Over this past weekend at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con, this writer had the opportunity to speak with none other than Cassandra Peterson, the beloved actress and performer who is forever engrained in the pop culture lexicon as the horror hostess Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Growing up, Elvira’s weekly show, Movie Macabre, was a huge part of my childhood and horror education, which made our conversation a career highlight and a truly unforgettable experience for me, both personally and professionally.
During our chat, Peterson discussed her influential career over the last 35 years, including her latest project, the Elvira: Mistress of the Dark photo book that hits shelves this October. She also talked about being a female horror icon during the 1980s, her favorite and least favorite movies she celebrated on Movie Macabre, and more.
Really great to speak with you today, Cassandra. What’s really cool about your career is that you've become this iconic force in horror because of everything that you've accomplished on TV, but you've also been able to branch out into so many different mediums as well. Has that been hugely enjoyable for you?
Cassandra Peterson: Oh, yeah. It’s been fantastic. People think, "Oh my god, you've been doing this job for so many years, it must get boring." It's like, "No, hell no," because I get to sing, I get to dance, I get to be on TV and in films, I get to do merchandising, licensing, show up at conventions, write, or take photographs for my book. There are so many different things going on for me that it never gets boring. It's always fun and interesting.
What was it about this time in particular that you felt ready to take on your new book project? Can you talk a little bit about the process of putting it together?
Cassandra Peterson: This year is my 35th anniversary of Elvira, so I had all these piles and piles and piles of photographs that I had never really done anything with. I imagine that I may have taken more photo sessions than just about anybody alive, just because of the sheer time that I've been around. And so I have thousands and thousands of photos and I've always intended to do a book like this, but I never really had the time. Then Tweeterhead came along and said, "We're going to put this book together and publish it," so the timing felt right.
It has been a lot more work than I thought it was going to be. If I would've known how much work it was, I might have changed my mind, because I've been very involved in it. I wrote the commentary, chose the pictures, and did a lot of the work. Of course, many other people have been involved in putting it together, so fans should enjoy what we’ve come up with.
When you were going through all the photos, did you find anything that surprised you that you hadn't remembered?
Cassandra Peterson: Oh, yeah. There's one that I found where I was seven months pregnant, and that's one of the reasons we did that photo shoot in the bathtub. It became an iconic photo, but we had to hide my belly. So when I found this Polaroid, with my pregnant belly and everything, I was like, "Oh my God. I can't believe I found that." It’s been awesome.
I was fortunate to grow up in a time when horror hosts were prominent on the airwaves; I had both you and Svengoolie, so I was luckier than most. So what I think is really fun about this project is that in a way, you’re preserving a key time in horror history. This is a really great way to preserve a time in horror that's special to a lot of people.
Cassandra Peterson: Thank you. From your mouth to God's ears, I hope so. I hope people read it. I hadn't even thought of that aspect of it. The only thing that I assumed, by chronicling all those years of horror and the different configurations it's gone through, I think this book does that a little bit, especially for new generations.
Are you going to feature things from the Elvira: Mistress of the Dark movie as well?
Cassandra Peterson: Oh, yes. I have a lot of outtake shots from the movie, from both movies, that people have never seen before. A lot of pictures of my Macabre Mobile close up in all the details too, which people love.
I’m also including a lot of sketches of all the costumes that I have done. One of them that I found that I didn't even remember I had was the first sketch we ever drew. My best friend at the time was an artist, and drew a picture of what we thought Elvira should look like. It was like Sharon Tate in The Fearless Vampire Killers, that's who we were going for. They were like, "No, no, no, she has to be all-black." Then we had the sketches that we drew, where I was first looking a lot like Vampira, and then I was morphing more into something that felt much more ’80s. His favorite group was Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes, so suddenly I had this giant beehive from the ’60s, so it's funny to see how the character changed and evolved.
I'm sure when you first started Elvira's Movie Macabre you had no idea what it would evolve into.
Cassandra Peterson: I had no idea. I just thought, "It's a gig, and I'm getting $300 a week, and this is awesome." I didn't really know how long it would last. I thought it could last a week, it could last a month—this kind of longevity was not on the table. The fact that it's 35 years later and I'm still doing it, and it's gone through all these different changes, is pretty shocking to everybody, especially me.
Did they give you a lot of freedom on the show in terms of the material?
Cassandra Peterson: Very, very much. That was the great thing about being able to do this character. I haven't done big films with big studios or anything, but what I have always retained is solo control. I wrote the material, produced the shows, and even though I’ve always had writers working alongside me, I’ve always been involved with writing with them, because I have a certain way I want the character to be, and I don't want her to step out of those boundaries.
To me, Elvira is a strong woman, a strong female character, who doesn't take crap from guys or anyone else. I've been very, very adamant about those rules, and my writers that write with me know that's how it's supposed to be.
