At 63, Cassandra Peterson can still wriggle into the tiny black dress, still tease her raven hair into a gravity-defying helmet and still pull off absurdly protruding cleavage – scarcely aging as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Considering her three-decade career in horror movies, it’s tempting to credit her longevity to witchcraft, a vampire’s bite or some dark agreement with demon lords. But the truth is simpler and more boring. She’s a vegetarian. She runs four days a week. She goes to yoga classes.
“I generally wear a size 4,” she told me while driving in California. “Every measurement is the same, except for my waist. My waist has gone from 21 inches to 27. That’s what having a child will do for you.”
Since 1981, Peterson’s Elvira character has been a perfect mix of glamor, ghoulishness and ribald sarcasm – a late-night movie companion who both titillates and makes you giggle into your popcorn.
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And when she appears in Raleigh later this month – a guest at the three-day Comic Con that also features Lou “Hulk” Ferrigno and Sean “Samwise Gamgee” Astin – fans will gather to clutch the hem of her shadowy garment.
“I hear the most amazing stories,” she said. “It’s usually ‘You helped me through puberty,’ when it comes to the guys. I should start charging for that. The other thing I hear from women is how Elvira helped them through their teenage years, that it was OK to be strong and sexy and odd.”
Peterson originated the late-night horror hostess role more than 30 years ago, starting at a small Los Angeles station and swaggering her way into national syndication. You may remember her beckoning from a castle door as dark clouds billowed over a full moon – bats swarming, wolf howling, a candelabra lit.
Her on-screen persona aped the Vampira character of an earlier TV age, borrowing the combination of low-cut dresses and graveyard humor. But Elvira raised the bar for campiness, injecting a sassier brand of cheese.
“You think it’s easy stuffing myself into this dress?” she asked viewers, splayed on a blood-red divan. “Teasing my hair within an inch of its life? I’ve practically worn the plush off this couch for you. And now you want me to show you ‘She Demons,’ so you can lust after a bunch of black-and-white, B-movie bimbos?”
Her sarcasm grew out of necessity. The movies she showcased stunk so badly that she couldn’t offer them as serious cinematic fare. “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.” “Evil Bong.” She wore Groucho Marx glasses both on her face and in her chest.
“I think people appreciated my honesty,” she said.
Peterson told me she left home at age 14 over disagreements with her mother, taking work as a teenage go-go dancer. Her early life is filled with folklore. Dating Elvis Presley in Las Vegas. Posing for men’s magazines. Maybe or maybe not appearing on the cover of Tom Waits’ “Small Change” album, a detail she can’t quite recall.
“I started out really different and weird,” she said. “I was just like a nerd before they invented nerds. When kids were playing Barbies, I was building model kits of monsters. I was really into horror movies. I did have a hard time making friends. I was burned as child and had scars, so I was made fun of. I think that kind of makes you feel like a freak and an outsider. It’s interesting. I’ve met these goth punks, and 20 years later they’re extra successful. You’re forced to sink or swim, I guess.”
I enjoyed hearing that Peterson had long ago patched up relations with her mother. When she called me on Friday, she was driving to see her. I like the idea of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, princess of spooky sex jokes, checking in on her mom.
That’s the beautiful thing about Peterson’s macabre fictional identity. She can almost completely pack it away. She rarely gets recognized out of costume. In a few weeks, we’ll probably see her sipping an avocado smoothie or jogging down Fayetteville Street, never guessing that by night she morphs into Elvira – still strong, still sexy, still odd.
If you go
Raleigh Wizard World Comic Con will be held March 13-15 at the Convention Center downtown. Tickets vary depending on the day: $35 for Friday, $45 for Saturday, $40 for Sunday. Tickets cost $10 extra at the door. Guests include Lou Ferrigno, William Shatner of “Star Trek,” Sean Astin from “The Lord of the Rings” movies, several members of the “The Walking Dead” cast, and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. For more information on tickets and guests, see www.wizardworld.com/home-raleigh.html.