October is upon us, and all our thoughts turn to Halloween. Looking at the most popular costumes this year, Halloween is equal parts scary and sexy. Elvira, The Mistress of the Dark, adds funny to the equation. Since Elvira’s Movie Macabre in 1981, Elvira has become an icon and something of a Halloween tradition, hosting and skewering bad horror movies like her predecessors Maila “Vampira” Nurmi and John Zacherle.
Elvira is played by the actress and screenwriter Cassandra Peterson. Peterson is an artist of many myths. After a date with Elvis, she moved from Vegas showgirl to singer. She was spotted walking the streets of Rome by Federico Fellini who cast her on the spot. Cassandra Peterson was the reason Richie Cunningham got a fake ID on Happy Days. The sex symbol of the legendary improv and sketch troupe The Groundlings clowned with comic greats like the late Phil Hartman of The Simpsons, original Saturday Night Live Not Ready for Prime Time player Lorraine Newman, John Lovitz, Julia Sweeny, and Paul Reubens, who she later beat the shit out of in the Tim Burton-directed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. In a Blender interview from 2008, she also disproved the notion that Tom Jones stuffed socks down his pants.
Cassandra Peterson retired her Elvira character from the convention circuit a few years ago, but the famously top-heavy host with the kabuki makeup was raised from the undead by the magicians at Hulu. Elvira will introduce low-budget horror movies like Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, Evil Bong, Seed People, and Shrunken Heads in The 13 Nights of Elvira. Starting Oct. 19, Hulu will stream modern B-movie horror pictures with commentary by Elvira. The series ends with the zombie classic, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead on Halloween.
Cassandra Peterson spoke exclusively with Den of Geek about all of the above and a lot of the below.
Den of Geek: You’re going to be unleashing some horror classics in the Hulu series. You’re a renowned expert in bad horror, will there be any shocking revelations about any of the movies you’ll be showing?
Cassandra Peterson: I think the whole Hulu thing will be a little edgier Elvira than people have seen. A little more sex and violence. The movies have nudity. That’s interesting for me because usually they have to black out all that. I’m always on regular television where we have standards and practices. This time we have no standards. No standards entirely. Though you can say, Elvira never had any standards. It’s nice to be on Hulu where I can say and do whatever I want. It’s a little edgier.
The movies are really fun. They’re mostly Charles Van movies. Movies that I’ve liked over the years, Puppet Master, which is a classic. We’re going to do Night of the Living Dead, which I begged for, for Halloween night, because zombies are still hot dude, and that’s the all-time number one zombie movie for me.
Your famous for knowing about bad horror movies, but are there any prestigious horror films that you think should go in the bad horror bin?
Interesting, I’ll have to think about that. A lot of movies like Saw, I would put Saw on the list. I know, people love, people love it but some of those movies move too non-horror for me. I wouldn’t even throw them in the bad horror bin. I’d throw them in the trash bin. I just don’t like the psycho-torturing of the women, that for me is just not horror. It’s nightly news.
What do you think is missing from horror movies today?
It’s funny, there are so many special effects that I think they’ve kind of lost the raw spooky edginess that they had a long time ago. When you take all the imagination out of people’s heads and you put it on the screen, there’s nothing left for you to imagine. It’s like a thrill ride, you don’t walk out of there being scared by, say sharks, or a vampire or a witch. You’re on an up and down thrill ride like a rollercoaster, which has its place too. I like that. Some of the old horror movies have a sense of a psychological effect on you that you couldn’t get them out of your head for weeks. You’d be walking outside, scared to go around the corner. They stuck with you because you were imagining what was going on in your head, it wasn’t all up there on the screen for you.
Old movies like The Haunting or what was that movie with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie? Don’t Look Now, movies that really left a lot to the imagination. Psycho is a good example of that, of course that’s getting back into psychos killing you, but that’s a movie that I can’t watch to this day.
If you love horror, what scares you, Gilligan’s Island?
I don’t know. I’ve become immune to fear, which is really weird.
I heard you liked horror toys instead of Barbie dolls when you were a kid. What horror toys were available?
Oh, I did. I totally did. Once I saw Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill I was hooked on horror movies. William Castle movies, Roger Corman films, I fell in love with them and the next thing I knew I was buying Famous Monster kits and the model kits and I was completely into that, which was kind of odd for a girl back then. I think I was the only girl I knew that had Frankenstein and the Wolfman instead of Barbie and Ken.
Do you remember making someone laugh?
Yeah, I was very young. I did make people laugh all the time. I had a very self-deprecating humor. I kind of used it to get out of situations because I was burned when I was a child. I had a lot of scars that really were prominent on my neck and on my shoulders. I worried that if kids could see it I’d be made fun of and I quickly learned to make jokes about it, to use humor to not get bullied. I think if you talk to most comedians, they’ll tell you the same thing: they had acne or were really fat or something people joked about. There were two ways to deal with it: You could crawl into your shell or you could be funny and make a joke about it yourself.
How did you get burned?
My mom was boiling Easter eggs and I was like two years old and climbed up on a chair and pulled the whole pot of boiling water down on top of me. Thirty-five percent of my body was third-degree burned. I had skin grafting.
I always hear Mae West in your delivery, besides the obvious, who were your earliest influences?
It’s funny because I didn’t know about Mae West until I was well into being an adult and then when I found out about her I loved her. I saw all the movies I could get my hands on. I was really into The Twilight Zone and The Addams Family. I was a huge fan of that TV show and Morticia Addams. One of my giant idols.
When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch The Brady Bunch, but I was allowed to watch The Addams Family.
