Cassandra Peterson on Queering the Iconic Legacy of Elvira

Seven Days of Scream Queens: "Women have come a long way in horror movies," Peterson told IndieWire, one year after her own coming out.
Cassandra Peterson as Elvira
Cassandra Peterson as Elvira

Cassandra Peterson has been Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, for almost half a century, but this October marks her one-year anniversary of becoming an official queer icon. Peterson came out in her memoir “Yours Cruelly,” which is now available in paperback. At age 71, Peterson has rung in 40 years as Elvira, but is hanging up the black wig and slinky dress for now.

“I can go everywhere as myself now, I don’t have to dress up as Elvira. I can do conventions, show appearances, as myself. I think my autobiography is what changed that,” Peterson told IndieWire when asked about separating herself from her iconic character. “And I can go everywhere with my partner and we don’t have to pretend she’s my assistant. It’s fantastic for me and especially for her.”

The vampy B-movie scream queen has been selective with her Elvira appearances, including 2014’s “13 Nights of Elvira” for Hulu and last year’s Shudder and AMC+ special commemorating her milestone anniversary.

“I truly believe I don’t have to be out there as Elvira in order for the brand to still function as a brand,” Peterson said. “I hate to tell you this, but there is no real Santa Claus. I can work just like Santa Claus without having to dress up in costume. I didn’t think that for a long time, but now I really believe that. … I’m not really out there doing Elvira as much. That’s not to say I’m not doing Elvira again, but it’s a lot. I can’t do this drag much longer.”

The former comedy improv Groundlings Theater member first made history in 1981 as the first nationally syndicated horror show host. But after coming out in 2021, Peterson said she lost more than 11,000 social media followers — and gained 60,000 more.

“My hardcore fans don’t give a rat’s ass what I do. Most of them say being out makes them like me even more. They like me no matter who I am or how I am, unless I was Jeffrey Dahmer,” Peterson said. “But maybe they would like me more then, they are the horror crowd. … The horror genre really stands out as an inclusive genre of filmmaking. It’s so inclusive of different races, different sexualities, different genders, everything.”

Cassandra Peterson as Elvira
Cassandra Peterson as ElviraShudder

Peterson appeared sans-Elvira costume in pal Rob Zombie’s “The Munsters” movie and has a few (albeit, off the record) appearances in the works for beloved major horror IPs. Yet Peterson is an old soul in her personal cinema tastes. “My favorite horror films are the old ones, the cheesy ones. So for me, I’m not going to pick whatever just came out last week,” Peterson said.

Peterson cited Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and “Manos: The Hands of Fate” among her favorite B-list horror films. For more highbrow, “The Haunting” (1963) and “Dracula’s Daughter” (1936) are among Peterson’s go-to rewatches for the progressive portrayals of queerness.

“One of my all-time favorite movies ever was ‘Dracula’s Daughter,'” Peterson said. “It’s insane how gay it is. She is a powerful feminist vampire and has a really strong, strong presence in this film. It’s an incredible and very overlooked film that is made so long ago, it always shocks me how much gay innuendo is in it. That would be my number one pick.”

And, of course, “The Hunger” starring David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, and Catherine Deneuve was an awakening for Peterson in her late teens and early twenties. “It’s just super sexy,” Peterson said, citing the “awesome sex scenes” with the A-list trio. “It’s a very, very sexy movie and very gay.”

And while “Interview with the Vampire,” Peterson’s favorite book, stumbled with its movie adaptation (“I was a little disappointed“), its found new life as an AMC series. Peterson loves it. “This new series is unbelievably homoerotic and kinky and dark. I loved it,” Peterson said. “It’s really, really incredible. It’s done the way it should have been done in the first place. It’s very true to the book.”

Much like some of Peterson’s horror movie protagonists, her love of the genre is undying. “Women have come a long way in horror movies. They become the killer, they become the survivors,” Peterson said of modern horror films and the final girl trope. “I think that is a reflection of where we are in society, moving in that direction instead of women always being the hapless victim who dies in the end. Women have much more of a presence now.”

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