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…
On Realizing She’s a Household Name
First, honestly, I looked at it as having a job. It was just like, Oh, my god. Yeah, for the first time as an actress, I have a job that’s actually recurring due to how I’m gonna work next week and I’m gonna have a check and I’m going to work the next week and have a check. Oh, my god, you know, and I thought if this lasts a couple of months, I’ll be so on top of the world. So, just getting that kind of job was amazing.
So, anyway, I’m at home in my little, dinky place. I just got married and started getting phone calls because my name is in the phone book, and there weren’t that many Cassandra Petersons in the phone book. Only two, actually. And I started getting phone calls morning, noon, and night. And it’s like, What the hell? Why are these people calling you? They’re like, “Oh, my God, are you Elvira?” and “I have a beauty salon. Could you come here? We’re doing an opening.” It sort of dawned on me: Oh, this is weird.
And then just a couple months in, I got invited to go on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. And I knew enough that if you were on that show, you were a big deal. So, when I was invited to do the Carson show, which was basically the only talk show people really cared about, it just hit me over the head like a sledgehammer. You know, this might be happening. This might be getting famous. But that’s really the moment that I lost my shit there. Now, I’ve actually trademarked the color black. Use black, I get royalties.
My fans are the best, the best, the best, the most loyal. It’s amazing. It’s kind of like when you’re living in Europe and they love an actress, and it doesn’t matter if the actress is 100 years old. It doesn’t make any difference to them or how they look or whatever. They are loyal to that person until the day they die and beyond. And horror fans are kind of like that with the people they love in the genre. They love them no matter what they say or do or how they look or anything.
On the Eclectic Elvira Brand
I OK every single product they have, and some are much worse than others. I had the world’s ugliest damn action figure. Oh, god. I think I was so desperate to have an action figure that I just finally, after three or four times of having them show us their model, said alright. I think the weirdest brand thing that I approved besides the ugly, ugly action figure was one of the smelling things that hangs in your car. It’s like, Why am I being one of those smelly things? What do I smell like? I remember, it was early on, but I was still thinking: I don’t know if this is a good idea.
I have a new favorite: my pinball machine. I also love the slot machines that I’ve been doing. This pinball machine is my third, and the new one is awesome. I happen to have just loved pinball my whole life. As a kid, I spent more time in bars drinking beer and playing pinball. So, for a while pinball had gone the way of the dinosaur, but they’re kind of coming back now. My newest one, House of Horrors, has the distinction of being the biggest-selling pinball machine ever. Yeah, it won an award, and it’s the biggest-selling one ever, which blows my mind because there’s, you know, KISS. And I think the other really big one was Elton John … Pinball Wizard.
Anyway, I have one, and it can waste a lot of time while quarantined, I can tell you.
On Recent Horror Movies
My most recent favorite is The Witch. It’s so freakin’ great. And I’m kind of dying to see Midsommar because it has kind of a similar vibe. Just quiet, plain, nothing too crazy happens. One thing I like about The Witch is not a lot of CGI — except maybe in the end when they all fly up into the air. It’s kind of like telling a spooky story around a campfire or something. Yeah, it’s just not all these special effects and blah, blah, blah, you know? Yeah. So, I like that kind of thing a lot. Let me tell you, I have a list here of horror movies I need to watch just because I need to see them and keep up.
On Netflix’s Tiger King
Have you watched Tiger King? Unbelievable. So insane. The whole thing. Each episode was more shocking than the last. I just couldn’t get over that I know all these super handsome gay men that don’t have any partners. And then he gets like three young, sort-of-straight guys to marry him. And they are good looking, except for the teeth. And if the one kept his mouth shut, he’d be okay. Yeah, but they are all pretty handsome, and it’s just so funny. I have gay friends of mine saying, I can’t even get one guy. He’s married. What’s up with that? I gotta get a tiger.
Oh, gosh, and that girl was crazy. She was totally fine with it [amputating her arm]. She was like, No big deal. It’s just an arm. I could not believe that. You freakin’ idiot. I would say or do anything, anything. Just don’t amputate my arm. And then they’re making a movie out of it, which I just don’t get. I hope it works out for them, but how could you possibly go further? … I don’t know about that Carol. I probably do believe [the septic tank theory]. I could see someone doing that. She seems a little calculating. Oh, my god. You cats and kittens and cool cats…
— Elvira (@TheRealElvira) April 15, 2020
You know, I was offered way back in the day $10,000 to do circus of the stars. And because I’m a very big animal rights and PETA person, I turned it down. I actually had taken the check and then gave it back to them because I didn’t know it involved working with wild animals. I was supposed to train and be riding around on and reining an elephant, and I just couldn’t do it.
