Elvira Talks Halloween, Being an LGBTQ Icon and Selling a Haunted House to Brad PittBy Topher Cusumano
Halloween is right around the corner, and who better to celebrate with than the queen of creepy herself, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.
The woman behind Elvira, writer/performer Cassandra Peterson, created the iconic character in 1981 when she landed a job hosting horror movies at a local Los Angeles television network.
With her sharp wit, buoyant personality and unabashed sensuality, it didn’t take long for Elvira to outshine the cheesy B-movies she was introducing. Soon she became the first horror host to be nationally syndicated, which ultimately skyrocketed Elvira to international fame.
However, what seems like an overnight success story actually began as a winding journey for Peterson, one which found her working gigs in Las Vegas and eventually Italy, where she toured with a band and eventually ended up with a small role in Fellini’s cinema classic, “Roma.”
After returning to the U.S., Peterson joined the famed improv troupe The Groundlings, working alongside then aspiring comedy legends like Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) and Phil Hartman. She says the experience changed her life.
“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where that training hasn’t helped give me confidence to be on stage or confidence in my speaking,” she says. “I just wouldn’t be able to do what I do without The Groundlings.”
Working with the troupe, she developed the Valley Girl character that evolved into Elvira’s signature bold and bawdy persona, a character which has always resonated strongly with the LGBTQ community and explains her close friendship with superstar drag performer RuPaul — including Elvira’s two appearances on his Emmy Award–winning reality series “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
“My whole life I’ve fit in with gay men,” Peterson says. “That’s the community I feel most welcome in. Since I was maybe 14 years old, I’ve just clung onto my gay friends. I’m like a gay man in a woman’s body!”
Today, with more than three decades of film and television appearances under her belt — including two feature films and her recent series, “Elvira’s 13 Nights of Halloween,” for Amazon — sold-out live shows, and countless pieces of merchandise, Elvira has cemented her place in history as a cultural icon. And she’s not slowing down on the scares just yet.
Marriott TRAVELER sat down with Peterson as she was gearing up for her favorite holiday to chat about why Italy is a vegetarian’s paradise, her surprising connection to Elvis Presley and that one time she sold Brad Pitt a haunted house.
Let’s jump right into the spooky stuff. What was the most haunted destination you’ve ever visited? Did you see any ghosts while you were there?
Honestly, the most haunted destination I’ve ever been in was my house! I bought it at some point in the mid ’80s. It was in the Hollywood hills on two acres. It was a huge four-story house. In that house it was nonstop, every day. Something weird was going on.
Footsteps above my head on the ceiling. Clouds of smoke forming into what looked like a human and then disappearing. A black shadow floating on the bottom of the pool that wouldn’t go away.
And it wasn’t just me who could see it; other people saw it, too! It went on and on and on.
I was about ready to move out; I couldn’t handle it anymore. Then I ended up having an exorcism with a priest, and then a Native American person who did cleansing came in and saged the entire house. It seemed to all go away.
It would take me an hour to tell you all the things that happened there. I had found out there had been seven tragic deaths in the house. And I ended up selling it to Brad Pitt, and he loved it! [laughing] He loved the idea it was haunted.
What city would you send someone to if they were looking for the best Halloween party in the world?
Well, I’m kind of partial to West Hollywood. I’ve been going there since the early ’70s, long before I was Elvira. That party started out small and has taken over the entire city. I think it’s the best Halloween party in the country.
You have a surprising connection to Elvis Presley. Can you tell us about that?
Elvis definitely made a huge impression on me. Of course, he was an idol of mine growing up … Meeting him was so awesome, not just because he was gorgeous and handsome and fabulous, but he also gave me some advice that changed the direction of my entire life.
I had gone to Las Vegas at 17 and became the youngest showgirl in Vegas history. I always tell people if it weren’t for Elvis, I’d be the oldest showgirl in Vegas history. We met one night after my show. He told me I should get the heck out of Vegas — I was way too young to be there, it wouldn’t end well, and that I should do something else as a career.
He told me I had a decent voice and I should go get singing lessons. So within a month I had a gig singing. Then, when my contract expired, two guys from my show moved to Italy, and I went with them. I ended up in a band in Italy. I stuck with that for quite a long time, even after I came back to the U.S. I sang in shows and then a couple of bands.
Do you still have a deep connection to Italy?
Absolutely. I could go back in a second and live there. I love the people, the culture, the food. I learned to cook while I was there. I learned to speak Italian. Pretty poorly, but enough to get by.
I came home from Italy, and all my dreams were in Italian for a couple of years. It was so bizarre! I’ve been back dozens and dozens of times because I still have good friends there. It’s one of my favorite places in the world
You were a strict vegetarian for years, and now you still eat a mostly vegetarian diet. If you could travel any place in the world for one meal, where would you go, and what would you eat?
[Laughing] Again, Italy! The fantastic thing about going to Italy and eating when you’re traveling is you can go there and never miss meat at all. Because they have so many fantastic vegetables and pastas and soups. There’s no restaurant in Italy you couldn’t go into and have a fabulous meal and not have a drop of meat.
I also love Japan. You can be a vegetarian in Japan and really have no problem whatsoever. You have to look a little for fish in broths and things like that, but in general, you can get by in any restaurant in Japan.
You’ve had a huge gay fan base your whole career. What is it about Elvira that’s always resonated with the LGBTQ community?
Hm … you know how androgynous performers are extremely popular with the gay community? I’m talking about David Bowie, or Boy George, or even Mick Jagger. Men who are a bit feminine. Well, I think Elvira represents a very feminine woman who is so strong and confident and kind of ballsy that she has this male side.
Two other performers who have that, and I like to put myself in their category, are Cher and Madonna. Really ballsy women who are all woman but have a very strong confidence. I think that attracts gay men in particular.
Elvira is very much the hero of outsiders. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, “You helped me through my life growing up because I was such a nerd,” or, “No one understood me.”
It could have been that they were gay or they were overweight and had acne. But for whatever reason they connected to Elvira because she just doesn’t care. She is a complete misfit, and she just goes about her daily business like, “Too bad for you! I’m fine with who I am.”
What destination have you been to that has an amazing gay culture that isn’t usually thought of as a big LGBTQ city like L.A. or New York are?
[Spain] is absolutely fantastic. They have beautiful beaches, amazing food and gorgeous people everywhere. And very gay friendly. I think Spain would be great if I were picking a trip for a gay couple.