5 Stunning Drop . Dead . Gorgeous Mistresses of the Dark
NO 1. Carroll Borland as Luna Mora
From literature to the silver screen, female Vampires have always been portrayed as highly sexualized. With her striking features and eerie sensuality, our first Mistress of the Dark did not disappoint. The year was 1935 and the actress was 19 year old Carroll Borland (1914-1994). She had been a long time fan of Bela Lugosi, so she answered a casting call for the character “Luna Mora” in the MGM film Mark of the Vampire, directed by Tod Browning and co-starring Lugosi as Count Mora. Borland was perfect in the role, resembling Lugosi in looks and makeup.
The makeup artist for the film was William Tuttle who worked on the film as an uncredited assistant but would go on to become the head of MGM’s makeup department. He felt that Luna’s character should complement the appearance of the vampire – Count Mora, so the iconic gothic appearance of the female vampire was born – Long black hair, pasty white skin, dark piercing eyes, and dark red lips.This makeup and costume combined with Borland’s trance-like movements created the iconic Gothic female vampire.
In the words of Carroll Borland: “So I was given a pasty white face–which looked pretty strange when I walked around the lot–with dark, heightened eyes and dark red lips.”
The costume designer for the film was Adolph Greenberg known simply as “Adrian”. Adrian worked as a costume designer for MGM Studios from 1928 – 1941 and designed costumes for such great films as the Wizard of Oz. Luna’s costume for most of the film was a white shroud, however her most eerily amazing costume was the bat-winged costume she wore during her short flying sequence.
Not only was Luna eerily beautiful, Carroll Borland was a very intelligent woman. She retired from acting in 1953 and became a college professer and an author of a novel titled “Countess Dracula” which was published in 1994. But, she would be forever known for playing the beautiful vampire daughter of Count Mora who would go on to be the influence for the next 4 Mistresses of the Dark.
No 2. Maila Nurmi as Vampira
Female Vampires have always been portrayed as highly sexualized figures and with her striking features and eerie sensuality, Luna did not disappoint. However, when it came to blatant sex appeal our next lady really raised the……stakes.
In the 1950’s Maila Nurmi (1921 – 2008) was an actress, burlesque dancer and pin-up model, trying to get a break into show business. She happened to get that break in 1953 when she attended an annual Halloween ball hosted by well known dance choreographer Lester Horton.
She dressed up as the matriarch from the Charles Addams New Yorker comic The Addams Family. With her pasty corpse-like complexion and black dress, she won first prize at the party, and caught the attention of Program Director of KABC-TV, Hunt Stromberg Jr., who happened to be looking for a late night horror TV host to present low-budget sci-fi films and b-movies to late night audiences. Stromberg put her on air and with this Maila Nurmi became ‘Vampira’, host of The Vampira Show which debuted on KABC-TV in 1954.
Her self made iconic character went down in pop culture history, and her this gothic look is still very popular today. She achieved this look by taking inspiration from several sources: The Addams Family Cartoon, Theda Bara’s Vamp of the 1920’s and a bit of Norma Desmond in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. She stitched all inspirations together and come up with a black full-length gown with a high slit, plunging neckline, and black fishnet stockings. Her makeup consisted of a black wig, long “hemorrhage red” fingernails, pasty white foundation and black arched eyebrows. She also took inspiration from corseted women in bondage magazines of the time to create for herself an impossibly thin 17-inch wasp waist. This look cemented Vampira as a horror icon.
Unfortunately The Vampira Show was cancelled after one year and though she kept the rights to her image, she did not receive lasting stardom or financial gain. But she will still go down in pop culture history history as a self made icon, an strong empowered woman and a self made queen of horror.
3. Carolyn Jones as Morticia Addams
In the 1960’s light-hearted TV shows about middle class family life were popular in America, and, as horror never goes out of style combining the two genres brought to audiences a new television hit and a very charming Mistress of the Dark.
In the 1930’s The Addams Family was a very popular cartoon created for the New Yorker magazine by artist Charles Addams, who’s wife, Barbara Jean Day, was the inspiration for the mother figure in the cartoon. The characters in the comic did not have names. So, in 1964 when ABC TV bought the rights for a TV series based on the cartoon, names were chosen for the TV characters. The mother / matriarch of the family was named “Morticia”, after the word “mortician” meaning a Funeral Director or Undertaker. Actress Carolyn Jones (1930-1983) was cast in the role of Morticia.
The Addams Family were not actually monsters, they were rich eccentric humans, with Morticia in the role of the mother, who was fond of brewing up witches potions containing ingredients such as “eye of newt”. She was very beautiful, slim with extremely pale skin and long black hair. She wore a tight, form fitting black hobble dress with octopus-like fringes coming out from the hem. She was elegant, poised and imperious. A true feminist who combined being a mother with being a loving and sexual wife who was always keen to seduce her husband Gomez. They had a healthy sexual relationship, which was way ahead of it’s time in puritanical 1960’s American television. Nolan Miller, the costume designer for Morticia’s dress wanted to create a look that would be both comic and sexy. He made a black skin tight hobble dress, which was very sexy, but difficult for Carolyn Jones to walk in. To get around this, he placed velcro up the back seam of the dress so that it could be easily opened up and the tails at the hem removed, so that Carolyn Jones could walk around when she wasn’t in front of the camera. Nolan Miller went on to design costumes for Gilligan’s Island, Greenacres, Charlies Angels, and is best known for defining 80’s fashion due to his costumes for the 1980’s show Dynasty.
