The rise and fall of Vampira, dark goddess of horror

Dig Me, Vampira was like nothing that had yet appeared in television’s brief existence. Premiering on April 30, 1954, it became an instant hit in the Los Angeles area. Then things exploded. By W. Scott Poole.

She walked screaming out of the white smoke, a black-clad goddess of death, exuding aggressive sex. Her eyes held just a tinge of threat. Her nails, phallic daggers of implied violence. Waist shrunken to a ghastly circumference, her eyebrows archly painted, her long black hair swirling behind and around her, she shocked, titillated, angered, obsessed.

She called herself Vampira.

She introduced every show with a scream, a bloodcurdling extrusion that had to issue out of some cavern too big, dark, and lonely to live inside her impossible 36-17-36 figure. She screamed and looked directly at the camera, a goth Garbo who seized the eye of the audience, refusing to become a simple object of their regard. She seduced them with the offer of a night of B-movies, horror and sci-fi fare, mostly execrable, but seasoned with her spicy sweetness and her undertone of aggression that radiated underneath heavy white pancake make-up.

Nobody could turn off the TV. It was 1954.

Maila Nurmi screamed in a postwar America of chilling optimism, everyday repressions, and awkward silences. She was the child of Finnish immigrants, a runaway in the 30’s who worked as an actor, a model for softcore men’s magazines, and a burlesque dancer. She had a taste for the macabre that led her to delve into the sediment of midcentury America until it yielded its dark treasures. A pin-up model who found herself turned into the 50’s American middle class housewife, she refashioned herself to escape the confines of cultural expectation.

Nurmi had explored the tangled underside of the country since the mid-1940s; an underground gothic land lived beneath the sun- lit world of postwar America. As a young runaway, she performed in a New York horror/burlesque show known as “Spook Scandals” that had called for her to rise out of a coffin and scream. There she had begun to craft the character of Vampira, thinking about how the sexy and the horrific could intertwine, a dance between Eros and Thanatos.

Mailagrad
Image: Courtesy of Clatsop County Historical Society

By 1946, Nurmi stood on the verge of wider fame after being cast in a Howard Hawks production called Dreadful Hollow with a screenplay written by William Faulkner. This would have been Faulkner’s first and only foray into the world of gothic horror, indeed it would have become Faulkner’s “vampire movie.” The production collapsed in development though it also became Nurmi’s ride to L.A., a way to reach Hollywood and breathe the tinseled air full of fantasy and promise.

vampirafashionWalking through the glitzy caverns of mostly broken dreams, Nurmi discovered limited success in what the era called “modeling magazines.” She appeared as a centerfold in Glamorous Models, blonde and voluptuous but with a hint of mystery. Even while crafting her “blonde bombshell” character, she made sure the shadowy aspect of her persona grew. In her modeling career, she experimented with an outrageous variety of looks that borrowed in equal parts from Lauren Bacall, pulp science fiction, B-movie horror, and the American tradition of burlesque.

vamp-cover W. Scott Poole's Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror is available from Amazon.

Marriage to screenwriter Dean Riesner (who later scripted Play Misty for Me and Dirty Harry) provided her with some financial security. Marriage also transformed her into a housewife who worked part-time as a hatcheck girl. She was determined to find ways to break out of the bonds of domestic containment. In this period, she later claimed, she dreamed of becoming a travelling evangelist in the mold of the 30s religion and glamour diva Aimee Semple McPherson.

Nurmi hoped to unite the weirdness of America’s religious underground with the increasingly marginalized carnival world of the sideshow. She planned to tour with a tent, call herself Sister Saint Francis, proclaim world peace, perhaps put on display some “psychic abilities” and make boatloads of cash. Unfortunately, such an endeavor required capital she didn’t have. She had no idea what steps to take that would allow her to launch such an ambitious plan.

So she waited, stuck with Riesner in their common-law marriage that still managed to replicate the revival of domestic values so important to postwar America. She modeled for photographers, checked coats and hats, and waited.

VampirasetphotoHer break, she thought, came at a Halloween party in 1953. Dance choreographer Lester Horton (famous for his work in the Tarzan films of the 30s) invited her to his annual Halloween ball. For the occasion, Nurmi created an early version of Vampira, a prototype creature with long black hair and a black cocktail dress, a kind of bride of Dracula that owed something to Caroline Borland’s fey vampire child in Mark of the Vampire and a bit to Gloria Holden’s Sapphic seducer in Daughter of Dracula.

