A vampy Valley girl with a big personality and even bigger…hair, Elvira has been synonymous with campy horror films since she became a late-night movie hostess in the early ‘80s. Since then, she’s risen to fame as a movie star herself. But the punky horror queen has humble roots, helping out in her mom’s costume shop and scaring herself silly at the movie theater. To kick off our countdown to Halloween, we spoke with the woman behind Elvira, comedian Cassandra Peterson, about her monster success playing the Mistress of the Dark.
What’s a typical Halloween for you? You must get a lot of requests to talk and appear at events.
Insanity. It has been going on for like 35 years. I start in August and work right through September and October. It’s funny when I first started; it was like the week of Halloween, then three and four weeks. Now it stretches into November.
Why do you think Halloween keeps getting more and more popular?
I think Halloween is just a brilliant holiday. It’s for adults, it’s for kids, it’s almost like two separate holidays. It’s non-religious, you don’t have to have any dinners with your relatives, you don’t have to buy any gifts. It’s all about you, you, you. It’s completely hedonistic and it’s just a great day to play out your fantasies, be whatever you want. You can dress like a hooker and show up the next day at work and nobody thinks anything worse about you.
What is it like for you to be considered a horror icon and so associated with Halloween?
It’s awesome for me because I grew up working in my mom’s costume shop, and Halloween was, of course, the big season. It was our crazy time of the year. It was when all my family came and worked at the shop stuffing tiger tails and ironing harem pants. Plus, one of the perks was that I always had the best Halloween costume. When kids were wearing those costumes you got in a plastic box, I dressed up as whatever movie or TV star was popular at the time. My mom and my aunt would sew me a fabulous costume: Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie, Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, Kitty from Gunsmoke. I would clean up at every costume contest. So to end up being the queen of Halloween, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I also think it’s the biggest honor I could have.
Were you a big fan of horror films as a kid?
I was. From the time I was 7, my cousin took me to see Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill and from that moment, my life changed. I became a Vincent Price freak and a horror movie freak. And of course in those days there were the Roger Corman, Edgar Allan Poe films that were really cheesy low-budget films, and they scared the heck out of you as a kid. I, for some crazy reason, really loved being scared, and I’d have bad recurring nightmares for most of second and third grade. But I really got into it. Vincent Price became my idol. While other kids were collecting Barbies, I was collecting little statues of Frankenstein, the Mummy, Wolfman, and painting them and putting them together. It was pretty unusual back then, especially for girls. I think I was like a forerunner to the goths.
What did your family think?
Well, being in the Halloween business, they were already pretty kooky. My sisters thought I was really bizarre because they were into Barbies and dressing up. They thought I was a freak. But my mom and aunt were busy all the time making Frankenstein costumes and Dracula costumes, so they didn’t think it was so far outside the boundaries.
When you get into character, is it all about the costume and dressing up? What’s your process like to become Elvira?
It’s funny, it does kind of do a personality change on me. I have this more demure side, and then I put on the Elvira thing and the next thing I know, I’ve got the wig on and I’ve got the makeup on and the boobs and the whole thing, and I really do become a little bit of a monster. It’s very freeing. It’s kind of like being behind a mask so you feel like you can get away with a lot. I become much more extroverted and outgoing and I’ll say or do just about anything—lots of things I would never say or do as Cassandra. I had a psychiatrist say to me once that he thought I was bordering on multiple personalities. But I make money with it so it’s ok, right?
You’ve probably gotten some interesting fan mail. What were some of the weirdest?
I’ve gotten gifts from people, everything from a Python snake that I got when it was the size of a pencil, and I raised it to be over 13 feet long, and it finally had to go to a zoo. I get tons of art that people make of Elvira. Everything from jewelry to shoes to paintings. Tattoos now are the big thing. I have over 1,000 pictures of people with my face on their body. And that’s pretty awesome. People have given me puppies. I got a vampire bat skeleton from Nicolas Cage. I have many storage units of gifts from fans, some of them are fantastic like hand-painted surfboards, and some not so fantastic but wacky.
Is this the way you had hoped your career would go?
No, no. I never really dreamed of this happening. I wanted to be in show business from the time I was really little. The main thing I wanted was to be the center of attention. And I didn’t know exactly how I was going to get there so I started out as a dancer, then became a singer and later decided to get into acting, and then decided to just focus on comedy and that’s what got me into Elvira. And when I got the job to be a horror host, I really didn’t see it as, ‘Oh, finally I’ve made it.’ It was just a regular gig, which is so difficult to get when you’re an actor. So I was pretty happy getting that job, and I totally didn’t see the Elvira phenomenon happening. I was just going to work every week and dressed up in this crazy drag and thought, ‘Three hundred and fifty dollars a week, awesome.’ It snuck up on me. I didn’t think the show would go on a week, let alone years and years.