No 4. Yvonne DeCarlo as Lily Munster
While ABC was winning America’s hearts with the Addams Family, at the same time, CBS TV brought to the screen a very similar theme and a humorous take on the Gothic Screen Goddess.
In 1964 in the same week as The Addams Family, CBS aired a similar show – The Munsters. While The Addams Family were a family of eccentric humans who acted like monsters, The Munsters were a family of monsters who thought they were normal. The show was less dark and more slapstick comedy, and this time the mother/matriarch was an actual Vampire playing the rool of a typical middle class American mom, with a macabre side.
Lily’s makeup artist was Abe Haberman (1909-1977) (supervised by Bud Westmore) who learned his craft working at Max Factor’s in Hollywood. Originally the actress Joan Marshall was picked for the role, but in early tests – though Marshall fit in perfectly with the looks of Vampira or Morticia, her look was too similar to theirs. They didn’t want to clash with Morticia in The Addams Family, playing at the same time, so they went with something slightly different. They changed the mother’s name to “Lily” – a cheery name for a flower associated with death. They hired exotic beauty Yvonne DeCarlo for the part of Lily. Yvonne DeCarlo was stunning. She had already been a beauty queen, a well established actress and a nightclub singer by the time she became the ghoulish matriarch of The Munsters.
The costumes for The Munsters were based on the classic monsters of Universal Studios of the 30’s and 40’s and the costume designer on the show was Vincent Dee. Lilys look, designed to contrast Morticias slinky black dress and raven hair, had two streaks of white, reminiscent of Elsa Lanchesters hair in the Bride of Frankenstein, which makes sense, as her husband in the show, Herman Munster was based on Frankenstein’s Monster. Her dress was a white flowing dress with black trim. Distinctly different from that of Vampira or Morticia, and much more like Luna’s bat winged dress from Mark of the Vampire, 1935.
No 5. Cassandra Peterson as Elvira
In the 1980’s horror was as popular as ever, so a new horror hostess was needed
to present b-boobies….I mean, b-movies…to the MTV Generation.
The year was 1981. Producers for KHJ-TV television in Los Angeles wanted to bring back The Vampira Show, so they approached Maila Nurmi to reprise the role for contemporary audiences. But negotiations broke down so they decided to go with comedic actress and dancer, Cassandra Peterson. Cassandra was not allowed to use the name “Vampira” for the show as Vampira had the rights, so Cassandra adopted the moniker of “Elvira” instead.
Much like the original Vampira, Maila Nurmi, Peterson developed her own unique character. She originally had the idea to look like Sharon Tates red headed character in the 1967 film the Fearless Vampire Killers, directed by Roman Polanski. However, goth was huge in the ‘80s and the producers wanted her in all black. So, her friend Robert came up with a beehive hairstyle which they called the “knowledge bump” which was based on the hairstyles of the 60’s girl band The Ronettes.
When it came to sex appeal, Elvira really upped the ante! Her hair was much higher, her neckline much lower and her impossibly tight dress slit right up to the…. well, let’s just say it did little to hide her modesty. She had been a member of the Groundlings Comedy Theater, so she infused a lot of campy humour into her character. She adopted a tongue-in-cheek “valley girl” persona full of hilarious sexual innuendos, which fit in perfectly with the MTV generation of the time. With this Elvira became a gothic Pop culture icon for a new generation.
There may not be a horror convention out there where these ladies haven’t influenced the costumes of attendees and cos-players, and there is not a vampi Halloween party goer today who’s costume can’t be traced back to this iconic look. I think it is amazing that such an iconic look can continue to appeal to generations of audiences. It can be sexy, sophisticated, glamorous and also fun! Whether they played single women, mothers or wives, each of these women portrayed empowered, no nonsense women, who owned their look. And that look is Drop.Dead.Gorgeous.
1935 – Carroll Borland defines the Mistress of the Dark look as “Luna” in Mark of the Vampire
1954 – Maila Nurmi reinvents the sexy gothic look for herself as “Vampira” in The Vampira Show
1964 – Carolyn Jones brings to the screens a most charming and cultured lady of the dark as “Morticia” in The Addams Family
1964 – Yvonne DeCarlo delights audiences with a combined vampire/bride of Frankenstein look As “Lily Munster” in The Munsters
1981 – Cassandra Peterson combines campy humour and bodacious sex appeal to become a gothic pop culture icon of the 1980’s in Elvira’s Movie Macabre
1983 – Carolyn Jones passes away at age 53
1994 – Carroll Borland passes away at age 80
2007 – Yvonne DeCarlo passes away at age 85
2008- Maila Nurmi passes away at age 86