It had only been a few weeks and Cassandra Peterson was on her way to The Tonight Show to meet and talk with the famed host, Johnny Carson. That’s when she knew what she’d made was going to be huge. Peterson, known better as the ghoulish goddess, Elvira (“Mistress of the Dark”), had been hosting her B-movie horror television show for just a couple weeks, she says, when the late night show called. At the time, she was a local personality in Los Angeles. With Carson’s blessing, though, she could become a star. Ever since that appearance in 1981, Elvira has become a household name, especially during the Halloween season. And this month, Peterson, in character, dropped her latest single, “Don’t Cancel Halloween!” The track is but another in a successful string of releases for the Queen of Halloween that will continue well into next year.
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“If you were on Carson’s show, that meant you were famous or you were going to be,” Peterson says. “When I got invited to go on that show, it was like, ’Whoa!’ A lightening bolt went through my brain.”
When gazing upon Elvira, who is known aesthetically for her big, black bouffant, fishnet stockings, low-cut dress and exposed cleavage, one likely doesn’t think she lacks for confidence. In fact, Elvira has likely imbued confidence onto many who’ve seen her strut on stage, make a joke about sex, or smile into the eyes of an adoring TV show host. But without that initial invite, Elvira may not have had the chance to flourish. Today, what the character’s appearance and personal dynamism offer fans and followers is what Peterson appreciates most about her creation.
“The thing I love most about Elvira,” Peterson says, “is that she has given confidence to women – and many men, as well – who feel that they’re outcasts, that they don’t fit in. Elvira shows them that it doesn’t matter, that they’re going to be awesome when they grow up and you can do what you want.”
Peterson, who grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, fell in love with Halloween at an early age. At five-years-old, she told her mother outright that she wanted to be the “Queen of Halloween.” That same year, she remembers, Peterson lost all her trick-or-treat candy through a hole in her bag (“Traumatic,” she says). But it was around third grade, when a cousin took her to see the 1959 horror movie, House on Haunted Hill, that she became totally hooked on the suspense and thrills of the scary movie genre.
“I really got into horror then,” Peterson says. “In fact, I was the only girl – the only person – at that time that I knew of in my grade school who was. The other kids in my school just weren’t into it.”
Peterson first put on her signature black dress when she got the gig hosting Friday night horror movies. The show was called Movie Macabre and it quickly led to the Carson appearance, followed by movies, Elvira’s own Halloween costumes and much more. Dressed in the style of a female vampire, sensuality was automatic and Peterson, as Elvira, heightened it with every last bit of cheeky oomph she could muster. She’d always been comfortable talking about sex, she says, and as someone born naturally big-busted, she could either hide her figure or make the most of it. Before Elvira, Peterson, who once dated Elvis, worked as a go-go dancer (“Dancing in skimpy outfits,” she says) and then she took a job as a Las Vegas showgirl (“Dancing in even skimpier outfits,” she says).
“People used to say, ‘What do your parents think about you wearing a dress like that?’” Peterson says. “And I would say, ‘They’re happy I’m wearing anything!’”
Peterson, who says Elvira was most popular in the American “Bible Belt,” is proud she could cross lines and break boundaries. She and contemporaries like the great artist, Dolly Parton, helped bring levity and humor to what might be uncomfortable, sexually charged situations (see, this video).
“There are other people in the world with large breasts like Dolly Parton, like me,” Peterson says, “and they’re not really sending the same message. I think the reason maybe Dolly and I take the edge off is our sense of humor. Dolly is very funny and she jokes about it, she doesn’t try to hide her figure.”
As an entertainer, music has always been a part of Peterson’s life. A dancer starting out, music was a major part of her craft. She’s been featured in music videos from 1986’s “My Mistake” to 2014’s “Gimme Something Good” and she’s released a handful of LPs. Today, music stays playing in her home and in her car, filling her sphere with songs often from the 60s. As Elvira, she’s released songs and records, like 2010’s Elvira’s Gravest Hits. And while the music is attempting to dwell in the same ballpark as Bach or Bob Dylan, the songs bring to life Elvira’s signature sense of humor while titillating with a bit of freight and skin.
“Music just makes me feel good,” she says. “It makes life worth living and I can’t understand people who don’t agree. It’s something to listen to if I feel sad, if I feel good, if I’m exercising.”
Along with her recent Halloween-themed single, Peterson, who just celebrated her 69th birthday, will be part of a special airing on October 30th for “Hulaween” on the streaming service, centered on a reunion of the cast from the Halloween move, Hocus Pocus. Along with Elvira, viewers can see Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Meryl Streep and many others in their old witchy form. Peterson also anticipates an autobiography release in 2021 and there are industry rumors of a new Elvira animated cartoon series. But, for Peterson, as milestones and achievements pile up, there is always more to achieve externally and internally.
“I wish I could be more like Elvira, honestly,” Peterson says. “She has a lot more confidence than me. Definitely as a female, she has a lot more confidence than I have. I wish I could get a little bit more of that from her – some day.”