Long Live Elvira
I don't know the provenance of this photograph, but I do know that its awesomeness is undeniable. I stumbled upon it online recently and immediately lost my mind. It may wind up as my phone's wallpaper before the day is out. In this single photo lies the convergence of two of the most 1980s of all 1980s pop culture touchstones: Elvira and J. R. Ewing, or as they're also known, Cassandra Peterson and Larry Hagman. Elvira was very important to young 1980s geeks like me, acting as our gateway into the weird world of horror. Larry Hagman played J. R. on Dallas, a show we were only occasionally allowed to watch (I can hear today's helicopter parents disapproving already), but a character we knew was a big deal to our parents—"Who shot J. R.?" was referenced often back then. The fact that these two once hung out at a party, where Hagman was dressed as some sort of maniacally grinning island-themed cult leader/martial artist, would have been enough to make twelve-year old me squint with confusion and disbelief: "What's with that guy from Dallas groping my girl, Elvira?" When worlds collide, indeed.
Elvira's popularity might have begun and surged in the 1980s, but she's endured as an icon for a certain set of people who love her shtick as the horror hostess with the mostess. She's had a long and illustrious career, having become synonymous with movie horror over the years. Since 1981 when she began her career as Elvira on local TV in Southern California, she's been the campy queen curator of many young people's earliest forays into cult movies; she was certainly my guide into that weird world. She's easily one of the most recognizable icons of the last several decades, such that even people who don't pay attention to horror still know who Elvira is. Then there are those of us who love horror and simply can't imagine the genre without her being a part of it. For children of the 1980s, Elvira was always there, and now all these years later she's still there. Elvira's two most appealing assets - no, not those two assets, but I can't fault your mind for going there - that have kept her popular and relevant for all of these years are her disarmingly charming and humorous approach to horror and herself, plus her ability to make you, the viewer, believe she's talking directly to you. Granted, most of us youngsters back then didn't need her to do much to feel like she was addressing us directly; wish fulfillment handled that just fine. We couldn't have dreamed her up in our heads any better than she was in reality: an attractive and funny woman dressed in classic horror style chatting to us about cult movies; in other words, Kryptonite for geeks.
Her conversational approach to hosting was filled with deadpan humor sure to hook young viewers. Tongue always firmly planted in cheek, she taught kids that it was okay for adults - and by extension, us - to laugh and not take themselves too seriously. It can't be overstated how important that was for many of us back then. Similar to how Fred Rogers was cherished by many of us as younger children, Elvira made fans of our adolescent selves because she spoke to us not as an adult talking down to children, but simply as one person talking to another person. Yes, I just compared Elvira, Mistress of the Dark to the sacred cow of children's television hosts, Mr. Rogers. I'll give you a minute to get up off the floor, having fallen over in disbelief. Trust me, these two shared a lot in common, albeit with vastly different styles and in Elvira's case fewer sweaters than Fred and a far more revealing wardrobe, to say the least. Look past the surface [this is where Elvira would insert an innuendo about her breasts being impossible to overlook] and you'll see some commonalities that explain why they each have such dedicated fans. Their bodies of work are built on empowering their audiences - and Elvira's body (of work) could empower even a corpse, if you know what I mean.
Speaking of Elvira's body, her overtly sexual appearance is clearly a playful homage to horror sirens of the past, but it meant that I knew my folks would likely not approve; instead I stayed up late to catch her on my own. My friends and I did have tremendous leeway with our pop culture consumption back then - the 1980s were a lawless time where kids ran wild, getting sugar highs from Pixy Sticks and playing Atari and then Nintendo until our hands cramped - which might go a long way towards explaining how bizarrely eclectic my tastes are now. Still, there were things I realized were best enjoyed outside of the purview of parents, and Elvira was clearly one of them. Understandably, it was hard for parents to see much beyond her legs and breasts spilling out of her dress. Sure, we kids noticed this too, but we saw more than just those long legs and her, um, haunted hills. Like other horror hosts from that era, including Joe Bob Briggs and Rhonda Shear, Elvira was introducing us to movies that resided outside of the mainstream, so staying up late when our parents were fast asleep was part of the fun. I knew I wasn't supposed to be watching these movies, but I was addicted to their offbeat and wacky charms. Elvira made us feel like we were actually hanging out, enjoying another batshit crazy b-movie together. Like others in the long tradition of horror movie hosts - a job that has sadly fallen by the wayside in recent years (Except Count Gore De Vol - Ed) with the proliferation of new avenues for media consumption - she made the experience an intimately personal one for viewers. We like Elvira for the same reason we like any performer: we see ourselves in them, or a part of ourselves that we aspire to be like. With Elvira, it's her sarcastic self-deprecation that many of us related to, she fit right alongside performers like Bill Murray and David Letterman for 1980s kids honing their own sarcasm skills. She was constantly rolling her eyes at one bit of nonsense or another, making us feel like we were in on the joke with her, all the while influencing our own budding senses of irony. She struck just the right chord with young impressionable kids like me and when we see her now as adults, we smile fondly and remember that she was there when we most needed her, and for that we're grateful.
October is when Elvira really gets a chance to shine every year, with Halloween-themed movie marathons and various other promotions bringing her more to the forefront. Appropriately, Peterson is celebrating thirty-five years as Elvira this October by releasing a coffee table book featuring over 350 photos - including art and ephemera - spanning her career. I'm really hoping that photo with Larry Hagman is included.The youngster still living inside of me desperately wants this book, while the adult that I've become (questionable as that assertion might be, most days) also desperately wants this book. These are the struggles grownup geeks face on a daily basis, kids - trying to be "mature" (whatever that means) while still holding on dearly to things that shaped us growing up. It's a delicate balance, for sure. In the meantime, I've got memories of staying up late with Elvira, watching gloriously strange films and feeling like I was part of a special club; or of seeing Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and it being everything I wanted from an Elvira movie. That questionably quasi-adult that I've become recently found some old Elvira buttons in a drawer and promptly fastened one to my messenger bag strap. Now I carry a small reminder of Elvira, daily. Clearly, when you fall for Elvira at a young age, you remain a fan for life.