Cassandra Peterson – or Elvira, as she’s known to most – is an enduring pop culture icon who has existed in our collective consciousness for 40 years. Yet behind the costume, her story is a moving and wildly entertaining tale of navigating the unpredictability of life as a performer.
From her pre-fame days as a teenage showgirl in Vegas (where she dated Elvis Presley), her stint as a singer in a rock band in Italy, to eventually finding fame where she least expected it – with her character Elvira in the 1980s – Peterson’s journey has been a long and winding road.
On the cusp on the Australian release of her autobiography and her casting in the new Rob Zombie feature adaptation of The Munsters, we sat down with “The Queen of Halloween,” to talk about her autobiography, Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of The Mistress of The Dark, her life, career, and the importance of never, ever giving up.
In your book you mentioned you felt like a misfit when you were younger. Were there challenges you had to overcome that you don’t think that you’d have to deal with these days?
No, unfortunately I think it might be worse now with the internet, you know? Then, it was just kids in school. Now, you’ve got the whole damn world against you saying bad things about you.
You had a knack for meeting famous people, [Jimi] Hendrix, Elvis [Presley]. Do you think there is something about you that made you gravitate towards these stars or them gravitate towards you?
You know I have thought about that. I mean, when people started comparing my book to Forrest Gump. ‘How did I run across all these people?’
I wanted to be in show business, I wanted to do music, so I put myself in the place where I would meet these people. I wasn’t just walking down the street, usually – sometimes I was. I chased after them and sometimes I was there. I ended up living in Hollywood which is, you know, an easy place to meet celebrities.
At first, I was a groupie, I was climbing in bands’ dressing room windows, so you’re bound to meet ‘em then.
“Music and film can channel emotions and feelings better than any other forms of art. My life has been shaped by the music I heard and the movies I saw when I was young.”
You mentioned advice from Elvis changed your path in life, also, you were picked out of the audience in Vegas to become a showgirl. Do you believe in fate?
Oh, yeah, 100 percent I believe in creating your own destiny. I believed in dreaming it and then being it. Whatever you sow and so shall you reap. I mean, I’m getting all biblical here, but I believe if you put it out there and really believe it; if you feel it, you will create it.
It’s funny, I just read Dave Grohl’s book, and he said basically the same thing and also Nick Cage said the same recently in an interview.
And strangely I learned about Elvis, Elvis believed in the same thing. I believe you create your own destiny, good or bad.
You talk about luck in your book, how much do you think luck plays a part in showbiz?
Well, I mentioned it a couple of times, but I really don’t believe in luck.
I have to go back to, ‘you create your own experience’. People will say, “Well, you were in the right place at the right time.” Yeah, I put myself in that right place. I worked really hard. Say I was in the right place, but if I didn’t know how to act then it wouldn’t matter if I was in the right place.
I think you lead up to that point and then you’re either ready for it or you’re not. I just don’t think luck has anything to do with it. I mean, people look at actors and famous musicians and they work really, really, hard all their lives to do what they do. They don’t just like, walk down the street and, you know….
You must have met a lot of people along your path that had a lot of talent and didn’t make it.
About a million of them. So many women who I met I was friends with that were so much more talented than me, and so much better looking. And most of it wasn’t even the talent, they didn’t stick with it; they gave up along the way. Things got rocky and they bailed and, you know, married wealthy lawyers. I just kept plugging away.
So, persistence, I think, is more important than talent. There are a lot of famous people out there with not much talent, you may have noticed.
“Persistence, I think, is more important than talent. There are a lot of famous people out there with not much talent, you may have noticed.”
Do you have any advice for someone who’s about to give up on their dreams and thinking that maybe they are getting too past it?
Yes, my advice is, do not give up, keep plugging away, keep doing something. I had a little thing that I did where every single day I would do something to further my career. If it was calling up a casting director, looking through Variety looking for interviews.
Just one little thing every day and I didn’t finally hit, you know, making money or getting famous or anything until I was, you know, 30 years old. And by Hollywood standards that’s, like, ancient for a woman.
So, it’s just, don’t give up. Don’t give up. I know so many people who’ve made it in their 30s, 40s, 50s, even one lady who made it in her 80s – she’d been working her whole life and became famous when she was 82, became a big commercial actor.
There will be a lot of down times when you do want to give up. Believe me, I’ve wanted to give up many, many, many times.
Let’s talk about The Munsters. I noticed you’ve been cast in the upcoming Rob Zombie film. Is there anything you can tell me about the film and what it is that excites you about this project?
Well, I think the thing I’m most excited about is working with my friend Rob Zombie who I’ve known for like 40 years, I’ve known Rob. And I’d always say, “Rob, when are you going to put me in one of your movies?” And he was always sweet, and he said, “You’re not old and haggy enough-looking.”
So, I guess I finally got old and haggy enough for him, because he finally put me in the movie and I play a very, very different character than I’ve ever played – really super straight.
A little inside secret is Rob named my character after his real estate lady who is also my real estate lady – happens to be the same person. So, anyway, I’m playing my own real estate lady.
Delving back into the book for a moment. What was the process or writing? Over what period did you write the book?
Strangely, I wrote it over a period of 15 years, just writing bits and pieces here and there. But I only really got serious with it after my friend Pamela Des Barres; she wrote the book I’m with The Band. She’s probably the most famous groupie that ever lived. She’s been with Mick Jagger, damn her, and Robert Plant, and everybody else – all the ones I missed.
Anyway, Pamela had written that book and many others, she said, “Honey, you are never going to get this book written unless you get an agent, a book deal, and then a deadline. If you don’t have a deadline it ain’t going to happen.”
She turned me onto her agent, I got the book deal and then I had to sit my ass down and write it. Then I really did it for a period of a year. Four to five hours a day, seven days a week.
