In the age of Suicide Girls and Elvira,
when there’s a Hot Topic in virtually every
town, it may be difficult to imagine a world in which there’s exactly
one goth chick. In the mid-1950s, however, goth wasn’t at all trendy,
cool, or a look to delve into to get back at your parents because they’re
so square and they never let you do anything you want to do and they
just don’t get it, that it’s totally, like, expressing yourself
through the power of piercings, ill-fitting clothes and Manic Panic
hair dye. Nope, in the mid-1950s there really was only
one goth chick in the whole wide world, and that goth chick was Vampira.
Horror fans lost a true pioneer on January 10, when Vampira died in
her sleep at the age of 86.
Born in Finland as Maila Syrjaniemi,
she immigrated to the United States with her family at the age of two
and eventually took the surname Nurmi after Paavo Nurmi, a Finnish runner
whom Maila claimed was her uncle. At 17, Maila left Ohio and headed
to Hollywood to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. Like so many
other hopeful young women, Nurmi turned to modeling to pay the bills;
she would pose for photographer Man Ray and renowned pinup artist
Alberto Vargas, soon finding herself in the pages of men’s magazines
such as Glamourous Models. However, it was a masquerade
party in 1953 that would forever change both Maila’s life and the
world of the late-night TV horror movie.
Maila showed up at the party
in a costume inspired by the work of cartoonist Charles Addams,
in particular a character who would be christened “Morticia” ten
years later when The Addams Family appeared on television.
Nurmi’s black wig (she was a natural blonde) and tight black dress
caught the eye of Los Angeles television producer Hunt Stromberg,
Jr, a moment that would eventually lead to the May 1, 1954 premiere
of The Vampira Show on KABC-TV. The world’s first horror
host had arrived, armed with pale skin, a scream like no other,
an arsenal of terrible puns and a seemingly impossible 17-inch waist.
Her television contemporaries
were westerns such as The Gene Autry Show or family fare like
Father Knows Best, but there was Vampira, slinking through mist
and cobwebs to introduce trashy horror films like Revenge of the
Zombieswith a quip: “I am Vampira. I hope you had a terrible
week.” Perhaps audiences weren’t ready for the show’s mix
of humor and macabre sex appeal, or perhaps, as she claimed, Nurmi was
blacklisted when she fought for control of the rights to the Vampira
character; whatever the cause, The Vampira Show was canceled
after only a year on the air, despite her Emmy nomination for “Most
Outstanding Female Personality.”
Nurmi’s career floundered
a bit after the cancellation as she went on to appear in such B-fare
as The Big Operator, Sex Kittens Go to College and, most
famously (or is that infamously?), Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer
Space. Vampira’s brief, wordless appearance (she refused
to utter a single word of Wood’s atrocious dialogue) as a resurrected
ghoul is undoubtedly the most striking, memorable image from that absolute
turkey of a film.
In the 1970s, Nurmi opened
Vampira’s Attic, a small shop where she sold antiques and handmade
jewelry. In the early 1980s she briefly re-entered show business
when TV producers asked her to revive Vampira. After a series
of disputes, Nurmi left the production but the show went on without
her. Cassandra Peterson was cast as the sexy horror host; with
some modifications and a last-minute name change, Elvira, Mistress
of the Dark was born. Nurmi eventually sued Peterson for alleged
unauthorized use of her likeness, but the courts found that “‘likeness’
means actual representation of another person’s appearance, and not
simply close resemblance.” (No one bothered to point out, obviously,
that Vampira’s look was, at Nurmi’s own admission, based on the
likeness of an existing character as well.)
After years of obscurity (The
Vampira Show never aired outside of Los Angeles), Vampira was back
in the spotlight after the success of Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic
Ed Wood. Viewers were once again intrigued as
actress Lisa Marie, as Vampira, sported the black dress, the
black hair and the talon-like fingernails. Though she never achieved
the fame she perhaps deserved, Nurmi’s contributions to the world
of horror were acknowledged in documentaries like Death, Sex, and
Taxes (1995), Schlock! The Secret History of
American Movies (2000), American Scary (2006) and Vampira:
The Movie (2006).
At the time of her death, Maila
Nurmi was still selling her goods online from her small Los Angeles apartment.
I’m too young to have enjoyed The Vampira Show during its all-too-brief
run, but 50-odd years later, Vampira’s striking image, the perfect
embodiment of macabre myth, still captivates me. Unfortunately,
there’s very little footage from Nurmi’s TV days to be found.
Well, at least there will always be her turn in Plan 9.
Though she considered the film to be “professional suicide,” the
role would, in fact, go on to cement Vampira’s status as a true icon
in the world of horror.