Cassandra Peterson Reflects On 40 Years Of Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark – Exclusive Interview
She’s “the gal in the wig whose talents are big,” “the sassy lassie with the classy chassis,” and “the gal who put the ‘boob’ back into the boob tube,” but you probably know her best has Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, the legendary horror “hostess with the mostest.” But did you know that she was once a go-go dancer, a Las Vegas showgirl as well as a Playboy model long before she found fame? Okay, it wasn’t actually Elvira who did all those things, but it was her real-life counterpart, Cassandra Peterson, the once-struggling actor who would go on to create her vampy alter ego not long after hearing about an audition for a TV horror host in Los Angeles — the rest is history.
In 1981, Peterson introduced the world to “Elvira’s Movie Macabre” where you could catch the Mistress of the Dark screening some of the worst, bottom-of-the barrel horror movies you’ve ever seen during the wee hours of the night. What made the viewing experience so ghoulishly delightful was her sharp commentary and unique brand of risqué comedy. Decked up in her signature slinky (and skimpy) black dress and beehive wig (a hairstyle she calls a “knowledge bump”), she made a career out of mocking B movies during skits that popped up between commercial breaks.
With her Gothic valley girl-meets-punk rocker persona, she blended sexy with campy, so it’s no wonder she’d go on to become the self-proclaimed Queen of Halloween as well as a pop culture icon. During the 1980s, Elvira quickly became synonymous with the spooky annual holiday and would go on to land major marketing deals with brands such as Coors and Pepsi. Much to the dismay of cleavage-fearing prudes, this led to an invasion of life-size cardboard stand-ups of her busty figure in grocery stores across the country. The Elvira brand itself took off and exploded into a merchandise empire that includes apparel, action figures, trading cards, Halloween costumes, and pinball machines. She even once had her own brand of beer, Elvira’s Night Brew. And of course, she eventually leaped from the small screen to the big screen with her 1988 cult classic movie “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.” Since then, every consecutive October, she’s managed to be the most consistently busy woman in showbiz.
But her seemingly bustling career wasn’t always the perfect Hollywood dream. Peterson has faced plenty of hurdles, and not just a bumpy road leading to the dream gig that made her a star. She’s also faced some mentally draining struggles well after she thought she’d made it big. Sadly, she’s had her fair share of dealing with ageism and sexism in Hollywood too. In her new tell-all biography, “Yours Cruelly, Elvira,” the Mistress of the Dark opens up about her, well, darkest times. But it’s not all doom and gloom either — there’s also the strange, the weird, and the bizarre — and of course, the funny. Fun fact: she once lived in a treehouse with a Tarzan-obsessed boyfriend.
Peterson’s life was (and still is) highly entertaining to say the least. Loaded with must-read stories from her rebellious teenage groupie days all the way to her adult life in Tinseltown, you’ll live vicariously through her as she reflects on many brow-raising run-ins with music legends such as Jimmy Page and Frank Sinatra — there’s a not-so-flattering story involving the latter which ends with Cassandra getting payback years later. She once smooched and smoked a joint with guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix and had a dreamy encounter with the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley — the two even locked lips.
Now, 40 years later, she’s still relevant and busy as ever. Right now, you can find her all-new “Elvira’s 40th Anniversary Very Scary, Very Special Special” streaming on Shudder, and she also just made a guest appearance on an episode of “The Goldbergs” — a Halloween special, of course. But perhaps the most buzzworthy news about her right now isn’t about one of her many TV projects at all, but her private life. When “Yours Cruelly, Elvira” hit bookshelves in late September, it immediately sparked headlines across the internet when it was revealed that Peterson has been in a same-sex relationship for the past 19 years — something she kept a secret that entire time. Her other half is Teresa “T” Wierson, a former trainer-turned-friend who eventually grew into a romantic partner. This revelation not only surprised fans — it even shocked Peterson herself back when the romance first unexpectedly blossomed.
During a recent exclusive interview with Looper, the now 70-year-old icon talked to us about her “coming out,” the buzz it sparked, and what it means for the Elvira character. We also discuss standout moments from her memoirs and learn about the “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” sequel that never came to pass, and why she thinks “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” is a total ripoff of one of her lesser-known works.
