A Fitting Rising From The Dead
What’s this? What do we have here? A new Existential Parachute Pants post? Is this some sort of Monkey’s Paw, or Pet Semetary, situation? Sort of, but also no, inasmuch as there was no supernatural evil involved in the resurrection of this blog. No, it is much more tedious than that.
You may remember that I wrote a book about Mystery Science Theater 3000. Well, me and the publisher of that book then got into a tentative agreement for me to write a book that was an encyclopedia of horror hosts. However, that ended up falling through, namely because they didn’t like my brand of writing, all in all. I had too much personality and humor for them, essentially. This is the truth, by the way, and I’m not spiteful about it. They wanted a dry encyclopedia of facts about horror hosts. I wanted to write something like my MST3K book. We hit an impasse. It’s a business.
Anyway, in the process, I wrote up a sample chapter about Vampira. I tried to get it published on one of the websites I write for. One agreed, and even went as far as to pay me for it, but never actually got around to running the piece. So, it’s just been sitting around. I wanted it to get out there in the world, somehow. I figured, perhaps, this ol’ blog was the place for it. Does Vampira have anything to do with the ’90s? No, not really, but who cares? Existential Parachute Pants is dead. I can do whatever I want with it.
Maila Elizabeth Syrjaniemi, or Malia Nurmi as she would go by, was a Finnish gal who grew up in Ohio and Oregon before heading to Los Angeles to try and ply her trade as an actress. She had a couple of small roles, often uncredited, insignificant roles such as “Ship Passenger.” Then, she changed the face of pop culture. She became Vampira.
The concept of the horror host was born with Vampira, and, for better or worse, the role defined Nurmi. Her IMDb page lists her as “Vampira,” for example, as opposed to her real name. Where did Nurmi end and Vampira begin? She let the role sort of subsume her own personality. Then again, who can blame a regular old gal from wanting to be remembered as a legendary, larger than life character?
It all began, in a sense, with Morticia Addams. You may know her as the matriarch of the Addams Family. You may know her as Anjelica Huston, if you saw the Addams Family movies, both of which won a Razzie for Worst Original Song. Or, you might know her as Carolyn Jones, if you remember the TV series. However, this predates all of that. The Addams Family began as a cartoon in the New Yorker in the 1930s. Then, the characters didn’t have names, but they had their iconic looks. Morticia was an old school goth, replete with pale skin, long jet black hair, and a black dress. It was not as common then. There were no Goth Days at Disneyland. Nurmi took this look, and tweaked it.
That is to say, she sexualized it a lot more. Nurmi had made some scratch doing modeling shoots, and she has said that her Vampira look was partially inspired by old school bondage magazines, a concept that, if you research it, will, depending on your personal predilections, repulse you or super turn you on. Nurmi’s dress was tighter and dipped lower at the neck. She also cinched her waist so much that she looks like a hornet, which is weird when you are looking at a human being and not a bug. Nurmi may be the inventor of the “sexy” take on an existing concept for Halloween costumes. So, when you see a sexy gold prospector next October 31, thank Nurmi.
Anyway, she caught the eye of television producer Hunt Stromberg Jr., who wanted to put her to work hosting horror movies for KABC in Los Angeles. Thus, Nurmi’s ode to Morticia Addams brought Vampira, and the horror host as a concept, to TV in 1954. One of the most important things about being a horror host is crafting your image. What sort of horror character are you going to be? Nurmi did not have any predecessors to learn from. Most of the horror archetypes are masculine, and almost all of them are not glamorous. Nurmi’s vibe relied upon sexuality, and there are few sexy mummies out there. The vampire, though, is often associated with glamor and prestige. Sure, Max Schreck in Nosferatu is not exactly a matinee idol, but Dracula, and vampires, are often looked at as embodiments of the aristocracy, and vampires are even more associated with sexiness and romance in this modern, post-Anne Rice, post-Twilight world.
Being a witch would have made more traditional gender role sense for Nurmi, but, witches are often thought of as hideous, cackling crones who tell MacBeth bad news. This was the mid-50s, after all. Witches had yet to marry ad executives and live in the suburbs. Vampira made more sense, and nobody can argue with the results. Morticia, for the record, was a witch, so Vampira actually had more in common with Lily Munster, the other matriarch from a sitcom about macabre families.
