Charleston-based author and CofC professor W. Scott Poole makes it clear in the introduction of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror that this will not be a traditional biography following the thread a person’s life from beginning to end. The book certainly isn’t a biography of Vampira, herself; a fictional character, Vampira was the host of a late-night horror film showcase The Vampira Show on a Los Angeles TV station that ran for about one year in the mid-50s before being periodically revived by her creator over the years. And it is more or less than a biography of that creator, Maila Nurmi. Instead, Poole, is as concerned with the larger social changes afoot in mid-century America and uses the Vampira narrative to approach the second half of the 20th century from a fresh, and new thought-provoking perspective.
The first 100 pages of the book are the most interesting as Vampira moves through multiple artistic, civil rights, and counter-cultural movements of the post-war national landscape. Raised during the depression by an American mother and Finnish immigrant father, Nurmi had always been an outsider — misunderstood by her own family, ridiculed by peers as a gawky teen, and feeling constantly at odds with the sexually repressive culture of her surroundings.
Her first appearance as Vampira took place at 1950s choreographer Lester Horton’s notorious Bal Caribe Masquerade where she arrived costumed as cartoonist Charles Addams’ Morticia Addams. While the character of Vampira also took clear cues from pin-up icon Betty Page, what resulted was singular — her sickly-pale skin, long black dress, and generally ghoulish appearance would set the standard for many acts to follow. For example Elvira, of the 1988 film Mistress of the Dark, would go on to remove the more subversive elements, while injecting some of the bubbly sexuality that Nurmi found so distasteful, and inspiring an ultimately losing lawsuit on the part of Nurmi.
Poole investigates the personal and social conditions that led Nurmi to develop the character in the first place. Presenting Vampira as a kind of embodiment of multiple strains of radical thought, and providing compelling evidence for his theories. For instance, he suggests that Vampira’s unhealthily thin waist was a subtle challenge to the assumption that a basic element of femininity is fecundity, and that her signature scream was more an assertion of sexual liberation than an expression of terror. The possibility is raised that her, and the country’s, fascination with the macabre was related to anxiety about the threat of nuclear war. Early in the book, Poole identifies his “secret history” approach to making sense of the past, using what is known and filling in missing facts and even motivations in order to use the past to make sense of the present. While Vampira combines elements of straightforward personal biography with musings about Nurmi’s possible motivations and deeper meanings, the book is at its most engaging when the author allows himself to connect the dots.
Though Nurmi’s rapid descent from sudden star to has-been was by virtue of her resistance to the conventions of the television industry, her pride and contrarian streak, Poole also suggests that it’s possible that the essential elements of Vampira, the character, contributed as much to her exit from the national consciousness. How else to explain her fall from being nominated for an Emmy for The Vampira Show (she lost to Lucille Ball) to unemployed in less than a year? Her otherworldly appearance, her refusal to conform to mainstream ideas of passive femininity, her hints of sadomasochism, her underlying challenge to what was then conceived of as common decency: any of these traits, alone, might provide reason enough for the character to become a target. Taken together, it might have simply been a case of too much, too soon. Regardless, once her show was canceled, she never came even close to the same degree of success.
The latter sections of the book suffer in comparison to what precedes it. The writing is less cohesive, and the structural organization falters. In more than one instance, a particular scene is introduced for a second time as a new element, providing the same information rather than referencing the previous passage. It’s a shame, as the book could be pared down by 20 or 30 pages, lose none of its value, and maintain the brisk pacing it achieves so well in the earlier chapters. Focused in part on Nurmi’s increasingly sad and desperate behavior, as well as her financial and legal troubles, the narrative addresses the resurgence of interest in Vampira during the last decades of her life. From her association with multiple punk bands to the renewed interest following her role in the cult classic Plan 9 from Outer Space and the release of the Tim Burton movie Ed Wood (based on the life of the Plan 9 director, and including Vampira as a supporting character), it’s interesting to discover the influence, sometimes subtle and sometimes overt, Vampira had on succeeding generations. And it’s worthwhile to consider that it took America so long to catch up enough to appreciate more subtle elements of what Nurmi might have been trying to convey about gender, power, and repression.
Overall, Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror provides an interesting take on a character, and the actress that created her, too easily dismissed as nothing more than a side-note in the stories of those with whom she crossed paths. (The list is longer than one might expect, and ranges from James Dean to Orson Welles, Liberace, and Elvis.) While much of what is most interesting about the book is, as Poole admits, educated conjecture and unverifiable “secret history,” it provides an interesting and singular window into a time in the nation’s past that can hardly be over-examined, especially as so many of the battles described are still being fought and it can often seem as if some of the hard-won gains of the era are slowly being given up. From marginalized groups fighting for civil rights to those seeking freedom of expression, many of them are not likely to be settled decisively anytime soon. It’s interesting, too, to wonder which of the seemingly transient or disposable features of our current popular culture will be dusted off and re-evaluated 50 years from now, and what that generation will discover about us, and itself, in the process.
Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror comes out on August 17 and is available for pre-order now. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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