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You probably know her face, those arched eyebrows and that wasp-waist wrapped in a tattered black gown. What you might not know, however, is her name: Vampira. She was a dark vampire goddess who emerged in the 1950s as an underground sensation.
Her legacy is still echoed in other female vampire and horror icons we know: Elvira, Carolyn Jones’s Morticia Addams from the 1960s TV show, even the mordant tone of vampire Pam in HBO’s “True Blood” has an echo of Vampira’s gallows humor. But the original Vampira is not well known to us -- her story has never before been fully recorded as part of Hollywood history. That's all changed with W. Scott Poole’s new book "Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror," which details not only the evolution and meaning of Vampira the icon, but also the life of Maila Nurmi, the woman who created her.
Nurmi was born in 1922 in Cambridge, Massachusetts as a child of Finnish immigrants. She ran away from home to seek work as an actor, a pin-up model and a burlesque dancer. Soon, the film industry would take notice and she was cast in a never-to-be-made film called "Dreadful Hollow," with a screenplay written by none other than William Faulkner. Although the film was never completed, she was finally mingling in the world of film and art in Los Angeles. This led to her marriage to screenwriter Dean Riesner (who later wrote "Dirty Harry," among other films).
But the financial security and housewife mundanity were never enough for Nurmi; when her chance to be noticed by the Hollywood elite came around again, she took it. In 1953, she debuted her character Vampira at dance choreographer and socialite Lester Horton's annual Halloween ball. A producer at L.A.’s KABC-TV took notice and cast her as the host of a late-night horror show called "Dig Me Later, Vampira."
She had a meteoric, but too brief, rise: a Life magazine photo shoot, an appearance on Red Skelton’s show, a reputation as a member of the “night watch” at Googie’s restaurant in a group that coalesced around emerging actor James Dean.
But all of this would come to an end when her show was canceled in a swirl of controversy, and Dean’s death would surround her in further rumor and scandal. As the 1950s wore on, her career declined, although she did appear in cult hits like Ed Wood’s "Plan 9 From Outer Space." She became only a figure of legend in the West Hollywood underground, known for once being briefly famous. She died, alone and without much fanfare, in 2008.
Poole’s new book is not only a history of Nurmi and her life, but also a larger scale cultural analysis, examining the figure of Vampira as a part of the anxiety and rebellion against the mainstream in the 1950s. In particular, Poole focuses on Vampira as a response to, and criticism of, the 1950s housewife. In order to understand further this part of Vampira’s complicated legacy, I corresponded with author W. Scott Poole.
LS: So what got you interested in Maila Nurmi and her life story?
WSP: I knew about her as an important cult figure for a long time and wrote about her briefly in my book "Monsters in America." I came to see her as a window into a side of the ’50s that has often been ignored. It’s maybe the world of the gray flannel suit and the suburbs but its also the era of the Beat and BeBop Jazz.
Beyond this, I was fascinated with how Maila Nurmi created Vampira out of a number of female archetypes that had been forgotten, as well as the rag and bone shop of American alternative culture. She was an entertainer who saw herself as having a mission to subvert some of the basic assumptions of postwar America about women, sexuality, the home and the nature of horror itself.
LS: How would you characterize Nurmi's relationship with the gay community of Hollywood in the 1950s? To what extent did they influence/support her creation of Vampira?
WSP: Some scholars are giving the early gay rights movement increased attention and the story of Vampira seemed another way to highlight it. One of the points I try to make in the book is that the creation of the character of Vampira is impossible to imagine without the thriving gay culture and political activism that led to the founding of the Mattachine Society (1951). Rudi Gernreich, one of the founders of the Mattachine and its chief financial supporter seems to have helped her craft the original costume. She frequently modeled for him over the years. I also think that the more outré side of her appeal in L.A. comes in part from a very politically active California gay culture in those years, so long before Stonewall.
LS: How did Vampira’s relationship with James Dean affect her career?
WSP: I think Dean inspired her personally; she often thought of him as what she called “a fellow soldier,” a comrade in the revolution of culture. Overall, her relationship with him probably hurt her career profoundly given the rumors that circulated after his death. In fact, I suggest in the book that these were the reasons for her failed comeback in 1956.
I also think that interest in her in a cult figure has largely been because of Dean -- as if it’s that connection that makes her important (others want to know about her because their primary interest is in Ed Wood). She was aware of this and I think it always troubled her -- even fans were missing what she had done. The book is, in part, an effort to correct this.
LS: What do you consider Vampira’s “legacy” now? Where is her presence most felt in contemporary culture?
WSP: I think Vampira’s connection to our contemporary concerns is one that needs to be made; it may not be a link that’s immediately obvious, but I think that historians are at their best when they make connections that aren’t obvious.
The book especially emphasizes the way that the Vampira character used ironic parody in order to mock the ideals of the ’50s housewife and to bring together sex, death and humor in a way that simply had not been done before. I link this cultural pose in the book to third wave feminism's sex-positive and sassy tone, especially in relation to the origins of the Riot Grrrl movement.
I really hope that third wave feminism will claim her as an important archetype. She may have been a bit too outré for second-wavers who may have seen her as simply an example of trash culture exploiting women. But I think third wave feminism will find in her a kindred partner.
LS: What do you think Vampira signified about cultural anxiety in the 1950s? What did she represent?
WSP: I think she challenged almost every aspect of the 1950s attitudes about white womanhood. Maila Nurmi called herself a “failed housewife” and with the show she tried to reveal the dark underside of ’50s expectations of women. Interestingly, she did it by creating an image of aggression rather than victimization. She joked about “tomb sweet tomb” instead of the popular postwar phrase “home sweet home.” She made a zombie cocktail for a husband who never walked through the door (as he was always expected to do on ’50s TV). I note in the book that Lucille Ball and Dinah Shore are often credited as the first women with their own TV shows…Vampira did it as well, but, unlike them she came unattached to a man (and, in fact, the running joke in the show seems to be that she had killed him off)
LS: How did Vampira influence film and horror movies after her notoriety had faded? What was her impact on the representation of female monsters?
WSP: The female vampire becomes popular in the ’60s and ’70s but, as I note in the book, most of these representations were only picking up on the sexual element in her character (and objectifying it in a way she never would have -- Vampira always insisted on being the subject of her representation). When feminist impulses emerge in the horror film later, it’s in the slashers and it’s not so much the female monster as the female hero -- the final girl. Although I see her influence all over the place in late 20th century culture, I’ve been struck again and again with the fear of bringing together her particular combination of sex, death and humor -- it’s still a powerful and unsettling combination.
For more information about Vampira, check out W. Scott Poole’s book, Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, available now in bookstores and online.