Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, on heading to Planet Comicon Kansas City
It’s been nearly four decades since Cassandra Peterson first donned a constricting black dress and a long, black wig. We know her best as and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. At 30, the former go-go dancer and Vegas showgirl’s career was starting at a point where a lot of entertainers hang it up.
While Elvira might have been associated with dark supernatural forces, she may have been doing the Lord’s work by helping insomniacs endure mediocre creature features as she delivered bawdy wisecracks.
Elvira might be the manifestation of some primordial dread, but Peterson herself was born in Manhattan, Kansas. She spent her early years in Randolph, which was flooded out by the creation of the Tuttle Creek Dam. Perhaps it’s fitting that a horror hostess grew up in what’s now a ghost town.
Peterson is fresh from working on a new film as well as her new memoir, Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark. Despite her longevity in curating horror, Peterson seems delighted about the new direction the genre has taken.
The Pitch: It’s great to have you back for Planet Comicon.
Cassandra Peterson: I haven’t been to a con in, like, two-and-a-half years. It’s weird. It’s been a long time, and I feel good about going back there (to KC). I have some relatives that still live in the area, so it would be good to see them. I need some adulation.
I’m laughing about that, but honestly it’s nice to go back and see that people enjoy your work—and the fans. It gives me a big boost. I don’t get that at home so much.
This will be my first time venturing out except for my trip to Hungary when I did The Munsters, which was bizarre. I haven’t traveled in over a year-and-a-half, and then suddenly, I’m on a plane to Hungary.
The testing and the protocols—you wouldn’t even believe what it was like. You’re tested every single day, every single person on the crew. It was really intense.
People often have an idealized perception of both you and Elvira, but Yours Cruelly deals with some of the insecurities you’ve had growing up and gives you a chance to explore your inner geek.
Yeah, I’m just a regular old nerd. What can I say?
When you were a child in Randolph, you got burned in an accident and, apparently, you’re alive because KU Med treated you.
I don’t think I would have lived. They didn’t expect me to live at all, because back in those days—I think it was 1952—if you were burned on over 25 percent of your body, you usually didn’t survive the infection, you know?
Getting back to The Munsters, didn’t Rob Zombie direct it?
Yes. It’s coming out next fall. I play a real estate lady that helps (the Munsters) find a house to live in.
They’d be challenging customers, correct?
Yes, they were. I play a normal, straight character, and they’re these monsters, but of course I have to deal with them because I want to make money. It was a fun part to play. I had a blast, I’ve got to tell you.
Most people know you for Elvira, but you’ve had other roles.
I don’t go out and look for other roles, ever. That’s a big difference between me and fellow Groundling Paul Reubens, aka Pee-Wee Herman. Paul actively pursues acting; I do not. I’m happy living in my little Elvira world and running my brand.
Once in a while, friends ask me to be in their films, like Paul had me in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. My friend Peaches Christ (aka Joshua Grannell) had me in a nice role in his movie, All About Evil. Rob Zombie asked me to be in [The Munsters]. Unless somebody asks me to be in something, I don’t go out on interviews or auditions or anything.
What is it about the Elvira bubble that appeals to you?
In the beginning, it didn’t appeal to me. I really thought of this as a side job, and I could continue my acting career while I do this little gig once a week. And after we acquired the rights to the character, and we saw how well it was going, we realized the potential of owning a brand that is so synonymous with horror and Halloween in particular.
So we jumped on the bandwagon and just decided to stick with the character.
It’s very different for me than other characters. I mean, you hear a lot of actors talking about how they hate being pigeonholed as this or that character, say somebody in Star Wars or Star Trek. They do not own the characters, so when they want to go out and do other things, they get a fraction of the money that it makes, if any at all.
But with me, I get all of the money, so it makes for a pretty good living.
Getting back to Planet Comicon, in Yours Cruelly, you bring up your fascination with another famous Kansan—Superman.
Yeah, I know. I kind of explained it in my book. I fantasized that my dad was Superman [laughs]. I kept up reading Superman for a long time. When I was really young, I would fantasize that I was flying away with Superman. When I was older, it was his love relationship with Lois Lane that never really quite got consummated. It was, like, romantic.
That’s weird, isn’t it? Yeah, I just loved Superman when I was a kid still there [in Kansas]. I just loved it. I loved the fact that he was two different people, and it was maybe the main thing I liked about him. Lo and behold, I became somewhat the same.
I definitely have a Clark Kent personality and a Superman personality. Maybe that really hit home.
