Tag Archives: Elvira Mistress of the Dark

She’s a Queen: Camp, Queerness, and Comedy in ‘Elvira, Mistress of the Dark’

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, is a camp character created and embodied by comedienne Cassandra Peterson. An alumna of the legendary improv group the Groundlings, Peterson based Elvira on the Vampira character created by Maila Nurmi. The look is spooky drag: Elvira minces around in a long black dress with a high slit and a plunging neckline. Her hair, inspired by Ronnie Spector, is a tower of jet black. And with her 1988 feature Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Peterson found her niche in that intersection of queer culture that prizes flamboyant drag, b-movies and camp, and cheap 80s horror flicks.

Elvira’s connection to the queer community isn’t accidental. Peterson was an ally in the 1980s, watching with dismay as the AIDS crisis decimated her friends and colleagues. Peterson unleashed her alter-ego in that environment, the wise-cracking and silly Elvira. The character would host Elvira’s Movie Macabre on Los Angeles’ KHJ-TV. As she introduced these terrible films, she would perform like a drag queen at a gay bar. She would drop one-liners, double entendres, and intentionally corny dad jokes.

As Elvira’s popularity and profile grew, NBC approached Peterson to bring the character to the television screen. Though excited about having a sitcom, Peterson initially balked at the idea, preferring a feature-length film. NBC head Brandon Tartikoff responded with an offer to produce a movie, as NBC was looking to get into feature films. And so—after time and intervention from the studios—Elvira: Mistress of the Dark was released on September 30th, 1988.

Because Elvira is a knowing product of popular culture, the film is a self-aware horror comedy that plays with tropes and conventions. Like most camp films, there are allusions to pop culture and queer pop culture, including the MGM film The Wizard of Oz, Adrian Lynn‘s Flashdance, and Brian DePalma‘s Carrie. These pop culture markers resonate with queer audiences, who identify with familiar themes of alienation, ostracization, discrimination, and a fear of the other.

The mythology of Elvira is queer—particularly in the film—given that she presents as a flamboyant figure who is a target of discrimination and prejudice. The conservative town of Fallwell, Massachusetts (named after the televangelist, homophobic bigot, and conservative activist Jerry Falwell) is the film’s setting. It serves as the primary source of ostracization for the character. Echoing some of the ironic tones of John Waters and Tim Burton, director James Signorelli creates a jokey take on small-town conservative values.

In his universe, Signorelli populates Fallwell with characters who stand in for conservative mores that tracked with the ascent of the Christian Right in the Reagan-era United States that waged Culture Wars throughout the decade and into the 1990s, when the rise of feminism and queer rights activism meant legal and cultural gains that faced a backlash. When AIDS started destroying queer communities in cities, the Right had a new weapon: a deadly epidemic that seemingly targeted a specific community.

When watching Elvira’s struggles in Fallwell, we see her obstacles tied up in prejudice and discrimination. She represents the kind of progressivism that threatens the conservative residents of Fallwell, led by the Falwell-esque Chastity Pariah, embodied by Groundlings comedienne Edie McClurg. As Elvira tries to assert herself and claim her space in the town, she’s resisted by many townspeople who find her sexuality a problem. Like many of the gay men who worship her (and dress like her) in real life, the Elvira of the film is a pariah in the conservative community, looked at with wariness and concern.

Because Cassandra Peterson is a connoisseur of cinema and Hollywood, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is not only a camp sendup of the cheapo horror movie genre but also specific titles that inspired her. The most obvious influence in this film is Victor Fleming‘s classic The Wizard of Oz. The classic MGM musical fantasy shares many themes with Elvira. Both films are about women transported to a new and unfamiliar land where they make new friends, tussle with some mean people, and battle against evil magical villains.

Though the film’s plot had gone through some significant changes due to her cowriters and intervention from the studio, Peterson was proud that “a little of the initial Wizard of Oz influence stuck.”2 The Wizard of Oz is a canonical film for queer audiences: like many gay men who adore the movie, Dorothy Gale is a nervy kid from the Midwest who escapes the dreary (and monochromatic) wasteland of Kansas for the Technicolor splendor of Oz. She gets a drag makeover and a pair of fabulous shoes, creates a found family, defeats an evil archnemesis, and exposes the Wizard for a fake. In Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, the titular character plays the role of a buxom, macabre Dorothy herself. As Peterson identifies with Dorothy’s journey, she places her character on a similar adventure of self-discovery. 

Her allusions to camp cinema don’t merely begin and end at The Wizard of Oz. We also see nods to Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance, which dovetails with reference to Brian DePalma’s Carrie, the latter of which is a crucial film of queer subtext. When bringing in Flashdance, Elvira does the famous dance to Michael Sembello’s hit “Maniac,” except instead of dousing herself with water as Jennifer Beals did, she’s soused by a bucket of tar and is feathered. Like Carrie being humiliated in front of a crowd by having a bucket of blood dumped on her at the prom, Elvira is tarred and feathered in front of an audience at a movie theatre. 

These cinematic references intersect with Elvira’s horror movie host career. As a curator of cinema’s most infamously terrible horror movies, Elvira appreciates kitsch cinema and its comedic appeal. Her claim to fame is hosting screenings of these awful films and offering smart-aleck asides. In the movie, she hosts a live screening of the kitsch classic Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and, at the film’s conclusion, quips, “Boy, this ending’s so bad, the tomatoes ought to start throwing rotten people at the screen!” In her role as a movie analyst, she offers echoes of John Waters, who shares Elvira’s love of kitsch and filth. 

Though NBC tried to turn Elvira from a good-natured niche character into a mainstream crossover figure, the film maintains many of its intended subversive qualities, despite extensive changes to the original concept. It’s a sneakily wonderful film because it embraces the underdog and explains why so many queer viewers gravitate toward horror, camp, and B-movie cinema. As Joe Vallese wrote, “Queer affection for horror was actively being claimed, recontextualized, and integrated into the culture and community—and like most things touched by queerness, horror becomes more textured, more nuanced, and far more exciting when viewed through a queer lens.”3 

For many queer audiences, horror films—particularly those released in the AIDS-panic era of the 1980s—were an exercise in searching for meaning and subtext, often enriching cheap and tawdry films. But with Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, we have a queer icon as the center of the film, thereby providing her fan base with a movie in which they can identify with the heroine in a much more direct way than in other horror films adopted by queer audiences. By embracing camp, irony, and kitsch, Cassandra Peterson and her collaborators have created a film at once a sendup yet also an earnest tale that touches upon feelings of queer ostracization and isolation. 

Works Cited

  1. Mara Gold, “Beyond the Binary: Gender, Sexuality, and Power.” Pitts Rivers Museum. Website.
  2. Cassandra Peterson, Yours, Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark. Hachette Book Group, 2021. E-Book. 
  3. Joe Vallese, “Introduction.” It Came from the Closet: Reflections on Horror. The Feminist Press at the CUNY, 2022. Print.