Whether you’re a burgeoning horror fan or an old head steeped in the genre, there is undoubtedly a slot in your memory reserved for the lasting impression of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark – or, as she’s better known in the everyday, Cassandra Peterson.
Having released her memoir Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark in 2021 from Hatchett Books, the actress has seen a whole new resurgence and appreciation for her four-decade-long career, as well as a new appreciation for letting Cassandra be the one to hang out for a change. From her years as a go-go dancer and showgirl in Las Vegas to her comedy troupe days with The Groundlings and early horror host years in full drag, it seems that there’s nothing that Peterson can’t do.
Popverse was lucky enough to talk with Peterson over the phone about her wild beginnings, her busy nows, and the value in just moving your book to the front of the store yourself.
Cassandra! Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. As someone who grew up with your show, this is really an honor.
Oh you’re welcome! Thanks for wanting to do it.
I know we were initially supposed to do it at New York Comic Con, but that was just a whole thing wasn’t it?
Oh yeah. Man, I tell you, I worked so hard when I was there. When I wasn't signing autographs for people, they had me in the back signing autographs for various different companies and everything, and then I had so many interviews as well.
Well, even just based on doing something at New York Comic Con, what's it like for you seeing how much influence – or for that matter how many kinds of influence – you have over people? You’re the bombshell, you're the horror guru, you're the comedian, the actor, you’re the activist, you’re the icon. It feels like among all the hats that you wear as Elvira, Cassandra has become an additional hat thanks to your autobiography Yours Cruelly, Elvira.
[laughs] That's a funny way of putting it. It's been a big change for me; suddenly not appearing as Elvira as much, and doing more Cassandra appearances. The downside is my anonymity has pretty much gone away. That part’s kind of sad. That anonymity is such a great thing, let me tell you. You're able to be a celebrity when you feel like it and not when you don't feel like it. Not very many people that I know of have that luxury.
Hmm..yeah, I don't know. It’s funny because different people come to shows for different things. I have the comic books out there so that works well for being at New York Comic Con. Then my book and all the various licensed merchandise things – in particular, Funko, which is obviously very popular. I think I have six or seven Funko Pops now. So there are a lot of people who come just to get their Funko Pops signed! Anyway, it is nice though because like you were saying, I don't have to be Elvira to do that kind of thing. It gives me a little bit of a break.
I imagine it's probably exhausting having to put on Elvira at a moment’s notice.
Oh god it really is. I'm just saying, I wish I had all the hours that I have been putting on makeup back. I'd have a whole ‘nother lifetime I think! [laughs] ​​
I can imagine! I've tried doing the Elvira makeup just for fun and it took me ages…and even then it still probably looked terrible. I don't know how you do it.
I know! And there's definitely a fast way to do it. I mean, I've got it down to an hour and a half, from beginning to end, and that's me cranking, not just sitting around doing my makeup. Those hours do add up though. A whole lifetime’s worth.
With that lifetime of Elvira under your belt, did you expect Elvira to become quite the character that she is? And really did you expect to finally end up loving the name? I know that's something that you brought up in the book was that initially “Elvira” seemed very country.
Yeah, when we picked the name out I was thinking like Vampira.
I mean yes, obviously. Don’t we all.
I think the Elvira thing came from those three syllables ending in R-A, I don't know. Somebody put it in the coffee can that I picked the name from. I don't know who did it but I always thought it wasn't the vibe I was going for. I've become very, very accustomed to it, and I like it a lot. Well, I like it when people don't walk by signing that song or whatever. You know, [she sings the tune of the song “Elvira” by The Oak Ridge Boys]. Oh my God, that is on my last nerve, I have to tell you.
Does that happen often?
It used to happen all the time! It really drove me totally nuts because the song's not about me at all. It coincidentally came out the same week that my show started in 1981. I even talked to the Oak Ridge Boys about it before. He goes, "Wow, isn't that crazy? You just started. Our song came out. It's so weird."
But as for the other part of that question, no, I absolutely didn't have any hopes or dreams or anything about the character becoming something that lasts for decades. Now, it has been 41 years! I was shocked that it lasted even 41 days really. I just thought it was so goofy when I started it. The only reason I took the gig was that I needed the job. At the time I was looking for work and I was an actor, so I was like 'I've got a job that I actually go to every week and I get $350! So awesome! And then I can look for other acting work in between all those days I'm not shooting!' That was the number one reason. And the second reason was...well, I loved horror! I knew that I loved horror so I thought, okay, that's right up my alley.
In regards to that relationship with horror, how has that relationship changed over time? When you first started getting into horror it was still kind of this punk rock, rebellious thing to be interested in– especially if you were a woman. That's certainly not the case these days.
Oh my God, yeah. I mean I remember going to my very, very first San Diego Comic Con, and it was in a basement I think of some motel or hotel. Very vague, but I remember going there and being literally the only woman there. Maybe there were some other women there, but I definitely didn't see them. But there were all these little packs of guys traveling around in twos and threes, and that was all the horror fans. There were no women!
As time has gone on, it’s great to see women embracing the horror genre and, vice versa, the horror genre embracing women. I mean back in the day, and with a lot of the movies that I showed being from the 1950s and 1960s, women were the victims. That just ended the story. They weren't ever really even the protagonist, they weren't the writers, they weren't directors. I am so thrilled to be a part of the horror genre because it is one of the most inclusive genres of film there are! I mean it's really amazing how many kinds of people the genre embraces. There are other genres that do not do that. A lot of the other ones, in fact.
