All Hail Elvira: the Queen of Halloween
By Jase Peeples
Originally published: The Advocate 10/26/15
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is known around the world as the Queen of Halloween today. However, the woman under the wig, Cassandra Peterson, admits she owes her start in show business to royalty of a different kind — and her first steps on stage were anything but glamorous.
“When I was 14 I got this go-go dancing gig at a gay club in Colorado Springs, but I didn’t even know what gay was because I lived a very sheltered life,” she says. “Then all of a sudden here I am in this club, surrounded by all these fabulous guys who are dressing up like women, and I just thought it was awesome! The next thing I know they have me standing in for one of the drag queens who didn’t show up one night. But I’m not only in drag as a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Oh no, I’m also in blackface because we were doing the Supremes. How un-PC is that — on so many levels?!”
It was those early days where Peterson says drag queens taught her the “the art of being edgy,” and schooled her in the ways of the fierce with lessons in styling wigs and the importance of rhinestones, as well as “what to wear” and “how to look glamourous.” These lessons would later prove to be vital ingredients Peterson would mix in her creative cauldron to concoct the character known over the world as the Mistress of the Macabre.
Since making her debut more than 34 years ago, Elvira has not only managed to transform from an obscure cult figure to horror legend. The woman who proudly claims she was “raised by a pack of wild drag queens” has also enchanted a legion of LGBT followers and drag impersonators.
“It’s been great because here I am, emulating drag queens all my life and all the sudden I have drag queens emulating me. It’s like the circle of life!” she says with a laugh. “I’ve had people tell me I’m like a gay man trapped inside a woman’s body, and that’s very flattering.”
In addition to inspiring her own cult of queens, Elvira’s signature cleavage-bearing black gown and frequent use of risqué double entendres also made her an icon of a different kind in the entertainment landscape of the 1980s: a sex-positive female who didn’t have to exchange her sexuality to appear intelligent or powerful.
“I didn’t really set out to do it or become a positive role model, but that actually happened,” she says. “In the decades before, if a woman was sexy, then all of a sudden she was seen as a slut or a bimbo or as someone who didn’t know what she’s doing. And if she wanted to appear powerful, then she’d have to look like Margaret Thatcher — not that she looked bad — but women were expected to look a certain way if they had something to say and wanted to be heard.”
She adds, “If I could be responsible for one thing in my whole life, I hope it’s helping other women — and gay men — discover that you don’t have to by sexy and an idiot. You can be strong, sexy, and intelligent all at the same time, and you can use your femininity in a powerful, positive way.”
By the mid-’80s, Peterson’s career was skyrocketing. Together with her team of writing partners and producers, she began working on a pitch for a feature film based on her beloved campy vamp. NBC Studios greenlit the project, but on the eve of its release, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark encountered a bout of bad luck. New World Pictures, the company that was to distribute the film, went bankrupt and the number of theaters in which the movie was slated to be screened dropped from 3,200 to 300. The limited release crippled the film’s box office haul and the movie that cost $7.5 million to produce, made a disappointing $5.5 million during its theatrical run.
“In the markets where the film played it was number one, beating out Gorillas in the Mist, which was the other film that came out the same week,” Peterson says proudly. “But even if you have the biggest movie in the world, like Star Wars, and you only release it in 300 theaters, it’s not going to be a blockbuster. It’s just going to sink into oblivion because you can’t get enough people to see it.”
She pauses, letting out a long sigh before continuing. “It was one of the heaviest times in my life after that film came out. I believed in it so much and then it didn’t happen because of a weird quirky accident. It was honestly like being pregnant and then having a stillborn baby. I know that sounds gross, but I stayed in bed for the next year with depression. That’s how disappointing it was and it really changed the trajectory of my whole career, which was going up before that turned it sliding back down.”
After shaking off her disappointment, Peterson says she began working to resurrect Elvira in the consciousness of pop culture. It’s a feat she believes she would not have been able to achieve if she did not retain full ownership of the character. “Because I own my character 100 percent — licensing, merchandising, the whole thing — I’m able to [pursue opportunities with a passion] a studio doesn’t have,” Peterson says. “As time has gone on I’ve finally brought the visibility of Elvira back up.”
Her resurgence in recent years is accompanied by a metamorphosis for her first feature film as well. Once considered a box office bomb, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark has gained a cult following since it was released to the home video market over two decades ago. Further vindicating Peterson is the fact that the film is often cheered as one of the gayest Halloween flicks of all time.
“Even though many people didn’t get to see the movie in the beginning, now they have, and it’s wonderful to hear people say they think it’s a classic,” she says. “That is such great validation for me, because it almost destroyed me.”
Elvira has also made a return to Knott’s Scary Farm, the seasonal month-long Halloween event at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., where she entertains crowds twice a night with her stage show. The vamp had been a staple of the theme park’s haunted holiday celebration from 1981 to 2000, but was released from her contract when the park’s owners decided to shift the event’s direction in a more “family-friendly” direction. Since being invited back in 2013, she says her shows are better than ever and she’s thrilled to be a part of the traditional event once more.
However, Peterson says the best part of being Elvira today is the new generation of fans she’s witnessed emerging. “About seven or eight years ago I began to think, Oh my God, all my fans are dying off. This is going to be it after the baby boomers are out of here,” she says with a laugh. “Then all of a sudden, I just became kind of this retro thing, and I was as amazed as anyone to see kids, teenagers, and 20-somethings were becoming my main fan base. I have so many kids who come up to me now and say, ‘My mom told me to see your show, and then I saw your movie, and now I’m totally hooked!’”
With her resurgence, what are the chances fans will see a new Elvira big-screen adventure in the future?
“Probably a snowball’s chance in hell,” she says, laughing. “I don’t know that I’ll be doing any more films, but who knows. However, I am working really hard with some very talented people on putting together an Elvira animated television show, so hopefully that will happen soon.”
Until then, she says she’d love to achieve another milestone that’s near and dear to her heart: officiating a same-sex wedding.
“I just officiated an opposite-sex couple’s wedding recently and, hell yeah, I can’t wait marry a same-sex couple. So if you know any same-sex couples who want to get married, I’m here.”