Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, Is Halloween’s True Queen

9 minute read

One perk of America’s inexorable march toward total godlessness? Halloween is huge! A 2013 study suggested that the holiday generates near $7.6 billion in retail spending, with $2.8 billion of that going toward costumes. Perhaps no character says more about Halloween and commerce than Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, who rose from Los Angeles local TV in the early ’80s — hosting corny horror flicks while sprawled on a red velvet sofa, teasing the dateless lechers who had no choice but to spend their nights with her and Roger Corman — to become a one-woman branding machine, lending her name and unmistakable likeness to costumes, comics, video games and much more. (A personal favorite is the “Monsta Rap” novelty song.)

But Elvira’s iconic look (cribbed a little, to be sure, from Morticia Adams) wasn’t all that made her Halloween’s queen; viewers couldn’t help but love the character’s wit and double-entendres, served with a side of vocal fry. On TV today, high-low blends like hers exist perhaps only in Cartoon Network’s wee hours. But the internet happens to be another perk of America’s decadent damnation, and accordingly, Hulu has commissioned a new 13-night series (13 Nights of Elvira) to run through Halloween. Cassandra Peterson, the 63-year-old in the costume, chatted recently with TIME about Halloween, horror and hanging up her wig someday.

TIME: How is late October for you, generally?

Cassandra Peterson: My phone doesn’t stop ringing, and I don’t sleep, and I’m working during the day, and I’m working at night. It’s pretty hectic! I love it, I’m happy. But I sometimes wish all my work didn’t come in a one-month period.

You’ve got the Hulu series, and the live show…

And a lot more things in between! Oh, brother. I’m doing a big live extravaganza at Knott’s Berry Farm, the Halloween venue in Southern California. I’m out there singing and dancing and telling jokes to about 3,600 people a night. And I’m also back doing what I do best, hosting horror movies. It’s fantastic to finally do that again. I did do that in 2012, as a syndicated show. But good luck finding it—it was one of those, you’re looking up some channel number E-72-G-W at four in the morning. So I’m back where people can actually find me, on Hulu, hosting some movies I’ve never hosted before — which is hard to believe, because I thought I hosted every damn movie that ever existed.

How many do you think you’ve done?

Oh my God. Just on Movie Macabre, my original show, I did 272, I believe. And since then, oh my gosh, I’ve had at least a dozen home-video productions, so, I don’t know, upwards of 500 movies. Finding movies that haven’t been done by me is a miracle. And these are also the good bad movies that are perfect for me, movies like Puppetmasters, and Gingerdead Man.

Where did the character come from?

I got a part to host horror films on local TV in L.A., and I was told to come up with a look and a costume. An artist friend drew a picture. And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? There’s no way in hell they’re going to let me on TV in that.’ And they did! The general manager’s only comment was, ‘Can you make the slit on the leg a little higher?’

I went on, thinking, gosh, how will this last longer than a week? Because it’s ridiculous — I’m being this Valley Girl character that I developed in the Groundlings while dressed like a vampire. But, I figured, I’m making $300 a week, I shouldn’t complain. Obviously, they didn’t think it would run longer than a week, either, because they rented everything on the set, the candelabra, the sofa, and all of that. Funny story: They forgot to stop renting the couch. Seven years later they found out they’d paid, like, $25,000 in rental fees.

Do you really like Halloween that much? Were you into it growing up?

Oh, yeah. In life, there are no coincidences — I grew up with my family running a costume shop. Halloween was the biggest time of the year, and I was a Halloween-dressin’-up fool. I wore costumes when it wasn’t even Halloween, because I was a total geek. I had the best costume every year, because my mom and my aunt would dress me as whatever popular television character there was. Everybody else was wearing those cheap little plastic costumes from Sears. I won my first Halloween costume contest when I was in second grade — dressed in fishnets, high heels, and a can-can dress, dressed as Miss Kitty from the Gunsmoke series.

