Spooky Bad Bitch of the Month—January
In this new segment we’ll be highlighting one Spooky Bad Bitch each month! We’ll discover women or non-binary people who were influential or forever changed the landscape of horror film. For our first segment, we begin with one of the original baddies herself…
Maila Nurmi is such an iconic figure that it’s difficult to describe her wide-ranging influence on the next generation of filmmakers. She played Vampira, the bombshell wasp-waisted vamp famous for The Vampira Show. A quirky, innovative individual, Vampira lead a career which was influential, but that took some dark turns...
It was a head-scratcher. Television producer Hunt Stromberg Jr. was trying to introduce televised horror movies to the public, but the films he had to show during his allotted time slots were not high caliber. Stromberg desperately needed something to make the shows pop, to give his audiences a reason to tune in regularly.
After seeing Maila Nurmi dressed as a rather impressive vampire at a Los Angeles costume party, Stromberg was obsessed with her look. He didn’t know who she was, but he spent months trying to find out who the woman dressed as the sultry vampire was.
From then on known as Vampira, Nurmi’s costume was based around the idea of a sexier Morticia Addams from the Addams family cartoons. Nurmi and her screenwriter husband Dean Riesner were trying to get the cartoonist’s attention to inspire him to create an Addam’s Family TV show. Their plan worked out a bit differently than they planned—Stromberg was obsessed with Nurmi’s look, but insisted that she needed to change her look a bit so as not to impose on Charles Addams’ cartoon.
Nurmi went to work designing her new and improved Vampira look. She had dabbled in burlesque, which clearly inspired her sky-high eyebrows and sultry, over-the-top persona. Her look was additionally inspired by BDSM magazine Bizarre, the Dragon Lady from “Terry and the Pirates,” and the evil queen from Disney’s Snow White.
Vampira crafted her signature spiky nails out of thick plastic and airplane glue. To achieve her impossibly tiny 17 inch waist, she smeared cold cream mixed with papaya powder (a main ingredient of meat tenderizer) around her waist then wrapped herself in a rubber inner tube.“My waist just melted, it was digesting my flesh,” she said about the grisly routine. She couldn’t eat while wearing the homemade corset. (Rumors circulated that she’d had ribs removed to achieve her 38-17-36 figure, but she was actually just very small.) And Vampira wasn’t just a television character to Nurmi—she wore her costume everywhere in public, including while driving or eating at fancy restaurants.
The Vampira Show premiered in 1954. Nurmi’s Vampira was a character who was unapologetically sexy, striving to push the limits of just how sultry and surprising one could be on a televised program in the 1950’s.
In the show’s infamous opening, Vampira saunters towards the camera, screams loudly, and then declares that screaming calms her nerves. From just this opening alone, Vampira is one of a kind. She grabs the audience by their collar and twists. Vampira wants you to feel uncomfortable, she wants to push you outside of your comfort zone.
Vampira makes you feel as if you, the audience, are privileged to watch her smoke cigarettes in her attic. Even the act of blowing out a candle is sexy when prefaced by Vampira purring, “Let me darken the room before we commence.”
In 1954, Vampira was a huge hit. Her introductions were must-see television. Life ran a four page photo spread of her. Mae West, who was a fan of the show, sent her Swedish meatballs. Nurmi began to hang out with celebrities, including Jonathan Haze and James Dean. She and Dean had a strange friendship, as both were obsessed with morbidity. He and Nurmi quickly became close friends, meeting at midnight every night to “go slumming around” at popular hotspots.
However, Vampira's life soon took a turn for the worse. While Dean’s popularity skyrocketed, The Vampira Show was shuttered after less than a year. Vampira was blacklisted in the industry after refusing to relinquish the rights to her infamous character. (Her husband later admitted that he probably could have helped her create a bigger audience for character if he hadn’t mismanaged her rights to the character.)
Dean began to suspect that she was using him for his fame as her own spotlight began to fade. The final straw for their friendship was when Dean gave an interview dismissing Vampira as merely “a subject about which I wanted to learn.”
After her show ended, Vampira went to New York, working for $.94 an hour cleaning apartments. In her own home, she was brutally attacked in a home invasion that lasted hours. She was tortured for nearly an entire night before she escaped and her attacker was caught. Cruelly, newspapers and tabloids mocked her mercilessly, writing that if she had been wearing her Vampira costume, she might not have been attacked.
Vampira quickly returned to California after that, trying to get work where she could find it. Her once close friend James Dean died in a car accident in 1955, and tabloids blamed Vampira for his death, calling her a “witch” or insisting she had cast spells to cause his demise.
Around the same time, Vampira was also plagued with fans who were enamored with her character’s love of all things morbid, showing up at her house to try to talk with her or sending her endless letters. She said in a 1975 interview, “Necrophiliacs would send me erotic poems, leave decapitated animals on the front porch.”
In yet another stroke of poor luck, one of Vampira’s only other roles was in the movie that is considered the worst ever made, Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959). Reportedly, she did not see the movie for decades.
Vampira was largely reclusive for the remainder of her life.
Vampira’s character was, of course, copied by various TV shows after The Vampira Show ended. Although brief, her influence spread far and wide, to the Addams Family and The Munsters, burlesque performances, not to mention her influence on countless horror fans.
Her all-consuming performance as Vampira both on and off television was remarkable at the time, it was practically unheard of. And as one of the first horror hosts, she pushed the trend forward. Her sexy, bold performance as Vampira was ahead of her time, inspiring generations of macabre filmmakers and actors.