Cassandra Peterson's unexpected same-sex relationship
You’ve been getting some major press this past month, obviously, because you came out about your 19-year relationship with a female partner. Since the book’s been out, how’s the reaction been from friends and fans? And have former boyfriends reached out with their shock and surprise?
Strangely, all my former boyfriends — and I’m not kidding — are dead. That might be like, “You don’t want to go out with Elvira,” you know? So none of them have reached out, because they’d have to reach out from the grave — and it’s really sad. They all kind of had untimely ends. So I hope that doesn’t get me in trouble. But no. So what has it been like? It’s been great. It’s been a fantastic feeling of like, “Ah, I don’t have to keep this secret anymore.” It’s a burden to keep that stuff inside.
Anyway, it’s a big relief to have it out there. We never lied about a relationship, but we just lied by omission. I just didn’t talk about it. But strangely, I was married for 25 years and had a child — and still have one. And I kept that pretty private too, because nobody wants to think of Elvira and picture her at home, washing dishes and changing diapers. So it was the same thing with my relationship with a woman. It’s like, Elvira is a big, straight horndog. She’s always chasing guys and stuff. They didn’t want to know Elvira suddenly changed like that.
I saw an interview with you recently and you said you still identify as straight. You just happened to fall in love with a female, which shocked you. In your book, there’s a part where you say you even pushed your girlfriend away for a while because you were having difficulty processing the whole thing.
I did, for several months. Because I was going, “Wait a minute. This is not me.” I mean, if you read my book, you’ll know that I was into guys [laughs]. So it was like, “What is going on?” Now, she’s an athlete and very androgynous. So it wasn’t like I’m suddenly attracted to girls. I was just attracted to her, period. That’s all. I mean, she’s great and we were really, really good friends. She was my trainer for six years. And I was married, and she had a relationship and I never even thought about it. And then all of a sudden — things change. What can I say?
We live in a time when people are obsessed with labels. The day the news hit, I read lots of posts saying, “Elvira came out as a lesbian,” or people speculating that you’re bisexual. I sort of saw it as, “Well, Cassandra came out, not Elvira.” Elvira is your other persona. Cassandra came out as being in a same-sex relationship, but that doesn’t mean she’s been a closeted lesbian her whole life either.
I know. And I don’t feel good about saying, “Oh, I’m gay, I’m a lesbian.” I mean, I would, if that was true, I’d be thrilled with it. But I didn’t just suddenly change. And you’re so right about all the labels because there’s straight and there’s gay — and then there’s a thousand different things in between. And I know plenty of guys who were married, raised a family, and then got into a relationship with a man after that. And they, on the other hand, from what they tell me, were gay their whole life, but were trying to tamp it down. They were worried about their work. They were worried about their wife, their kids. They were gay their whole lives. And then finally got to be who they really are.
But in my case, it didn’t really work that way. So I just want to be honest about that. Hey, I’d love to be gay. All I do is hang around with gay people. So why wouldn’t I want to be gay? I think a gay man is actually what I am, I really do.
The emotional rollercoaster of writing
So will this affect the Elvira character at all? For example, you have your Dynamite comic book series. I would imagine you’re going to leave the Elvira character as is, as you have during the 19 years of your relationship. I think some people are wondering what you might do with the character now that you’re out. You don’t necessarily have to make Elvira hook up with girls now too just because you’ve come out, right?
Elvira is straighter than straight. She’s just a giant horndog. She’s after guys all the time. So that is exactly why I didn’t want to talk about this earlier than I did. I was really worried that it would mess up the character. So I felt like all these years I’ve been protecting the her, trying to keep my personal life and what I do out of it. There are not many people who have to deal with this. But it’s kind of like — okay, Rob Zombie would kill me if I ever told anybody this [giggles]. I hope he doesn’t see this. But Rob kind of plays a character too. I remember going into a store when he and Sherry [Moon Zombie] got married. And on their gift list was these tiny, china flowered teacups. And I went to the registry and said, “I’m getting these cups for Rob Zombie.” And the guy behind the counter almost started crying, because he didn’t want Rob Zombie’s personal life encroaching on Rob Zombie. You know what I mean? Rob Zombie can be Rob Zombie, and I want Elvira to be Elvira. She’s not going to change.
