The Eternal Mistress of the Dark
A Conversation with Cassandra Petersen
By Jessica Dwyer
(cross posted with Fangirl Magazine)
In the realm of horror culture there’s one woman whose name is forever etched into the celluloid of our dreams. She’s the Maiden of the Macabre, the Mistress of the Dark, she is Elvira and she made an icon of herself and made the term “horror host” something that even the sun drenched families in suburbia knew.
Cassandra Petersen’s creation has been part of the world of horror entertainment for over 30 years now. She’s still flawless as ever and as popular as ever, with merchandise, music videos, and even reality TV series sporting her image.
Petersen’s smart mouthed and sexy horror hostess is as much a part of the horror community as she’s ever been and she’s not slowing down. Currently she’s still appearing at conventions across the country and is hosting movie events like the “13 Nights of Elvira” that was aired on the Hulu streaming network. Shout Factory is releasing episodes of her classic “Movie Macabre” series.
Elvira has become as much a mainstay of Halloween and horror films as the monsters within the films she hosts. In a landscape where the majority of the legends are males like Dracula and The Wolfman for example, Elvira can take her place alongside The Bride of Frankenstein and The Wicked Witch as a classic horror icon.
Petersen has not slowed down and neither has Elvira. Currently she’s partnered with another icon, comic book legend Stan Lee, for the convention Comikaze. She’s got a website, Elvira.com, where fans can purchase movies, collectibles, clothes, photos, you name it…all emblazoned with the Mistress of the Dark herself. There are even Elvira candy bars from “Sweet! Hollywood.” She’s also got more projects of the secret variety coming up later this year, most likely happening around Halloween.
Cassandra Petersen, Elvira herself, spoke to me about what makes Elvira so special to so many people and what keeps her going strong with the fans to this day.
JD: With Elvira you took back the power of a woman’s sexuality and also mixed it with humor where you actually joked about yourself. With that you became a powerful symbol to a lot of people for example in the LGBT community. When did you realize that Elvira was more than a horror host to people?
JD: It did take a while, even after the movie came out. It took a few years before it really sunk in that people thought the character was any more than this goofy, scantily clad sexy girl. I didn’t even realize that people saw me as this character who was really strong, kind of a feminist character. When people started telling me that I was like “Are you crazy?”
But people, little by little, would start telling me how the character impacted them and what it meant to them as young women and men growing up and how it was okay to be who you were, who you were sexually and not be looked down on for it. And you could still have fun and be silly and not be serious about it.
It actually took a few years for it to dawn on me. You know, because I was just trying to be funny and brash. Kind of flaunt my stuff and not take crap from anybody, especially men. And also be sexy and look sexy and not be a total bimbo.
It did help a lot of people who felt weird and different to feel that being weird and different is okay.
JD: It’s interesting because everyone knows you sort of for the “cleavage” but it’s still sexy because you don’t show everything which is part of the sexiness of her.
CP: You know that was brought home to me when I was once offered a million dollars to do a centerfold in playboy by Hugh Hefner, which was, at that time, the largest amount they had ever paid…except for Farrah Fawcett. They wanted me to do it as Elvira and a million dollars sounded pretty good to me.
And I really wanted to do it and I really sort of don’t want to do it. I was a convention and doing a panel with several hundred people. And I asked them should I do it? Believe it or not the audience, which was made up of 50 percent men, said “No, don’t do it! You’ll ruin the mystery! You won’t be Elvira anymore.” And it really made sense…so I turned down the million dollars. Which I’m still sort of upset about (laugh.) I get it though. They were right. They were 100 percent right. My fans knew me better than I did.
JD: I wanted to take a moment to point out that you’ve financed films on your own, you’ve written films, you’ve produced, and you’re an actress as well. And I think we should celebrate that. What do you have to say about the creativity there that isn’t just being a scream queen, that there are women who are creative and artistic in this industry that should be acknowledged? I always say we need Women In Horror Month until we don’t.
CP: I long ago learned that if I don’t do it myself then it’s not going to get done. No one was out there offering me movies. No one was out there writing a fantastic script and saying that I’m going to star in it. Wouldn’t that be awesome? I would love that because it would make my life so much easier. No one was handing those things to me.
