Bringing beauty, humor, and putting the "boob" in "boob tube", Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira: Mistress of the Dark has been a part of pop culture for three decades. While she has become one of the most recognizable personalities in horror, her early career started as a go-go dancer in gay bars.
"How did you find out that?" she asked when it was brought up. "I forgot it is on Wikipedia. I started as a go-go dancer and was hired at an army base. Right off the base, it was so bizarre, there was a gay bar. I started dancing there, I was actually like a drag queen. There were two guys and me, and we did the Supremes. It was kind of embracing because I was a girl dressed as a drag queen, with white lips and white eye shadow, and we performed under a black light so we looked like the Supremes. Isn’t that scary? People would always say, Oh my God you are the most incredible drag queen I have ever seen."
GayCalgary & Edmonton Magazine spoke with Peterson between appearances at the Phoenix Comic-con. She appears at the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo June 17th - 19th at the BMO Centre. Anyone who has seen Elvira can pick up on her queer roots.
"The gay influence on me is all over, it’s me. I grew up and became a gay man, it’s really bizarre. From the time I was 14, gay men were telling me how to dress, walk, dance, how to do my makeup and hair. I worshipped them and looked up to them. First I was dancing with them, then for four and a half years I toured with a group of myself and seven guys called Mammas Boys that toured all over the United States during the big 70’s disco era. Those guys were like my brothers, we lived together, ate together, slept together sometimes. It was pre-AIDS thank god and really wild but man they taught me everything I know, I am not kidding, about everything. So I have a very different outlook on life," she recalled. She is amazed at how far things have come for the community since then.
"I was from a small town in Colorado. You practically had to hide the bar there, there was a gay bar that was hidden in this weird area. If you didn’t have an inside address you were never going to find this place. It was called the Purple Cow. There was another one in Colorado Springs called Exit 21. These places were hidden and you had to knock on the door, and they would peek out the door and let you in. It was so hidden, so closeted, so scary. Everybody was sneaking around. Can you imagine, that was the 60’s, everybody was in the closet. In High School all my best friends were in drama and kind of touchy, and later I went back and they were all gay but I didn’t even know. They were misfits and that is who I gravitated to. I grew up and went for my High School reunion and every one of my friends was a gay guy. But I didn’t get it then."
Peterson has long supported AIDS charities and gay rights. As she has embraced the community, they have embraced her back.
"I know I have had a big influence on drag queens, because now they come to me for advice! I was getting advice from them, now I am giving it. There are a lot of Elvira drag queens out there, some fantastic some not so fantastic but I love them all. I have definitely seen an influence on that area. The gay community seems to really love Elvira and support me. The community loves Madonna and Cher and Lady Gaga and Elvira. I think it is about being a sexy but strong woman, not sexy but weak and at the whim of men telling you what to do. Both women and men like a strong female figure who’s also sexy. If you have ever been to a Cher concert, I don’t think there are any straight men in the audience that’s for damn sure. Gay men are attracted to things that go right down the middle, not too butch, not too feminine, right in the middle and that would be me."
A big part of that connection lies in the 1988 film Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Elvira quits her job at a TV station and discovers she has inherited a house from a great-aunt and moves to a small Massachusetts town only to be treated as an outcast and almost burned at the stake. The feeling of not belonging and being unwanted, resonated.
"It is fantastic for me to meet people who say, I saw your movie when I was 10 or 12 years old and it made such a huge impact on me. Generally that was the moment they knew they were straight or gay, it is really weird. I don’t know if I turned them gay or straight. They watched the movie and related to Elvira in some way. I meet people that I met as kids, and now meet them again in their 30’s and they all turned out good. They were always messed up, bizarre outcast misfit kind of loser kids that turned out to be really creative, cool, together kind of people as adults I am always impressed. They tell me they work for Sony doing graphic arts or are a comic book artist now. I love seeing them through these decades," she said. "For the gay community there was something about Elvira: Mistress of the Dark that, if they were gay, made them feel some camaraderie with Elvira. She is this horrible misfit person and it actually turned out good. She made it to Vegas, maybe I can too. Back in that day when you were gay and did feel like everyone was on the religious right and you felt like you didn’t fit in, I think that movie connected with a lot of young men and women who felt that they weren’t accepted and wanted to be run out of town on a rail. They saw they could actually make it work out and it wasn’t the end of their life."
While she has appeared on the Johnny Carson show, Wrestlemania 2, had her own reality TV show, and had multiple video games based on her, Elvira’s biggest claim to fame is as a host: first of Movie Macabre in 1981 and now re-launched as Elvira’s Movie Macabre.
"I was a horror freak since I was a child. When other kids were playing with Barbies I was playing with Frankenstein and Dracula model kits. My favorite shows were horror related: Twilight Zone and Addams Family. Even as a child, horror was my favorite; Vincent Price and House On Haunted Hill and the Roger Corman movies that were loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe. Those were my favorite movies growing up as a kid so I had that influence as well. Gays and horror, hmm, I don’t think they should go together that well but it works for me. I tend to really like the older campy movies. I do go to horror movies when they come out and, I hear they are really good, I make a point of seeing them. In general my favorite horror movies are from the 50’s and 60’s. Recent movies like The Hunger and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula – things that are more fantasy based. I am really not into Saw or Halloween films that are more like torture than horror."
Peterson isn’t the only horror icon at the expo. She will be joined by director George A. Romero, Doug Bradley (Pinhead from Hellraiser), Julian Sands (Warlock), and Gaylen Ross (Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow).
"Today in Phoenix I am sitting next to Stan Lee and Leonard Nimoy. These are all guys I have been friends with for 20 years, I have seen and met them a million times, Juilan Sands is the only one I met recently. George Romero, we go back 100 years. So every few months we see each other, it is always fun to see them, and a thrill, but we are kind of like co-workers gathering around the water cooler and trading stories. Every time I see them I am impressed."
So what can you expect when Elvira haunts the Calgary Entertainment Expo?
"I haven’t been up to Calgary for this event but I have heard it is first class and amazing. I was talking to someone here at the Phoenix Comic-Con who said they had been there and you won’t believe it. So I don’t know what to expect, I was going to ask you," she said. "I just had a storm trooper jump out of the elevator and point a gun at me. It is bizarre but I am used to it. I have heard the costumes are first class so I am looking forward to seeing it. I am not sure what I am doing or what to expect but I will be there hanging out."
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark
Appearing at the Calgary Comic Expo and The Macabre Masquerade