Well, pride season’s going to come around again really soon. In light of your big revelation, has your phone been ringing off the hook with calls from gay festival organizers? I would imagine they’re going to want you to participate in Pride 2022 festivities. I have this feeling a lot of people are going to want you to be their grand marshal in the parades.
I hope so. I don’t know if I can handle parades anymore, though. I’ve done every damn parade that ever existed: the New York City Halloween Parade and the Rose Parade — the only one I haven’t done is the Macy’s Day Parade. Maybe they can put me up on a giant balloon and drag me through the streets. Maybe I’ll do that. But yeah, I hope I’m fully involved in pride next year.
I’ve interviewed celebrities who have written autobiographies before and the one thing they all say is that writing them involves reliving some of your most traumatic experiences as well as all the good times, the happy, and the sad. Was writing this book an emotional rollercoaster for you? You let us in on the darkest moments of your life.
One hundred percent. I wrote in a little coffee shop that’s near my house. Oh, man, there were days I just didn’t want to write — first of all, because I knew I had to get into things about my mother, my childhood, and my marriage and stuff like that. And it would just be so depressing. I’d be sitting in the coffee shop, sobbing my eyes out. People were looking over, “What the hell happened to her?” But yeah, it was really tough, but it also brought up a lot of things I had never really thought through. But in the end though, it was really cathartic.
I really felt like I saw my life in a bigger picture: what I had done and what I hadn’t done. And some parts were really difficult and some were really happy. It was a complete emotional rollercoaster. It was hard getting through the whole thing. Ugh, I’m glad that part’s over.
An Elvira biopic
Was there anything that was excised from the book? I would imagine it’s hard to tell your life story in just 300 pages. I’m pretty sure there’s much more that happened to you. Was there anything that just didn’t quite gel, or stories that you couldn’t quite piece together, so they were scrapped?
Well, actually what happened is we turned the book in, and the publishers went, “Oh my God, this is as long as the Bible. You have to cut this down!” So I had so many more stories and so many things in it — actually, some of the stories that I had already were told in a lot more detail. And I just had to go through and do a final edit and just like chop, chop, chop, and take a bunch of that stuff out. So I do have stuff left over for my second autobiography someday.
So you already have a plan for doing another book with more life stories?
I have a lot of stuff I didn’t talk about — more stories that are just as weird and freaky.
By the end of chapter four, it dawned on me that I really wanted to see your story told on the big screen. I would love to see an Elvira biopic. Or maybe even a miniseries. Something in the vein of “The Queen’s Gambit.”
I love “The Queen’s Gambit.” Ooh, what a great series. That’s actually a great way to put it, yeah.
With a good writer and director like Scott Frank, who did “The Queen’s Gambit” — that would be fantastic. Do you plan to do a movie about your life?
I do. I have plans to do a bunch of different projects, but I’m already beginning work on a documentary. It’s in the preliminary stages. I have so much footage of me, as a child, as a teenager, on old eight-millimeter film. And I have millions of photos. It was really hard picking out the photos for the book, because I have like 90 billion photos. So I just had to pick the best ones.
So my first thing would be to do a documentary. And I love documentaries, so I can’t wait to get into that. But my second thing is to do a biopic. And everybody’s, “Well, who’s going to play you?” and I said, “Oh, Dolly Parton.” [Laughs] And then the third thing I really, really would love to do is a Broadway play of “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark,” a musical like “Rocky Horror” meets “Hairspray.” So those are all projects that I’m beginning to work on now.
Your book has so much cinematic potential. This is just me thinking out loud, but I would love to see you pair up with someone like Ryan Murphy because he does great with comedy and horror, but also drama. He did that show, “Feud: Bette and Joan.”
Yeah, that was so great.
So keeping that Joan Crawford versus Bette Davis rivalry in mind, I thought he could do “Feud: Elvira and Vampira.” That little chapter of your book alone could be turned into something fun.
[Laughs] Oh my God! That’s true. That’s hilarious. That is such a funny idea. Okay, if I take that idea, do I owe you royalties? I guess I do.
