What Elvira, Mistress of the Dark looks like today

She's the "Queen of Halloween." She's the "Mistress of the Dark." She's a little bit vampire with a whole lot of vamp, and she wears just about the skimpiest (but still tasteful) dresses legally allowed on television. She is, of course, the iconic Elvira. Debuting on a Los Angeles TV horror movie showcase in 1981, Elvira is the creation of her longtime portrayer: comedian/actress/singer/model Cassandra Peterson. Starting with Elvira's Movie Macabre, where she poked fun at old scary flicks (and at herself), Peterson has brought the magic of Halloween and her campy blend of classic Hollywood fun to the masses for decades. 

Elvira has been big on the public's radar for nearly 40 years through movies, sitcoms, talk shows, live performances, commercials, and more, but how much do you really know about the fabulous and self-made Cassandra Peterson? Here's a look at the creation, rise, and impact of Elvira and Peterson — including what the latter really looks like without that fright wig.

From a girl putting on a show to a showgirl

Cassandra Peterson always wanted to be a star, or as she more accurately told the Lenny Letter, she wanted to be "the center of attention." At the age of 3, her parents would put her on tables at eateries and "have me dance and sing 'How Much is That Doggy in the Window,' and people would throw change at me, and I thought, This is an awesome way to earn money.

A few years later, she narrowed down her interests. "So I saw this movie Viva Las Vegas and I got this idea in my head to become a showgirl like Ann-Margret," Peterson told Vulture. Soon thereafter, Peterson's family took a vacation from its home in Colorado Springs to California, with a brief stop in Sin City. "I begged them to let me go see one of those shows with them. So I dressed up to look super old and sophisticated, you know, like I was actually old enough to get in to see the show." While sitting in the audience all dolled up in "eyelashes and a push-up bra," Peterson caught the eye of the show's dance captain, who asked her to audition for a spectacular called Vive Les Girls. Peterson got the job, and, amazingly, her parents signed off on it. Literally — they had to sign some legal forms because Peterson was only 17 at the time.

When the Mistress of the Dark was a bohemian queen

In the 1970s, Cassandra Peterson did what a lot of young Americans did at the time. She bummed around having grand adventures. Shortly after leaving that gig in Vegas, Peterson took another dancing job in France at the Folies Bergere. "The girls didn't like me first because I was an American, and second because I was so much younger than they were," she told Cinema Retro, "so they treated me horribly and I quit before my first performance."  

Peterson fled to Rome, where, as luck would have it, she ran into a friend from Las Vegas who was on the crew of Federico Fellini's Roma. The pal introduced Peterson to Fellini, who put her in the movie, using her as a background extra in various scenes. While in Italy, Peterson began singing with a couple of local rock bands, the Snails and Latins 80. 

Peterson paid the bills in the early '70s modeling for second-tier "men's magazines" (nudie mags like Playboy that weren't Playboy) and a famous album cover ... well, maybe. There is a naked redheaded woman on the cover of Tom Waits' 1976 album Small Change. "It looks like me, but I don't have any recollection of ever doing that," Peterson told Screen Anarchy. "But it was the '70s, so I don't have a recollection of a whole lot that I did then." 

The loves of Elvira

At some point during Peterson's Vegas run (she can't recall the exact date), Elvis Presley reportedly came to watch Vive Les Girls. "He invited all of the showgirls back to his hotel room," she told The Huffington Post, declaring that the King "instantly glommed on to" her. Presley was supposedly in the midst of a divorce at the time, but despite his attention and availability, Peterson claims not much happened. "You have to remember, I was underage. So nothing did go on, except some kissing," she said. Peterson says she and Presley talked all night and into the next day. He even gave her some advice that jump-started her career. "He said, 'If you really want to be in showbiz, you've got to get out of this town,'" she recalled. He also suggested voiced lessons, because by 25, she'd "be too old to dance." The next day, Peterson says she got a vocal coach, and a month later, she was singing in her stage show.

Though she didn't get it on with Presley, Peterson did lose her virginity to another male singer during her Las Vegas days: Tom Jones. In 2008, she told Blender (via Dlisted) that Jones "seemed gentlemanly and nice, so when he was jumping on me, I thought, 'Well, if I'm ever gonna do this, it might as well be with Tom Jones.'" Unfortunately, the experience was "horrible" for, um, anatomical reasons we won't get into here.

Elvira is born

The lines between Cassandra Peterson and Elvira are blurred. That will happen after more than 25 years in character. Both ladies rose to prominence in 1981, when Los Angeles TV station KHJ-TV decided to revive its old-fashioned horror movie-with-a-host show Fright Night. The series had been dormant since 1975, following the death of host Larry Vincent, who ran the show as a character named "Sinister Seymour." (Most cities had at least one show of this nature in the '60s and '70s.)

Peterson got the hosting gig, which became Elvira's Movie Macabre. (Her salary: $350 a week.) With her friend, makeup artist Robert Allen Redding, Peterson devised Elvira's signature look — a cross between a scary movie monster (with a Bride of Frankenstein-reminiscent beehive hairdo) and a hyper-sexualized Morticia Addams (her costume showed off a lot of leg and a lot of cleavage). That made for an amusing disconnect between image and voice, which wasn't at all spooky or sensual. Peterson gently made fun of the horror movies she was tasked with hosting in a sunny, "Valley Girl"-esque accent. 

