The woman behind the icon known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, the undisputed Queen of Halloween, reveals her full story, filled with intimate bombshells, told by the bombshell herself.
On Good Friday in 1953, at only 18 months old, 25 miles from the nearest hospital in Manhattan, Kansas, Cassandra Peterson reached for a pot on the stove and doused herself in boiling water. Third-degree burns covered 35% of her body, and the prognosis wasn’t good. But she survived. Burned and scarred, the impact stayed with her and became an obstacle she was determined to overcome. Feeling like a misfit led to her love of horror. While her sisters played with Barbie dolls, Cassandra built model kits of Frankenstein and Dracula, and idolized Vincent Price.
Due to a complicated relationship with her mother, Cassandra left home at 14, and by age 17 she was performing at the famed Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. Run-ins with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tom Jones helped her grow up fast. Then a chance encounter with her idol Elvis Presley, changed the course of her life forever, and led her to Europe where she worked in film and traveled Italy as lead singer of an Italian pop band. She eventually made her way to Los Angeles, where she joined the famed comedy improv group, The Groundlings, and worked alongside Phil Hartman and Paul “Pee-wee” Reubens, honing her comedic skills.
Nearing age 30, a struggling actress considered past her prime, she auditioned at local LA channel KHJ as hostess for the late night vintage horror movies. Cassandra improvised, made the role her own, and got the job on the spot. Yours Cruelly, Elvira is an unforgettably wild memoir. Cassandra doesn’t shy away from revealing exactly who she is and how she overcame seemingly insurmountable odds. Always original and sometimes outrageous, her story is loaded with twists, travails, revelry, and downright shocking experiences. It is the candid, often funny, and sometimes heart-breaking tale of a Midwest farm girl’s long strange trip to become the world’s sexiest, sassiest Halloween icon.
Originally published at mysteryandsuspense.com
2021 is a huge year for Elvira. Cassandra Peterson is celebrating her 40th year of playing the character and also turned 70 this past September. She celebrated by hosting a new special on Shudder called Elvira’s 40th Anniversary, Very Scary, Very Special, Special, where she hosted a four movie marathon.
She is also making short introductions for Netflix this October under the banner, Netflix and Chills. But most importantly, she released her debut memoir, Yours Cruelly, Elvira. I knew that if this memoir retold just a few of the stories I have heard her tell on various podcasts and interviews, that this is required reading.
Cassandra Peterson has had an incredible life, even before Elvira made her a household name. She was a go-go dancer at gay bars in junior high, she was a Las Vegas showgirl at 17 (after convincing her reluctant parents to sign a permission slip), and was going to quit show business at thirty, which happened a few weeks after she landed the Elvira role. Most of the memoir is told about the exploits of this time, how she met many famous people, how she lost her virginity to Tom Jones, how she talked to Elvis all night one night about numerology and religion, how she was in some dangerous situations with many famous men. She spends a great amount of time in the first half of the book reflecting on her life pre-Elvira, a time that is spent around many celebrities from film, sports, and music, but not able to get past the stage of being a showgirl.
The second half is about her time as Elvira, how she was treated by some of the sponsors and television stations, and how she was deemed unfit most of the time by TV executives for being “satanic” or “too sexy.” She has been turned down for her own TV sitcom, removed from her own very successful Coors Light campaign, and not been able to get funding for several different projects, but the thing with Cassandra Peterson and Elvira is that she does not compromise her vision for others. She has always played the part exactly like she feels it needs to be played.
I watched Elvira as a teenager because she was showing schlocky horror movies and she looked like Elvira. For years I have repeatedly watched her first movie Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and watched a few of the movies that she has had streaming from her days at Midnight Macabre. I was not very far into this book before I realized that Elvira and Cassandra are two different people. Elvira is a character filled with humor, puns, and a revealing costume. This memoir proves that Cassandra Peterson is very far removed from the character of Elvira, that she has had her own life of adventure, excitement, some danger, and a great deal of heartache (there are so many close friends of hers that she has outlived). Elvira has just afforded her more opportunities to do things that she would already have done if Elvira did not exist. This book has made me a firm believer that Cassandra Peterson was going to succeed in show business no matter what obstacles. At the end of the book, we know more about Cassandra Peterson and the things that she holds important and will fight for than things about Elvira, and in this case, it is a good thing to learn what is behind the dark bouffant wig and slinky black dress, that there is an important celebrity and activist behind the character.