Women were viewed a little differently in the ’80s, but yet you came along and became this icon. You were strong, funny, witty, and ahead of almost everybody at every turn. Was it empowering for you to know that you were creating a character that was so different than everything you were seeing in the genre, something that a lot of people like myself, a woman who liked horror, could latch onto and look to as a hero?
Cassandra Peterson: Thank you. I did not realize that was happening. For so many years I really didn't get it. I only realized it when fans started coming up to me and saying, "You were such an inspiration to me," and I was like, "What, really?" "You're a strong woman, you're empowered, but you're sexy too." I was blown away. I was like, "Seriously? Seriously?"
That's the thing I'm most proud of, that I could be a symbol for young women, and men, too. That you can be different, that you can still be strong, you can still be successful, you can still go for a goal and you can achieve it. You can be different and wacky, but that doesn't need to stop you. I hear that so much from fans now, and I'm like, "Oh my God, it's the best thing ever." I actually help people in a small way, and that's the best thing of all.
When you made Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, did the studio give you any parameters with the film, or did they just let you go and have fun with the character and that world?
Cassandra Peterson: I was very lucky, because I did the movie for NBC—it was their first foray into feature films. It was Brandon Tartikoff who really, really loved my character, and then called me up and wanted me to do a television show on NBC. In my mind, I was thinking, "I don't want to do TV, I want to do a film." Back then, once you did television, you were forever a television actress. You could never make the leap to film. Now everybody goes back and forth, but then? No way. And so I said to Brandon, "I just want to make a film first," and he said, "You know what, I'll finance it, I'll do it."
He gave me total freedom to do what I wanted. It was really amazing. We had a certain budget, so that of course restricts you in what you'd like to do, but we pretty much had full range. When the other execs would come and say, "No, we've got to have this, we can't do that," I would go to Brandon and I'd cry. He'd go, "Yeah, yeah, okay, okay." He was such a great guy. He was awesome, and he just loved the character. He believed in it, and he thought that I got it, so he let me do what I wanted.
There were a few things I wasn’t thrilled with, like they made me have the teenagers. I did not want the teenagers. They turned out to be okay in there, but the bad part was, instead of having seven characters, I got like 107 in the movie, so there's no real character development. It still worked in the end, and I got what I wanted, and I got to do it the way I wanted to. Not very many people get to do that.
Going back to the new book for a moment, once this one comes out and now that you've been bitten by the bug, could there be more literary projects for you in the future?
Cassandra Peterson: Well, I've been working on my autobiography for about a thousand years now, so maybe that [laughs].
Well, I imagine an autobiography could be tough because you're still doing stuff, which is great, but it makes it harder to find that end point.
Cassandra Peterson: That's the wacky thing, I keep having to add to it. I keep saying to myself, "When are we going to stop this? It's going to be longer than the Bible!" I keep working on it and working on it and working on it, and then I go to a writing seminar, which I love going to. I love to get different views about writing, but that will give me an idea, and I'll go back and rewrite everything I've written.
It's like I told you, I don't know if it's ever going to come out. I really, really have to get that together. Writing anything, or doing any project, is time-consuming. I don't really have the time to just say, "Let me take off and write for the next six months to a year." I also have to make a living, and I'm kind of making hay while the sun shines here, so I need to work and bring in money, too, while I can.
Looking back at the original Movie Macabre series, I was wondering if you ever had a favorite movie that you got to show and did you have a least favorite movie, too?
Cassandra Peterson: Yeah, I have both, and they both pop immediately into my mind. My favorite, honestly, just because I love this movie and I can see it a billion times, is Night of the Living Dead. It's an awesome movie. It was a great movie to make fun of. I've hosted it about five times, and every time there's more material to joke about. It's so awesome.
And it's just a great damn movie. It's a brilliant movie. Some of the movies I had to watch, I had to watch them several times, and I'd be like, "Oh my God, just kill me now." That movie, I swear to God, I could sit through 100 times and I would not be bored with it. It’s really an amazing movie, I don't think people realize its power.
The worst—and people love this damn movie—was Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Why I hated it is because they made all the jokes in the movie. I had nothing to talk about [laughs]. Every ketchup joke and tomato sauce joke—everything was already used in the movie, and I had absolutely nothing funny to say. We did it, but it was like pulling teeth. If the humor's already there, what are you going to do?
You’ve enjoyed 35 years in the business, and not a lot of people get to do that. It’s a testament to what you've done and what you continue to do for this genre. Looking at this whole journey that you've been on, what do you think has been the most surprising aspect of it all?
Cassandra Peterson: That I'm still doing it 35 years later. The other thing is what we already touched on, that the character has influenced so many people in a positive way. It is amazing how many people came up and said, "I was such a loser in school, I was such a misfit, I didn't have any friends, and I watched your movie and you really inspired me." That's the most surprising thing.
Something else that has always surprised me was that the character isn’t like Einstein or anything, and she's pretty wacky, too, so the fact that she inspires people to improve their lives is like, "Seriously?" I still can't get over it, but I'm starting to get it now because so many people have told me. That's the best part about the character.