Part of Tiger King makes me absolutely nauseous when I see the treatment of those cats. I literally couldn’t sleep the whole night after I saw him pull those tiny, newborn tigers away from their mother. It made me have freaking nightmares. So, no, I never [worked with a tiger or anything like that]. I’ve been really into animal rights since, like, ’82 or something. And I don’t want to work with them. They’re wild animals. They’re not domestic. I love animals. Wild animals belong in the wild. That’s why they’re called “wild.”
Read ahead to hear Elvira discuss her role in music….
On Her Music Listening Habits
I’m trying to listen to stuff that’s really kind of calming, but I can’t stand that kind of yoga music stuff. But I’m listening to all these old classics by Stan Getz and jazz artists. What’s his name? Chet Baker. It’s kind of soothing right now.
I listen to the local NPR station, and they play songs all day. They have Morning Becomes Eclectic. So, for several hours, they play such cool, interesting stuff. I love this girl right now. She’s from Mexico, I believe. Rosalía. As soon as I heard her, I got a couple of her albums and have just been listening. I love that, but I mean, I love every freaking kind of music except yoga music.
I pretty much keep music on in my house morning, noon, and night. I sleep to it all night. I kind of play classical when I sleep, and then all day long I listen to everything. I had a friend just send me his playlist of music videos by ’80s artists. It’s hilarious, some of those videos, the hair and everything. I actually played that while I was doing yoga the other day. It was like INXS and The Pretenders, but I do like finding new music, so I listen to a lot of NPR music.
I have a little record player, and I’ve got some Beatles stuff on vinyl. You know, that look like their old albums. I got rid of all my albums, of course, a million years ago. And I just really, really am down. I put on a Beatles record and just blast, and it’s just amazing. I have to put Beatles music on when I’m cleaning the house, even though that rarely happens. I love the Beach Boys so much. Oh, my god, I could play them all day. Pet Sounds is one of my favorite albums in the whole world, and I played Led Zeppelin a ton.
So funny. My next door neighbor’s Dave Navarro. And we play music all day. We have battles of the bands over here, but it’s so funny how much music we play. We play alike because I can hear when he’s playing and he can hear when I play. We are always blasting either Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin, and I sometimes play Mothers of Invention. So, we’re always kind of blasting the same kind of music back and forth. It’s just kind of fun to live next door to somebody where you don’t have to complain about their music.
On Almost Being in “Thriller”
I loved Michael Jackson, and the most amazing live performance I’ve ever seen in my whole life was seeing one of his concerts, but I met him after, and he said, “Haha, I love you. You know, you should have done the voice in ‘Thriller’.” I didn’t know anything about it, but just recently the man who wrote “Thriller” died. And there was an article about him in The New York Post. He said that he had been planning on using Elvira as the voice in there. Yeah. And then it turned out that Quincy Jones, who produced “Thriller”, his wife was good friends with Coral Browne, the wife of Vincent Price. And they cajoled Quincy into using Vincent Price instead, which I’m happy about. I love Vincent Price, and if it had to go to somebody — he’s my idol — I’m happy for it to be him. But there’s the other side of me that’s like … Ugggghhhhhhh.
On Michael Jackson and Cancel Culture
I’m not going to [stop listening to Michael Jackson’s music]. I always say to people, if you stop listening to or watching or reading every artist in the world because they’re not a perfect person — and I’ve done some really awful things — there would be nothing because there’s just way too many. I mean, Picasso was a horrible womanizer. Do we take all those paintings and throw them in the trash and burn them? I mean, I hate that about him. But, you know, like Woody Allen. I mean, all these people, you gotta separate the art from the human.
I still think this about Michael Jackson. So not to make an excuse for him, but I think he was completely still like, in his head, a child. I don’t think he ever developed past puberty. And so I think when he sees himself with these other kids, he sees himself as that age, and then they’re like two boys spending the night, you know? He just never became a mature person emotionally. And that’s not an excuse. But I’m saying it does come from another space. It’s not like, I’m a grown man. I know this is a really, really bad thing. I don’t think he knew it was a really bad thing to do.
On the Real Master of Horror
Vincent Price. He’ll always be my Master of Horror. He’s the one who is responsible for me getting into horror. I became friends with him, you know. After I became Elvira, we ended up together on every talk show and every convention award ceremony, and they’d always call me when we got to give Vince another award, and I just got to know him. He just became more and more wonderful. It’s like meeting your idol, and they’re just the greatest person in the world, you know? And he even taught me how to make fish in my dishwasher. So what could be better than that? He was such an adorable person and the funniest guy I’ve ever met in my life. Every time I’d see him, I’d ask why he didn’t become a stand-up comedian. He’s the funniest man. Every time I saw him, he would just have me doubled over laughing.
Friends With the Band
I have friends whose concerts I go see. If I have a friend and they invite me and I get good seats and don’t have to stand for like, you know, two hours. I just become kind of lazy about that. One of the best concerts in my whole life was Prince. It was the most amazing concert freakin’ ever. I’ll never get over it. It was like magical. It’s like he came from outer space or something. Michael Jackson was like that. Like, this can’t be real!
