My cousin says we should call ourselves “shirttail relatives” of Vampira. Maila Nurmi, aka Vampira, was born in 1921 in Petsamo, Finland. My grandmother, who was also born in Finland, had the same last name. They both lived in Ohio for a spell. Who knows — maybe they were indeed distant cousins. Vampira claimed she was related to the Finnish Olympian, Paavo Nurmi, so maybe there are two famous relatives in our family tree.
The Beginnings of a Shock Goddess
Vampira was Elvira’s predecessor, a shock goddess before there even was such a thing, a “busty beatnik wise-cracking pun-loving sexpot” with a stunning 38-17-36 figure.That’s right, Maila was said to have had a 17 inch waist. A picture of her from the cover of Rue Morgue magazine is pinned to a bulletin board in my writing room. I think of her as my muse.
As a teen, Maila aspired to be a star. She began her career as a leggy, high-kicking dancer and pin up model who once performed in a New York horror/burlesque show known as “Spook Scandals” where she rose out of a coffin and perfected a scream that would later become her signature. As a model, she experimented with bizarre looks borrowed from Lauren Bacall, pulp science fiction, schlock horror flicks and burlesque.
In 1953, she brought Morticia Addams to life to life for a wild Halloween party in Los Angeles (Morticia was just a cartoon in The New Yorker at the time). Maila won first prize for her costume. She also caught the eye of the program director for KABC Channel 7, who was looking for someone to present his late night Saturday night horror flicks. Thus, Vampira was born.
Sex, Goth and Decadence
She turned the mainstream female passivity of the fifties era on its head by being macabre. Biographer W. Scott Poole writes that her shock value came from “her refusal to submit to the male gaze. She wanted to attack it instead” with gothic morbidity. Her hair was jet black. Her fitted gown with its shredded sleeves and hem was black. The “Dig Me, Vampira” show opened with her gliding out of the fog, her hands with dangerously dagger-like fingernails painted “hemorrhage red” held zombie-like in front of her. Her powdered face had a deathly pallor, her brows arched menacingly. Talk about a resting bitch face. She screamed right into the camera, proclaiming in deadpan seriousness, “Screaming relaxes me so.” She sipped foaming cocktails with eyeballs instead of olives. She was sex and goth and delicious decadence.
This was 1954, the year I was born. The show was a huge hit. No one could look away.
Vampira as a Star
Maila Nurmi was nominated for an Emmy. She was in LIFE, Time, and Newsweek. According to Salon, Vampira modeled for Disney’s animators, complete with a horned headdress, in 1956 for the villainous Maleficent in the animated Snow White. She was linked romantically to James Dean.
Unfortunately, “Dig Me, Vampira” was cancelled shortly after Dean died. She never regained her popularity, although she starred in director Ed Wood’s cult classic Plan 9 from Outer Space, and made other bit appearances in film. In 1989, she attempted to sue the actress who played Elvira for copycat infringement of her character. She died alone, her body undiscovered for days.
But she certainly left her mark in history. Poole writes in Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror:
There may not be a horror convention where her visage doesn’t influence the tattooed seductress cos-players, not a horror host who doesn’t owe something to her camp humor, no mistress of the night anywhere whose ultimate origin point can’t be traced to this runaway, this late night comedian.
Vampira borrowed from many of the ghosts that haunted American culture, elements never before brought together with the kind of sexual energy and threatening cultural pose that Vampira adopted. She described her character as a monster crafted out of the elements of American history, the terrors of the great depression, and the postwar style of the Beats. She raises questions about everything we think we know about the American fifties.
Her fondness for skulls, spiders, coffins, black garb and pale complexion inspired a parade of female horror hosts, from punk rockers, Goth vampire chicks to evil villainesses, including Natasha of Boris and Natasha to Cruella De Vil. As Vampira would say, “Unpleasant dreams, darlings.”
I’m okay with calling myself her shirttail relative.
I used a photo of Vampira in the collage illustration for the cover of my poetry chapbook, Security. The late Rob Bixby, editor of March Street Press, designed the skull key and typeface.