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Will The Real Vampira Please Stand Up?
"Finding the original gothic vamp is as confusing as a haunted hedge maze"

Maila Nurmi as Vampira

“I love your dress,” Debbie Jellinsky (Joan Cusack) tells Anjelica Huston’s Morticia Addams in Addams Family Values. “It’s so…tight.”

“Thank you,” Morticia purrs. Huston was a model in the 1960’s, but I think she was at her most beautiful as the moody matriarch of the Addams clan in her trailing black hobble skirt, middle parted hair and luxurious, antique rings. Her eyes are always illuminated by a ghostly ray of light, and her creepy look is contrasted by the actress’s soft, little-girl voice. Of course, Anjelica Huston was not the first actress to play Morticia, nor to sport the combination of tight black dress, long dark hair, and blood red nails. 

Anjelica Huston as Morticia Addams

But finding the original gothic vamp is as confusing as a haunted hedge maze. The lines of influence and inspiration between Morticia Addams, Vampira, Elvira and all the other dark mistresses are as complex and criss-crossed as a spider web, with some actresses even landing in court. In real life, you can’t use a hex to solve charges of plagiarism.

Although vamps were a popular archetype in silent movies (Theda Bara glowered through kohl-rimmed eyes) any discussion of gothic queens should begin with Charles Addams. His cartoons in The New Yorker followed the macabre adventures of a family who turned post-war suburban values on their head. Unnamed until the later TV series, Addams described the mother as the real head of the family: “low-voiced, incisive and subtle, smiles are rare…a ruined beauty.” According to legend, Addams partially based the Morticia on his first wife Barbara. The marriage didn’t last.

Charles Addams’s Morticia

In 1953, Finnish-born actress Maila Nurmi needed a costume for a masquerade ball in Los Angeles. Inspired by Addams’s drawings, she donned a tight black dress and wig, and painted her skin a ghoulish mauve. She caused a sensation and won the top prize. Although it took them five months to track her down, a local TV station hired her to host their late night airings of old horror movies. Nurmi named her character Vampira.

Each episode began with her gliding down a corridor, surrounded by dry-ice mist, and, once she made it to the camera, letting out a dramatic scream. Vampira was a welcomed, sexy antidote to the buttoned-down era of Ozzie and Harriet. Sadly, almost no footage of The Vampira Show survives, and Nurmi is mostly remembered from her appearance in the Ed Wood’s camp classic Plan 9 From Outer Space.  

Maila Nurmi in Plan 9 From Outer Space

In 1981, Nurmi was brought out of retirement (she ran an antiques store and made jewelry for rock stars) to help her old station re-launch the series, but she walked out when the producers hired a younger comedienne named Cassandra Peterson to host. Although the show’s title was switched to Elvira’s Movie Macabre, Nurmi filed a lawsuit against Peterson, claiming that Elvira’s look and personality were directly stolen from Vampira. The court ruled in Peterson’s favour and, in her defense, her character sports a bulbous beehive and speaks in an incongruous Valley Girl voice quite unlike Nurmi’s.

(It wouldn’t be the last time another actress stepped into Vampira’s corset. In Tim Burton’s loving tribute Ed Wood he cast his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie as Vampira, a part she was born to play.)

Peterson, whose career had ranged from pretending to be a drag queen to possibly posing nude on the cover of a Tom Waits’ album (she claims can’t remember if it was her), grabbed hold of the character and never let go. She swiftly turned Elvira into a brand name, licensing costumes, comic books, action figures, pinball machines, video games, and perfume. She says that men thank her all the time for helping them through puberty.

Cassandra Peterson as Elvira
More recently, Peterson hosted a reality TV show, The Search for the Next Elvira, with two lookalike drag queens, and in a nice bit of poetic justice, claims that Sabrina the Teenage Witch ripped off the never-aired sitcom she had worked on right before it started.
After all this darkness, let’s talk Disney. The studio of Bambi and Dumbo is often linked with the sugary sweetness of woodland critters, but each generation of children has had its own nightmare-inducing Disney villain. The Evil Queen from Snow White was Disney’s original vamp, and another inspiration for Vampira. (The cartoon character was modeled after icy-eyed starlet Joan Crawford, decades before the actress gained infamy as a wire hanger-wielding monster.)
But the most menacing wicked queen, as well as the most glamorous, has to be Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. With reptilian green skin and a two pointed headdress called an ‘atora’, Maleficent was designed to resemble a giant, menacing vampire bat.
Disney’s Maleficent
When it came to casting the live-action film dedicated to telling her side of the story, producers of the upcoming Maleficent were lucky enough to snag contemporary Hollywood’s resident vamp: Angelina Jolie. It’s hard to remember now that the actress has refashioned herself as a UN Goodwill Ambassador slash Earth Mother, charging around the globe with her handsome husband and brood of children, but when Jolie won her Oscar for Girl, Interrupted she showed up at the ceremony with long black hair, cat eye mascara and a slinky dress right out of Morticia Addams’s closet. When you throw in her touchy-feeliness with her brother and that, when she was with Billy Bob Thornton, she was rumoured to wear a vial of his blood, here was a red carpet staple scarier than Joan Rivers.
Angelina Jolie
From Morticia to Angelina, what’s more interesting than the variations of gothic queens is the continuing similarities. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Emily the Strange, Lady Gaga, and the women of the Twilight series are just the latest incarnations of the pale-skinned vamp whose basic personality was set fifty years ago. So much has changed in the portrayal of women in popular culture. Why does the vamp still haunt us?

There’s a definite power to the Freudian mixture of sex and death that Nurmi, Peterson and the others personify. Sex and death are two fundamental elements that people will always be drawn to and disturbed by. But there’s also what donning the black wig does for the wearer. Traditionally, women were encouraged to be talkative, emotive, and sunny: the gothic vamp is the opposite of all that. The tight dress provided some much needed wiggle room from the strict gender roles of the pre-feminist era. Nurmi talked about how playing Vampira helped her get over insecurities that she was ugly, while Peterson tapped into her awkward teenage self to play the goofy Elvira.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

You can’t help but wonder how it feels for Ms. Jolie, who at times has been portrayed as a villainess (“Poor Jen!” the tabloids scream), to slip on Malificent’s pointy black atora and let out a cackle.

The thing about costumes is that, when dressing up as someone else, we can end up exposing ourselves, and I don’t mean as ‘sexy Elvira.’ 


Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_

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