Cassandra Peterson was born in Manhattan, Kansas on September 17, 1951. As a toddler, she pulled a tub of boiling Easter eggs off of the stove, burning over a third of her body and leaving her visibly scarred. At age seven, her family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she was initially very shy and teased for her scarring. However, she later used her experiences as a child and teenager in Colorado Springs — a place she later claimed “all the freaks come from” — as inspiration for her most famous role as ‘Elvira, Mistress of the Dark’.
Peterson states that as a child, while other girls were occupied with Barbie dolls, she was more fascinated by horror-themed toys. During her teens, Peterson worked as a go-go dancer in a local gay bar.
Cassandra Peterson’s mother ran a costume shop and frequently used the youngster as a model. “I would pick out whatever was the hot costume that year — Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, I Dream Of Jeanie, Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke — and my mom would make one in my size, so I would wear costumes to school all the time. Everyone thought I was a total freak. But I knew I would grow up and wear a costume one day, and that’s exactly what happened.”
A trip to Las Vegas gave Peterson her first big break. After successfully auditioning for a show called “Vive Les Girls” at the Dunes Hotel during spring break 1969, she graduated from Palmer High School a few months later and moved to Las Vegas on the same day. Before she was even a legal adult, she became one of Las Vegas’ youngest showgirls: “I was 17 and had to get a signed thing from my parents — it was pretty unbelievable that they did it. But that was under severe threats from me.” While in Las Vegas, she briefly dated Elvis Presley, who encouraged her to become a singer. In an interview, Peterson claimed that she lost her virginity to Tom Jones and needed stitches due to him being an aggressive lover.
Following Presley’s advice, Peterson moved to Italy, where she sang in an Italian pop-rock bands ‘I Latins Ochanats’ and ‘The Snails’. During this time she had a chance encounter with director Federico Fellini, which led to a small part in “Roma” (1972). After she returned to the United States, she toured with seven gay men in a nightclub revue called “Mama’s Boys”: “I was Mama,” she said. She also posed in nude photo shoots for Playboy magazine and may have posed for the cover of Tom Waits’ 1976 album Small Change, although she’s now uncertain: “I don’t remember having done it. But of course, I don’t remember a lot of stuff I did in the 70s. But it looks like me!”
Wanting to develop her acting and comedic skills, Peterson joined ‘The Groundlings’ improv troupe in 1979, where she developed characters alongside soon-to-be-famous comedians like Paul Reubens and Phil Hartman: “The Groundlings were definitely responsible for me being ‘Elvira’ because I learned to be fearless, basically. If you can get up in front of an audience full of people and not know what you’re going to do beforehand and then have to come up with it to try to entertain people, then you can honestly do anything in life.”
In the late spring of 1981, six years after the death of Larry Vincent, who starred as host ‘Sinister Seymour’ of a local Los Angeles weekend horror show called “Fright Night”, show producers began the task of bringing the show back. The producers decided to use a female host. They asked 1950s horror hostess Maila Nurmi to revive “The Vampira Show”. Nurmi worked on the project for a short time, but eventually quit when the producers would not hire Lola Falana to play “Vampira”. The station sent out a casting call, and Peterson auditioned and won the role.
Peterson had auditioned for the role of ‘Ginger Grant’ for the third “Gilligan’s Island” but was hired by KHJ-TV to host the “Movie Macabre” series for $350 a week. Producers left it up to her to create the roles image but producers rejected her original idea to look like Sharon Tate in “The Fearless Vampire Killers”. For the hostess role, they decided they wanted a character who was vampy and dressed all in black, a take-off of Morticia Addams of The Addams Family.
“Robert Redding, (Peterson’s friend and make-up artist) came up with a brilliant take on a spooky female. Not quite witch, not quite vampire, just kind of a cross.” With a tight, black dress that revealed both leg and cleavage, and with a black beehive wig covering her natural strawberry-blonde hair, the character of ‘Elvira’ was born. Peterson also was a personality on Los Angeles radio station KROQ 106.7 from 1982 to 1983.
Peterson’s ‘Elvira’ character rapidly gained notice with her tight-fitting, low-cut, cleavage-displaying black gown. Adopting the flippant tone of a California “Valley girl”, she brought a satirical, sarcastic edge to her commentary. She reveled in dropping risqué double entendres and making frequent jokes about her cleavage. Peterson offered up wry and sarcastic commentary on the B-movies being shown on her program without being too cruel or mean-spirited.
In an AOL Entertainment News interview, Peterson said, “I figured out that ‘Elvira’ is me when I was a teenager. She’s a spastic girl. I just say what I feel and people seem to enjoy it.” Her campy humor, sex appeal, and good-natured self-mockery made her popular with late-night movie viewers and her popularity soared. She made a number of guest appearances on different TV shows and movies as Elvira and became the first female to host a national beer ad campaign.
The ‘Elvira’ character soon evolved from an obscure cult figure to a lucrative brand. She was associated with many products through the 1980’s and 1990’s including Halloween costumes, comic books, action figures, trading cards, pinball machines, Halloween decor, model kits, calendars, perfume and dolls. She has appeared on the cover of “Femme Fatales” magazine five times.
