In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
At this point, Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark needs no introduction. A sex symbol and midnight-movie hostess who has influenced generations of horror fans, she’s currently out promoting Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark, a large-format “coffin table book” out today collecting 35 years’ worth of photos of the “Queen Of Halloween,” along with original commentary from Elvira herself.
But not as many people know Cassandra Peterson, the former Las Vegas showgirl who co-created the punk-influenced, pun-loving vampire Valley girl for a local Los Angeles TV station and grew the character into a multi-decade, worldwide media empire. So we called up Peterson and asked her our 11 Questions, hoping to find out more. What we got was a lively combination of self-promotion—can you blame her? It is kind of her thing—and insightful glimpses into Peterson’s life, in and out of her Elvira character.
Cassandra Peterson: How about, when is my fabulous new coffee-table book coming out?
The A.V. Club: Well, when is your fabulous new coffee-table book coming out?
CP: Oh, well, what a coincidence! This article is going to feature more shameless plugs than John Travolta’s hairline. Oh, that was bad. Sorry. Okay, it’s coming out October 5, you can get it on the official Elvira website, and I’m very proud of it. It’s a compilation of many years of work and a billion and one photo sessions, and I’m really proud and happy that we finally got it together thanks to Tweeterhead, which is the company that put it together for me. It’s something that I always wanted to do, but really did not have the time to work on myself.
AVC: I imagine you’ve sat for a lot of photo sessions over the years.
CP: Oh, brother. Have I ever. I think, cumulatively, I probably have done more photo sessions than just about everyone. Maybe as much as a supermodel. I know they model all the time, but have they done it for 35 years? I don’t think so.
AVC: Are there photos in the book that make you say, “Oh my God, when was that? I don’t remember that!”
CP: Yeah, there were photos that we dug up that really I don’t remember at all. I vaguely remember doing [all my] photo sessions, but definitely there were some surprises there for me. The biggest surprise was a picture my mom sent me, just about the time that we were about to wrap up the book, of me as a 5-year-old dressed in my first Halloween costume that she made for me. I said, “What’s this? I never saw this photo.” And she said, “We made you this black-and-orange Halloween costume out of crepe paper”—we were too poor to have fabric back then—“and you wanted to go as the Queen Of Halloween.” And I was like, “What?” And she said, “Yeah, the Princess Of Halloween, the Queen Of Halloween, something like that. You insisted on it, so we made you this dress with a crown and a scepter.” And it’s kind of weird that at 5 years old I said that I wanted to do that, and this many years later…
AVC: If 5-year-old Cassandra could see you now.
CP: It’s pretty bizarre.
CP: [Laughs.] Well, since I always go to work as Elvira, maybe a giant version of a cat. A black cat. I love cats and I think Elvira would look really good sitting on one. And also you’d be like a superhero, because the cat could jump up on top of buildings and stuff.
AVC: Yeah, that’d be awesome.
CP: Yeah, that would look super good. Actually, when I was little I even dreamed about riding a black cat.
CP: Yeah, I had this weird experience… I had a dream about riding a black cat, and then the next day I was at this antique mart, and I found this little devil riding a black cat—an Austrian bronze, tiny little thing. It was super tiny. And it was kind of like, “Oh my God, my dream came true.” Except it was a devil, of course. Not me.
AVC: All your dreams are coming true, it sounds like.
CP: Yeah, well, I always say there are no coincidences.
CP: There’s a lot that I watch over and over. But I have to say, because of my line of work as a horror-movie hostess, I’ve probably seen Night Of The Living Dead more than any movie. I’ve probably seen it more than George A. Romero. I hosted it way back when I was doing my local show, then my syndicated show, then in my various video collections that I did as Elvira, and then just recently I did it for Hulu. Luckily, it’s one of my favorite movies. I never get tired of watching it. There are a lot of other movies I’ve done multiple times, like Werewolf Of Washington, where I really get tired of watching it.
It’s like, more than once is torture. But [Night Of The Living Dead], I never get tired of watching. It’s just brilliant, and it set in motion a whole movement. I think my favorite TV show now is The Walking Dead.
AVC: You see Night Of The Living Dead popping up in the background of films a lot, too, because there’s that whole loophole with it not being technically copyrighted.
CP: Right. It’s in the public domain. That’s one of the reasons I do it so much. [Laughs.] But luckily, it’s a brilliant film. Every horror aficionado must see that film at least once.
AVC: They should take away your horror-buff card if you haven’t seen that one.
CP: Exactly. They should.
CP: I just found out about this. I believed that lemmings really jump off of cliffs.
AVC: They don’t?
CP: They don’t!
CP: It’s completely false. Go to Snopes.com and look it up or something. I’m driving down the freeway the other day, on my way to Knott’s Scary Farm probably, and I hear this report on NPR that the whole lemmings thing was faked in the 1950s. They were shooting a wildlife documentary in the ’50s, they found a group of lemmings, and the crew chased them all off a cliff. No lemming has ever jumped off a cliff, purposefully, ever. Isn’t that unbelievable?
