Tall, dark, and sexy, this glamorously morose woman is an image we’re all familiar with, but few know the name or origins of televisions first horror movie host, Vampira.
Vampira was the creation of Maila Nurmi, a pinup model, and actress looking to start a career on television. While Maila had a successful career as a pinup model, she still hadn’t been able to break into film and decided the emerging medium of television might be where she needed to be. In 1953, she was invited to Hollywood choreographer Lester Horton’s annual Halloween ball. Maila thought this was her chance to be recognized by producers. In preparation to catch producers’ eye, Maila researched what was popular on tv and what might be missing. She realized that a satire of popular family sitcoms might be precisely what television needed and decided that Charles Addams New Yorker cartoon, The Addams Family, could fill this need. So for Horton’s ball, she decided to go as the yet unnamed matriarch of the Addams Family, Morticia. Maila made the costume herself and described the process in an interview with Stacey Asip-Kneitschel,
“So, first I made the costume. I bought a piece of material for $3.67, at The Home Silk Shop, on the remnants table. I didn’t have a sewing machine, so I cut it and sewed it by hand and made my costume. I wore pale green powder, with long toenails — Made myself flat-chested … so that I was very scrawny and pale green and there I was”. – Maila Nurmi
Her ploy worked, and KABC-TV producer Hunt Stromberg Jr. took notice of her and spent five months after the party looking for her. While Stromberg wasn’t interested in Maila’s idea to create an Addams Family tv show because of how expensive it would be, he did want to use her and the look she’d created to host syndicated horror movies without getting the rights from Charles Addams. Maila was utterly opposed to the idea of stealing the character but didn’t want to lose her chance to be on tv and asked for a few extra days to create a new character for the network. Maila wanted to keep the vampiric nature of the Addams matriarch while also creating something new. She found the solution in the bondage and shoe fetish magazine Bizarre. She decided a combination of “sex and death” would be the perfect new direction for her new character. When creating this new character, she decided to start with the wig she’d bought for the ball and dressed she’d made but deepened the dress’s V-neckline, added a slit in the skirt. To create a more pinup look, she got a padded pushup bra and corset that cinched her waist into 17 inches. She also added fishnet stocking and stilettos, and long manicured nails. Finishing up the look with extremely glam makeup and exaggerated eyebrows giving the newly dubbed Vampira her signature look. Executes at KABC-TV loved her and green-lit The Vampira Show.
The Vampira Show aired on April 30th, 1954, with Vampira’s horrifying opening gliding down a fog-filled hall then screaming into the camera before introducing that night’s movie with dark humor. Her ghoulish entrance and manner were exaggerated by her costume ensuring that she had the audiences attention. The show was an instant hit, with people saying they felt entranced by the program. Maila spent the next year promoting the show and making it an even bigger success. She did a spread in Life magazine and appeared on variety shows like The George Gobel Show and The Red Skelton Show with Bela Lugosi. However, the show was not destined for long term success. After just fifty episodes created over one year, The Vampira Show was canceled.
Maila Nurmi retained Vampira’s rights and appeared as her character in Ed Wood’s b-movie cult class Plan 9 From Outer Space alongside Bela Lugosi but was never able to recreate the success of the show with Vampira. One possible explanation for this is that she may have been blacklisted after refusing to sell Vampira’s rights to The Addams Family tv show producers. In the early ’80s, Maila was contacted to take part in a Vampira Show revival but parted ways with the production early on takes her rights to Vampira with her. However, the producers simply renamed it to Elvira’s Movie Macabre program, cast Cassandra Peterson as the titular host, updating Vampira’s look for the ’80s. Maila sued the production for Copy-write infringement but ultimately lost.
Vampira was cemented as a pop-culture icon when Lisa Marie portrayed her in the Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood. While contributing much to pop-culture as Vampira, it wasn’t until years after her death in 2008 that perhaps Vampira’s most significant contribution to pop-culture was substantiated. It had been rumored for decades that Disney villain Maleficent had been modeled after Vampira for their 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty. The exaggerated eyebrows and high cheekbones were dead giveaways to Vampira fans, but the production was so secret no one knew for sure. That was until her niece Sandra Niemi found entries in her aunt’s diaries that showed two separate days where Maila was scheduled to be a live-action model for Maleficent during the production. Disney confirmed this when an extensive exploration of their Sleeping Beauty archive was done ahead of the live-action remake. Maila Nurmi’s “ghoul queen” Vampira created a sexy and creepy icon that stays with us today.
Want to know more? Check out my sources.
- Greene, R. H. “The Real Maleficent: The Surprising Human Face behind the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Villain.” Salon, Salon.com, 15 Feb. 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/02/15/the_real_maleficent_the_surprising_human_face_behind_the_sleeping_beauty_villain/.
- Asip-Kneitschel, Stacey. “VAMPIRA ACTRESS MAILA NURMI: THE LAST INTERVIEW – PART 1.” PleaseKillMe, 15 Nov. 2019, pleasekillme.com/vampira-actress-maila-nurmi-part-1/.
- Asip-Kneitschel, Stacey. “VAMPIRA ACTRESS MAILA NURMI: THE LAST INTERVIEW – PART 2.” PleaseKillMe, 15 Nov. 2019, pleasekillme.com/vampira-actress-maila-nurmi-part-2/.
- “Maila Nurmi.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Oct. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maila_Nurmi.
- Staff, EW. “Interview with Vampira.” EW.com, ew.com/article/1994/11/18/interview-vampira/.
- Baby, Burly. “Vampira – Maila Nurmi.” Burlesque Baby Magazine, 6 July 2020, http://www.burlesquebaby.net/2020/07/06/vampira-maila-nurmi/.
- “Horror Icon Vampira: Fabulous Photos of Maila Nurmi in the 1950s.” Horror Icon Vampira: Fabulous Photos of Maila Nurmi in the 1950s ~, 18 May 2019, http://www.vintag.es/2019/05/maila-nurmi-vampira.html.
- Potempa, Philip. “Vampira, Aka Actress Maila Nurmi’s Passing Rekindles Memories of Elvira Rift.” Nwitimes.com, 17 Jan. 2008, http://www.nwitimes.com/entertainment/columnists/offbeat/vampira-aka-actress-maila-nurmis-passing-rekindles-memories-of-elvira-rift/article_6fd8f956-7950-53e3-a01c-46d3a21ac1da.html.
- Thompson, Brett. “The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr. .” The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr., 1995, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdfGJOaUPlw&list=PLtwaUGW5Y0WxPU77kiRjnFXRRzazazm5P&index=17.
- Hudgens, John E. “American Scary – Maila Nurmi (Vampira) – Extended Interview.” YouTube, 2006, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPqIhTREzbE&list=PLtwaUGW5Y0WxPU77kiRjnFXRRzazazm5P&index=18.
- Holiday, Lindsay. “Morticia, Vampira & Elvira.” YouTube, 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDfaVv3kQk0&list=PLtwaUGW5Y0WxPU77kiRjnFXRRzazazm5P&index=19.