For Women in Horror month, celebrate the Queens of TV horror — Morticia, Vampira, and Elvira.
Growing up in Florida, I saw way too many girls and soccer moms dyeing their hair blonde. Everyone wanted to look like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. I didn’t though, I wanted to look like Morticia Addams — The Queen of Macabre.
The Addams Family, created by Charles Adams, was a comic for The New Yorker in the ’30s. It was a parody of the ideal suburban family. Morticia Addams, the matriarch, was a tall, willowy, black-haired woman with deadly, pale skin, clad in a long, black dress. She was a fun, weird lady.
Morticia was descended from witches in Salem and when she smoked, smoke would mysteriously ‘appear’ from below, which implied that she had witchy powers. She made cryptic, deadpan remarks about death. She had a great relationship with her family, so even though she was odd, she was a loving person.
But Vampira was the first real goth girl — invented by Malia Nurmi, based on Morticia Addams, before it took on a life of its own. Nurmi was a former cheesecake model/actress, who was discovered at a Hollywood party in a glamorous Morticia costume. She looked so chic that she was chosen to host a new horror TV show in Los Angeles.
Nurmi created The Vampira Show and became TV’s first female horror host in 1954, a time when women were celebrated for being mothers and wives. A good wife smiled and simpered. But not Vampira. Vampira was a satire of the ‘Perfect Wife’ — and yet, she was incredibly funny and pleasant, even when she was screaming.
Vampira was more than just a Morticia Addams knock-off, Nurmi created a brazen character with a strong point-of-view. Vampira was remarkably witty, sexy, and weird, at a time when being sexy in her manner was slightly dangerous.
Decades later, Nurmi’s intelligence is striking, for it wasn’t popular then for women to be confident and brainy; not that it’s particularly acceptable now, the toxic fuss around many of the Democratic candidates suggest that educated, qualified women are ‘unlikable’ or ‘not genuine.’
The Vampira Show was a huge success — Vampira was featured in Life Magazine and starred in a horror-comedy sketch on The Red Skelton Show for mainstream America. Nurmi was a star — she even had a relationship with James Dean, a fan, who appeared on the show as a naughty school boy, before he passed away in a car crash.
But The Vampira Show was canceled a year later. Though Nurmi played a small role in a character (based on Vampira) in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. But she eventually faded from the public eye.
At the time, it was an original idea to have a horror host introduce films on television, but it was an idea copied by other shows, without giving much credit to Nurmi, who was the reason for the success of the format.
In the 60s, The Addams Family returned as a TV show. Morticia Addams, played by Carolyn Jones, was delightfully weird. She gardened, knitted, and baked cookies, but she did everything in a kooky way. She cut off the heads of roses. She made creepy cookies for her family. She knitted a sweater with three arms. But most importantly — she didn’t try to fit in with the neighbors.
The Addams Family went off the air in 1966 though the show was rebooted in the 90s as a series of films, with Angelica Houston playing Morticia Addams, as an offbeat, sophisticated, goth femme fatale.
By the 90s, the word ‘kooky’ fell out of use and offbeat women were described as ‘quirky.’ Although quirky is almost a pejorative now, and it suggests, a certain cloying childishness or ‘fake cuteness’ used to make the female character seem ‘likable.’
There are many celebrated male actors who play oddballs but few celebrated female character actors who do the same, because those roles, most of the time, aren’t written for women; which may be the reason, big, bold weirdos like Elvira, Vampira and Morticia are revered.
Morticia, Elvira and Vampira used physical comedy, word-play, sex appeal, and droll one-liners to amuse their audience. Nurmi said that she felt as if, she was a one-person SNL since she created her own jokes and bits weekly.
The Vampira Show was going to be revived in 1981 but Nurmi didn’t want to sell the character to the network (at the price offered), and she wanted a different actress to play Vampira, instead of Cassandra Peterson, so they parted ways.
A year later, Peterson was hired to host a new horror show with a new character — Elvira, which Vampira felt was a rip-off of her character and not inspired by Morticia Addams, like Vampira was initially. Nurmi sued but the case was dismissed. Elvira’s Movie Macabre, a weekly horror show, become a raging success in the 80s’.
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Elvira was a break-out star — she was goofy, weird, funny, spooky, and absolutely charming. Her looks and personality delighted horror fans and mainstream audiences alike.
Her success blossomed into comic books, cards, masks, wigs, dolls, Halloween decorations, and beer commercials. In 1988, she co-wrote and starred in the horror-comedy film, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Elvira became a horror icon.
It’s unfortunate that Vampira wasn’t able to capitalize on her creation in the same way — The Vampira Show was ahead of its time and when the world finally caught up to Vampira, she was considered ‘too old’ to play the role in the 80s, although times have changed, for Elvira is still going strong.
It’s sad that the network didn’t negotiate a fair settlement for Nurmi, who was living alone in a small apartment in Los Angeles, according to the documentary Vampira and Me.
It’s interesting that the ‘horror goth girl’ has become (almost) a stock character — it’s a look that is continuously recreated in pop culture. We see glimmers of it, in: Christina Ricci, Eva Green, Cher, Helena Bonham Carter, Rose McGowan, Maleficent, Björk, Suicide Girls, Winona Ryder, Aubrey Plaza, Pauley Perrette, Sasha Grey, and a million emo girls on social media.
Who will be the next generation’s host of horror? Perhaps it’ll be a person of color, a non-binary or a transgender performer. Who knows what the future will bring, but one thing’s for certain — Elvira, Morticia, and Vampira will reign forever in horror history.
Are you a fan of Vampira? Do you love Elvira and Morticia Addams? Please let us know how you feel about these women in horror in the comments!