Maila Nurmi - Unforgettable Women of Horror
This is the year of celebrating women in horror here at 52 Weeks of Horror and, for this to also be the start of Women in Horror Month, we thought it would be good to do something a bit different. There are so many incredible people working in the horror community right now and even more who are pioneers of the genre and true patrons of these dark arts. This month, we’re going to look at some of the more Unforgettable Women of Horror. For fans of the genre, some of these names will be familiar and, maybe even common place. Others may not be. That said, who better to start this month than the original scream queen herself, Maila Nurmi.
Maila Nurmi, 1947
We did a piece on Maila Nurmi last year for Women in Horror Month so I’m not going to get too deep into the historical aspects of her life. There’s a number of documentaries and books, as well as the referenced article that can do that. An actress and performer at the dawn of television, Nurmi had a dream of adapting the comic strip The Addams Family for television. She attended a party to try and draw attention to her proposal dressed as the still unnamed character that would eventually become Morticia Addams. While her attempts to bring the Addams’ to television in the 50’s failed, she did manage to create something even more astonishing and memorable: Vampira.
Vampira was the original television vamp, a mysterious, alluring, mistress of the night who hosted Z Grade movies on late night television. In these early days, however, most local programming didn’t have the financial means nor the historical forethought to record these broadcasts and all but two minutes of Nurmi’s show has been lost to time. If everything about Vampira was hinged upon television, she may have been as lost as those episodes of her show but the advertising campaign around this truly incredible character was something else. Articles, photo shoots, and major news stories made her a true glamour ghoul and silently preserved the underlying essence and mystique of the character.
From 1954 to 1958, Maila Nurmi would portray the character of Vampira but, starting in the late 50’s there was a change. The lines began to blur between Nurmi and her creation in a true Jekyll and Hyde fashion. There was much less Maila than there was Vampira and many of the roles she took in the decades following her show saw her credited as the character rather than the woman. From her appearances in various variety shows to her most notorious role as “Vampire Girl” in Ed Wood’s classic cinematic disaster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, many of her roles after the end of her show saw her identified as the character.
Maila Nurmi never seemed to step out of the shadow of Vampira. In the decades that followed she made numerous attempts to revitalize the role and her career including and attempt in the late 70’s and early 80’s that would result in the creation of Cassandra Peterson’s character Elvira. This in particular was a devastating blow to Nurmi and one from which she would never fully recover. Despite remaining active in film and television until 2000, she would never again know the success she had at the start of her career. She died in 2008.
Maila Nurmi was a pioneering woman of horror on film and television. Vampira would go on to inspire countless horror hosts, pop culture references, and even a song by the punk rock band The Misfits. Despite the fact that her acting as the vampiric hostess she created has been relegated to barely a snippet of a video on YouTube nearly 65 years after she first appeared on screens, the subtle and overt influences she has left in the genre are immortal. Nurmi’s later life was dominated by Vampira or, rather, her struggle to separate herself from her own creation.
Maila Nurmi was an inspiring figure in the horror community, a woman with a particular vision who remained determine to create on her own terms. She created a character in Vampira that will live on for generations to come and, at least in that, she will never really be forgotten.
Dan is an author, editorialist, podcaster, and horror culture & lifestyle correspondent from the Southeast. You can find Dan's stories at Danno of the Dead Blog and through PDI Press.