Who could play Elvira?
If it does come down to a biopic, there’s just so much fun casting potential. If you had to cast Elvis and all these larger-than-life celebrities you had run-ins with, or you had to pick people to play your parents, do you have a wish list of who you would cast in all these parts? Not counting Dolly Parton, but who else could actually play you? Have you thought about that before?
No. This is the first time anybody’s brought it up. I’m going to have to sit down and go, “Hmm. Who would do that?” Good Lord. I don’t know. I do know that if someone were to play me, I would have to have somebody who is a comedian. I think number one, I’d call myself a comedian, so I would like somebody who’s really funny to play me. And also, they have to have certain physical attributes, you know? The eyes, maybe. [Laughs] I don’t know. I’ll give that some thought. Oh my God, who could play Elvis? Wow, hmm.
There are quite a few moments in your book where you make some jabs at some big celebrities. You tell your not-so-flattering stories about Frank Sinatra and Wilt Chamberlain. I’m just curious, has there been any blowback from fans of those people?
Oh, yeah. They’re angry about the Wilt Chamberlain thing. A lot of people out there angry about that — guys. It’s funny. Apparently you can’t go after any sports figures. They can do no wrong. Even if they do horrible things that are actually considered crimes, they still blame the victim. They don’t blame the famous sports guy. It’s really a trip. So I had a lot of people very angry about it, and they unfollowed me. And a lot of people said, “Oh, why did she come out with that now? Why didn’t she do it then at the time?” It’s like, are you out of your freaking mind? You think an ex-showgirl, out-of-work actress is going to report that something happened with a big giant legend in the sports world? And I’m not going to be the one who gets the short end of the stick?
Even someone like Frank Sinatra, there are so many people that hold him up as this god who can do no wrong. So when they hear a story like yours, it’s like, “Whoa, how dare she say something like that about Frank!”
I had to say it. I was talking about my life. And if I started holding back all these stories, what the hell am I going to have in a book? I mean, okay. This happened in my life, this happened, this happened. What? Am I going to keep that out? People are going, “Oh, it’s just a way for her to sell books.” Yeah. Actually, my life story is a way for me to sell books. And in my life story, I’m going to mention things that happen in my life. Duh.
Have you ever run into anyone you talk about in this book? For example, you have your Jimmy Page story. It’s a small world, so have you run into him or anyone else you told stories about since the book’s been out?
I have not. Thank God. Oh, but I do love me some Jimmy Page. Yeah, that was kind of a mean thing I said about him, didn’t mean to be mean, but he wasn’t being that nice to me at the moment either. But I do absolutely worship Jimmy Page — he’s a freaking guitar god.
But yeah, nobody has come out yet. Thankfully, most of the people I talk about are dead, so no flack there yet. I had some stories about some other celebrities, a couple of them were female — not sexual relationships, obviously — but stories that I got into with a couple of actresses who are very, very well known. And I did not put those stories in the book, because I was afraid of blowback and possibly being sued. And it’d be my word against theirs, but they can still sue you.
Elvis Presley changed her life
One of my favorite chapters in the book is the one about your teenage groupie years. You were clearly a music lover, so are you still one now? Are there any bands from the past 20 years you’re crazy about? Who would you be following around if you were a teen groupie in today’s scene?
I go to tons of concerts. I love Queens of the Stone Age. I love Jack White, everything he does. God, more recently? I mean, I collect music from everybody. I love this band, BADBADNOTGOOD. Have you heard them? Oh my God. But there’s a lot of bands that I really, really like, and I’m still so into music. I listen to it all day, every day. And I try to inject new music into it. My child is a DJ and sends me all kinds of awesome music to listen to. So I have a fresh view. But when nobody is around, I listen to a lot of Jimi Hendrix, a lot of Led Zeppelin. I just can’t get over that music. I love it too much.
Speaking of music, I don’t want you to rehash the whole Tom Jones story you’ve probably been asked about so many times. Say if you’re listening to the radio or Spotify and one of his songs randomly comes on, do you change the channel? Does his music remind you of that experience?
