festival in Salem, Massachusetts, so you'll still get a good fill of Halloween fun.
Oh, yeah. Definitely. I'm going to Salem. I can't wait. I love, love New England in the fall.
With fewer commitments in the Halloween season, how do you get in the mood for Halloween? Are there specific movies or TV shows you watch to get excited for the holiday?
I wish I had time to do that. Halloween has been my favorite time of year since I was a little girl. I know a lot of people can say that, but for me, it really, really was a big deal because my mother and my aunt owned a costume shop. And for us, Halloween was their major time. It was when they made most of their money. It was when all my family came in from different states to help work at the costume shop because it was just practically a 24-hour ordeal to get all the costumes rented, and in and out, and sewn, and fixed up. So I was involved in that. For my family, Halloween was the biggest holiday of the year. And not only that, but I also got an awesome, awesome Halloween costume every year, because while everybody else was wearing those little plastic jobs that come in and packet that you get at Sears, the little vinyl one with the vinyl suit, with the vinyl mask, I was getting like whatever TV show was hot.
My mom and my aunt were sewing me the best costume. When I was in second grade, I won a $100 bond because I was dressed as Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke. Later on, I won a contest dressed as I Dream of Jeannie and Ginger from Gilligan's Island. I always had the best costume and I always entered contests and I always won.
Maybe I'm like one of those beauty pageant girls, now that I think about it, except revolving around Halloween. Halloween was always the most exciting time of my life and that never stopped. Even when I became an adult, I dressed up for Halloween like you wouldn't believe, even if it was just to go down to the gay parade here in West Hollywood, which I did every year, which was the happening Halloween thing to do, I'd spend half a year working on my costume. I had no money, I'd piece it together, I'd sew it by myself, I'd find pieces over the months. It was just always a really big deal for me. And, of course, I was in love with the whole horror genre my whole life, since I was a child. All of that led to the perfect career for me.
The Role of a Lifetime
Since you've been playing Elvira for nearly 40 years, some might think you'd grow tired of it, but it sounds like it has been the perfect balance of your love of dressing up, Halloween, and comedy all in one role.
Yeah, it really is. And you know, it's not something I set out to do. I wanted to be in showbiz ever since I was a child, but I didn't know exactly what. I was a dancer for a while. I was a singer for a while, and then I decided I'd concentrate on acting, and then I narrowed that down to comedy acting. I didn't know where that would lead me, but I didn't have in mind that it was going to lead me into a horror gig. Being a comedy actress was not exactly what I had in mind, but it worked out so perfectly. There are no coincidences, as they say. I believe that.
You've made countless appearances in movies and TV shows as Elvira, but fewer times has "Cassandra Peterson" been able to play a unique character. Were there ever times where you were almost disappointed with Elvira's success because it meant you couldn't pursue other opportunities or have you always appreciated the opportunities the character afforded you?
Well, it was a little of both because, at the beginning, I did have this idea of, "This is one character, but I can go out and get these other roles. Now that I'm well-known, I can get these other gigs." And we quickly found out, I kept getting asked to do pilots for television, for network television, as myself. And every time we would go in and talk to them about it, we'd find out that I would be getting like a tiny fraction of the money that I would be making as Elvira through Halloween. And pilot season, you're always filming in September and October. It was like, "Okay, take off Halloween, which is where I make 90% of my income, and do a pilot for scale, and then what if it goes? What if it doesn't go?" You don't know.
And it just became, "Why am I wasting my time running out there, banging my head against the wall, trying to get a TV show when I've got this kind of golden egg right here I'm sitting on?" After that, it was just "Take Elvira and run." A lot of other people you hear about, you always hear from William Shatner that he doesn't want to be typecast as Captain Kirk. There are a million and one actors like that, but the difference is I own my character 100%. Everything that it generates, I make the money on. Bill Shatner or any other person in any movie that you can name, do not own their characters. In fact, I only know of two characters, myself and [Paul Reubens'] Pee-wee Herman, that are owned by the person who plays them.
I discovered it was absolutely ridiculous to walk away from that bonanza and try to just be an actress again. I'd been struggling, trying to get television shows as an actress for the prior 20 years. And it was like, "Do I really want to go back and do that again when I've got this right here in the hand?"
You came up with the persona of the character, essentially a horror-obsessed Valley girl who dressed like Morticia Addams from The Addams Family, but when preparing for the original audition to become a horror host, were there other characters you attempted to create?
No. It's funny, I'm just rewriting this chapter in my autobiography. I was just working on this very chapter yesterday about how I got the part. It was just so out of the blue. I get this call, I'm on my honeymoon, and I get a call from a friend saying, "Oh, they're looking for a horror host at KHJ, this local TV station. And my friend Larry Thomas is the director, and he saw you at the Groundlings and thought you were really funny, and he's looking for a sexy but funny woman who could play a horror host." And I did not come home. I turned her down. I said, "I'm not coming off of my honeymoon for any part." A couple of weeks later, I came back from my honeymoon. I found out that they were still looking. I went out on the audition, just as myself, and just rolled in there. Everybody else at the audition was dressed in fangs and long black hair, and I was like, "Thanks for telling me you're supposed to dress up."
