Even Elvira, the Mistress of the Dark, needs a vacation. When I dial up the queen of all things spooky last week, Cassandra Peterson (Elvira’s real name) is attempting to get a little R&R in Ojai, California, before her busy Halloween week schedule hits. “I thought, [This year] will be the first time during October that I can go and relax,” she laughs, adding that, instead, she’s been doing press interviews nonstop during her getaway. “Wrong!”
The week leading up to Halloween is always the busiest time of the year for Elvira. You’ll find the “Queen of Halloween” dominating the Halloween TV specials all week long with a slew of appearances. She continues to do all of these gigs in her famous witchy look, which consists of a tight, low-cut black dress, a black wig with a sky-high bouffant, and her dramatic winged makeup, of course. It’s been like this since the early 1980s, when she got her first gig as Elvira hosting a horror show on KHJ-TV in Los Angeles. But close to four decades later, she has yet to tire of spooky season, and this year she says her Halloween schedule is actually more jam-packed than ever.
Earlier this month, for instance, she debuted a music video titled “Don’t Cancel Halloween” that features the campy lyrics, “I’m the queen/of Halloween/COVID-19/ruined everything!” She wrote the track in collaboration with her friends, songwriter Holly Knight and drag queen Jackie Beat. “It’s one of those things that cost almost no money at all,” Elvira says. “In non-pandemic times, I would have been running around a studio with a crew and props and costumes. This was just done in my living room.” Elvira has also been innovating on the social media front this season by launching an Instagram challenge where fans submit their best one-minute horror movies.
On a larger scale, Elvira will also be hosting the Bette Midler Halloween special this Friday, titled, In Search of the Sanderson Sisters: A Hocus Pocus Hulaween Takeover. The ticketed broadcast will costar big names including Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy of Hocus Pocus, as well as stars Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Jamie Lee Curtis, and more. “It’s so freaking fun,” Elvira says of the special. “I never thought the words, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Meryl Streep,’ would come out of my mouth. It benefits Bette Midler’s charity that she founded, the New York Restoration Project, to get more green spaces and parks in New York City.”
Below, Vogue chats with Elvira about dressing for Halloween year-round, wearing the same costume since the ’80s, and the “nightmare” that is 2020.
Do you do anything yourself on Halloween, or are you over the holiday at this point?
People always ask what I do for Halloween or who I dress up as. I’m like, duh, I dress up as Elvira and I work from six in the morning until midnight. That is what I will be doing this Halloween, just virtually on my social media. On Instagram, I’ll be taking live questions from my fans, and also doing interviews for radio and other news outlets. I’ve never had a Halloween off. That would be like Santa Claus getting Christmas off—it just doesn’t happen.
How do you keep Halloween so fresh and exciting all these years later?
I don’t know how I do that! I have a great team of people who help me with ideas. We spend most of the year coming up with stuff for the next year. Next year is a super big year for me, because it’s my 40th anniversary. It’s hard to believe. I didn’t think I would last 40 days. We already have the whole thing planned out: We have a live plan and a virtual plan. Maybe I can retire after that. I say that every year, though. The character [Elvira] in general has held up, because I became synonymous with a national holiday. You may not see me all year, but then in Halloween time, I’m back! That was something I didn’t set out to do, but it happened over time. I became the queen of Halloween. That’s what I suggest to anybody out there wanting to create a character. Hook to your little star to the turkey at Thanksgiving or something.
Let’s talk about your iconic Elvira costume. Is it true you’ve always worn the same dress?
It is! I have the pattern that they made for my original dress [in the ’80s], and nothing’s changed—except after I had a baby, my waistline grew about four inches. I just remake the same pattern. I weigh the same as when I started, so I can cram myself into the same dress. [At the time], this little rinky-dink station in L.A., KHJ, was looking for a horror host. When I got the part, the first thing they said to me is, “You have to come up with some kind of costume to wear that looks scary.” My very best friend at the time, Robert Redding, who sadly passed away during the AIDS epidemic, was a really good artist. He and I threw around some ideas. Our first idea, and the first sketch he made, was something like Sharon Tate in The Fearless Vampire Killers: a long, flowy, diaphanous gown with pink and white patterns and an empire waist. The whole makeup and hair would have been my own hair, which is long and red, and the makeup would be more like pale lips, a pale face, and dark around the eyes—kind of a dead girl look, you know? Our first inclination was not to be the same old, same old—black hair, black dress. But when we took our sketch into the managers at the local station, they were like, “No, you have to wear all black.” So the next thing we did was make a dress as sexy and tight as possible, because we know that always gets ratings. Robert decided to do the hair after his favorite singer in the world, Ronnie Spector from The Ronettes. He designed the [wig] based on her hairstyle, which she called a “knowledge bump.” And when he was in the play Macbeth, Robert played a witch, so he had designed this makeup for himself that was kind of Kabuki-esque. He ended up doing that makeup on me.
