Elvira, The Queen of Halloween and. . . Comedy?
With a title like “Mistress of the Dark,” one might expect a femme fatale, a shadowy and seductive woman who leads men into their doom. On the surface, Elvira, a 1980’s television hostess and horror icon, may fit this archetype. Elvira is typically dressed in all black with heavy makeup, a risque low cut dress and a dagger on her belt. But when Elvira speaks, she surprises the audience with her quick wit, bubbly personality and cheesy sense of humor.
Elvira is a living and breathing example of how horror and comedy are often one in the same. Both genres can be used to push boundaries, question power structures and critique societal norms. In Phil Rubenstein’s 1988 film, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Elvira travels to the sleepy town of Fallwell, Massachusetts for the reading of her great aunt’s will. By observing Elvira’s sexuality and her interactions with the town’s adults and youth, we can see that the film is commenting on the power struggles between artistic freedom in the television and film industries versus adults who use religion, government and other forms of authority in order to censor and even destroy it.
Elvira’s sexuality is one of her main features and is often the subject of desire and scorn. Her hypersexualized, vampire-like look and shameless innuendos shocks and enrages the adults in the film. This tension is not only a ploy to move the plot along but a commentary on how real-life conservative politicians, parents and other adults in America view Elvira as a corrupting force to their children. In the film, despite many of the adult’s biases, Elvira does not succumb to any man’s sexual advances. Elvira is the modern representation of the strong woman and there are several instances where she is portrayed as a role model rather than a mindless sexual deviant. In the beginning of the film, Elvira quits her job as a television hostess because her new boss and braggart male, Earl Hooter, grabbed her breasts and said, “It’s milkin time!” Elvira responds by driving her heel onto his foot, pushing him in front of a camera in the middle of a news show, causing him to fall onto and break the anchor’s desk.
This demonstrates how Elvira is a strong woman and a role model because she stands up for herself and what she thinks is right. She tells her audience that is does not matter what a woman looks like, sexual harassment should not be tolerated. In a similar circumstance, a realtor attempts to extort sexual favors from Elvira by telling her that he has “some wealthy investor friends” who would buy the property she acquired from her late aunt.
When the realtor tackles her onto a couch, Elvira throws him out of the door and tells him through gritted teeth, “Just because this house is up for grabs, doesn’t mean I am.” Although Elvira is in a financial pinch and “was just six inches from selling (the) house,” she displays strong resolve and shatters the preconceived notion that she is merely a sexual object. Elvira reveals that a woman’s sexuality can be empowering and it is nothing to be ashamed of. She is a role model, albeit an imperfect one, that encourages women to embrace their sexuality rather than suppress it. Her actions emphasizes how girls and women are in control of their own bodies not authorities, parents, or men.
Elvira, in almost every sense, is counter to the moral and ethical beliefs of the adults in this film. There was a city council meeting in which the town’s school Principal, Mr. Cobb, declared that “all students will be subjected to immediate expulsion if they are found in the company of that floozy (Elvira).” Chastity Pariah, a religious middle-aged woman and high ranking city official, told the council members that “This Elvira is a person of easy virtue. A purveyor of pulchritude. One woman’s Sodom and Gomorrah, if you will. A slimy, slithering succubus. A concubine, a street walker, a tramp, a slut, a cheap whore. . . If she’s morally unfit then we have every right to do anything we can to get her out of this town.” This city council meeting is displayed as an overreaction. The council members were upset because the local teenagers were helping Elvira paint her house while listening to music such as “Shout,” by Otis Day and the Knights.
This scene in particular holds a mirror to American society during this time. Many conservative and religious individuals viewed Elvira, horror movies, rock music, and other sexual or obscene material as an imminent threat to their children and their way of life. The movie questions this belief by demonstrating in a comical way that it is not Elvira bringing negativity to their youth and society but rather it’s their own animosity and closed-mindedness that is causing harm.
