Elvira: The Spooky Secret Origin of the Mistress of the Dark

Elvira on 40 years as a pop icon, and her strange connections to Dolly Parton, Norm Macdonald, and Elvis.

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark
Photo: New World Pictures

Cassandra Peterson is Elvira, and in her new memoir, Your Cruelly, Elvira, Peterson details her life leading up to and during her four decades under the black beehive wig as the horror hostess with the mostest and the Queen of Halloween. But my introduction to her was not as Cassandra. Instead, Elvira was just Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and mistress of the dork — or at least dorky humor.

Growing up in the Central Florida suburbs in the mid ’80s, I don’t recall if I saw her syndicated Movie Macabre show but knew her from the Salem-set 1986 MTV Halloween Special, and of course the Coors Light commercials. I loved the Valley Girl voice, the spooky schtick, and the corny jokes. She was as real a person as another character I loved at the time, Pee-wee Herman, who I later learned was her friend.

Somewhere along the way to becoming an icon, Elvira became a symbol for various groups, including the queer community, comedians trying to establish a name and brand, horror nerds, religious alarmists, and of course, horny dudes and ladies. Arguably, one would be hard pressed to find a person in North America, especially over the age of 30, who doesn’t recognize the queen of Halloween.

Yours Cruelly is an honest, emotionally vulnerable, occasionally disturbing, yet funny, account of Peterson’s life, filled with so many seemingly random encounters, it would seem Forrest Gumpian in nature except for the fact she was always working towards goals, rather than haphazardly stumbling through the world.

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In the book, she discusses her childhood in Kansas and Colorado, before launching her career as a Vegas showgirl before she was even 18 years old; hanging out with Elvis for one incredible night of metaphysical conversation; her tenure as a comedian in sketch comedy group The Groundlings alongside Paul Reubens (who would later become Pee-wee Herman); the ultimate creation and breakthrough of the Elvira character; and the struggles of owning said character during times when perhaps the sensible financial choice would have been to sell it off.

Now, as she celebrates four decades in character, Peterson’s creation is having a killer moment. Currently she stars in Shudder’s Elvira’s 40th Anniversary Very Scary, Very Special Special, appears as “Dr. Elvira” in a series of “Netflix and Chills” videos about horror, and has recently been immortalized as a “fiendishly fantastic” collectible figure from NECA. And she promises more soon.

The following is a snippet of a conversation I recently had with Peterson. And full disclosure — and entirely admitting my failure as an objective journalist here — it’s a conversation with someone I greatly admire. Read ahead as we discuss the strange, and perhaps destined, origins of the name “Elvira,” along with Elvis, her favorite comedian Norm Macdonald, her yin-yang relationship with Dolly Parton, and the future of Elvira at 90 years old.

In Yours Cruelly, you detail all these encounters and how things unfolded for you through hard work, but also odd circumstances. How much is hard work versus luck when you look back on your life and career?

Peterson: I don’t believe in luck. I don’t think there’s such a thing as luck. I believe that everybody creates their own future, their own situation. I am kind of an advocate. I mentioned this in the book about science of mind.

I mean, when I was 14 watching the movie Viva Las Vegas, I began to obsess about that movie, think about the movie, feel like I was in the movie, dream about the movie. And by the time I was 17, three years later, I’m in Las Vegas. I’m in a show called Vive Les Girls. I meet Elvis, I meet Ann-Margret. I mean, how’d that happen?

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Was Elvis the first one to vocalize manifesting things with you during your long night of conversation? Or were these already firmly entrenched in your personality at this point?

It was the first time I’d really heard it put into words like that. He asked, “Why are you here in Vegas?” I said, “You’re not going to believe it’s because of you.” And I told him the story about that. And I said, “Is that a crazy coincidence or what?” And he goes, “Oh, I have news for you. There are no coincidences. That was meant to be. That’s what you were supposed to do.” And that is sort of what led into his whole conversation about the spiritual. I wish I remembered more, but I think it was the middle of the night and I had been drinking.

I do have that envelope, which I have a picture of in the book, where Elvis wrote all these words that were… He was talking about how they correlated to numbers, so part of that was numerology. Some of it he talked about astrology, but he talked about creating your own life yourself and that is the first time that thought really popped into my head. And it would be many, many years until I discovered these books, that there were books out there about this kind of thing. I didn’t know it was a thing. I just thought it was Elvis’ whatever. But I mean, again, Elvis gave me a message and I listened to it, and I followed it, and I ended up going to Italy to be in a band. I mean, I could have ignored that advice, but I think one of the most important things that people do is they ignore the messages in their life.

You relay the name Elvira was plucked out of a coffee can for Movie Macabre in August 1981 because the original plan to be the new Vampira fell apart, and production had to act fast. Did you ever find out who wrote that name down?

