Hello, darlings.
Hello, darlings. Elvira

As you are already well aware, Halloween is gay Christmas. And Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, is its queen.

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This is by no means a new development — though her creator's recent revelation that she’s in a relationship with a woman certainly bolsters the character’s credentials as a queer icon. Elvira’s traveled in gay circles for decades, even long before her creator, Cassandra Peterson, was in a relationship with a woman.

Peterson’s new memoir, Yours Cruelly, Elvira, is stuffed tight with incredible stories spanning the better part of a century, including some particularly thrilling intersections with queer and pop culture history. I’ll have a video about it this weekend (keep an eye out for that), but as we head into Halloweekend, I want to share some of my favorite details about what I consider her two great masterpieces: the film Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, and the subsequent sitcom pilot, The Elvira Show.

If you’re somehow not familiar with Elvira (and if that’s the case, congratulations on waking up from your forty-year coma): She’s a horror movie hostess, comedian, and bombshell who came to life on a little local TV station in 1981, originally intended to introduce broadcasts of late-night horror movies on a shoestring budget — appropriate, since her costume consisted of just slightly more fabric than you’d need to tie your shoes.

The character was created by an actress, comedian, and showgirl named Cassandra Gay Peterson (yes, “Gay” is really her middle name) with help from her close friend Robert Redding, with whom she’d appeared in a (nearly) all-gay traveling show called Mama’s Boys. Redding helped Peterson design the dress, a sort of ghoulish evening gown that hid scars the actress had acquired when she was burned as an infant. He also helped design her makeup, inspired by kabuki designs that he’d worked on for a drag interpretation of Macbeth’s witches.

Peterson debuted the character in 1981, and I cannot recommend her book highly enough for the full story of the decades of blood, sweat, and tears — sometimes literally — that led up to what seemed like an overnight success. As soon as she appeared, America was obsessed with the character’s blend of sultry, spooky, and silly; Peterson went from a struggling actress to appearing on The Tonight Show in a matter of weeks. By the mid-’80s, she was a household name.

And that’s when NBC came calling with an invitation to make a primetime sitcom. Peterson had seen that once an actor is identified with television, it’s hard for them to break into movies; but it’s easier for movie actors to slide into TV. She told NBC that she wanted to make a movie instead, and the network — helmed at the time by Elvira fan Brandon Tartikoff — agreed.

The resulting work, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, is an utter delight, the perfect Halloween film. The premise concerns a local-TV horror host who longs to parlay her talents into a Vegas showgirl career (which is Peterson’s career trajectory, only in reverse). In an effort to scrape together the money for her show, she lands in the tiny conservative town of Falwell, Massachusetts, where her mysterious recently departed aunt may have left behind the resources Elvira needs.

The story vibrates with queerness — not explicitly, but so plainly in the subtext I don’t know how heterosexuals can even make sense of what they’re seeing. There’s name of the town, of course (a reference to the anti-gay preacher Jerry Falwell), and then there are the villains of the piece, a self-appointed club of moral crusaders who consider Elvira to be a poor influence on the local kids due to her sexuality, and they want to expel her by any means necessary. What queer person can’t identify with that?

Since its release, the movie’s become an object of popular cult obsession. But even more delightful is a follow-up sitcom project at CBS. Entitled The Elvira Show, I cannot envision a more perfect sitcom designed, specifically, for me. It’s available to watch right now on YouTube, and if you do not, we can’t be friends.

The premise: Elvira is a down-and-out fortune teller who’s just moved with her wacky Aunt Minerva to a sleepy town in Kansas. (The real-life town where Peterson grew up, in fact.) The two seem a bit eccentric, but there's a secret twist: They’re both witches. Complicating their lives is the arrival of Paige, a dreadfully square niece who just wants a normal life. It’s Bewitched (without the pesky Darrens getting in the way) plus Absolutely Fabulous with a little Sabrina.

“I hate living in the closet,” Aunt Minerva complains in the pilot, played by the delightsome Katharine Helmond (Mona from Who’s the Boss?). Closeting and code-switching is at the core of the show, with the family of outcasts doing their best to avoid attracting attention from a nosy Kravitz-esque local cop. Elvira’s oddball family must temper their weirdness when mundanes are present, and their responses to having to hide will be familiar to many queer viewers: Paige dreams of fitting in and enjoying a normal life; Minerva wants to cut loose and drop all inhibitions; Elvira is caught between the two, pulled between needing to protect her family and refusing to compromise who she is.

In her book, Peterson writes that the show didn’t make it to air because Howard Stringer, the head of CBS’s parent company, disapproved. “We can’t have tits like that on CBS!” he reportedly bellowed, then ordered the show shelved. It’s one of the great tragedies of TV history that such a perfect show was blocked by a self-appointed moral guardian who disapproved of a strong femme heroine’s unashamed sexuality … which was almost exactly the premise of her movie several years earlier.

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It’s to Peterson’s credit that she persevered through one setback after another — which really means, in many cases, one asshole man after another — and outlasted many of those who condemned her. One of the most touching parts of the book is when she describes the impact her character has had:

She’s tough and flawed, but also exudes a vulnerability that connects with people, making her an odd, yet positive, role model. Time and again I’ve heard how my movie gave someone hope, strength, courage, or just a laugh when they were going through hard times. Box office success or not, that’s made it all worthwhile.

Happy Halloween, and unpleasant dreams.