In 1985, ‘Elvira’ began hosting a home video series called ‘ThrillerVideo’ for U.S.A. Home Video and later International Video Entertainment (I.V.E.). Many of these films were hand-selected by Peterson. Choosing to stay away from the more explicit cannibal, slasher and zombie films of the time, these were generally tamer films such as “The Monster Club” and Dan Curtis television films, as well as many episodes of the “Hammer House Of Horror” television series.
She refused to host “Make Them Die Slowly”, “Seven Doors Of Death”, and “Buried Alive”, so the videos were released on the ‘ThrillerVideo’ label without Elvira’s appearance as hostess. After this, several extended episodes of the British namesake series ‘Thriller’ (i.e. “The Devil’s Web”, “A Killer In Every Corner”, “Murder Motel”) were also released without an appearance by Elvira; in some, such as “Buried Alive”, the cast replaced her.
The success of the ‘ThrillerVideo’ series led to a second video set, “Elvira’s Midnight Madness” through Rhino Home Video. In 2004 a DVD horror-film collection called “Elvira’s Box Of Horrors” was released, marking Elvira’s return to horror-movie hosting after a ten-year absence. Her popularity reached its zenith with the release of the feature film “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark”, co-written by Peterson and released in 1988.
‘Elvira’ appeared in comic books from DC Comics, Eclipse Comics and Claypool Comics. DC published a short-lived series in the mid-80s titled “Elvira’s House Of Mystery”. Claypool took over the series and in the 1990’s distributed a new series, “Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark”, co-branded with and distributed by Eclipse. After Eclipse ceased publication, the series was distributed solely by Claypool. The series was edited and occasionally written by Richard Howell and featured photographic covers with interior stories and art by Kurt Busiek, Dan Spiegle, Jim Mooney, Steve Leialoha, and others. It ran for 166 issues, plus two trade paperback collections. In 2012 another series, also titled “Mistress Of The Dark”, was announced for a 2013 debut. It will be written by R.H. Stavis and drawn by Jeff Zarnow.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a number of Elvira-themed computer games were produced: “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark”, “Elvira 2: The Jaws of Cerberus” and “Elvira: The Arcade Game”. In the early 1990s, Peterson began a series of successful ‘Elvira’ calendars featuring characteristically provocative and campy poses in various macabre settings. One calendar photo is seen throughout the video game “Blood”.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Elvira remained a popular character and Cassandra Peterson continued to appear frequently in the role. She created and endorsed a number of tie-in products, including Halloween costumes, theme park rides, action figures, model kits, perfume and even her own micro-brew beer. She also makes appearances at a number of events each year, raising money and awareness for a number of causes, especially animal welfare and AIDS charities. She also appeared as non-Elvira characters in both TV and film.
In the mid-1990s, Cassandra Peterson enlisted female impersonators Christian Greenia (Cassandra Fever) from Los Angeles, California, and Patterson Lundquist (“Elvira’s Twin”) from Atlanta, Georgia as her “official Elvira impersonators”, calling them “the best she’d ever seen.” They later appeared with her as co-judges on “The Search For The Next Elvira”.
The Search for the new ‘Elvira’ was to find a younger actress to take over the role. Over the past decade, Peterson has been working to franchise the character: “Not quit Elvira right now — as someday I’m going to have to — but, sort of doing what Bozo the Clown did. I love basing my entire career on a clown. Bozo — for anyone old enough to remember him — was wearing tons of make-up too so that he could go out and get a lot of other actors to play Bozo to make various appearances and do TV shows across the country. I started thinking, ‘Hmmmmm. Bozo. That sounds like a good gig. Maybe I could do that too.'”
The first official female ‘Elvira’ impersonator, April Wahlin, the winner of “The Search For The Next Elvira”, was passed the crown on October 31, 2007. As the winner of the reality show, Wahlin made a few appearances during her one-year “reign” from October 31, 2007 to October 31, 2008. Greenia and Lundquist continue to appear as Elvira for various events across the country.
In 2001 a new ‘Elvira’ film was released – “Elvira’s Haunted Hills” – it was wrote by Peterson and starred “Rocky Horror” star Richard O’Brien. The film fondly parodies most of the Roger Corman-directed Edgar Allan Poe films and the British horror films from Hammer Studios.
In 2010, “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” was revived by NBC, still featuring Peterson, rather than one of her many imitators, in the title role. In 2012 Peterson became an investor in Comikaze Entertainment Inc., which hosts Comikaze Expo, one of the largest pop culture conventions in the United States. She and fellow investor, Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee, were guests of honor at the inaugural Comikaze Expo in 2011. Comikaze CEO Regina Carpinelli refers to Peterson as the “Mistress of the Board”
Malia Nurni, the original ‘Vampira’, once sued her for stealing her character without consulting her. She was inducted into the Horror Host Hall of Fame in 2012, as her character ‘Elvira, Mistress of the Dark’. Peterson was once was a complete vegetarian, now eats dairy plus chicken and fish. Her favorite movies are “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959) and “Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes!” (1978). She was very close friends with Vincent Price and is a strong supporter of gay rights and animal rights. She married her personal manager, Mark Pierson, in 1981 and had one daughter Sadie Pierson (born 1991). They divorced in 2003.
At just over 60, Peterson is still going strong as Elvira. “I like being two people. I like having a normal side and a weird side. I feel like I have two, two, two lives in one. And I just get do so much cool stuff.”