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By Vampira, Peterson means Maila Nurmi, the circa-1950s pinup model–turned–local TV horror host (and later, co-star of Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space), whose spooky sexpot shtick preceded Elvira's, although Peterson has always claimed that the similarities in the characters come from both actresses ripping off Charles Addams' Morticia. In 1987, the Los Angeles Times ran a story sympathetic to Nurmi's claims that she was forced to live on Social Security checks while Peterson made big bucks off a stolen act. Nurmi said KHJ had initially contacted her about doing a new show; they negotiated over specifics for three months, and when Nurmi declined to sign over the rights to the Vampira character, she was shut out and Peterson was brought in. Nurmi filed a lawsuit against the Elvira camp the following year.
"Boy, has the devil got that bitch — it's the devil in her blood," Nurmi said of Peterson in a 2005 interview with Bizarre Magazine. "She was in 51 markets at one time with 350 kinds of merchandise; milked my cupboard bare. Initially they wanted me. I wouldn't do it because I didn't want Vampira to be anything but perfect. I certainly didn't want her to be portrayed as a slut."
In August 1989, the Times reported that Nurmi's own lawyers had petitioned to withdraw from the appeal because Nurmi was no longer responding to attempts to contact her; a district court decided in favor of Peterson that same year. Nurmi died in 2008, and apparently remained bitter to the end.
Nurmi might have had a legitimate claim, but the way she handled it — painting herself as a victim of both Hollywood's neglect and the opportunism of a sell-out "slut" and "bitch" — only underscored the difference between Elvira and Vampira. Peterson is nothing but proud of her shameless self-promotion and ancillary market reach — not to mention Elvira's sexual bravado. And I can't imagine that either Elvira nor the actress who plays her would ever let a rival stand in her way, or let themselves assume the role of victim.
"Elvira was never rescued," Peterson says. "She always wanted a guy to rescue her; she's really horny and always after the hunky kind of guys — but she was always the one who had to do it herself. I think it's kind of a good role model for women, you know? And I get letters from girls like crazy. It's all so goofy and silly, but they still like that I don't take any crap from people."
I've never written Elvira a letter, but I have been a lifelong fan. Growing up in L.A. in the '80s, I watched the reruns of Macabre on Sunday afternoons, and idolized the character. I not only wanted to look like her (and starting at age 13, I dyed my hair black and wore my lips red and my dresses black and low-cut accordingly), but, at a very young age, decided a life made up of watching old movies and making dirty jokes seemed like the ideal career path.
I wasn't the only youth whose experience with Elvira was, uh, formative: Over the months that I worked on this story, it seemed that every time I mentioned it to a straight male between the ages of 25 and 45, they smiled and sheepishly admitted the Mistress of the Dark's role in their sexual fantasies of long ago. Early on, her appeal broke through the barriers of geography and subcultural specificity. "So many people tell us, I had two posters in my teenage bedroom," Courtney Smith, one of the new Movie Macabre's publicists, tells me. "Claudia Schiffer on one wall, Elvira on the other."
Peterson consciously plays up the illusion of intimacy with the viewer. At one point on set, she argues with the director's suggestion that she look directly into the camera for a scripted game-show bit. "I don't want to look at the camera, because I always talk to the camera like I'm talking to one person," she says. She points at the camera, snaps her eyes and mouth into a classic Elvira come-on, and purrs, "You and you only."
That Peterson has become the subject of sexual fantasies is a kind of neat revenge for a woman who was once made to feel like a freak. "Pretty people don't have to be funny, you know," she says. "You can go into comedy being really overweight, have bad acne." Or, covered with scar tissue. As a child, Peterson was playing in her family's kitchen and accidentally tipped over a pot of boiling water. She was left with burns covering 35 percent of her body. Much of the skin hidden by the Dress is still scarred. "I had bad scars, and I was made fun of all the time when I was a kid. I used humor as a way of getting around it."