Plus, from about the age of seven on, I was a horror-movie freak. My cousin had taken me to see House on Haunted Hills, with Vincent Price, and I was both repulsed and intrigued. I couldn’t think of doing anything else but going to see the next cheesy Edgar Allan Poe ripoff movie by Roger Corman. And then I got into collecting horror magazines. My sisters were playing with Barbies; I was playing with Dracula.

No one who didn’t have that background could do this job. I have to watch these movies over and over, and you really have to like them in order to endure that. There are a lot of stinkers out there. But I love them. To me, it’s comfort food, watching one of those movies. If I’m sick at home, I get a blankie, and I watch The Tomb of Ligeia. It just gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling.

How has Halloween changed since you started?

When I started out, it was a children’s holiday. As my career progressed — and I like to think that, possibly, I was a little bit of an influence — it became a more and more adult holiday. It’s a fantastic holiday — the best, best holiday of all holidays. There’s no religion involved, you don’t have to buy anyone any presents, you don’t have to have dinner with your relatives. It’s hedonistic. It’s about going out, having fun, and doing things that you wouldn’t ordinarily do — dressing up as a hooker or something.

Yeah. Is the sexy-costume thing your doing?

I really do have to pat myself on the back for that. I know sexy costumes are the biggest sellers. But you know the really sad, pathetic thing? I have a costume deal now with Rubie’s Costumes, and Rubie’s now says they’re going to make a sexy Elvira costume next year. I mean, what? Sexy Elvira? I said, ‘What’s wrong with this one?’ They said they wanted to make it shorter, more low-cut. It’s kind of sad to think that I was responsible for the sexy-costume trend, and now my own costume isn’t even sexy enough. ‘We have to get rid of that dumpy old frowzy Elvira. Get something sexy!’

What’s the craziest thing you’ve lent the Elvira name to?

I just released an Elvira sleep mask. Years ago, I did one of those smelly things that hangs in your car. I was like, ew, what does Elvira smell like? Luckily, it just smelled icky and overly perfumed — and they sold a bunch.

Has the internet done anything for your career?

In the beginning, I was really afraid that the internet would be the end of the horror host, because people weren’t watching TV, and things were so much more fast-paced. People’s attention spans are so much shorter. But I’m happy to say, that after a period of adjustment, it’s actually been a huge boon to me. I’m doing short videos, music videos — I have one out right now, for “Two Big Pumpkins,” my single that just came out from Third Man Records, written by Fred Schneider of the B-52s. I also have a huge virtual slot machine game. It’s called Elvira’s Big Chest … of Horrors. Sorry — this is all very subtle. People are able to see me more online. The pay is not there, but the awareness is definitely there, which is good for merchandise sales. I was really afraid of it, but now I love it!

What’s the Elvira business bringing in every year?

Oh god. I will tell you this: I just found out I’m making the same amount of money this year that I made at the very highest point of my career. And let me tell you, I’ve had some extremely down years. 10 years ago, after a messy divorce and a bad stock market, I was really— I wondered for a while if it was going to be the end of Elvira altogether. But I’m happy to say this year will be my biggest year since 1988, when I was starring in my own movie and doing a big publicity campaign for Pepsi.

What’s your wig situation like?

I go through these wigs like toilet paper. I have a zillion of ’em. I need a whole storage unit for my wigs.

Do you ever think about calling it a career?

I say I’m going to quit every decade — heck, every day. I go, “I’m retiring when I’m 40,” “when I’m 50,” “when I’m 60.” But it just keeps moving up. I’m 63 now, and we’re already talking about next year’s shows. I’m like, “God, will this ever end?!” I’m happy doing it. But putting on the costume is getting a little more uncomfortable.


It’s always taken me exactly an hour and a half to get dressed up as Elvira, and it still takes me exactly an hour and a half. And, I’m happy to stay, I’ve stayed in an identical-sized dress my whole career — well, except for my waist, which never goes back to where it used to be, after you have a child. But that takes a lot of work. I can’t wait till retirement! I’ll balloon to 550 pounds.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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Write to Jack Dickey at jack.dickey@time.com