But I just went in there looking like myself and improvised with the script a little and I got the part. There I was with the part, but I didn't have any idea what I would look like or do or anything. The management at KHJ channel nine told me to go home and figure out what I was going to look like and wear and to get a costume together. And I'm like, "Oh God, okay great." And I went to my best friend at the time, who was a really good artist, and also was a part-time drag queen, and he started drawing different images that we could show them. And in fact, I have a couple of the images in my book, my coffee table book that came out in 2017, the sketches, the original sketches that Robert [Redding] did. And one of our ideas was to look like something like Sharon Tate in the Fearless Vampire Killers with long flowy red hair, and a sheer gown, and a pale dead girl look. Pale lips but dark eyes.
That was one idea. And the other idea was to look like a punk version of Morticia Addams or Vampira. Those were our two ideas. We took the sketches into management and they looked them over and they immediately went with the dark, black, goth look. It was up to me to go back and Robert helped me cut the wig, sew the dress, do the makeup, and that's when we decided that's how it's going to be. We were a little surprised that they let me go with that kind of cleavage, but they said they wanted it as sexy as possible, so we did that. It was so funny. We came in and we said, "Is this going to be okay?" regarding the cleavage.
They just looked at me for a long time and said, "Could you make this slit on the leg a little higher?" I went, "Oh, okay, sure." You know, it was late-night local TV. They didn't really have a lot of boundaries. That's how that happened. It wasn't like I sat down and came up with this developed character. The vibe of it was a character I had in the Groundlings, which was like a Valley girl actress and that's the direction I went when I auditioned. The director had a strange sense of humor, he thought that was funny.
I didn't see how those two were going to fit together. And I often tell people, "If you're ever looking to create a character, it's like going by a menu in a Chinese restaurant. Pick one from column A and one from column B and put them together, even though they don't seem to fit." Which was certainly what I was doing. I couldn't believe how that was going to work out, but it created something unique. And even though the look was a little more typical than I really initially wanted, I think the character was different enough that it kept it from too much comparison with Vampira and Morticia.
And by focusing on a realistic personality and a relatively simple costume, it makes the character more relateable.
Yeah. It was something I was a lot more comfortable with doing. If I would have had to talk in a Transylvanian accent or whatever, I don't think I could've done that. I don't think people would have also connected with it so much.
Humanity and Humor
While your personality as the character might not be frightening, it adds to her charm that, while she might have some supernatural characteristics, she's portrayed as a real person.
Like an everyman character, in a strange way. Just a working-class, beer-drinking personality that I think really appeals to a lot of people, and especially women because even though she's sexy, she's very non-threatening to women.
Especially in your movies, where Elvira is shown as facing the same everyday struggles the audience faces, where you are a klutz or embarrass yourself in front of someone.
Makes mistakes like everybody, screws up but sort of never admits it. But people connect to that in a very, very heavy way. It's amazing how people really feel about the character. It's when I meet fans at conventions, I'm always blown away with how many people I affected when they were kids, and people who felt like misfits or outcasts, didn't fit in for whatever reason, they just say, "When I discovered you, it changed my life because I felt okay about being different." That part blows me away. That's my favorite part about being Elvira. How I affected people positively. It's shocking, really. It's like, "Seriously?" Every time they tell me I'm like, "Are you sure?" I can't believe it.
And in Mistress of the Dark, your character really just wants to help everyone she can in this small town, adding even more layers to your character that audiences can connect with on a human level and admire.
Well, thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that. Write all that your article.
Finding the Perfect Tone
Your first film was more of a comedy, though it did feature some elements of the supernatural, while your second film took a traditional horror film premise and used that to create humor. What can fans expect from the new film you're working on?
My biggest issue that I'm having right now with it, I wrote a very detailed treatment of the whole movie. It's funny, I just spoke to one of my writers, Sam Egan, who worked on Mistress of the Dark, and told him about it, and he was making suggestions too, just the balance of horror versus comedy. I want a lot of comedy in it, but you need a horror element too. And I'm trying to work that horror element. It's hard to balance those two. It wouldn't seem like it. It's when you have a lot of comedy, you can seem like you're making too much fun of the horror, but it obviously needs a horror element. The major thing that's holding us up right now is how much horror to get in there among the comedy.
With Elvira's Haunted Hills, there was a lot of comedy, but the premise of it took it more towards a parody direction, as opposed to incorporating genuine horror elements.
Yeah. It's a lot to pack in a movie. We could do all of what I have right now and the movie would be five hours long. That's the problem. Got to squeeze it all in there in like an hour and a half.
Well they did manage to do IT and IT CHAPTER TWO so maybe you can go that route.
Well, there you go. I don't know if that will happen, I'll be lucky to just get one of these damn things made.0comments
You can head to Elvira's official website to keep up to date with all of Peterson's upcoming projects.
Disclosure: ComicBook is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.