It was a rainy Sunday on the first full day of fall that I headed on down to Atlantic City and the New Jersey Horror Con with one goal in mind–to meet Cassandra Peterson, aka Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. If you’re unfamiliar with her, she is a horror host whose persona was that of a Valley Girl dressed like she stepped out of a Hammer vampire film. The clash between the two elements made her one of the most memorable and long-lived characters to come out of the 1980s.
I caught her show through the magic of VHS as a kid and became entranced with her and her peers at the time like Zacherley. The outfit she wore was clearly part of her appeal for me, but the humor was what kept me coming back to her show. Elvira could fire off witty one-liners with the best of them and her skits were often the highlights of the show as some of the films could be pretty dreadful.
Despite being an avid con goer for the past twenty years, I’ve never actually gotten a chance to meet this idol of mine. Some of it was due to logistics and being unable to attend the cons she has been to, and some of it was that Ms. Peterson was busy around Halloween with other commitments so she wouldn’t be able to attend the shows that popped up around that time of year like Chiller Theatre. When I saw that she was going to be attending the relatively-new-on-the-scene New Jersey Horror Con, I jumped at the chance to go and see her and tell her what an inspiration that she has been to my love of horror and writing.
The convention was being held at the old Showboat Casino down in Atlantic City, now just referred to as The Showboat. It’s changed a lot since I had last been there. All of the machines that had littered the floor were removed, though the light up displays that could be found above them are still there and blinking away. Gone is the House of Blues where I enjoyed many a show and sprained my ankle once. The bar we sat at while waiting to go up to see the bands we loved sits empty next to broken escalators. All of this empty space was ripe for the taking, and the NJHC filled it up to the best of its ability.
Vendors from all over came to set up tables and hawk their wares. Looking for horror themed prints? They had them. Maybe you were looking for an old movie that you half-remember seeing on a cable channel one night. There was a booth selling them too, as well as representation from official outlets like Troma and Vinegar Syndrome. Mixed in between these were vendors selling toys and props and replicas and crafts of all sorts. The amount of dealers wasn’t as large as in a con like Chiller, but it was an impressive showing.
Lining the edge of the show floor were the celebrity guests. While Elvira and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider had a place of honor in one of the old poker rooms, the rest could be found out here–not that they were any slouches. Genre favorites young and old like Linda Blair, Ted Raimi, Amy Steel, Adrienne King, Edward Furlong, Tiffany Shepis, William Katt and more were on the scene and ready to meet with their adoring fans and sell some 8x10s and other memorabilia. In addition, the celebrities were all available for photo ops so you could get a picture to remember the day by that would turn out better than the one you could just snap with your phone.
If people in costume were your scene, you’d find plenty of them wandering around. Evil clowns seemed to be the theme that day and there were a few Pennywises and others running around. My favorite had to be a young girl dressed in the sackhead outfit from Friday the 13th Part 2. She was killing it.
After a quick tour of the show floor, I went to the photo op I had scheduled with Elvira. Meeting her was an amazing experience. She is warm and funny and an altogether wonderful human being. We only had a minute to chat before the next person so I didn’t have too much time to make a fool of myself but got to say how great it was to meet her and how much she meant to me growing up as a young horror fan. The set we were on was recreated to look like the one she used on her show. I might not have gotten a photo otherwise, but being on the set of Movie Macabre? That was too good to pass up. Now I have a memory that I will always treasure…and probably hang up at the bar in the basement with the other horror hosts I’ve met. She’ll be in good company with them.
One my photo was done, I scurried across the show floor to the next destination and to where I knew Elvira would be showing up next–the Q&A room.
One of the fun things to do at conventions if you have some free time is attend the various panels that the show has. These can be on just about anything. Some are how-to’s on cosplay or comic book creation, others concern what new products a company has coming up, while others might feature the cast and crew of an upcoming movie that will be discussed in detail. At the New Jersey Horror Con, these panels took the form of Q&A sessions with the various celebrities in attendance. I didn’t realize that Ms. Peterson (Elvira) was having one until I got there. Fortunately it was scheduled for right after my photo-op so I could run over there and grab a seat without having to spend a lot of time waiting around.
The Q&A stage was a simple set up,featuring a chair and microphone each for the Ms. Peterson and the moderator in front of a white backdrop with the con’s logo on it. The photo-op ran a bit longer than expected so Ms. Peterson was a little late to the panel, but was greeted with thunderous applause anyway when she showed up. After all, you can’t show disrespect to the Queen of Halloween.
The moderator started things off first, with questions from the audience to be fielded later. The first question he had was the influence that Elvis had on the creation of Elvira. The answer to that? Not very much at all, outside the similarity of the names. Ms. Peterson did meet him while performing as a showgirl in Las Vegas and recounted a story where they spent all night talking and “doing other things,” but nothing too bad because she was underage at the time and Elvis had handlers to prevent that sort of thing from happening. However, he did give her some advice. The first bit was to stop smoking weed, which she ignored. The second bit, which was to get out of Vegas, she did follow. “I was the youngest showgirl in Las Vegas history, and if I stayed there, I’d be the oldest.” On an amusing side-note, she said that Elvis’ manager did note later on that her signature as Elvira looked like a dead ringer for Elvis’ own signature. Just a funny coincidence.
