One of the most striking cult icons of the 80’s was the sharp-tongued, somber Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Combining eroticism with braggadocio, wily wit and a Valley Girl sensibility, she defied many of the stereotypes of bombshells driven primarily by 60’s exploitation aesthetics. Like Winona Ryder’s performance as Veronica in Heathers (1988), released the same year, Elvira’s teenage angst certainly has a body count. Over-the-top, campy, kitsch, her aesthetic embraces the excessive and decadent, the sentimental and the overdramatic, yet in her persona lies a detectable feminist. Though she is overtly sexualized and sexualizes herself to get her way, she does so on her own terms and frequently calls out men who sexually harass her, quitting, for example, a job in her 1st film because of sexual impropriety. Like any bad bitch, she stands up for herself.
In Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988), Elvira is bequeathed the estate of her aunt, her poodle, and a family cookbook (later revealed to be a family spellbook.) With time, she discovers that her family belongs to a coven of witches, which later incites her jealous uncle to try and have her tried for being a witch in order to steal their spellbook, culminating in an attempt by the townsfolk to burn her alive. Citing the history of witch trials dating back since at least the 15th century in Europe and referencing the Salem witch trials in particular (given its locale of Massachusetts), Elvira is at once readily categorizable within the coven genre yet her atypical persona resists her from being a stereotypical pythoness. In all of her films, those around her treat her as an other, in part because of her goth appearance, but also because of her Californian Valleyspeak, yet she utilizes the exoticism of this alterity as a means to distinguish herself from the crowd and draws power from her feminine mystique.
The hypervisibility of her sexuality and its recurrent usage as both a plot device and comedic ploy similarly align with the historical marking of witches as sexually devious, promiscuous, and aberrant, defying the traditional boundaries of chastity and purity ascribed to women. Nevertheless, since she subverts others’ efforts of disempowerment, she remains as rambunctiously headstrong like any other Valley Girl. She was a pioneer in female representation in the horror genre and horror subcultures, reviewing B-horror movies with smarmy wit and cackling humor. Her popularity, although resting in part on her status as a sex symbol, enabled her to star in a myriad of television shows, films, talk shows, and other media. Though she may be melodramatic as an actress, her popularity attests to the permissibility of actresses to display lush excess and hysterical badinage and make a living out of it. Somewhat forgotten, Elvira remains one of horror’s most iconic femme fatales and lucrative feminists.