Surprisingly, the Elvira look was not Peterson's first pick. "I initially wanted to go a very different way, like a Sharon Tate in The Fearless Vampire Killers look," Peterson told the Lenny Letter, "but KHJ wanted to go with the all-black thing."

Mistress of pop culture dominance

The mixture of comedy, campy old movies, and an attractive woman in revealing clothing was (big shock) a hit, but how did the star of a local TV show become famous around the world? A television syndicator picked up the high-profile, no-frills show and sold it to more than 70 other TV stations within about five years. That solidified Elvira's status in pop culture. When Peterson landed an endorsement deal with Coors, she became the first woman to become the focus of a national beer campaign. (Your uncle surely still has a sexy cardboard standee in his man-cave of Elvira holding a six-pack.) 

Along with the show and the ad work came, of course, the merchandise. Fans of the camp vamp pin-up could buy Elvira calendars, Halloween costume kits, toys, comic books, collector's plates, and pinball machines. (Again, check with your uncle.) Halloween 1987 just might have been "Peak Elvira." The horror hostess expanded her TV duties from hosting thrilling schlock and schlocky thrillers to include NBC's Friday Night Videos and an appearance on Saturday Night Live.

Elvira, the Movie!

The woman who made fun of movies got one of her own in 1988: Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. The tongue-in-cheek horror-laced comedy finds Elvira inheriting a creepy old mansion and clashing with uptight locals. Peterson co-wrote the film with TV writer Sam Egan and longtime collaborator John Paragon (best known for portraying head-in-the-box genie Jambi on Pee-wee's Playhouse). The film earned a little more than $5 million at the box office, but became a cult classic when it reached VHS and cable.

Peterson made a sequel in 2001 called Elvira's Haunted Hills. She and then-husband and manager Mark Pierson came up with most of the $1 million-plus budget by mortgaging their real estate holdings. As with the first Elvira film, Peterson wrote the script with Paragon. Set in the Carpathian Mountains in 1851, Elvira takes refuge in a spooky castle, which sets up a horror-comedy that pays homage to a lot of old movie tropes and feels like an old Roger Corman or Vincent Price film. While Haunted Hills never received wide theatrical release, it's been a popular "midnight movie," similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (it even costars that film's creator and Riff Raff portrayer, Richard O'Brien). Peterson and Pierson also screened their creation at fan conventions, benefits for AIDS organizations, and festivals. It even won best feature at the 2002 Provincetown Film Festival.

She isn't always Elvira

Cassandra Peterson and Elvira are not the same person, of course, and Peterson has acted in a handful  of movies and TV shows portraying characters that are not the Mistress of the Dark, particularly during the dominant Elvira years of the 1980s. It's just that it's really hard to recognize her as the lady who plays Elvira when she isn't wearing the black dress, the black wig, and the goth makeup.

That's her (above) as "Biker Mama" alongside Paul Reubens in 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure. (She's one of the toughs that Pee-wee wins over with his "Tequila" dance.) Peterson also portrays Queen Sorais in 1987's Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, an ill-fated attempted to bring a 19th century book adventure series to the screen. More recently, she played "Hunter's Mom" in Red Riding Hood, the 2006 horror-ish retelling of the famous kiddie tale.

Elvira today

One doesn't just ascend to the title of "Queen of Halloween" and then quit. Though the widely syndicated Elvira TV show, movies, and beer commercials may be in the past, Cassandra Peterson has never stopped playing her incredibly famous character for long. Elvira's Movie Macabre briefly returned to TV in 2010 and to Hulu in 2014 in the form of 13 Nights of Elvira. In 2016, Peterson released a career retrospective coffee table, or rather "coffin table book," called Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Most years, she also headlines an October full of Halloween-themed stage shows at Knott's Berry Farm in California.

She's basically the Santa of Halloween, so the fall is still an incredibly busy time for Peterson, who turned 67 in 2018. She told TIME that each October, "My phone doesn't stop ringing, and I don't sleep, and I'm working during the day, and I'm working at night. It's pretty hectic! I love it, I'm happy. But I sometimes wish all my work didn't come in a one-month period."

When the wig comes off and more sensible clothes come on

What man could ever please Elvira for all of eternity and beyond? A guy named Mark Pierson tried his best. The year 1981 was a big one for Cassandra Peterson. During the same year that Elvira's Movie Macabre premiered, she married Pierson, her manager. 

One of their first trips together was perhaps not the best omen: They took a road trip in Peterson's parents' Winnebago — with those parents — from Los Angeles to the Kansas town where Cassandra had lived as a child. "My husband read a book the entire time," Peterson told The Spokesman-Review. "It wasn't the greatest adventure spending 24/7 crammed in a small space with the in-laws." 

The couple later celebrated the family business it built together in an Elvira-approved, 5,600-square foot mansion in the L.A. area, lining the home's dark wood and copper walls with Elvira merch. And get this: The house was haunted. "Footsteps above my head on the ceiling. Clouds of smoke forming into what looked like a human and then disappearing. A black shadow floating on the bottom of the pool that wouldn't go away," Peterson told the Marriott Traveler. After an exorcism, Peterson reportedly sold the place to actor Brad Pitt. 

In 1994, Peterson and Pierson turned their attentions toward starting a family. She gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Sadie, in 1991. Peterson and Pierson divorced in 2003.