The Vampira Show debuted at May 1, 1954, Saturday night at midnight. That’s pretty much ideal scheduling, given the “midnight movie” feel that horror hosts would come to manifest. Vampira would seemingly glide down a spooky corridor right out of a Vincent Price movie, her eyebrows rivaling Joan Crawford’s for intensity, and then she’d unleash a shrieking, piercing scream. Not a bad way to jolt folks away for a late night movie. She had a couch she’d lie on, festooned with decorative skulls, and she’s introduce the movie being shown that evening. The jokes associated with horror hosts began with her. By jokes, of course we are talking about puns. Krusty the Clown may have once said puns are lazy writing, but when delivered with a wink, they can be fairly amusing at times. They do also have the chance to fall horrendously flat, but the content was being generated quickly and frequently. There was no opportunity to pore over every line of dialogue. Regardless, the pun became the greatest weapon for most of the horror hosts that followed in Nurmi’s footsteps. She also had a pet spider named Rollo, to give her something to play off of, even if that something was a fake spider. In short, she had a lot of fun with it, and obviously people had fun watching her.
Vampira captured the imagination of many people. She was written up in places such as Life and Newsweek. Hopefully, Vampira made a joke about preferring to be featured in Death magazine. All this despite the fact her show aired only in Los Angeles. This was the 50s. People weren’t able to procure television that didn’t air in their area. However, even with all this media attention and zeitgeist grabbing, The Vampira Show actually only aired for one season. Granted, one season was 50 episodes, but by 1955 her time as a horror host was all but over. Nurmi apparently took the show over to KHJ, but it only lasted there for a short while. The indication is that Nurmi refused to sign the Vampira character over to KABC, and that led to her cancellation. They moved the show from midnight up to 11:00 and then up to 10:30, to give more people a chance to watch it, but money talks in this business. Given how much Vampira came to represent Nurmi, it’s not surprising she didn’t want to let go.
Alas, even though Vampira basically codified what a horror host is, her career pretty much fell flat after this. She did show up in Plan 9 from Outer Space, Ed Wood’s disastrous film, frequently cited as the worst ever. Nurmi appears as “Vampire Girl,” and, if the Tim Burton movie Ed Wood is to be believed, Nurmi refused to have any lines. She does remain silent through the film, which means she didn’t have to read any of Wood’s dialogue. This is an excellent example of dodging a bullet. Plan 9 from Outer Space is as bad as its reputation indicates. It’s nonsensical and terribly made and, yes, fun in its awfulness. This is actually not generally true of Wood’s films. He was a terrible film maker, but his films were generally much sleazier, and also more boring. The movie Ed Wood is quite good though. Lisa Marie, a model who was romantically involved with Burton for several years, plays Vampira. Nurmi was also in a movie called Sex Kittens Go to College. This was about it for her acting career.
By 1962, Nurmi was installing linoleum flooring and doing general carpentry work to make ends meet. In 1981, Nurmi and KHJ worked together to revive Vampira, but then network cast Cassandra Peterson, so Nurmi left the show. Thus, Peterson’s character was rebranded as Elvira. Elvira then went on to become the most well-known, and successful, horror host. Nurmi sued Peterson for infringing on her character, but lost. The battle came down to delineating between the campiness and sexuality of Vampira and the campiness and sexuality of Elvira. As much of a bummer as it must have been for Nurmi, the general feeling is that, while Elvira is clearly inspired by Vampira, it’s a different character. Elvira is basically Dolly Parton as a horror host, and not just because she amped up the cleavage to another level, inspiring beloved Simpsons character Boobarella. They did something similar, but they did something different. It’s a matter of evolution.
Nevertheless, the shame is that so few people ever got to see Vampira. This includes people who have become fans of her as an idea, as a trailblazer. Television in the 50s was an expendable business. Almost everything Nurmi did as Vampira was destroyed. Fortunately, some of the old kinescopes survived, and a bit of Vampira’s stuff has been salvaged. It’s fleeting, but it is better than nothing, to wield a cliché that is nevertheless apt. However, if you want to watch Vampira float and scream, now you can. You can see where it all began, and you can see the clear energy and magnetism Nurmi had as Vampira.
Like so many people, Nurmi watched herself waste away in Los Angeles for years after her career essentially ended. Eventually, she died on January 10, 2008 at the age of 85. She was nominated for an Emmy for Most Outstanding Female Personality. She appeared on programs such as The Red Skelton Show. Bands such as The Damned and The Misfits recorded songs that paid tribute to her. It feels fitting. There was something punk rock about Vampira, and about Nurmi, to the extent “punk rock” can be considered an ethos. Her headstone says “Maila Nurmi” on it, but it also says “Vampira.” She is pictured on the grave marker in her Vampira regalia, surrounded by a giant spiderweb and an old candelabra. The marker has a couple other words on it: Hollywood Legend. It’s a lofty statement, sure, especially for a woman who only spent a couple years on television and only had small roles in a handful of forgettable, or unforgettably bad, movies. It still seems apt. How else to describe the original glamour ghoul? She altered the television landscape, and inspired countless others to follow in her footsteps, one bloodcurdling scream at a time.