If I did, I don’t remember. Everybody that was on the stage at that time, and that was me, my ex-husband, my friend Robert Redding [who helped create the Elvira aesthetic], and then the crew … just everybody that was in the room threw those names in. When I picked the name, that song by The Oak Ridge Boys [written by Dallas Frazier] had come out recently — I swear that week that…

And I am just thinking that one of the crew members wrote that name because he’d just heard the song. You know? It didn’t seem spooky to me. I mean, it seemed like a country western star or something. It was like Elvira? Yikes. I was going to be Vampira, now I’m Elvira? I always thought it was kind of bizarre. I always thought it was a kind of a throwback to Elvis because later I thought a lot about how similar it was to the name Elvis. And when I sign my signature, it is so close to what Elvis’ signature that I think, hmm, was that Elvis sending me a little message again?

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It does sound like a combination of both Elvis and Vampira…

That’s true! Elvis and Vampira. Oh my God, Elvira.

This can’t be the first time you’re noticing that?

Well, honest to God, it is. Swear to God. I have never thought of it that way, and that’s funny. Elvis would be the light side, Vampira would be the dark side, because of course she ended up harassing me for many, many years after that, sadly. It could have been so great for her, but she cost me a ton of money and a lot of headaches for so many years.

I’m going to make another connection here. Dolly Parton sang the song “Elvira” with the Oak Ridge Boys on her 1987 variety show. And I’ve seen you tweet out the yin and yang image of you and Dolly. You’re both known for being very kind, but also sex symbols, and icons in the LGBTQ community. Have you ever considered doing some sort of collaboration with Dolly?

No, I wish. I’ve never met her. I love her and adore her. I’ve always just been a big, big Dolly Parton fan. I bought her first album she ever had and was just really a big fan. I never have gotten the opportunity to meet her, which I would love to do. But that’s something that would have to come along with some production company and say, “Hey, we want you, we want Dolly.” It’s not like I can call Dolly up and say, “Hey, let’s do a movie together.” So, I don’t know if that’s ever going to come to light, but she is kind of the yin to my yang. 

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We’re both like the light side and the dark side, and we both have at least a couple of big things in common. So, I think that’s why people like both of us. And yeah, it is funny, she’s such a big LGBTQ icon too. It’s strange. I think I attribute that to being sexy, but also being in control of your career and more like a man. It’s almost like we become a little bit androgynous. You’re sexy, but you’re not a stupid bimbo, you know?

What really hooked me on Elvira was that, while vampy, while sexy, she was relatable with the cornball jokes. And years later, I read a quotation from Norm Macdonald — who recently passed away — to the effect that the best comedians are smart people smart enough to be the dumb person…

That’s perfect. The funniest standup comedian I have ever seen in my life was Norm Macdonald. I almost died laughing at him a couple times at the comedy club. I was sad to hear about him … Maybe that’s why I thought he was the funniest comedian alive. Because my sense of humor goes along that line. I don’t mean to flatter myself, but yeah, that might be it. A smart person acting stupid.

You and Paul Reubens both performed in The Groundlings and went on to create these immediately recognizable pop culture characters. Only you and he could embody them. I don’t know another actor that can be said about in 2021. And yet, you own the characters, so it’s not being a typecast, it’s owning a brand…

People are always asking me, “Oh, don’t you wish you could have done some other parts instead of Elvira? Not always being typecast?” And I’m going, “Typecast? Girl, I own this character. Are you kidding?” I’ve heard William Shatner rant about not wanting to always play the Star Trek character because everybody just thinks of him as that. Well, he doesn’t own it. He doesn’t get rights money from it. He can’t merchandise or license it. So yeah, I get why he wouldn’t want to do that. I, on the other hand, and Pee-wee, own the characters 100 percent, and all the revenue that comes from them goes into our pocket, not a big studio.

Finally, you write about whether you want to be Elvira at 90 years old, and it feels like at the end of Yours Cruelly, you could close the book on her. Yet here’s the Shudder special, Netflix, and so on. So what is the long-term plan for the character?

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Yeah, I have a lot of projects I’m really, really interested in doing. They may not be me dressing up as Elvira. I hope there are other people playing me — like Dolly Parton. But no, I really want to do a documentary about my life, kind of based on the book. I would love to do maybe a movie, a series, or a six-part series with an actor playing me. And one of my dreams has been doing a Broadway play of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. I honestly think it would be so inspiring and fun. It would be like Legally Blonde or Hairspray, about a geeky girl who makes it to the top despite all the hurdles she must get over being a woman.

I always say every decade I’m retiring and then I keep going, because really being Elvira is fun for me … I would continue to work on Elvira for the rest of my life, and hopefully Elvira can continue to work, and go on without me around, too.