“Elvira is totally camp. Which again, is something I learned from all my gay friends. Actually, Elvira was very much created by the LGBTQ community.” —Cassandra Peterson, Elvira
Elvira has long been a staple in the horror community. Her career began by hosting shlocky B-grade horror films for local TV stations, injecting witty puns and commentary throughout, making it a truly enjoyable and hilarious experience. Since then, she’s starred in two feature films, has appeared on numerous TV shows, and periodically even returns to her roots by hosting specials for streaming services like Shudder.
Now, the actress behind Elvira, Cassandra Peterson, has released a memoir telling stories that even her closest friends hadn’t known. In her book, Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark, Peterson shares personal and intimate tales of her life, from being a teenage Las Vegas showgirl, to her sexual assault by an NBA player, and even secretly dating a woman for 19 years. Yours Cruelly paints a true and full picture of Cassandra Peterson, showing her vulnerability, strength, and undying wit and humor. Passport tallks with Peterson about her storied career, horror movies, and coming out.
You just released a memoir that dives into your past. Many people have gotten to know you as Elvira over the decades, but I don’t think anyone really knows your backstory. What made you decide to write this book now, after so many years?
Well, I always used to tell people stories about my life and what happened, and everyone just found them to be unbelievable. I’d always hear, “You need to write a book!” I had been toying with the idea for a while now, and I’d write little essays or journal entries and then stash them away. But then the pandemic happened, and suddenly I had the time to write a book. Plus, I just turned 70! It got to a point where I was like, if I don’t do this now, when will I?
One of the biggest moments in your book is when you reveal that you’ve been in a relationship with a woman for almost 20 years, but have been keeping that private. The responses I’ve been seeing online have all been overwhelmingly positive, which is wonderful. But I’m curious, how did you keep this a secret for so long? And what changed within you that made you finally feel comfortable enough to talk about it?
For starters, I wanted to keep this private because I’ve always tried keeping my life private. You know, Elvira is my character, and my brand, and my livelihood. So, my life isn’t the same as Elvira’s life. And I never wanted fans to get confused or anything. Even when I was married to a man, I kept that private. I didn’t think people wanted to look at Elvira and go, oh she’s probably at home with her husband changing diapers…I don’t think that would have been a big turn-on (laughs)!
Once I started dating a woman, which, I never saw that coming, believe me, I felt that it was my life and wasn’t something the world needed to know. I also have to thank my wonderful friends, because they never told anyone. But again, I’ve just gotten to a point where I’m like, I’m 70…who the hell cares anymore? In my opinion, it’s like, I’m with a woman, big freakin’ deal, right?
It’s funny though, my social media team let me know that after the news broke about my memoir and that I’m with a woman, I lost 11,000 followers…but I also gained 60,000 new ones. It’s just crazy how there are still people out there who wouldn’t like you simply because you’re in a same-sex relationship. But, getting more followers than I lost does feel like a great screw-you to them!
Speaking of followers, you’ve always been extremely popular with the LGBTQ community. I’m wondering why you think the gays were always so attracted to Elvira. I have my assumptions, but I’m curious about your thoughts.
Well, for one thing, I’ve always been around gays. I mean, literally, ever since I was like 14, I’ve always been surrounded by gay men. They’ve been my best friends, my mentors, my teachers, just everything. So, I think I’ve always exuded that part of me through Elvira. Half the time, I even feel like I’m a gay man (laughs)!
But I also think that LGBTQ people, gay men especially, really look up to strong women who are both sexy, but tough…which is why I think Cher and Madonna have always been so popular too. I think they just appreciate that sort of androgyny of having both masculine and feminine characteristics.
I also think that Elvira is super campy, and the LGBTQ community always loves camp.
Oh yes, that’s very true. Elvira is totally camp. Which again, is something I learned from all my gay friends. Actually, Elvira was very much created by the LGBTQ community.
I think another reason the LGBTQ community loves you so much is because of your first movie, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, where you arrive in a small, prudish town and you’re immediately deemed to be immoral and are ostracized. But in the film, you don’t back down. You continue being yourself. I think that’s such a powerful thing to watch when you’re growing up as an LGBTQ person. Plus, that movie is just hilarious. The scene with the pot monster gets me every time!
Oh my God! It’s so funny you say that! You know, a friend of mine had actually reached out to me earlier today. He knows the guy who made the pot monster for the movie and says the guy still has the mold! The original monster deteriorated years ago because it was made from just latex, so I’m literally asking the guy to make me a new one! I want my pot monster back!
For the film, I think you’re absolutely right. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by women and gay men how Mistress of the Dark made such a huge impression on them. Especially those who watched the movie as kids and teenagers. I think it’s because Elvira is an outcast and a misfit, and I know that’s how tons of LGBTQ people feel when they’re growing up.
But Elvira just plows on through life and doesn’t give a rat’s ass how anyone else feels about her. In the film, Elvira keeps focusing on her dream, despite being bullied by the townspeople. I think a lot of viewers really relate to that.
I talk about this more in-depth in my book, but I was also an outcast when I was a kid. When I was very young, I got severely burned and had scars covering about 30% of my body. Fortunately, as I got older, they became much less visible, but when I was younger, they were very noticeable. And that’s really what got me into horror. I felt very drawn to the genre, and it seemed like a way to help me not feel like an outcast. People would call me a monster, so, I don’t know, I guess I really related to them.
Personally, I’m also a horror fan and I know tons of LGBTQ people who are really into the genre. I think it’s very similar to what you were saying about feeling like a monster. When you’re LGBTQ, you’re always told you’re different and evil and wrong and disgusting…so then there’s just something about the macabre that fascinates you. I don’t even know how to explain it, but there’s just some weird unexplainable connection between horror and LGBTQ people.
Exactly! You know, I was just interviewed for a documentary that’s all about the connection between horror and the queer community. And it’s astonishing how many prominent people within the horror genre are LGBTQ themselves. And this connection isn’t anything new, this goes way back into history. All the way back to Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula.
Yeah, even in modern times you have people like Clive Barker, who wrote and directed Hellraiser.
Absolutely! I can literally go down an entire list of LGBTQ people, like Don Mancini, who writes all the Chucky movies. There are just so many examples. The connections between the two worlds are all over, and those connections have been there for a very long time, it’s actually quite incredible.
I’m interested to know your top picks for horror movies. What do you think are some of the best?
This is going way back, but one that I think is excellent is Dracula’s Daughter from 1936. If you’ve never seen it, you must, because it’s great. It even has quite a bit of queer undertones to it. I also love The Hunger, with Susan Sarandon and David Bowie, as well as the more recent Dracula from ’92, the one with Gary Oldman.
As far as the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, it would have to be The Exorcist. It scared the living crap out of me. I actually saw it twice; once when it first came out, and then again when they rereleased a Director’s Cut. For that one, I literally watched it at Grauman’s Theater…sitting next to Linda Blair! It was totally insane to watch her do that crab walk down the stairs as I’m sitting right next to her!
Alright, final question. Is there anything you want our readers to know about the book that I haven’t asked yet?
I’ll say this…I used to be a teenage drag queen. Read the book to find out how that happened!