October 2018 - Cover Story: The Mistress of the Dark, Elvira
What can you possibly ask the woman who has created a cult icon? That was the question around our office as we discussed our upcoming interview with the Mistress of the Dark herself, Elvira, who will be making an appearance at this year’s Santa Fe Comic Con on October 19-21st at Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino. But under the costume lies the woman behind the mascara and big hair, Cassandra Peterson. Peterson has been sporting the black wig and tight-fitting black dress for over three decades and it has truly become her second skin. Her journey to one of the most beloved characters started as a child. Peterson was always drawn to the horror genre, playing with horror-themed toys and shows while other girls played with their Barbies. “I was drawn to it and repelled to it all at the same time, I mean it scared the hell out of me,” shared Peterson. “Particularly Vincent Price who I had seen in House on Haunted Hill...I had nightmares about him and everything, but I couldn’t wait to see his next movie.” Peterson also believes that a childhood accident was the possible draw into the genre as well. “As a very young child I was burned and had a lot of scars on my neck and shoulders and I was called a monster and kids would point and run away from me, and something drew me to the horror genre because I thought I’m one of them, a monster.”
Despite the setback, Peterson knew she was destined for greatness, even at a young age. “I knew I always wanted to be in show business,” shared Peterson. The journey had her becoming the youngest showgirl in Vegas, meeting Elvis, appearing in a Bond film, performing as the lead singer in two Italian rock bands and working with Federico Fellini all before the age of 21. But it would be a contest that would change her life forever. After the death of Larry Vincent, aka Sinister Seymour, who hosted a popular weekend horror show called Fright Night, producers of the show decided to keep the show running with a female host. After their first plan didn’t come to fruition, they sent out a casting call. Peterson jumped at the opportunity and won the role. Now, came the job of creating a character. “After I got the job I had to come up with a look,” remembers Peterson. “That basically involved me calling my best friend at the time, a guy named Robert Redding was an artist and just incredibly creative. He was an artist, performer, super creative guy and we started going what we felt the character should look like.” The duo looked to Sharon Tate for inspiration in The Fearless Vampire Killers, but the look was immediately shut down, requesting that the character needs to wear black. Back to the drawing board, Peterson and Redding then drew from a famous character. “We basically came up with something that looked like Morticia Addams, Vampira, you know...just a female vampire was what we were going for with a little hipper 80’s twist. The hair...the 60’s hairdo, because Robert’s favorite singer in the world was Ronnie Spector in the Ronettes and that was her hairdo, so he decided that was the hairdo I should have.”
Before they knew it, they had a home run. Elvira was introduced to the world and there was no looking back. Peterson realized she had a real hit on her hands. “Right about the beginning of October in 1981, first thing - I was listed in the phone book - back then everyone was in the phone book,” laughed Peterson. “I started getting calls morning, noon and night. The phone was ringing off the hook asking me to make an appearance at someone’s restaurant...beauty salon or someone’s groceries for Halloween.” The demand was so great Peterson had to change her number in the process. “It was ridiculous how many calls I was getting, and not long after that, I was asked to be on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. That was a big deal back then. That was the only last-night talk show at the time on television...and when you’re on Johnny Carson’s show you know you kind of made it to the big time. So, getting offered to go on that show...that’s possibly the moment I go, ‘Whoa, I’m on to something here.’”
The public was getting to know and love Elvira, but quite often the public forgot that a real person laid under the costume, sometimes creating misconceptions when other projects came into play. “After I got the role of Elvira, I still went out on calls for other acting jobs. The casting directors in town honestly thought I looked like that, so they call me in on a part that they were expecting this tall, Amazon with black hair to come in and in comes this kind of tiny, petite red-headed. They were not prepared for that. So that was one of the things people really couldn’t distinguish - my real self and Elvira. They didn’t know that I was only playing a character on t.v.” But as time went on the world accepted both Elvira the character and Cassandra Peterson, the actor. “As time has gone on it’s got better, going out more like myself - showing up for television shots, commercials or conventions as myself.” That has lead to another issue - anonymity. “It has a good side and bad side,” said Peterson. “I use to be completely anonymous. I could just go around, in Hollywood, doing whatever I had to do without ever being recognized and that is definitely not possible anymore. It was great for me when I was raising my daughter because we could go anywhere and no one would recognize me. Then she won’t have to put up with all the things that celebrities kids had to put up with. We were pretty free to be normal people back then. Now, for me, people recognize me a lot more these days as myself.”
Peterson is also letting go of some things. She has announced that she will be stepping down after 21 years from her show, Knotts Scary Farm, at Knotts Berry Farm. A decision that Peterson feels is happening on a high note. “I love doing the show. I stopped because of two things. One is I was always in L.A. for Halloween and the rest of the country might have thought I disappeared during Halloween and number two, it is just incredibly difficult to do.” Peterson would perform two nights a week from August to November. “It takes every ounce of energy and strength I have because it’s a pretty energetic show...it’s a pretty big production and it kicks my butt. I need a break from this!” The choice to move on from Knotts has opened Cassandra up to other projects, even completing ones that have been in the pipeline. “I have several things I’m pitching right now. I’m pitching an animated series and, people will be happy to hear this, it’s the first time I said it, I’m pitching a live action show television show. I’m pitching a series hosting horror movies again on a cable network and my autobiography, I’m still working on that - I have got to finish that thing!” Peterson hopes that the cutting back of the show at Knotts will lead to follow-through on her upcoming projects.
Cassandra Peterson is heading into another decade of being the host with the most. When discussing her legacy, Peterson knows it will be a good one. “People would come up and say that you’ve gotten me through one of the hardest times of my life or you helped when I was a young kid and I was being bullying. Somehow the character, Elvira, gave them some incentive to be strong and courageous. That would definitely be my legacy and it truly makes it worthwhile with this crazy career that I’ve had.” Peterson is excited to see what the future will hold and will continue to have the Mistress embrace her and her career.
Cassandra Peterson will appear at Santa Fe Comic Con on October 19th-21st at The Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino. To purchase your tickets visit http://www.santafecomiccon.com/. To find out what Elvira is up to, follow her on social media: