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Elvira never intended to get a tattoo. Nevertheless, here we are, profiling the beloved actress in Inked because, despite her intentions, she now has one. This story begins with “Epic Ink,” a tattoo reality show that aired for one season on A&E in 2014 and followed the artistic exploits of Area 51 Tattoo in Springfield, Oregon. Elvira was brought on the show to surprise a super fan who was getting a huge tattoo homage to the Mistress of the Dark. Then, one thing led to another, and Elvira found herself in the tattoo chair.

“I showed up in Elvira drag to surprise a girl getting an Elvira tattoo and I almost gave the poor girl a heart attack,” she says. “They kept giving me shots of Jack Daniels as we were shooting the show and I was getting drunker and drunker. All of a sudden I’m like, ‘I’ll get a tattoo too,’ and the next thing I know, they’re giving me the tattoo.”

The actress settled on a small skull with bat wings on her bicep, which her character had in her 1988 film “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.” It was a fitting choice that seemingly couldn’t go wrong… until it did. Elvira learned firsthand that alcohol and tattooing don’t always mix. “My partner T was like, ‘Aren’t you getting that on the wrong arm?’ and I was like, ‘No, this is the right arm, it goes on this side,’” she says. “I got the freaking tattoo and I love it, but it is on the wrong arm. I was so mad and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what do I do? Have it removed and tattooed on the other arm? Better yet, have my arms cut off and switched?’ But then my thumbs would be going the wrong way, but it might be worth it.”

Photos Courtesy of Elvira

Photos Courtesy of Elvira

Long before there were any Elvira tattoos or tattoos on Elvira to speak of, she was an aspiring entertainer from Manhattan, Kansas, known simply as Cassandra Peterson. Her career kicked off at The Dunes in Las Vegas, where she began performing as a showgirl fresh out of high school. She landed a few small film roles here and there, but nothing major. However, it only takes one audition to land the role of a lifetime.

“When I was on my honeymoon, my friend called me and said, ‘They’re looking for a girl to host horror movies at this local TV station in Hollywood and you would be perfect,’” Peterson says. “However, I refused to come home from my honeymoon for an audition because I’d cut a lot of trips short over my career and ended up not getting the part. I got home a couple weeks later and she’d left me a million messages on my answering machine saying they hadn’t found anyone. And I went in and got the part.”

“Elvira’s Movie Macabre” wasn’t an overnight hit, but it gradually built a dedicated fanbase as Elvira’s look became synonymous with horror. It’s hard to imagine Elvira looking any other way, although initially, Elvira had a very different aesthetic in mind for the role. Peterson envisioned Elvira looking similar to Sharon Tate’s character in “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” which would feature a pink dress and her natural red hair. But the station managers were quick to veto that idea.

“We were upset because it was just so typical to do a spooky character in all black and I didn’t want to look like Morticia or Vampira,” she says. “So we kept with those parameters—black hair, black nails and the black dress—and then we made it as sexy as humanly possible. After all, I was an ex-Las Vegas showgirl, so I was pretty used to wearing skimpy outfits. It was a mishmash of all kinds of things, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.”

Photos Courtesy of Elvira

Photos Courtesy of Elvira

What made Elvira stand out in Tinseltown, aside from her gothic bouffant wig and ample bosom, was the impressive comedy chops Peterson honed at The Groundlings. “I’d been doing a character, which was kind of a goofy Valley girl actress, and because it was the only character I had at the moment, I carried it over to the Elvira persona,” she says. “None of it worked because I was looking like a witch or a vampire, was talking like a Valley girl and making fun of movies. That’s why I really didn’t have a lot of hope in it lasting because it was just so ‘What the hell is this?’ But ultimately, I think that was the appeal.”

“Elvira’s Movie Macabre” originally aired from 1981 to 1986 and along the way, Elvira introduced the masses to a whopping 140 B-level horror flicks. When her show wrapped, Peterson wasn’t quite ready to put the beloved character in the rearview, so she opted to make her feature film “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.” “We were out pitching a film and NBC came to me offering a sitcom as Elvira,” Peterson says. “I was adamant that I didn’t want to do a sitcom. I wanted to do a film first because in those days, if you were a film actor you could always go back and do TV. If you started out as a television actor, it was almost guaranteed you’d never make it in film. So I told them I wanted to do a film first and NBC bankrolled the movie.”

“Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” was technically a box office flop—the distribution company went bankrupt the week her film premiered—but it’d go on to become a celebrated cult classic film. Over 30 years later, fans are still clamoring for more Elvira and as always, Elvira is happy to please.

Peterson’s autobiography, “Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark,” opened a lot of people’s eyes to the woman behind the character. It was an opportunity for Peterson to be totally transparent with her fans. “I put a lot of stuff out there that I hadn’t told anyone and I decided, ‘What the hell, I’m 70 years old and if I don’t tell people now, when am I gonna do it?’” she says. “For one thing, I revealed to the public that I’ve been with a female partner for the past 20 years and that made me feel very vulnerable. I wasn’t sure my fans would be on board with a lot of the things I told them, but thankfully they were.”

Peterson had considered writing an autobiography decades ago, but back then she wasn’t quite ready. To be fair, the world may not have been ready for her full story either. “I shared some really bad sexual abuse incidents and those were really hard to talk about,” she says. “I’ve never really talked about that with people and had kept it secret. With the Me Too movement I felt like talking about it might actually be helpful for women to see that it happens to the best of us. The fact that I was playing this sexy character and I’d been a showgirl, I was always in places that brought out the worst in men. Just because you’re sexy and you’re using the body you were born with, that doesn’t mean you deserve to be taken advantage of and treated like a lesser human being.”

Forty years in, Elvira’s story is still being written. Although she thought this role would be a flash in the pan, it’s become her legacy. Now, she’s inspiring more people than ever before with her perfectly timed wit, relatable life experiences and relentless positivity, making the Mistress of the Dark immortal indeed.

Photo by Mary Ann Halpin

Photo by Mary Ann Halpin