The Elvira Effect

She’s a hero to those who view themselves as outsiders. To discover why, it’s best to study her two big cinematic features. And her movies, too.

For 35 years, there has been one undisputed Queen of Halloween, one gal whose ample assets have bounced her to the top and kept her there: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. With her quick wit, endearing attitude, and low-cut dress, Elvira has risen from local horror movie hostess to a cultural icon, and not just for those drawn to the macabre. She’s a hero to those who view themselves as outsiders, those who find comfort in the weird parts of life, and to LGBTQ audiences everywhere. To discover why, it’s best to study her two big cinematic features. And her movies, too.

By the time 1988’s Elvira: Mistress of the Dark came out, Elvira herself had already made something of a name for herself through her TV show and through comics, commercials, and other tie-ins. Although she was created by actress Cassandra Peterson, Elvira was a persona all her own. Both of her movies list “Elvira as herself” and not as played by Peterson.

MotD finds Elvira being called to the small Massachusetts town of Falwell, where she finds out she’s inherited a house, a book, and a dog from her long-lost aunt Morgana. Once there, she has to deal with the puritanical adults of the town, led by the aptly named Chastity Pariah (a delightful Edie McClurg); her sinister uncle Vincent (a glowering W. Morgan Sheppard); and a budding romance with local stud muffin and cinema-owner Bob (Daniel Greene, who’s a big, brawny stack of flapjacks). Her only allies in Falwell seem to be the resident teenagers, who are either drawn to her free spirit or to her…well, free spirits.

And your little punk rock poodle, too.

Elvira wouldn’t grace the silver screen again until 2001’s Elvira’s Haunted Hills, which serves as a sequel, a prequel, and very nearly a reboot. Instead of being set in the present day, HH takes place in Carpathia in 1851, when Elvira and her maidservant Zou Zou (Mary Jo Smith) end up staying at the castle of Lord Vladimere Hellsubus (Richard O’Brien, perfectly cast). There they end up embroiled in the bizarre intrigues of the bizarre Hellsubus clan, and Elvira has a budding romance with the local stud muffin and stable boy Adrian (romance-novel cover-worthy Gabriel Andronache, but hilariously and intentionally poorly-dubbed by an uncredited Rob Paulsen).

Both films have different scopes and different tones. MotD is more of a straight-up comedy and origin story while HH is an homage/satire to the 1960s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations of Roger Corman. But both films’ conflicts revolve around one thing: Elvira vs. the World. In MotD, Elvira’s uninhibited nature and open disdain for convention puts her at odds with the repressed and authoritarian city council of Falwell. HH sees her going up against the tropes of gothic horror films in a supremely metatextual way, as if the modern-day Elvira had been dropped unchanged (and unfiltered) into one of the Corman films HH is riffing on.

The hills have eyes…and they’re up here.

In both films, however, the allure of Elvira is made clear: she is always and forever herself. A mix of bombshell, fangirl, Valley girl, and Addams Family, she sashays her way through life without feeling the desire to compromise herself for the comfort of others. It’s made kind of ironic, as well, considering how Elvira herself is as reliant on wigs, make-up, and décolletage as Dolly Parton or any number of drag queens. The authentic Elvira is unapologetically artificial.

And that right there may be why she resonates with so many people who feel unaccepted by society at large, especially her LGBTQ fans. Elvira is a creation given life, truly more than the sum of her parts. She’s made a place for herself instead of asking that a place be made for her. In many ways, she mirrors the journey so many LGBTQ people go through. We often have to make our own place, sometimes by force of sheer will, and we often cultivate our most authentic persona by constructing one out of whole cloth. There’s a reason that so many drag queens consider themselves to be “Manviras”, dedicating themselves to the same kind of identity quest as their icon.

Elvira’s fans come in all shapes, sizes, and states of undeath.

Beyond all that, Elvira is also not one to let an injustice go unchallenged or to fade quietly into the night. In MotD, she shines a light on the hypocrisy of Falwell’s “Morality Council” (hilariously enough through an enchanted, aphrodisiac casserole during a town picnic), while also encouraging the town’s teenagers to express themselves, free of judgment. In HH, she doesn’t hesitate to point out how ridiculous the other characters are acting, as if speaking for the audience (whom she directly addresses more than once). Both films see her going toe-to-toe with conventional values of one kind or another, whether it’s the sexual repression respresented by Chastity Pariah or the generations of horror cliches represented by Lord Hellsubus. In Elvira’s world, just because something is traditional doesn’t mean it’s right, and nothing is sacred, including Elvira herself. She’s as known for her self-effacing double entendres as she is for nearly anything else.

But Elvira is also a flawed and fully human character, despite her otherworldly and exaggerated appearance. Especially in HH, she can be a self-centered diva, and in both films her dedication to being herself occasionally wanders into stubbornness and egotism before she ends up recognizing her behavior for what it is. That in and of itself may be another key to her appeal. Her faults make her even more relatable for those of us who constantly feel the need to be perfect or to fit in. It’s not just okay to be yourself, it’s okay to own your flaws and to be beautifully imperfect.

For people of a certain era, it seems that Elvira has always existed, and in a way she probably always will. She transcends generational gaps and any number of demographic divides to speak to the spooky spirit and outcast intuition in all of us. As she says in one of the promos for the 2010 revival of her Movie Macabre series, “I’m just like you…but with bigger [ratings].” Or maybe we’re all just like Elvira…but with smaller…well, you know.

Unpleasant dreams…