Once in a great while a character is brought to life that outgrows its creator’s wildest dreams and becomes a life all of its own. Like a mad scientist whose creature runs amok, these figures in horror culture burn themselves forever into our memory and become as much a part of the culture as any artist could ever hope. When Maila Nurmi dressed up as Morticia Addams from the popular, dark comedy comic strip The Addams Family, all she wanted to do was see the cartoon antics of that twisted family brought to life on screen. She had no idea that her life was about to be usurped by a ghoulish temptress who would influence countless women in horror for generations as well as create the inspiration for the goth subculture. I’m talking about the original scream queen herself, Vampira.
Maila Nurmi was a Finnish-American who came to Hollywood set on being a star. Starting her career as a “cheesecake model”, the more tame West Coast counterpart to the bondage and burlesque styles of models like Bettie Page on the East Coast, Maila found herself in love with acting and with the comic style of Charles Addams. Taken by the design of the maternal, still unnamed figure in his comics that would eventually become Morticia, she attended a party one night in a costume emulating the cartoon vamp. Her hope was to create a new television series based on Addams work. Instead, she was picked up by a local television station to introduce low budget horror films as Vampira.
From 1954 through 1957 Maila was a regular on Los Angeles television playing the undead hostess. In fact, the publicity she generated from photo shoots and promotional pieces made her a national sensation and, were it not for those photos, her legacy would be almost completely lost. Airing in a time before broadcasts were routinely recorded, only two minutes of footage remain from her series featuring the introduction and a coy bit about making her favorite bloody cocktail. But something bizarre happened after her show came to an end. Maila Nurmi stopped appearing altogether on film and television and was replaced entirely by Vampira. Always in character to the point of being genuinely terrifying to some co-stars and producers, Nurmi’s passion for her creation became an all consuming obsession. Contracts were routinely made out to her alter-ego and the star even mentions in passing missives and audio recordings how Vampira truly took over every aspect of her life.
In the eighties, she attempted to resurrect Vampira’s television presence, passing the torch to a new generation of buxom, witty, horror hostess in the form of Cassandra Peterson. Artistic and legal conflicts soon erupted that resulted in the birth of Elvira. Was the entire premise usurped from its creator or was this the natural evolution of the concept for a new generation? I’ll leave that debate for the fans and film buffs. For Nurmi, it was the end. She’d continue to appear on screen and in film, always in small roles and always credited as her character until 2000. Maila Nurmi died in 2008.
Vampira, however, continues to haunt us.
Vampira has been credited as the first goth with her darkly sarcastic persona and macabre fashion setting a tone for an entire counterculture across the world. The living embodiment of Charles Addams’ dark, maternal figure she inspires a mix of discomfort and awe with her tightly bound waist and painfully produced hourglass figure that seemed so fantastically unreal. She inspired generations of glamour ghouls and her influence can be seen in the likes of Elvira, HorrorGal Susan, and a slew of other hostesses in the last sixty years. She came to Hollywood to be a star and instead became a legend living forever in that pantheon of horror characters that will always haunt our dreams.
Malia Nurmi, Vampira, was the original Woman in Horror.