That’s extremely true.
So it's really been great. It really has changed since I started 41 years ago. You go to a Comic Con now, like New York Comic Con, and wouldn't you say that it's at least 50-50 women and men?
Oh probably. Yeah, it’s a fairly even split. Or at least it was this year.
Yeah, I think so, too. So, that's really good to see.
Definitely. On a similar note, one of the hot topics of your autobiography was that you quote unquote, “came out.” I know that's been kind of a big thing that you've been talking about quite a bit. Horror as a genre has always been this place for misfits and weirdos, and particularly people who identify as queer, to see themselves. How does that parse for you within the community, since you chose to be more open about your relationship?
Oh it's been so great. I've always had a very, very big gay following from the very beginning. And I've been a very big gay follower! I mean, I give credit to the gay community for really creating the Halloween that is today. The gay community love them some Halloween, and they've made it bigger and better than ever because of that. I also think Elvira contributed to Halloween becoming more an adult holiday and just a bigger holiday to be celebrated in the US. With me coming out…you know, it's funny that I don't know if “coming out” is the right word, but that's what they call it. I don't know. I was straight, up until I was 50, then I fell in love with a woman and now I'm gay. When I reach 100, I'll probably go back to being straight. [laughs] I'm just kidding!
But anyway, people have been so welcoming. It’s adorable and wonderful. I mean, I can't tell you the number of times at the New York Comic Con this year that people came up and said “I am so happy for you that you found the person for you and that you’re in love and that you can be together and you don't have to hide it. And I'm so proud of you and happy for you." So many people said that. It was very emotional for me.
Has that been overwhelming, that outpouring of support? ​​
A little bit, yeah. [laughs] I mean, it was a whole thing. Like I'm in Portland right now and there's a bookstore, Powell's, which is-
I'm in Portland too!
Oh my God! Well, you know Powell's and how massive it is.
Of course. It’s a giant maze.
You’re not going to believe it, but I went in there and – I guess this is not Powell's fault, it's probably the publisher's fault – I went in to see where my book was and if they were carrying it and where they had put it. And it was kind of a bummer because it was in “Gay Study”
Yeah! Right? And I was like, okay, I get that, sort of. But I just think there's so much more about my life that it would be interesting to all kinds of people, not just people who might go looking for the Gay Study section. 90% of the book is about my life before that and various relationships I had with men – good and bad. I just think by labeling it like that and putting it there, a lot of people will miss the rest of it.
That does limit your audience quite a bit doesn’t it? ​​
I know, I know. It's a bummer. You don't see this happen to Dave Grohl's book, which is on the front table of every bookstore on Earth [laughs]. Then I go in and look at mine, I'm Gay Studies! That's not a negative thing, of course. But I do wonder why maybe it wasn’t in the feminist section. Or the music section about rock and roll. A section about acting, about horror. Anything! Everything!
If they really want to market it, they'll just put a bunch of copies in every genre across the entire shop!
Just sneak in under the cover of darkness and just put them in all the different genres.
Oh I have done that [laughs]
[laughs] Have you really​​?
Oh yeah, I’ll pick up my book and put it on the front shelf and everything. All over the place. But really it's not a negative thing. I don't dislike being in Gay Studies. But I think there's a lot more that people are overlooking, if they just think of the book about me coming out. Like, that's something that’s included, but that's not the whole book.
Totally. And in a different vein of what’s in the book, I read one interview that you did somewhat recently that brings up what a very Forrest Gump sort of life that you've led: meeting all of these amazing people and having this career where you bounced around all over the place. Do you think there's something for aspiring actors now to learn about, like just dive in, say yes, do more things?
I still think that is a really important thing to do. I mean, I always tell my daughter, just try things, try different things. You don't know where it'll go. I knew I wanted to be in show business from the time I was really young because I wanted to be the center of attention at the time. [laughs] I had no idea what or how, or a singer or a dancer. I tried all those because I wasn't that great at either one of those, but they were useful. And I tried straight acting, then I tried comedy, which really fit better, and I felt this works for me more.
I think it is important for anybody who is in show business or is an actor to try all kinds of different things, whether it's taking classes or doing comedy improv or method acting or whatever. But trying all these things out and even doing things like writing. You just don't know what'll be up your alley until you try it. Limiting yourself to one thing sells yourself short a lot of times, I think.
That’s something a lot of people could probably stand to hear... Get in all the good stuff that you can.
And have a little fun too! Travel and all that sort of stuff. Go around and around Europe. Do whatever you can while you're young. You will decide or it'll decide for you, that's the funny thing. I didn't make up my mind that I'm going to do Elvira. It just came. It just popped up.
I can imagine it feels pretty incredible to land here after such a full career with this book that's gotten so big and is such a celebration of those accumulated experiences. What a ride!
Oh yeah it does! I mean, I wasn't sure if the book would do really well. I thought about doing it, and I decided that I had to get it out. I'm going to write it down and throw it out there. And it's much, much better than I ever imagined it would be; certainly much better than my publishers though it would be. [laughs] They were pretty freaked out when it got on the New York Times Best Seller list. I don't think they were expecting it, because I think they thought about it a little more as a horror genre book. They weren't really expecting that kind of action. I’m just really really happy.
Check out Cassandra Peterson's book Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark
If you enjoyed this interview with Elvira, make sure to check out our other extensive interviews from New York Comic Con 2022!