The conversation then moved to her involvement with The Groundlings, a comedy troupe that featured the likes of Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens and Laraine Newman. She suggested everyone should take one of their classes and it helped her learn to think on her feet. You had to when you went out on stage with no script and had to make an audience laugh. In fact, the character of Elvira is based on a valley girl character she was using in Groundlings. The director of her show saw it when they were in the planning stages and said to do that so she did. Ms. Peterson said you wouldn’t think the vampire outfit and the valley girl would go together, but that’s what made it unique. Advice she gave for people wanting to make their own characters for acting and the like is that they should choose like on a Chinese menu. and pick little from each column. It might not be the best thing ever invented, but it’ll be unique.
Concerning the character’s creation the original concept was for a scarier costume with more color in it and red hair, basing some of it off of Sharon Tate’s character in The Fearless Vampire Killers, as Ms. Peterson wanted to avoid all of the Morticia Addams and Vampira styles that were popular. However, when they presented it to the station, the higher-ups said it had to be black. The hair is based on Ronnie Spector’s in a style the singer called a “knowledge bump.” As for the dress, the station had a problem with the amount of cleavage showing at first and told her to “take care of it.” She said “ok” but did nothing to change the outfit. When they asked her if she fixed the issue, Elvira said “yes” and it never came up again.
Due to her hand in creating Elvira, Ms. Peterson is one of the few people who own the character that they became famous for. Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) is the other one. She said they might let others into that exclusive club, like Alice Cooper and Gene Simmons. Well, maybe not Gene Simmons.
Speaking of Pee-Wee, Paul Reubens and Ms. Peterson text each other every day. For her, the Groundlings was her high school and where she made the friends that she still has to this very day. She had a part as a biker in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and tried to get Tim Burton to direct Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. However, after the success of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton became too expensive for the job.
Ms. Peterson shared a few anecdotes about the filming of the movie. She loves animals and refused to let the wranglers use permanent or semi-permanent dye on the poodle in the film. Instead they had to use a vegetable based one that they had to apply every day. Said poodle was also the meanest dog that she had ever met and bit several of the cast and crew members–the worst of which was received by Kurt Fuller, who then had to get stitches on his ankle. Though she had an improv background, there wasn’t any improv in the movie. Ms. Peterson said the improv came when she and John Paragon were writing the script and that became what they ended up filming.
For the Macabre Mobile, they used a 1958 Ford Thunderbird. However, the convertible models were rare and rather expensive, so they got a regular edition and chainsawed off the roof and made it a permanent convertible. It also barely ran and so they had to use a tow-truck to drag it along or they would push it into frame to make it appear that it was running. After the movie was done filming, she was asked if she wanted to buy it, but didn’t want a car that didn’t work. Years later, the purchaser of it wanted to sell it and gave her the chance to buy it and this time she did. After a $30,000 restoration performed by the legendary George Barris (designer of the Batmobile and others), the car was running perfectly and is now on display at Sweet!Hollywood so the public can enjoy it.
Ms. Peterson doesn’t appear at cons in costume any more, much to the dismay of fans. However, there is good reason for that. The first of which, she says, is that nobody else shows up in character and nobody expects them to, which is rather unfair. The second reason is that it takes two hours to get ready when putting on the costume and it would require her to bring a hair and makeup assistant along on trip. The third–and most important reason–is that while it looks great, it is uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time, so she will only bring it out for special occasions. That’s fine with this reporter as I want her to wear whatever she is comfortable in so she can keep regaling us with her wonderful stories.
While she is a horror host icon for the audience, Ms. Peterson revealed that she didn’t watch any when she was growing up, mainly because her part of the country didn’t have any. However, once she became Elvira, she got caught up on many of them and became friends with hosts like Zacherley, Svengoolie and others.
An audience member asked if she enjoyed watching the horror movies that she hosted and if she still liked watching them. Ms. Peterson confirmed that she does watch horror movies, but doesn’t enjoy slasher films very much and enjoys movies with a bit of humor to break up the scares. She prefers the older movies and watches them on Svengoolie when she can to relax.
In terms of her older work, Ms. Peterson said that she doesn’t like watching it. Mainly because she spoke so slowly that “you could fall asleep between words.” The movie she liked least on her show was Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. This wasn’t because of the movie’s quality, as it’s a good movie, but because the writers of the movie used up every tomato and ketchup joke in it so that she had nothing to do for her sketches during the breaks.
Currently, Ms. Peterson is doing more cons as she isn’t doing Knott’s Scary Farm this year as she had been for awhile. Doing two shows a night made for a rough schedule and though she was thankful for the opportunity, she was glad to stop. She’ll be attending cons the weekend before and the weekend after Halloween as it falls on a Wednesday this year, which means two Halloween weekends.
One of the last questions concerned the fact that Dave Navarro bought a house next to her. Ms. Peterson said he was great and that she held his hand as he got an Elvira tattoo over the last open bit of skin. She offered a bit of advice concerning that last part. “Do you have a neighbor with your name tattooed on them? If so, move.” Navarro has Suspension Sundays where he hangs himself with hooks and chains over the pool and everyone drinks beer while he drips blood in it. That’s why she doesn’t like to go swimming over there.
Although Elvira doesn’t have a show on currently, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have anything in the works. Ms. Peterson revealed that she is in talks with a cable network to do a third Elvira movie. After all, she saw Pee-Wee’s latest movie and he’s only a year younger and still has it so she has another movie in her. Plus he can wear more makeup than he can. This development came about due to her shopping around the idea of an Elvira animated cartoon. The network passed on that but said they would be interested in something live-action so she started work on a treatment. Look for news about that in the future.
For information on Cassandra Peterson’s future appearances, please visit: https://www.elvira.com/
That’s all, folks! Thanks for reading!