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Comic Book Men Q&A – Cassandra Peterson (Elvira, Mistress of the Dark)

In this week’s episode, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, pays a visit to the Stash. Here, Cassandra Peterson, the woman behind this iconic horror character talks about the experience of playing Elvira for 35 years and which horror flick is her favorite. 

Q: When you first started playing Elvira on Movie Macabre in 1981, did you imagine she would become such a cultural phenomenon?
A: No, I didn’t think the show would last more than one episode. I thought it was such a wacky idea. Me, with that valley girl character, the look that we came up with — it didn’t really seem like a successful pairing. I was skeptical, and the station was skeptical too. We found out years later that they had not stopped renting props, like my couch for example, which they were renting for $150 a week, and they found out like six or seven years later that they could have just bought the same couch for the price of one week’s rental. But no one had a big hope of this taking off the way it did for sure. Luckily for me, it created a very unique character — so here I am, 35 years later.

Q: What do you think it is about Elvira that people respond to? At first, you’d think her upbeat personality could be at odds with horror, but it’s obviously what people never knew they needed.
A: Yeah, it may be like a roller coaster — like the parts that are fun and not scary. Elvira kind of takes the edge off of horror and gives you a little moment to breathe before the next big scare comes. It may help with the adrenaline rush that horror gives you. I’ve always said that Elvira is equal parts sexy, spooky and funny, so I think those elements are all there, and each one of them appeals to a different audience, so she becomes a little more appealing to a larger group of people. Horror movies involves humor and there’s a lot of sexy stuff going on in horror too. So I feel like Elvira kind of embodies the tropes of the genre.

Q: You were given creative license to develop Elvira’s character. How did you develop her persona, and then how has that persona changed over time?
A: I kind of had this character already when I was in the Groundlings Improv Group here in L.A., which is one of the foremost improv groups here in the country. I was with the Groundlings for four and a half years before doing Elvira, and I had a character that was kind of a goofy valley girl actress, and the director who hired me for the local horror hosting gig — which would become Elvira — saw me as that character and he really, really liked it. He said, “I want you to do that character,” but then of course the station said you need to come up with a scary look — and I just could not see how those two things went together. But I was getting paid $300 a week, so I was like, “Yeah, that’s awesome!” so I did it anyway. What ended up happening was these two very different elements combined to make something really unique, and wasn’t just the old standard horror host that I might have gone for had I not been told to do that character from the Groundlings.

Q: Has the process of getting into Elvira’s character gotten any easier after so long?
A: No, it’s actually gotten a little harder. [Laughs] The physical process of putting on the wig, keeping myself fit enough to stay in that dress — but that’s the challenge of 35 years. And putting on the makeup, you know, over and over again, and you get a little older every time you put it on. That part has gotten tougher, but being the character has gotten easier because I’ve just done it so long that it comes so natural to me. I feel a little bit like a split personality.

Q: After playing the character for so many years, do the lines blur sometimes between your personality and hers?
A: They have become to blur a little more, but I definitely feel much more comfortable now as the character. I don’t even have to think about it.

Q: Was it harder when you first started?
A: Oh, yeah. I felt like I was two very different people, and I really had to put thought into what I was going to say, how I was going to act, what I was going to do. Sometimes I see old footage of me and I just die because I’m talking so… painfully… slow. Oh, my god! I started out like I was a sloth, and I think it was because I was still trying to find the character and thinking, “What will she say next? What should I do next?” It’s painful for me to see that early stuff.

Q: You must have seen a lot of it recently, having just released your new coffin table book that appears in this episode…
A: Yes! I have been going down memory lane to put that together. And one of the funnier things about looking through old pictures from the beginning is seeing how flat my hair was on top! It kept growing and growing you know, by the day almost. There was one time in the ’90s where I looked like Marge Simpson! I had to bring it back down to find a happy medium. It is funny to see how flat my hairdo was in the beginning, and I had thought it was so high.

Q: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you’ve always been drawn to more spooky horror themes, even when you were young. What is it about Halloween and horror that you’re drawn to?
A: When I was a child, my cousin took me to see House on Haunted Hill, and it was my first horror movie experience. I was at the same time drawn to it and completely repelled by it — I had nightmares for weeks afterwards! My parents were so mad at my cousin because I woke them up every night, screaming. But, at the same time, I became so fascinated by it that I wanted to go back to all the horror movies that were screening at our theater at the time. I don’t know what it is, maybe an adrenaline rush, a chemical part of your brain — like riding a roller coaster. Why would you want to ride a roller coaster and get the hell scared out of you? It’s because it’s an adrenaline rush.

Q: You’ve probably screened hundreds, if not thousands, of movies over your career. After being around horror movies so much, is it possible for you to have a favorite, and if yes, which is it?
A: Oh, my god. Well, I kind of fall back on that first horror experience, House on Haunted Hill, but I have so many. I was asked to judge what horror movies were the most frightening for me — along with Clive Barker and Don Mancini and a whole bunch of horror filmmakers — and one of my top votes was The Exorcist, which was one of my scariest horror movie experiences. And the funny thing about that was, I was sitting next to Linda Blair when I saw the movie! And I literally left halfway through — I couldn’t handle it. I, of course, eventually went back and saw the whole thing, but that came out on top. So, certainly The Exorcist and Carrie are some of my favorites. More recently The Witch — I thought that was an awesome movie. I just like movies that aren’t hacked full of CGI and special effects, and I think The Witch had that great quality of realism that’s just so much creepier because the special effects happen in your own brain — they don’t need to do it for you. I thought that was a really creepy movie that’s based more on people’s feelings than on “how much money can we use to do this?”

Comic Book Men airs Sundays at Midnight/11c.

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