So we said, we’ll go out and do it ourselves and get this script together and get the crew. Every one of my TV shows have been that way. We made it and then we went out and sold it as a product. Because generally, especially with women, no one is knocking down your door to do projects with you, even if you have a name, even if you are a celebrity. As you know, in the television and movie industry, there is about 1 female job for every 5 or 6 male jobs. So unless you make it happen yourself and you use every aspect of your creativity, not “Oh I’m just an actress, I’m just going to do that.” Or “I’m just writing I’m not going to do any of that.” You may just sit on that project for a REALLY long time…like ever.
It’s tough. It’s a really hard way to make a living. But at the same time it’s freeing because there are so many different outlets with the invention of the internet you can do small projects. You don’t need a billion dollars. You don’t need to be Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. You can be a small entrepreneur and get something started on the internet and expand it.
JD: What do you think about the internet and video streaming and how it’s opened up the market for horror hosts? Because at one time it seemed like they were disappearing and now we’ve got this great resurgence of them.
CP: They were dead…no pun intended.
JD: It’s pretty amazing to see this return with like Penny Dreadful, Svengoolie. It’s great.
CP: It’s fantastic. It’s a smaller piece of pie but there’s a lot of pieces for everybody. I was really happy because I thought that the horror host was going the way of the dinosaur and that was the end of it. But really the internet came along. And that’s a fantastic way to get known and do horror hosting.
If it wasn’t for the internet I’m sure there wouldn’t be horror hosts anymore because it’s almost impossible to find those films and get the amount of money for those films that you would have to pay if you were televising that show or that movie.
The internet has been for me the biggest boon ever. I attribute Elvira’s longevity to two things, one my attachment to Halloween, the characters attachment to Halloween…your sort of like Santa Clause. You’re out of the public eye for a good part of the year and then BAM your back again. Like brand new.
And the other part is the internet. If the internet hadn’t happened I think Elvira would have faded into the sunset. But with the internet I have a whole new audience. For a while there I thought my audience was going to die off because they were aging. Oh my god, they are all going to be dead soon…who’s going to be my audience? With computers and everything people found out about me and young people…I mean the main demographic of my audience of my character now is in their teens and early 20’s.
JD: Where do you think women in the industry are now in general? I know you come from the world of comedy and you have these great names like Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer.
CP: I love both of them; I love both of them so much.
JD: But they are both really strong and you’ve got a Ghostbusters reboot with women. Where do you think we need to go from here?
CP: Oh I wish we had the answers. I mean little by little chipping away. Females writing, producing, and directing horror, no more being the victim or just the actress; little by little doing their own projects. Like I said if they are just online, getting a presence and expanding that, writing horror films and not just having them be the victim but the hero.
Keeping women in mind when there’s anything you can hire them for in projects. I really do try to hire a female producer or a female cameraman that’s what I try to do…and they aren’t always available I can tell you that much, but when they are. But also writing novels, books.
Sigourney Weaver in Alien…that character just sticks with me…why can’t we have more like that? Charlize Theron in the new Mad Max movie…my god! So awesome!
JD: She has cemented herself in moviedom with that role. I have friends who shaved their heads to cosplay as her.
CP: My daughter did! She did! She went to that movie about twenty times and she was dressed up with the black pain all over her mouth. Oh my god it’s crazy. It impacted my daughter which was so great.
My daughter is 21 and it was so impactful that to her that Charlize’s character was completely de-sexualized. She was just a person, not a woman. She didn’t show cleavage. She didn’t dress sexy. She didn’t have some relationship with some guy. She was just a person and that’s what they need to be in horror movies, not just big boobs. I mean yeah, look who’s talking here.
But just people…that’s the only way women are going to…I was going to say stop looking like me, but that’s important too. My character is overly sexy and overly made up and all these things that women have to do. But there’s this side of it that is so self-deprecating that it washes all that away.
JD: She’s in on the joke.
CP: Right, she’s like “I’m dressing like this because…wink wink. This is not for real.”