AVC: So those lemmings just got murdered.
CP: Yeah, I know. How many times—I mean, I’ve probably said a million times in my life something about, “All those people are just lemmings. They’d follow each other off a cliff.” Well, no such thing. How do you like that?
AVC: Well, now the truth can come out and lemmings can be redeemed.
CP: Exactly. I want everybody reading this to go online and see if it’s true or not. They’ll see.
CP: One of the things that’s kind of persistent is that I am the model on the cover of Tom Waits’ album, Small Change. There’s a girl in a G-string and pasties, and I can’t say it’s completely not me—I can’t say it’s not true—but I have absolutely no recollection of doing it, if it is true. And I would just think that I would remember modeling for the cover of an album with Tom Waits, who I’ve always loved. Wouldn’t you remember that?
AVC: Yeah, you would remember that.
CP: I sort of don’t remember anything I did in the ’70s. I remember the ’60s, I remember the ’80s, but somehow I went directly from the ’60s to the ’80s.
AVC: You woke up in 1981 like, “What happened?”
CP: Yeah, I did. I do not remember the ’70s, for who-knows-what-all reasons. But anyway, it could be me. There is a possibility. But I just look and look and look at it and go, “It doesn’t look exactly like me.” I don’t know. Maybe it is. It’s more like a mystery. I sign it for people now. A lot of people bring it to me at conventions. At first I was going, “I can’t sign that. That’s not me.” And now I just say, “Eh, whatever.”
CP: Oh, man. When I was a kid, my favorite after-school snack was hominy and pickled pigs feet. That’s pretty bizarre, right? Especially when you’re a little child.
But I think the strangest thing probably is when I went to Japan, and I don’t know what the hell I was eating, but there was this one thing that seemed to be in a lot of soups and things there—I always called it pond scum. It looked exactly like the green stuff that floats on top of a pond. I would say, “Oh my God, this has pond scum in it!” I would eat it, to be polite, because we were usually with Japanese people and I didn’t want to gag or spit it out or anything. And I still don’t know what it was.
AVC: Did you like it?
CP: It tasted like pond scum. [Laughs.] So I don’t know if I really liked it, but I managed to swallow it.
AVC: You could choke it down.
CP: Yeah, I did. Just to be polite.
AVC: Good work on that one.
CP: Thank you.
CP: I remember totally what it was, and I can’t remember the guy’s name. I was probably about 13 or 14, and I went by myself to the City Auditorium in Colorado Springs and saw the guy who wrote and sang “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini.” Brian something. And I got to meet him and he signed an autograph for me, a little piece of paper. Brian Hyland! It was so bizarre.
He just happened to be playing in our town and that song was really big. And I got to go back by the stage door, and he autographed a piece of paper for me and I just, I went crazy. That was what got me started on going to concerts, because from then on, I was at every concert for everybody.
CP: Yeah. I remember my next one was Wilson Pickett, and I loved Wilson Pickett, so I just went on from there. I became sort of a semi-groupie because, I don’t know, I got bitten by the music bug.
AVC: Would you follow bands around?
CP: I sure as heck did, man. All over the country.
AVC: Like who?
CP: Oh, like, everybody. My first ones were The Young Rascals. I made out with Dino Danelli, the drummer, in the alley behind the City Auditorium. Then I met Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels. This is all way, way back in the day. Later I got in the big leagues, like chasing around The Rolling Stones. And I hid in the bus for Paul Revere & The Raiders. And The Zombies. The best was The Yardbirds. I still love The Yardbirds and The Zombies.
I just chased bands all over the country. The biggest one I saw was Jimi Hendrix. And I ended up spending some time with Jimi Hendrix and hanging out with him, and that was beyond awesome.
AVC: That is awesome.
CP: I mean, I chased every band around the world. Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention, you name it. I could just go on and on. It was my hobby, my pastime, and my obsession for several years.
CP: Probably the opportunity to travel all over the world. When Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark came out, I got to go to Japan and Australia and France, Italy, Germany, everywhere with the movie. That was great, because I love traveling. Maybe one of the strangest opportunities was I got to ring the closing bell on the New York Stock Exchange. [Laughs.]
AVC: In costume, I assume?
CP: Yes. That was bizarre.
AVC: That’s funny.
CP: And I got to do the Rose Bowl Parade—which is the largest parade in America—with a float. That was a fun opportunity. And, you know, go to the Golden Globes, the Grammys, all the awards shows. Just stuff you would never get to do as a regular person were things that were really exciting for me.
CP: Oh my God. [Laughs.] Good lord. Well, when I was Elvira, it was probably the phase of my hair getting too high. I thought that if really high hair was good, then really higher hair was even better. So I just started having my hair get higher and higher. In some of the pictures, we had to cut off the picture because it was like Marge Simpson. So that was embarrassing. The wig phase.
