Halfway to Halloween Month continues on Consequence of Sound with an exclusive interview featuring the Queen of Halloween herself: Elvira’s Cassandra Peterson. Her 1988 cult classic Mistress of the Dark is currently streaming on Shudder.
Cassandra Peterson loves pinball. She also enjoys long walks around her neighborhood, cooking for herself, meditating after online yoga, and not having to do her hair all the time. For the Mistress of the Dark, life in quarantine isn’t so much a nightmare but a respite from her everyday spooky life. Rest assured, though, she still indulges in the spooky.
“When I’m alone here and just feeling anxious and weird,” Peterson tells me over the phone amidst a sunny, balmy day in Los Angeles, “one of my favorite things to do is put on old episodes of The Twilight Zone from the ‘60s. Because I watched them as a kid. They’re like, I hate to say, Chicken Soup for the Soul. It’s really weird.”
Not exactly. For many, horror tends to nurture people’s lingering anxieties and fears. It’s why pandemic films like Contagion or Outbreak are trending, and why so many fans are celebrating Halfway to Halloween Month in April. There’s a sense of escapism to the gore, the ghouls, and the goblins, a belief that things cant be worse than what goes bump in the night.
In that sense, there’s a similar comfort and relief in talking to Peterson. As Elvira, the iconic and ubiquitous Queen of Halloween, Peterson has a long history of ushering horror into living rooms across the world. There’s perhaps no one more adept at speaking on behalf of the genre, which likely explains why the our chat feels so therapeutic.
It also helps that she’s just a great conversationalist — a high currency today in our age of social distancing. That much you’ll certainly glean in our lengthy chat ahead in which the legend discusses everything from the Me Too movement and her strangest branding opportunities to living next to Dave Navarro and her thoughts on Tiger King.
On Life During Lockdown
The one — and only — part that I like is that I think, in my entire life, I’ve never spent so many days without doing my hair and makeup, which is kind of awesome.
I was just saying to my daughter yesterday, who lives in Seattle. I said, this is going to be the only time in your life, hopefully, that it’s ever going to be like this. So, try to just relax into it and know that it’ll likely never happen again.
I’ve been walking an hour a day. I’ve forced myself to, because otherwise I’ll just fall apart. Luckily, I live in an area in Hollywood where it’s really, really beautiful to walk. It’s crazy. It’s all these old mansions from the early 1900s. And the streets are really quiet, and there’s giant trees, and everybody’s out walking, but not to the point of where you have to get within six feet of anyone. That’s nice.
Quarantine with ‘Elvirus’. Which movies would YOU recommend? pic.twitter.com/AHpNpAP2CN
— Elvira (@TheRealElvira) April 7, 2020
I spend way, way, way too much time on my iPhone. I’ve always really liked to cook and spend a ton of time just cooking. I do an online yoga class. I was trying to do yoga on my own, but I’d get up about 30 times to get a snack or just call somebody. Finally, I signed up to do this video yoga thing. I actually meditate a little. I’ve been watching a lot of Russell Brand videos lately. I do watch Netflix at night. I don’t allow myself to do that during the day, or I might never get off the couch ever again.
I am coming up with ideas for videos I’m doing on my social media — sitting around writing little vignettes. I have one coming out today, and then I have one I did last week about wearing masks and stuff. I’ve got to keep some content coming out when I don’t have any conventions coming up or hardly any merchandise coming out, you know? I haven’t thought about [watch-alongs or live tweets] because … this is sad. I’m separated from my social media guy and from my IT girl. They can’t really come over and help. I’m really not very tech savvy. So that’s a bummer.
On the Comforts of Horror
I often wonder why there is [comfort in horror]. When I’m alone here and just feeling anxious and weird, one of my favorite things to do is put on old episodes of The Twilight Zone from the ‘60s. Because I watched them as a kid. They’re like, I hate to say, Chicken Soup for the Soul. It’s really weird. It’s so comforting to me. And old horror movies that I saw as a kid. They’re somehow very, very comforting to me. And I wonder why that is.
Maybe it’s the naivety of a different time when things were so simple, and the idea of a spacecraft coming to Earth, seems … nice … with silver aliens, you know?
I have a video on my website called “It Could Be Worse”, where I suggest movies, like Misery, where you’re trapped in a house with a crazy woman with a sledgehammer. So, count yourself lucky if you don’t have a crazy woman with a sledgehammer living with you. And movies like Night of the Living Dead, where several people are trapped in a house with flesh-eating zombies outside trying to get in. So, it could be worse.
Maybe that is part of what makes horror kind of comforting. Well, I thought I had it bad. But look at that person. They got to deal with a giant leech.