But more recently, Jack White is a really good friend. And whenever he’s playing in town, I always go see his concert. I love him and I get good seats. Jack has become a really, really good friend, and it’s so funny right now. He took the year off, and he’s doing upholstery right now. If Queens of the Stone Age ever play, Josh Homme and I are good friends, too. He’s such a cool, cool guy. I love them both, and I’m so happy I became friends with them. Alice Cooper is a friend … if he’s ever in town, but yeah, I just think I got to the point of like, I cannot stand in line anymore. I must have seen 100 million concerts in my life. I’ve gotten spoiled.
Queen was another concert that I saw that just blew my brains out, and I got to meet them and hang out with them because my old boyfriend was Freddie Mercury’s hairdresser. I know. So, I got to hang out with him. I got to actually take them in my Volkswagen driving around. Not Freddie, though. He didn’t want to go with the others driving around town looking at antiques. We spent the whole day together. And the movie [Bohemian Rhapsody] led me to the reasons why Freddie wasn’t so friendly: my boyfriend was also his boyfriend. I did get their album and had them all sign it to me.
I saw The Rolling Stones when they first came out. One of their first performances in the US in Denver, and it was amazing. My biggest regret, honest to god, when it comes to music. My biggest regret of my whole life is I never got to see The Beatles. And they were my number-one absolute — still are — favorite band. I never got to see them. I met them all except for John.
Read ahead to hear Elvira discuss Me Too and her legacy….
Legacy of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark
I think the movie really, really speaks to women. It’s not so much a horror movie but namely a comedy, and I’m glad it still stands up. I’m amazed that that movie was made back in ’88. And I watched it sort of recently, maybe a year ago now, but I thought, Damn, this really holds up. And it’s still sticks to women. I’m amazed by that.
The message is kind of be who you are. You know, don’t let other people tell you you can’t. I think that’s why women admire Elvira instead of being offended by her. It’s the not taking any shit from men and standing up for what she wants, even though she’s like, not the smartest, you know, person in the world. She still has a set of right and wrong. And even though they’re kind of skewed, she doesn’t take any crap from guys, and she’s very much her own person. And it shows a real strength that I think women have really, really come to appreciate over the years. Even I do. Elvira’s taught me a lot of lessons. I wish I could be like her all the time.
On the Possibility of Another Elvira Movie
I do still want to do [an Elvira sequel]. It’s so wacky. I wrote a treatment, and I was actually working with a production company on it and moving along slowly because they were finishing up another production. Now, everything’s on the back-burner. I worry about getting a little bit too old to do it, but they do have some pretty great tech stuff to make you look good.
I mean, worst comes to worst, I guess I do a movie like Mae West did when she was 78 or something. And you know why she could get away with it? Because she wasn’t just this sexy woman. She was funny. She was humorous. That was her main thing, and I think that takes the edge off a lot. If you take yourself too seriously as a woman, then people can kind of put you down. But if you’re humorous about it, it’s really hard to.
Elvira’s Cultural Impact
I have a whole chapter in my book about the Me Too movement and the things that I put up with in my life and my career on the job. My whole career is full of examples, like not being allowed into some venues because I wasn’t dressed appropriately. And my billboards being put up and people complaining and having a censor banner put over my chest and complaints to the station about like, you know, too much cleavage.
And that’s kind of what I was up against starting Elvira in ’81, and, surprisingly, it keeps popping up. It’s a little more loose now. It’s strange. I was watching the Academy Awards recently, and every woman on there is wearing my my neckline now. Oh, my god and black nails. They were another thing. People would look at me like I had some disease and might run when they saw my nails were black. Now, it’s so everyday.
When my movie came out, the reviews were horrible. I mean, 90% of them just hated the movie. And it was mainly men writing the reviews. And I think they just didn’t like a woman getting uppity. I mean, I really kind of came to that conclusion. Even my friend, Roger Ebert, who I knew pretty well and who kept an Elvira picture at his desk at the Chicago Sun Times. And he even said that the movie was stupid, not funny. I was just running around, you know, showing off my cleavage. And, I mean, it was pretty shocking to me. I don’t know, but I honestly do think it was a lot of male kind of pushback.
I’m not gonna take credit for everyone’s cleavage, but I do take a little credit for helping move women toward how they want to be and how they want to act … It’s okay. They can still be sexy, and it doesn’t mean they’re stupid. I’m watching the series Mad Men right now. I’ve never seen it. And, you know, it reminded me that like, back in the ’60s or ’50s or whatever, if women were sexy or beautiful, it was just assumed they were an idiot. Not that I’m like a brain surgeon over here or anything, but just because a woman has cleavage or large breasts doesn’t mean she’s an idiot, you know?
Yeah, I think that Elvira may have helped that along in some little way.
Transcription by Matt Melis.