But when I was a kid… I don’t know which was more embarrassing, when I was really into The Beatles or when I was a hippie. When I was into The Beatles, I cut my hair into a Beatle haircut, which looked so ridiculously stupid with my little cat-eye glasses that I wore. But I was a complete mod and had to wear mod clothes and have a Beatle haircut, and I tried to talk in a Liverpool accent. People were really staying away from me. And that’s kind of when I split up with all my best friends at school—they were going, “Something’s happened to her, she’s totally weird”—and found my new friends, who were Beatles fans.
AVC: I’m picturing the haircut right now.
CP: Oh yeah. It was horrible. And I did it myself, so it was really extra beautiful.
CP: Boy, I did, and I remember really well. I had these couple of hippie guy friends who were super broke and living in the attic of somebody’s house and they were like, “We don’t have any food, man.” And so I decided to go to the grocery store and steal chicken pot pie. [Laughs.]
AVC: Of all the things!
CP: And I stuck it inside my clothes. I took a couple frozen chicken pot pies and stuck them inside my pants, and I got caught walking out of the store. And they took me in the back room, and—luckily, I was 14, but I had a fake ID saying I was 18, so they didn’t call my parents. It was the best thing that ever happened. But I did get the girl whose real ID it was in serious trouble, because they showed up at her house the next day. She got in trouble and I didn’t. [Laughs.]
AVC: Picturing this scene, were these frozen pot pies starting to melt? Like, was there a puddle?
CP: They were freezing, I’ll tell you that. I don’t remember them melting, but I was freezing to death. I don’t know where I stuck them. I know I stuck them inside my clothes. I tried to justify me stealing as like a… oh, what’s his name?
AVC: Like, sticking it to the man?
CP: Like I was stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, you know?
AVC: Oh, yeah. Right.
CP: What’s his name?
AVC: Robin Hood.
CP: Robin Hood! Hello! I kept thinking Robinson Crusoe, oh my God. No. Robin Hood. So I felt kind of justified, like, “Oh, this store has plenty of food and these poor guys are broke.” I was doing it for a selfless reason, but I could have gotten in serious trouble.
AVC: Thank God for the fake ID.
CP: It’s always good to have one of those with you when you’re 14.
AVC: Jimi Hendrix is a pretty good one.
CP: That is a good one. I’ve met a lot of famous people. I’m lucky enough to have been able to be Elvira. I would probably have to say the most famous is probably Elvis Presley, though. I spent an evening, a night, and part of the next day with him. So I felt like I kind of got to know him, and got a little peek inside what was going on there. That was pretty amazing. When I lived in Las Vegas, I was meeting everybody: Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones—we won’t go there—but all these people that were working in Vegas a million years ago, way before I was Elvira.
Also, one of my favorite people I got to meet was my childhood idol, Vincent Price. I got to not only meet him, but become friendly with him before he passed away. And I can’t tell you how exciting it was, because he’d made a huge impression on me when I was a little kid. I just loved him in films. And so meeting him and becoming friends with him was a big deal for me.
AVC: He was a really sophisticated person. He was into fine dining and art and things like that.
CP: He was. He taught me how to cook fish in my dishwasher. [Laughs.]
AVC: Wait, what?
CP: He did. He had a fish recipe where he wrapped [the fish] in aluminum foil and put in these herbs. And then you put it in the dishwasher and then you wash your dishes, and when you’re done, your fish is steamed and it’s perfect. But he was very sophisticated as far as art and food and all of that went.
He was also the funniest damn guy I ever met. I tell you, not a time with him passed that I didn’t say, “You should’ve been a comedian.” He was hilarious. He was just such a quick, funny wit. I don’t think most people would think that about him, and it was really surprising to me. But man, the guy had a brilliant wit. He did Oscar Wilde on Broadway, and I think he probably did it because he was almost like an Oscar Wilde. He had that brilliant humor.
Bonus 12th question from Tim Gunn: If you could relive one day in your life, what day would it be?
CP: I hate to sound cliché, but it would probably be the day my daughter was born. That was a pretty amazing experience, let me tell you. It doesn’t get much better than that. I have a lot of good days I’d like to relive, but that was one that’s still with me. [Laughs.] The labor part wasn’t so great, but seeing her for the first time was pretty awesome. I mean, how does it get better than another actual person popping out of your stomach, you know?
AVC: Yeah, and then meeting them for the first time.
CP: It certainly changes your life. So that may be a cliché, but I think any woman would say that would have been the most special day of their life. If it wasn’t, I don’t know what they were doing. [Laughs.] But let me know!
AVC: What question would you like to ask the next person, not knowing who it is?
CP: I’m going to ask if they wear thongs. What kind of underwear.
AVC: What kind of underwear do they wear?
CP: Yes. I have a thing about underwear. I have to wear thongs. Since I was a showgirl in Las Vegas, and I was wearing G-strings all the time, I got this thing where I cannot stand to have on regular underwear. It drives me out of my mind.
AVC: That’s funny, because some people would say the opposite.
CP: I know. It’s weird. I guess I got so used to it when I was really young that I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Plus, I can’t stand VPL, visible panty line. So I’m wondering how many other people out there are wearing thongs.
Peterson’s new coffee-table book, Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark, is out today.