On Night of the Living Dead
Oh, my god, trying to keep something out and not being able to leave. Oh, my god, can you imagine? Yeah, well, it didn’t end well for them. No, not too well. But it’s such a great, brilliant move for the time. I imagine I’ve watched that more than any horror movie ever.
You know what else is creepy about it, too? The child in the basement – the little girl who ends up eating her parents. That was the first time I ever saw a child involved in horror. It’s really one of the most frightening things in which a whole genre of movies later became based on. Well, Children of the Damned … that was out around that time. When you think of The Exorcist having the child as a monster, taking something that’s incredibly innocent, like a child, or a dog like Cujo, or a car like Christine and turning them into the monster is really terrifying. Those are things that everyone thinks of as completely innocent. So, that was probably the first example I ever saw of a child becoming so gruesome. The whole thing is so creepy. It’s one of the greats.
On Being a Girl Into Horror
Well, I’ve been spending the last year writing my autobiography, which comes out in September. Well, we’ll see. But in any case, I was writing that kind of going back into my childhood. And as a child, I was burned really bad — 35% of my body — and not many people know that. And I used humor as a way to deflect comments that kids made about me, calling me a monster and running away from me. And I eventually started using self-deprecating humor, making jokes about myself myself, and that made people kind of like me. I think I came to realize that while writing, and I still use that as Elvira. I think self-deprecating humor is the reason why women are a huge audience for Elvira. Otherwise, Elvira is a sex kitten type, and guys would be my audience. As it is, demographics show that women have a slight edge over my male fans.
It was bizarre back then, though. When I was a kid in the ’50s, my cousin took me to see House on Haunted Hill, and it changed my life. Well, that was that for me, and I was only in second or third grade. From then on, I wanted to buy Famous Monsters of Filmland comic books, and when it was Christmas, I would beg my parents for Aurora model kits of like The Creature From the Black Lagoon. I remember people just thinking I was such a freak because even boys weren’t into horror back then. I grew up in Colorado Springs, and just nobody got it. My sisters were playing with Barbie Dolls, and I was playing with these monsters, you know? I think that it kept a lot of kids away from me. I didn’t have many friends as a kid.
About women not being involved in horror when I first started Elvira — I remember going to San Diego Comic Con, which was very big and in the basement of some hotel or something. Yeah, it was in a basement. It was weird. And I was the only freakin’ woman there. I mean, there might have been another one. I didn’t see her. And it was so bizarre. I mean, hundreds of guys and just no women, and it was all about horror and sci-fi and all of that. But not that there weren’t any. And I think as Elvira went along, I began to see more and more women coming into the fold. It wasn’t even [scary] at first, though. I was happy as a clam. I thought it was super awesome. I’m like the only girl here. This is so cool. I loved it. But it was all guys traveling in little packs of two or three, you know, kind of coming up to my table, tethering, and not able to look at my cleavage.
On Her Comedic Influences
I loved horror, but I also really loved comedy growing up. I loved Lucille Ball, and then later I would see, on The Ed Sullivan Show, a very young Joan Rivers. Totie Fields. I don’t know if anybody remembers her. She unfortunately died when she was really young. But, Phyllis Diller. Oh, my god, I love Phyllis Diller. And, strangely, one of my favorite shows of all time was The Three Stooges. That’s where my sophisticated sense of humor comes from. But, yeah, I had female comedians who I had just worshiped because … you know, wow, they can do that? They were pretty few and far between.
There was also a series of movies that I love called the Carry On series. They’re not that popular over here in the US anymore. Carry on Nurse, Carry on Sailor … They were brilliantly funny English movies. Unfortunately, they were very much like the mindset of Mad Men. There was always a sexy nurse or secretary with lots of cleavage, but they’re very English and very funny. I was in grade school, but they were a big influence on me. I remember always waiting for one to come out. You can check those out. God knows how stupid they are now. I have no idea. I haven’t seen one since I was in elementary school.
Is Comedy or Horror More Challenging?
Hmm, I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that exactly. It’s just my natural way [to combine them]. I love any horror that kind of uses elements of comedy in it, you know, like American Werewolf in London. It was kind of my first film that I went like, Oh my god, this is so funny, but it’s so scary, too. I think it came out right before I was Elvira. A kind of light went on for me about how they made the movie feel like a roller coaster ride in that they would give you a big scare, and then they would lighten the mood with a funny, little scene where everybody is laughing and joking. Ah, you know, and you let down all your defenses and then Wham, a horrible thing happens. It really hit on me at that moment that it’s freaking awesome. I’m sure it’s been done in other films. But that was when it really hit me as a brilliant idea: you make people laugh and then you throw a scare at them, and the scare is twice as scary as it would have been if they were already waiting for it and tense.
Read ahead to hear Elvira digress on her strangest merchandise…