The only goth chick: Vampira’s legacy

on

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

Zombies
with 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.

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