That’s very bizarre, but it worked out for you right? When I was little my influences were, well, Vincent Price and Ann Margaret. Maybe I am kind of like the illegitimate child of Vincent Price and Ann Margaret. I have a little bit of both of those going on. Ann Margaret was my idol. I saw her in Bye Bye Birdie and I just thought “Oh my god, sexy redhead. She kissed Elvis actually in the movies. I want to be her.”
Did Elvis ever sing to you alone?
He did. When I was with Elvis, I met him in Vegas when I was a showgirl, and I went to his room, which was a giant two-story suite at the top of the International Hotel in Vegas, which is no longer there. He sat down at the piano and he sang a song with me sitting on the piano bench with him. I started harmonizing with him, and we were singing a song together. That’s when he said to me “you have a pretty decent voice. Why don’t you get into singing? Why don’t you stop being a showgirl and take vocal lessons? Become a singer. This is Vegas, it’s no place for a young girl. You shouldn’t be living here it’s no good.”
I took him totally at his word. The next day I went to a vocal coach. It wasn’t long after that that I did get a part singing in the same show that I was in in Vegas. I eventually left there and went to Europe and tried to make it over there as a singer.
What was your specialty in The Groundlings?
I was the worst at doing characters. It was weird that I came up with this character. I had a couple characters. One was called Pet Lady. One was a valley girl actress that kind of the personality that I based the Elvira character on. That Valley Girl song with Moon Zappa had just come out. I was sexy actress showing up for an audition.
People always called me the sex symbol of The Groundlings. I always got all the parts like hooker, showgirl, stripper, whatever. I was usually the girlfriend, the sexy wife, the hooker of the Groundlings. So I never had a real majorly developed characters to go to like a lot of other people did, like Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens who were there at the time.
What did you think of Count Floyd, Joe Flaherty’s character on Second City Television who was also a horror movie host?
I loved that. I thought he was brilliant. I thought he did a great job on that.
What was it like to work with Federico Fellini?
Well, of course it was an honor. You gotta be kidding, I was a huge Fellini film fan and literally met him walking down the street in Rome where he was filming the movie Roma. He thought I looked like his wife, Giulietta Masina, when she was really young and asked me if I wanted to work on the film. I was like, yes, hello? So the next thing I barely flashed through the movie in a blink of an eye but I got to work thirty days and worked every day with Mr. Fellini there on the set. Having lunch every day at a big table and watching him film this amazing movie. One of my favorite movies because I really love Rome. It was an experience of a lifetime. I got paid. I was starving, literally, I didn’t have any money or work and to have that fall out of the sky was like a miracle
I love the Fearless Vampire Killers and Eye of the Needle, do you remember how they worded it when they said you couldn’t base your horror movie host character on Sharon Tate?
They weren’t even aware of who she was. I mean, they knew about her because of her murder, but not because of who she was in Fearless Vampire Killers. I thought that was an amazing film. I just love that Roman Polanski actually did a film like that. It was so goofy and out there and so different from anything that was out there at the time it came out.
They used my real hair, which is red and real long and curly and gave me a kind of dead girl look, with a sheer negligee, dress tattered, pale with some black eyes. The first thing that my friend Robert [Redding] and I came up with when we thought of what the character should look like. Let’s do that because we were such fans of the films, but when they saw that there were like “oh no, you’re gonna be a horror host, you have to be all in black.” And I said Oh no, I’m not dying my hair black.” It was small town station managers who didn’t have a lot of imagination, I’m afraid.
Okay, we���ll make it all black, but it would have looked like Morticia Addams and we wanted to put some kind of twist on it. Robert came up with the hairstyle that was based on his favorite rock hair of all time. Ronnie Spector and the Ronnettes. Her hair style was known as the “knowledge bump.” He got the makeup out of a Kabuki makeup book
We made the dress as tight and sexy as possible for the ratings. We took that in and they said: that’s great can you make the slit higher? Show more leg? I looked at it and said there’s no way in hell they’re going to let me wear this dress but they loved it. Every week we’d get complaints that my cleavage was too low and I would back come in the next week and they’d ask if I made the cleavage higher. I’d say we fixed it and they’d say oh, thank god. Every single week I’d tell them that we made it higher and every single week they’d say “great” and I never changed it.
You were Opie Cunningham’s first stripper on Happy Days.
Yeah. Isn’t that bizarre? I finally get a job on a regular TV show and I was still playing a stripper.
So is that you on the cover of Small Change?
You know, I swear to god don’t know. I’m hoping it is, I’m hoping, but I don’t remember doing it. Isn’t that weird? Don’t you think you’d remember doing an album cover with Tom Waits? I did a million and one music videos back then with all kinds of artists. Al Kooper, Hall and Oates. I was a model and would get hired for that stuff all the time but I don’t have any recollection of doing that album cover with Tom Waits. I have to say it looks sort of like me. There are a couple things on there that don’t look like me, so I’m not sure, but I’ll take the credit, sure.
Do you still listen to Tom Jones?
It’s funny, I was playing a Tom Jones song the other day in my dressing room actually.
Did you ever dabble in black magic or the dark arts?
When I was a teenager I really got into reading Tarot cards. I was very into the Ouija board. I didn’t do anything without finding out what I was supposed to do with a Ouija board first. I was way into that when I was a teenager so does that count? I studied Tarot cards. I was very serious about Tarot Cards for a long time when I was a kid.
I have a new song out called “Two Big Pumpkins.” Fred Schneider of the B-52s wrote it and Jack White’s company, Third Man Records, just put it out.