During the Fallwell Morality Club’s annual picnic, Elvira plants a casserole which she had conjured up as revenge for the adult’s harsh treatment of her. She intended the casserole to turn into a monster in order to scare them but instead had unknowingly created an aphrodisiac. The mundane and sluggish morality picnic then turned into an orgy. The adults, including grandparents, began dancing about in their underwear to jazz music. Chastity Pariah scrapes at the bottom of the pot of the aphrodisiac laced casserole before sitting on a man’s face for cunnilingus. This is symbolic of how even though Elvira’s sexual appeal may cause others to be aroused and to act in obscene or lewd behavior, that is not her intention. Individuals have to control their own actions.
This scene also demonstrates how sexual desire is only natural and sometimes even the most religious and prestigious individuals can succumb to this basic human need. Instead of accepting this as a part of their humanity, the city council members blame one another for the incident at the morality picnic. Chastity Pariah claims that she was attacked and a fellow councilman “had his way with (her).” The councilman retorted that Pariah could have “worn out a mechanical bull.” In the end, they used Elvira as a scapegoat and had her arrested for witchcraft. They sentenced her to death by burning. This emphasizes how archaic, absurd and corrupt the power structures are, not only for the adults in this film but for the adults in real life who use religion and legislation in order to censor or destroy new ideas, cultural alternatives and artistic freedom. While an angry mob is burning Elvira on a stake, there is a scene where three girl scouts are roasting marshmallows on her pyre. This represents how the adult’s violent behavior and single-mindedness is being handed down to the younger generation. Although the adults claim all their efforts are for the children, it seems as the children are only an excuse to get what they want.
Although Elvira is a full grown woman, she has a strong tribal relationship with the town’s youth. One of the teenagers she has a conversation with in the film is Robin Meeker. Elvira meets Robin while booking a room at the Cozy Cot Motel, a business owned by the Meeker family. Elvira sees Grandmother Meeker chastise Robin for wearing makeup. While Robin is helping carry her bags to her room, Elvira comforts Robin and and tells her, “Hey, don’t let them get you down! I used to get the same line about makeup from the nuns at the orphanage. Course I was only eight.” Elvira then asks Robin”What’s something to do for fun around here?” This mirrors the relationship young Americans had with not only Elvira at the time but with pop culture.
Elvira knows what the teenagers want and it’s the same thing that she wants: to watch R-rated horror films, to listen to music with foul language, to be famous, and to be free. Although she is an adult, she had managed to hold onto her dreams and youthful nature. This is why she can easily relate and appeal to the local youth. Elvira may not be the perfect role model but she is a symbol for teenage rebellion and sexual freedom. She convinces the local teenagers to sneak out after they had been forbidden to go to a special midnight screening that Elvira was hosting at the local movie theater. Elvira convinces the teenagers not by ordering them to do so like their parents and teachers but by using her sense of humor. She made a speech telling the teens, “If they ever ask about me, tell them I was more than a great set of boobs, I was also an incredible pair of legs. And tell them that I never turned down a friend… And tell them, when it’s all said and done, I only ask that people remember my by two simple words. Any two as long as they’re simple.” Instead of being an authoritative figure, she acts more like a friend to these teenagers.
Although they are under strict scrutiny, Elvira has managed to make light out of the situation. During the midnight screening, Robin has her hair curled and her makeup done. Randy, a boy that never paid her any attention for the first half of the film, puts his arm around her. The relationship between Randy and Robin is not at all cynical or sexually deviant behavior but was instead a short, sweet and positive portrayal of intimacy. The teeenagers were liberated in the movie theater with Elvira. Whenever they were anywhere else in the town they were portrayed as bored or ashamed because of the rules and regulations imposed upon them by their teachers and parents.
The horror icon, Elvira, is an example of how comedy and horror are two similar entities and both can be utilized in order to prove a point. Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988) was more than a cheesy film with cheap laughs. It was a social commentary on censorship and questions the belief that sex and violence were detrimental to America’s youthful population. It challenges the audience to reconsider what is truly harmful to a society and its children.