Horton’s party, the Bal Carribe, was the hottest event of the year for avant-garde Hollywood. Horton, long part of golden age Hollywood’s “gay mafia,” created a spectacle of camp, drag, and dance. But even amidst the subversive glitter, Maila stood out. She won the grand prize for best costume and Hunt Stromberg Jr., a producer for Los Angeles’ KABC TV, had the idea that he could use the character in connection with a late night horror show he hoped to create. Stromberg wanted to show horror and sci-fi films, B-pictures mostly, to late night audiences. The pictures he could show without risking copyright infringement were mostly dreadfully shot and acted. He knew he needed a gimmick, a host to leaven the celluloid lump with humor, maybe a little sex and something indefinable that would give his wretched list of flicks some sizzle.

“Dig Me, Vampira” was like nothing that had yet appeared in television’s brief existence. Premiering on April 30, 1954, it became an instant hit in the Los Angeles area. Then things exploded. *****

VampiraDeanphotoVampira quickly reached a larger audience through a Life magazine photo shoot. She appeared on Red Skelton’s popular show alongside Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi. She hung out with James Dean and his entourage at Googie’s Restaurant, one of the few late night spots in 1950s Hollywood. She became part of “the night watch,” aspiring actors and directors that hovered around Dean, the strange and beautiful boy from Indiana who had yet to reach superstardom in East of Eden.

Ratings for the Vampira show shot through the roof in the year to come and Nurmi seemed on the verge of major stardom. But KABC cancelled her contract around the time of the death of James Dean. Despite her popularity, Vampira had spun a web of controversy that entangled her and the station. FCC warnings, a lawsuit by a starlet who thought her career had been ruined by the image of Vampira, and, finally, the end of Nurmi’s marriage to Reisner, a blow to the station’s public relations campaign that had attempted to portray her as a normal housewife who liked to play dress-up as a bit of “horrific whimsy.” Dean’s death, or at least the bizarre rumors that surrounded Nurmi in the aftermath of it, represented the final straw.

Plan 9By the late 1950s her television career was over; she lived with her mother while receiving unemployment benefits. She appeared in the Ed Wood directed Plan 9 from Outer Space that, while later a cult hit, barely had any audience at all in the first years of its existence. True and lasting stardom never came calling again. By the 1960s, Nurmi supported herself as a tile contractor. Stories, patently untrue, circulated of roles in pornographic films. She became a figure of local legend in West Hollywood, part of a cast of peculiar characters who’d once been famous and now were not.

Vampira disappeared. But she thrived in the cultural underground. Maila Nurmi hung out with the punk/metal band the Misfits in the 80s at places like West Hollywood Vinyl Fetish. She also worked on a book she never finished, a memoir of underside of a 50s Hollywood that stayed up late nights at Googies Restaurant, popped pills, and lived off the warm glow of stardom it stalked.

She died, alone, in 2008.

Perhaps this is all that we need know of her story. Perhaps it’s more or less all that can be known. It’s true that her influence has spread far and wide. There may not be a horror convention where her visage doesn’t influence the tattooed seductress cos-players, not a horror host who doesn’t owe something to her camp humor, no mistress of the night anywhere whose ultimate origin point can’t be traced to this runaway, this late night comedian.

Vampira borrowed from many of the ghosts that haunted American culture, elements never before brought together with the kind of sexual energy and threatening cultural pose that Vampira adopted. She described her character as a monster crafted out of the elements of American history, the terrors of the great depression, and the postwar style of the Beats. She raises questions about everything we think we know about the American fifties.

Excerpted from Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror. Copyright 2104 by W. Scott Poole. Published by Soft Skull Press. All rights reserved. Photos: Collection of the Author

Published 4:00 am Wed, Sep 3, 2014

About the Author

W. Scott Poole (@monstersamerica), who teaches at the College of Charleston, has written widely about American history, horror, and pop culture, including most recently in his award-winning history, Monsters in America, which received the John G. Cawelti prize from the Popular Culture Association and was named among the "Best of the Best" by the AAUP for 2011.

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