When did your dagger belt come into play? That’s an iconic part of the look.
It’s funny you bring it up, I just found my original belt! I remember very well where I got it. I went shopping with Robert and we went to Macy’s, and we found it there. It was all leather and it had a leather pin that held the belt together in the front. I wore that belt for a couple of years, and Robert came up with the idea: Wouldn’t it be great, instead of a leather pin, if we had a really beautiful dagger? He designed a drawing of a dagger and then we went out and had it cast in metal, and added jewels to it. I switched it over to that somewhere around 1983. We actually had the belt made by a place called A-1 Pleating; they’ve done everybody’s costumes in the world, but they’re most famous for making Michael Jackson’s costumes and his gloves. At the time, they were just a little belt store in L.A.
When I think of Elvira, I always think of towering heels. Do you favor a specific kind?
The heels were really funny. I went down Hollywood Boulevard to Frederick’s of Hollywood. And I bought those heels. I remember they were $35. I remember asking them at the time—because I would go back and buy new ones when they got worn out—if I should buy a lot of them. They were like, “No, this will never go away—it’s a staple.” Next time I went back, those shoes were gone. So then I did two things. One, I bought a pair of Prada shoes that looked very similar, and of course not for $35. They were so uncomfortable. I could not wear them, I only used them for photo shoots. I ended up finally having to have them handmade by an Italian shoemaker and have them completely made from scratch, because you couldn’t find anything exactly like those. I modeled them exactly after the first pair. They were very different: They have a very short toe bed, and a pointed toe that was slightly rounded at the end. They have a very ’50s look that you just don’t find when you go shopping anymore.
What does it feel like to see people replicate Elvira every Halloween?
It always blows my mind. I see so many people dressed as Elvira: I get the photos. Men, women, dogs—you name it. I just got a fantastic picture of a dog dressed like Elvira. It had two big fuzzy balls where the chest goes.
Aside from your signature costume, you’ve also had some special pieces made for your stage performances over the years. Do you have any favorites that you’ve done?
My most recent favorite was made by Michael Schmidt, an amazing costume designer. He does Lady Gaga and Madonna’s costumes. He made me a costume that was a rendition of my Elvira tassel-twirling costume from my movie, Mistress of the Dark. Pete Menefee was the costume designer [of the movie costume] and he used parts of an old Cher costume that Bob Mackie had made. I went back one day trying to find and buy that costume from the movie, and could not find it anywhere. They don’t know where it went or what happened to it. Michael Schmidt made me another rendition of it or my last show at Knott’s Scary Farm, my big live show [in 2018], and I actually twirled tassels.
I’ve been going through all my stuff lately. I actually just found a bag of pasties [at home]. I didn’t use those as a go-go dancer, though I did find one of my original go-go dancing costumes that my mom and my aunt sewed for me. I also came across some bikinis that my mom and my aunt had sewn fringe on—they’re so old and so awful. I had one that was made out of marabou and it’s just molting. It’s funny digging and going down memory lane.
What does Cassandra wear when she’s not Elvira?
You wouldn’t believe it. I wear exactly what I have on right now, which is black exercise pants and a T-shirt. That is it every day. I wear so much costume and makeup, and have for so many years, that when I am not being Elvira, I don’t wear makeup, I don’t do my hair. I just put on workout clothes. To get me dressed up to go anywhere is like pulling teeth. I always wish I wouldn’t have come up with such a complicated costume, makeup, and hair. I wish it would have been more like a mumu and flip flops.
As the Mistress of the Dark, what does Elvira think about 2020?
It’s been like a bad dream you can’t wake up from. I’m a person who travels all of the time, so actually staying home in my house—and I really have since March, except for a few very minor excursions—it’s been such a huge difference for me. I’m a very outgoing person. It’s hard for me not to see my friends or to travel. It’s hard for everybody. I’m one of the lucky ones: I have a job, I have income. In one way, it’s almost been easier to be more creative, though. You get the time to think. I’m just more worried about 2021. How long can this go on? And with the whole political thing, you don’t know where the hell you’re going to be headed this year.
I did notice that you have politically-inspired merch on your website (including pieces with “Elvira 2020” and “Make America Goth Again” on them).
I figured: We’ve already got two boobs in office, why not mine?