It does. It does. In my book, I mention Eric Burdon from the Animals. Whenever I hear “House of the Rising Sun,” my skin crawls. And yeah, I kind of feel that way about Tom Jones. I have gone to see concerts of his once since all of that. And I’ve got to say, he’s a pretty amazing performer. He really, really is. He puts on an amazing show, but … anyway. [Cassandra looks side to side] What? Did somebody say something? I couldn’t hear. [Laughs] Anyway, but yeah, when those songs come on, I don’t know how I feel about them. I just want them to be over.
Out of all the big legends you’ve met your whole life, would you say Elvis is for sure the number one, most influential encounter you’ve ever had?
Absolutely. He changed my whole life. And he turned me on to spirituality, which people would say, “What? Elvis?” He was very, very spiritual. He believed in a lot of the same things I do, that you manifest your own life. It doesn’t just happen to you. You constantly manifest it by how you think, the thoughts that you have in your head, what you see, what movies you see, what music you listen to. You are creating your whole life. And Elvis talked a lot about that.
And I actually found out recently that he had a little book about that, and he used to give it to everybody that he met. He didn’t give it to me, but he talked to me about it and wrote down a bunch of notes, which are in the book — I have a picture of that envelope. But he changed my life completely. I thought I had made it. I was living my dream. I was a showgirl in Las Vegas, dream of my life. And I always tell everybody, if it wasn’t for Elvis — I was the youngest showgirl in Las Vegas history at 17 — I would now be the oldest showgirl in Las Vegas at 70. So it would be sad, right?
Was it ever on the table to do an official sequel to “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark”?
Let me tell you, I have a treatment. I have a very, very fleshed out treatment I’ve written that I would freaking love to do. I just can’t seem to get somebody to put up the money to do it. And it’s so weird. That’s been the story of my life. I think if I was a guy, I probably would’ve gotten the money. And I hate to say that, but I think it’s 100% true. There’s so many movies out there. Just like the “Ernest” movies, which were great. I love them. And I thought Elvira could do a series of movies, but she’s a woman. So I don’t know. I didn’t get the traction that maybe a guy would’ve. I don’t mean to sound like sour grapes, but it’s really hard to sell a movie. And I think it’s extra hard to sell it if you’re female, I really do. And I think if you talk to a lot of other women, they would agree.
Is Sabrina the Teenage Witch a ripoff of The Elvira Show?
What about another reality show? I know you did “Search for the Next Elvira,” which was competition reality, but what about one that actually follows your everyday life?
No, that would not interest me. I had a company, it was actually the people who do “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” talk to me about doing a reality show. And we actually went into it a little ways, until I realized, no, man, this sucks. Having a camera in your face, night and day, around your house, with your family — no, it was horrible. I realized, from the very beginning, that this ain’t going to work for me. I don’t know how people do it. I think it kind of destroys your life, your personal life. I really do.
Another chapter that I really loved is when you talk about your ill-fated sitcom, “The Elvira Show.” I remember seeing that a long time ago. You would show the pilot before your live stage show at Knott’s Scary Farm. In the book, you said that it felt like salt in the wound when “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” surfaced a few years after CBS scrapped your sitcom, even after it tested so well. Do you actually think they ripped off your idea and turned it into “Sabrina”? Is that something you totally believe?
Not only do I just believe it, I’ve talked to executives from that network who’ve said, “They just started thinking you were too old to really be the center. And if they skewed it younger, they would get a lot more audience.” So I’ve been told that. I didn’t just make it up. I know that’s true. So that’s a super big drag, because I freaking loved doing that show.
John Paragon and I wrote it. I loved it. Everybody was sure it was going to be a giant hit. And then on the day it came out, the head of the network was not there, who was a big champion of it. He was out sick. In comes this guy, Howard Stringer from the sports division, his boss, and says, “We’re not going to have those kind of boobs on CBS.” And that was that. Just like that! Boom, over. Yeah. So that was a bummer, because I thought that show could have been a huge success. Well, look at “Sabrina,” it worked out pretty well for them.
Wow, that’s such a shame. It was such a great pilot too.
Oh, thank you. And Katherine Helmond. I loved working with her. She was so freaking great. She was just awesome. Oh, you read the book, right? You know about the two girls?
