Vampira: dead sexy

Greetings, my friends! I’ve been asked to say a few words about one of my heroes, the lovely and mysterious Vampira. The first-ever TV horror hostess crossed over peacefully in her sleep last week to join the world of shadows. She was 86.

On the most recent episode of my syndicated-movie program Cinema Insomnia (free on, I hosted Edward D. Wood Jr.’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, my favorite film—in which, fittingly, she is immortalized. As a youngster, I’d seen evidence of Vampira’s legacy—the TV version of The Addams Family and Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. I’d seen cartoons in Playboy and Mad that were parodies of her. I’d learned from Sacramento horror host Bob Wilkins to love movies “so bad they’re good.” And when I saw Vampira as a reanimated corpse in Plan 9, my brain went, “Ah ha! This is the character everyone’s referencing!” I wanted to have an iconic impact like that.

Before becoming the mother of all horror hosts, Finnish immigrant Maila Nurmi worked as a Hollywood model. She posed for the pin-up maestro Alberto Vargas, did bit parts in films and even was a showgirl for Mae West—until being fired for upstaging her. One night long ago, Nurmi attended a Hollywood costume party dressed as Morticia from the Addams Family cartoons in The New Yorker. She caught the eye of a KABC-TV producer, who hired her at once to introduce old horror movies live and in costume—and turn viewers on to the new concept of “late-night” TV.

Nurmi’s husband, Dirty Harry screenwriter Dean Riesner, came up with the name “Vampira,” but it was she who so cleverly appropriated other cultural influences: a hairstyle and cigarette holder from the Dragon Lady of the Terry and the Pirates comic; eyebrows and make-up from the Wicked Queen of Snow White; Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond voice from Sunset Boulevard; and the cinched waist (at 17 inches, an official Guinness record), cleavage and inhumanly long fingernails favored by fetish-mag dominatrix types.

Vampira exploded like an atomic bomb in the bland-is-beautiful ’50s. Even though The Vampira Show was only on in Los Angeles, her irresistibly macabre comedy made her a national icon—and an Emmy nominee as the Most Outstanding Female Personality of 1954. A decade later, when The Addams Family became a TV show, its matriarch had more in common with Maila Nurmi’s Vampira than with Charles Addams’ Morticia.

When I first started in TV, I heard about her from everybody. She’d begin her shows in a candle-lit abyss, seductively emerging from the smoke and fog to approach the camera and let out a horrified scream. Then she’d lie back on a skull-adorned Victorian lounge chair and talk in a slow, bewitching voice. The spell was cast. They watched not for the movies, but for her.