Grande Dames of Goth #1 – Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

Cheap? Who are you callin’ cheap? What’s that perfume you’re wearing, Catch of the Day?

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988)

If you’ve ever been into anything Halloween-related, then chances are you’ve stumbled across the inevitable “Who is better? Morticia Addams, Lily Munster or Elvira?” posts you can find all over the internet. Well, don’t be alarmed – this isn’t gonna be one of those.

As the title of this post suggests, we’ll be focusing on Cassandra Peterson’s dazzling, over-the-top and smashingly iconic late-night horror hostess character Elvira.

“Unpleasant dreams!”

Not just skin-deep

It would be way too easy to write off the character of Elvira as a “sex sells” cash grab. What differentiates the character from other over-fetishized goth chicks is that Elvira is refreshingly self-ironic, and, to put it simply, genuinely fun. Rather than being just eye-candy to fill in the gaps between reruns of old and obscure horror movies, she is a comedy icon with a distinct voice, style and enough screen presence to make even the most ludicrous B-Horror flicks bearable to watch.

Her titular role in the first (and arguably best) of two movies explored Elvira’s natural clash against a suburbian world, and, while still heavily featuring her by no doubts impressive decoupage, did a wonderful thing with her: Portray her as a thouroughly sympathetic misfit who never loses her optimism. Despite all of her associated fanservice, she became a symbol for simply not giving a f*** about what the world thought of her – while always banding up with the ones who are outcasts as well: the bunch of awkward kids who help her fix up her house grow more confident by learning from Elvira’s ability to improvise and, despite her dark getup, focus on the bright side of things. The Mistress of the Dark has a contagious sort of warmth under all the wicked sass she emits that it makes her likeable beyond the looks and the lines.

Partying hard – for over 35 years!

Reframing the Misfit Label

Also, Elvira has real problems most kids growing into their goth phase probably can relate to: She does not see herself as all that different from everybody else, but her inability to “tone it down” and fit in at the straight-laced TV agency she works for finds her quitting her job after being molested by her boss. Moving into the spooky old house on the hill she has just conveniently inherited, the suburbians are immediately suspicious of her – the men leering at her, the women despising her, making her a target for the conservative town council who later accuses her of witchcraft and, yes, will try to burn her at the stake by the end of the film. This is a horror parody, after all.

Ridiculous? Yes. Fun? Also yes, even though the cleavage gets in the way of things now and then.

Instead of sulking about her outcast state, she turns the refurbishment of her new home into a community project for local kids, revives the arts and culture by – a throwback to her origin – hosting and commenting B-horror movie nights at the abandoned local cinema, fixes quarrels between neighbours – but still sticks out like a bejewelled crow in a henhouse. Her wandering from shop to shop enquiring for a job in her floaty black gown, toupé hairstlye and heavy make-up, a ritual dagger casually sheathed in her belt, hits home for everyone looking a bit alternative trying to get a “serious” job. Not everything in the film is being played for laughs, and makes you think about both the perks and challenges of being a misfit – with a positive outlook:

Elvira never settles for being a victim of gossip and ill tidings. Instead, she teaches resilience, turning being different into an opportunity for unbound potential and to practice self-love and self-confidence, without glossing over the obstacles it brings not to fit in anywhere. Also, she doesn’t settle for ith all her optimism, she does get pissed off at certain people who cross her, and enacts her just revenge, never missing an opportunity to teach her adversaries a lesson about true superficiality and hypocrisy. That she gets to do all that while delivering more than tongue-in-cheek one-liners, wearing a high-split, low-cut dress ultimately works – Elvira is all about sass and confidence, without crossing the line to being portrayed as stupid or bitchy. If anything, she is fearless, daring and always one step ahead of everyone else, which adds to her outcast state. That combination of outspokenness, wit and charisma keeps her from falling into the “only good for her sex appeal” trope that may come to mind if people only knew her from the (admittedly spooky-gorgeous) pin-up posters featuring her. Her appearance isn’t an obstacle to her being taken seriously, it’s a weapon she expertly knows how to wield, but isn’t too high on to not make jokes about it:

Vincent Talbot: I must apologize for my behavior in the office, it’s just that your appearance was a bit of a shock to me.

Elvira: It’s OK. My appearance is kind of a shock to everybody.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988)

Spooky, silly, has a point

Needless to say, Elvira eventually finds out that she is descended from a line of witches – explaining both her unchangeable apperance as well as her ability to use magic (and, apparently, break iron chains with the power of her almighty breasts. Wonder Woman and She-Ra’ve got nothing on her).

While everything that features her may be silly, and over-the-top (then, try imagining her in something like Underworld), it always addresses being comfortable with oneself and standing up for the weird and outcast.

While I am not normally a fan of sitcoms (I’ve been too thouroughly traumatized by their horrible German dubs and crude humour as a kid to get as much as a chuckle out of them), but the only produced and never-aired pilot episode of The Elvira Show (1993) is crackingly funny and full of endearing characters. Had it not been dead in the water, it might have easily won the same cult following fellow witchy sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996) was able to garner. While being easily-digestible comedy, it doesn’t miss out on a chance for Elvira to, on being once again arrested for witchcraft, deliver the following motivational speech:

Preach, Gothmother.

Also, back when text adventures were still en vogue, they even made a text adventure game about Elvira. I haven’t played it myself, but, for the time, the graphics and menus looked pretty damn solid.

Check out that UI design!

If I ever get around to playing it, this game will get its very own entry in my “Games from the Crypt” series.

But now for the tough questions:

Why is Elvira? Will be discussed in Part 2, because this post has been going on too long and there’s just that many GIFs I can throw at you without needing to add age verification to this blog.

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