The two girls who were in the running to play your witch niece, Paige? One was Hillary Swank.
Yeah. The actors I picked. There were two girls, and I end up picking the wrong one. Of course, I always do this. I’m a terrible picker of talent, apparently. And yeah, the other girl who was almost going to play my niece was Hillary Swank. It turned out to be her. So yeah, just like Brad Pitt was almost going to be the lead teenager in “Mistress of the Dark,” but he was too freaking hot.
Selling a haunted house to Brad Pitt
Well, speaking of Brad Pitt, you had these really strange supernatural experiences while you were living at your Hollywood home known as Briarcliff Manor, which you ultimately sold to Brad. By the way, I could totally see you teaming up with James Wan of the “Conjuring” universe and coming up with a horror film based around your haunted house experiences.
Oh my God. That’s actually an awesome idea. Uh-oh. I see myself paying you tons of royalties [Laughs]. Nice. But that is kind of a fun idea. I mean, that house, man. And here’s the weird thing. I always tell people, they go, “Well, Elvira is just insane.” Of course she is. Except none of that stuff ever happened to me before. And none of it has ever happened since, anywhere I’ve ever lived. So it was just there at that house. And it was nonstop, man. It was getting to the point of like, I thought, “I got to get out of here, or I’m going to lose it.” So yeah.
Brad Pitt was your neighbor for eight years. After he bought the house, you ended up moving next door. Did he ever talk about any strange experiences? Did you tell him about the freaky stories before you sold him the house?
Yeah, I told him the whole thing. He loved it. He was all over it. He thought it was great. He couldn’t wait to see a ghost, but as I explained in the book, I had the house not only exorcized, but completely cleared by a Native American shaman, because there had been three untimely deaths in the house. And so, Brad loved all this stuff. But every time I would see him, I’d be walking along the street and go by him, which was like, “Oh God, oh my God.” And then I’d ask him, “Seen any ghosts?” And he’d go, “No, not yet!” I said, “They must have done a damn good job clearing the place!”
In the mid-’90s, Hugh Hefner offered you a huge sum of money to pose nude as Elvira in Playboy magazine. As you were seriously considering the offer, you said you decided to join Gold’s Gym in Hollywood and that you wanted to be prepared, just in case a photo shoot happened.
Yeah. I wanted my body back, my pre-pregnancy body.
Well, if you believe in the butterfly effect, in fate, or in things happening for a reason and look at the chain reaction of events that followed, Gold’s is where you first encountered Teresa “T” Wierson, who was then a trainer at the gym. If that Playboy offer had not happened, you might’ve never joined Gold’s and run into her. In some weird way, do you feel like Hugh Hefner indirectly paved the way for you two to meet?
[Laughs] Maybe. Yeah, no, he’s responsible. By the way, I loved Hef. Hmmm, he’s responsible for me meeting T — that is amazing. And you know what? It’s funny that you say that, because yeah, I wouldn’t have gone back to work out. I’m like, “Oh, I’m tired. I’m a new mom.” You know? And I thought, “I’d better get in shape because what if this does happen?” So there you go. Well, that’s good. I’m going to think about that for a while. Hugh Hefner turned me gay! [Laughter]
You ultimately said no to the Playboy offer. However, years later, you did go through some rough times after your divorce and everything. If that Playboy offer had come during a financial crisis, do you think you might have caved in and done it?
Well, I might have. I’m glad I didn’t, though, because believe it or not, even with all the sexy goings-on with Elvira, I still do licensing and merchandising, and she’s still kind of kid-friendly. I mean, Elvira is still PG-13. That’s what the movie was. That’s what both my movies were. And they get kind of sexy, but they never crossed that line. And unfortunately, I think if I had done Playboy, that could have really ended my career way sooner. My main income is from licensing and marketing of the character, so that would’ve gone bye-bye, I think. And I had posed nude before, and I’d worked nude in Vegas. And I had a million and one different things that I’d done nude. It wasn’t about being embarrassed or anything, but they wanted me to pose as Elvira nude, so that was different.
Cassandra Peterson’s “Yours Cruelly, Elvira” is now available from Hachette Books.