What memories or moments from your life came up when writing that you didn’t expect to rise to the surface?
Oh, so many – it was weird. When somebody asks you about something you did or someplace you go, “Oh my god, I can’t remember it all.” But when you start writing and writing about it, man, things come out into your brain that you hadn’t thought about forever.
One of the really, really, heavy things was writing about the whole AIDS epidemic, and I can’t even believe how emotional I got about it. I could barely write that part, and then when I had to read the audiobook about it, it was one of the most difficult things I ever did.
I couldn’t get through it without sobbing and I’d have to go into the bathroom, pull myself together for 10, 15 minutes, come back out, start reading, start crying again, go out. It was just tremendously emotional and horrible for me.
I don’t think people get what it was like then. It’s like the pandemic now but if you got it you died. There was no, “Maybe you’ll die,” you would die. Period.
I know a lot of what was taken away from your book by the media was your relationship status. What are some of the other things you’d like people to take away from your book?
Thank you. I’m happy that I talked about my relationship, but of course that’s the thing that everybody just pounced on. I actually went into a big bookstore the other day and I was so pissed off; Dave Grohl is on the front table when you walk in, I’m in Lesbian, Gay studies. It’s like, “Hello, I think there was a little more in it than just that”, you know? That was like 1/100th of the book.
There are funny stories in there that nobody has ever mentioned to me or talked about. One story that I wrote about me and the pigeon that I found, and I’m an animal lover and I ended up kind of torturing it to death.
And the other thing is the fact that I lived in a tree for a year, I lived in a tree in Hollywood. And I have friends who are still alive who still remember coming over to my tree, so I have people to back it up.
So, you’ve mentioned that as Elvira you’ve happily occupied the B- movie or even the C movie world. Now you have a New York Times Best Seller, is there a risk that Elvira will be dragged kicking and screaming into A-list territory?
Wouldn’t that be nice [laughs]. I don’t think you have to worry too much about that, but it was a huge, huge surprise and shock for me to get on the New York Times best-selling list. So that was like a dream come true; I couldn’t imagine that would be real. So, who knows? Weirder things have happened.
I’m interested to know about the differences between the ’80s horror scene and the modern horror scene. Is horror bigger now or do you think it just feels that way with the current social media environment?
No, horror is definitely bigger now. Throughout my career, 40 years, I would always be out there pitching some project, some horror project, and going to networks and they would say, “Oh horror isn’t really happening right now. It’s just nobody’s really interested in horror right now.” And I’d go, “Really?”
And now I think it’s out there all the time. It’s a genre that people are taking more seriously and it’s becoming better all the time, and it is one of the most welcoming genres. It employs more women than any other genre, not just as victims, but as writers, directors, stars, and it’s becoming much more diverse, and it has been pretty diverse in the past in comparison to other genres.
It seems that way. I’ve been into horror since the VHS days when people would look down on you as a horror fan, whereas now, it seems people embrace horror and view it in a more positive light.
Yeah, it’s becoming pretty mainstream. I mean, when Get Out is nominated for an Academy Award, right? Pretty amazing. So, yeah, I’m very happy it’s doing that and employing lots more women and people of colour too.
What would you like to be remembered for? What would you like your legacy to be?
Well, I always say, “Just remember me by two simple words. Any two, as long as they’re simple.” That’s a line from Mistress of The Dark. No, just remember, “I’m more than just a great pair of boobs, I’m also a great pair of legs.” I’m just quoting myself now.
No, I love that quote – it’s great.
I’m going to put it on my tombstone.
I saw you at your last Knott’s Scary Farm performance.
You did? You saw? You were there?
Yep. I was there. This was in 2017, I believe?
Yeah 2017, time is all weird now.
The thing is, we were on the other side of the park, lost track of time, and I ran as fast as I could all the way to the other side of the park, the show had already started. I ran up and I pleaded with security at the side door, “Look, I’ve come all the way from New Zealand,” because I’m originally from New Zealand.
Oh my god, I can’t believe that. That is so awesome. You missed the beginning when I drove out in the Macabre Mobile. And were you shocked that I could still swirl tassels?
It was really amazing I was, like, “Wow this is next level”. You also recently released a series on Shudder presenting movies such as House on Haunted Hill, and your own film, Mistress of The Dark. Is there likely to be more Elvira coming to screens anytime soon?
Well, I’m working on some stuff. One thing, I can’t say the details, but I have started work on a documentary of my book which I think is going to be a really fun project.
I would love to do a biopic of the book and an animated Elvira movie. I’ve actually written one – several years ago – that I would still love to do, get produced, so let’s put that out there in the universe.
Absolutely. I was thinking it would be so cool to see an animated Elvira; you could do so many different things. An adult Netflix series would be amazing.
Wouldn’t that be awesome? One of my favourite things that I would love to do, and I don’t know why, because it won’t make me as much money, but that would be the Broadway version, as a musical, of Mistress of The Dark.
I kind of got that idea when I did the final Knott’s show because I did a little mini, squeezed-down version of the movie but a play, a musical, part Rocky Horror Show, part Mistress of The Dark would be so fun, right?
Yeah, that would be amazing. I mean The Toxic Avenger made it to Broadway, why can’t Elvira?
I know, right? Something like Hairspray, which was just a tiny little John Waters movie that really didn’t do well at the box office.
So lastly, how have you made it this long in Hollywood? Did you make a pact with the devil?
I did, as a matter of fact, I married the devil. I don’t know, mostly good lighting and make up.
Elvira’s 40th Anniversary Special is now streaming on Shudder while the autobiography, Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of The Mistress of The Dark, arrives in Australia on June 28th and with pre-orders available now.