One thing that might make you different from Elvira is that you rarely wear the old outfits, because they aren’t exactly, oh, ergonomic.
That’s true, although I have been known to wear some pretty sexy outfits myself. I kind of realized that Elvira is a conglomeration of all of my different stages of life. I went through go-go dancer, showgirl, sexy vamp—all these different periods of my life, kind of a risk-taking, overly confident person.
I think there are all these different elements of my life that finally kind of rolled up into one ball would become the Elvira. Oh, this is becoming more like a therapy session. I’m thinking about stuff I don’t think about very often.
You’ve become synonymous with horror, so I’m curious to know what you think of newer movies like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. As a critic, I think the definition of horror is changing.
I agree with you. I think horror is finally becoming really mainstream.
I remember back in the day when they used to say, “It’s not Halloween. We can’t show horror movies.” It’s becoming its own genre that can be played anytime of the year. People might think that sounds crazy, but honestly, when I started pitching Elvira, it was like, you can’t do anything horror-related unless it’s Halloween.
But now that has all gone away, and I really appreciate that the horror genre is so welcoming to women and people of color, in particular. Women have really become a part of the horror genre. I mean, that includes directors, writers, and participants—not just victims.
In Yours Cruelly, you’ve taken the opportunity to come out at a time when a lot of people are still afraid to talk about their sexuality.
Yeah, especially in places like Kansas—not so much in Kansas City, but in rural parts of the country. I think it’s a lot more difficult for people to be able to do that than, say, in Los Angeles or New York City.
I hope that people read my book, and I hope it helps them. I hope it helps them to be able to come out if they want to and talk about it, because it’s a drag living with a big secret like that. You don’t ever really feel that free, and you feel hypocritical and all kinds of things. I hope that my book helps other people see that it’s okay to do it.
Everybody has their own timing, though, and it depends who you’re with and who your family is. No one should feel like they have to come out if it’s going to be detrimental to them personally, as far as their job or whatever it is goes.
Was it hard to record the 10-hour audiobook?
I’ve never recorded a book before, of course, and it was difficult. I had a good director, but there were parts of the book that I had a very, very hard time getting through, like the whole part about all my friends dying of AIDS.
I kept breaking down during that and having to run off into the bathroom and collect myself, and then come back and try it again, and then break down crying again and run out.
I thought I’d never get through it.
I think I did it in six seven-hour days, and it was challenging. I’m a professional. I do voiceover work, and I, of course, have done Elvira recordings for 40 years. It was still hard. I can’t imagine how authors who are not in show business and haven’t done that kind of work are able to read their own books.
I didn’t know that. That’s fantastic. There’s a lot of Groundlings out there. It’s become very big. More recently, you’ve got Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy—especially a lot of women. It’s a fantastic learning space. I honestly believe that if I hadn’t gone to the Groundlings, I wouldn’t be doing Elvira today.
It helped me immensely.
In the book, you recall the text of the original Elvira script, and it was worse than a typical dad joke.
[Laughs] The Groundlings really teaches people to have confidence. That’s what it taught me.
It teaches you to stand on your feet and throw things out there and come up with things at the last moment. It gives comedians the tools they need to have the confidence to be ready to perform in front of people and be ready for anything that might come their way, except for maybe a slap in the face while they’re performing live [laughs].
Taekwondo might be better for that.
Would it be fair to say that your Movie Macabre paved the way for Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax?
Definitely. It didn’t just pave the way. They took the idea and ran with it. No ideas are new. My idea had sort of been done before, not making fun of movies quite as much.
One thing you did that they don’t do is replace some of the dialogue. In Hercules and the Captive Women, a masseuse starts speaking in your voice and asks Herc if he’s expecting a “happy ending.”
I loved doing that one and dubbing in the bad lip syncing (Italian movies in the ’60s were shot without onset sound). That was a thing I used to do in the Groundlings. We would do something that was like a bad Steve Reeves Hercules movie. We would all move our lips slightly off. It always got a huge laugh.
Does it surprise you that nearly 40 years later you can walk up to a microphone and still get people to laugh at your wisecracks?
I’m still good. I still like the character. I still work all the time, and I am amazed that it has lasted as long as it has. I’m very grateful to have a career in show business that’s lasted this long. It’s kind of a miracle in Hollywood.
Peterson returns to haunt the Kansas City area April 23-24 as part of Planet Comicon at Bartle Hall. She’ll be joining former N*Sync vocalist Joey Fatone, Cobra Kai star Ralph Macchio, and others. Tickets are still available.