Need a last minute Halloween costume idea? Vogue suggests cult icon Vampira, inspired by W. Scott Poole‘s definitive biography Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror. Read her full story and see the photo spread here.
October 29, 2015
Like so many others, I came to Vampira via Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s hyper-romanticized 1994 biopic of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the low-budget auteur behind infamously bad Plan 9 From Outer Space and a man with the dubious honor of being called the “Worst Director of All Time.” The wooden, weirdly sullen portrayal courtesy of Burton’s then-girlfriend Lisa Marie may have done little to bring Vampira’s legacy to life, but between the mile-long talons (painted her signature “hemorrhage red”); otherworldly figure; and plunging, tattered black dress, the mere concept of the undead seductress had me hooked; so began an infatuation that has lasted years. Apart from that big-screen homage, though, time hasn’t exactly been kind to the memory of Vampira, née Maila Nurmi from Finland. When she shuffled off this mortal coil in 2008, it was in relative obscurity. With Halloween looming large, take a moment to familiarize yourself with Nurmi’s bewitching look. For those whose interest is piqued, pick up a copy of W. Scott Poole’s excellent Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, the definitive biography of Nurmi — released just last year — and an expansive look at the singular life only touched on here.
Before she ascended to infamy at the helm of The Vampira Show, Nurmi grew up the gawky daughter of immigrant parents, escaping from her small life to find fame in Los Angeles. There she supported herself working at various times as a coat-check girl, with small acting parts and modeling for the likes of Man Ray and pinup legend Alberto Vargas. It was Rudi Gernreich who, in 1953, gained Nurmi entrance to the costume ball that birthed her Vampira persona. Dressed like the Morticia of Charles Addams’s early New Yorker cartoons, she captured the attention of guests — among them producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr., who would hand Nurmi her ticket to stardom some months later.
The Vampira Show officially debuted on L.A.’s KABC-TV May 1, 1954. On it, Nurmi appeared wraithlike, porcelain-complected, and wasp-waisted (reportedly just 17 inches, her hourglass figure was the product of fasting and a papaya powder she wrapped her torso in). Before presenting the evening’s feature — horror flicks like White Zombie — Vampira started each show with a blood-curdling scream. Marrying sex and death, the character was a mélange of characters, among them the Addams Family matriarch, Norma Desmond, Theda Bara, and the quintessential happy homemaker, as well as the unmistakable undertones of bondage borrowed from John Willie’s Bizarre magazine. Vampira was light-years ahead of her time, a veritable stake through the heart of homogenic mid-century mores. Bringing to suburban TV tubes a far less cuddly — and far more titillating — version of what Lily Munster and Morticia Addams would a decade later, The Vampira Show was an instant hit. “My take-home was $59.60 a week — it all went on taxis and body makeup,” she later recalled of her compensation.
Los Angeles tuned in weekly to watch Nurmi bathe in a cauldron, share ghoulish cocktail recipes (“one jigger formaldehyde, two jiggers vulture blood, garnish with a glass eye”), and caress her pet spider, Rollo. Even with her decidedly avant-garde bent, the persona had mainstream appeal: There were Vampira fan clubs; she palled around with James Dean and Elvis; and Life shot her being chauffeured around sunny Hollywood in a 1932 Packard, as she greeted entranced children.
Despite impressive ratings (and an Emmy nom for its star), The Vampira Show was canceled in 1955 amid murky contractual disputes and the host’s refusal to sell the rights to her signature character to ABC. In the wake of the show, Nurmi struggled, accepting her infamous role in Plan 9 From Outer Space and even appearing in one of Liberace’s Vegas shows. By the ’60s, in addition to running an antiques shop on Melrose (Vampira’s Attic), she was reportedly laying linoleum flooring and cleaning the homes of celebrities — surely a blow for the once-idolized actress. Later years found Nurmi increasingly reclusive, though her legacy lives on. She was immortalized in a namesake song by seminal New Jersey horror punks the Misfits and The Damned’s “Plan 9 Channel 7.” She’s inspired many imitators, most notably Cassandra Peterson, aka Elvira, who shamelessly lifted Nurmi’s on-screen image, elevating it to cartoonishly buxom heights — and finding fame that would far exceed her predecessor’s, even as Nurmi tried unsuccessfully to sue.
Today, Vampira’s chief legacy is the province of horror fanboys and psychobilly types, and she may never enjoy a biopic like so many of her peers in cultish notoriety. Though Halloween inevitably tends to unearth homages to the undead wonder, her style and singular life bear remembering 365 days a year — after all, you can’t keep a good ghoul down.