It’s been a morbid anticipation for October to arrive with its spider web décor, horror films, and dark clothing. As you know, this monthly column is where I write about stars from Hollywood’s past who have changed the industry and the world. This month is no exception. Now, who is someone who will welcome us with a shriek into this wicked month? Someone from Hollywood, of course. Someone who rebelled against the norms of America: Vampira.
Yes, the femme fatale who used comedic horror to scare yet spellbound audiences during late night television long before Elvira took over. This month the Old Hollywood Spotlight shines — or in this case dims as spooky music plays — for Vampira, the dark goddess of horror. Vampira’s persona oozed with terror and sexuality, a rebellious monster, something opposite of the submissive American housewife, as described by W. Scott Poole in Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror.
Beware: This is a twisted turn from this column’s realm since I always introduce you to celebrities from Hollywood’s past, but this month it’s on the shadow of a star. Someone, merely an aspect of fiction, who was brought to life by a former outcast, whose immortalized character became her.
The story begins with Maila Nurmi, the daughter of Finnish immigrants, the runaway who chased freedom to find her true self and others like her. Maila Nurmi is as mysterious as Vampira because, with the obscure information and pieces of film tapes left behind, there is not much information on the actress who took on the seductively horrifying persona.
Born Elizabeth Maila Syrjaniemi in 1922 Massachusetts, Maila Nurmi was an outlaw in high school as a result of her physical appearance, which she described as:
“scrawny, knock-kneed, pigeon-toed, flat-chested and yellow, with what looks like rancid spaghetti for hair… a pig’s snout, a mouth perpetually ajar, gasping for breath and revealing a broken picked fence of teeth. The icing on the cake, the ultimate embellishment the countenance wears… is a hollow expression, as of a visitor from another planet.”
It was clear the teenage Elizabeth Syrjaniemi had difficulty fitting in, so her escape was reading and drawing comics about fantasy. When she heard Orson Welles’s voice on the radio, she told her mother that the actor was speaking directly to her. As her mother Sophia would say, “Shut up, (you are simply) Elizabeth Syrjaniemi and you work at the fish cannery.” Their mother and daughter relationship was a rough one.
It wasn’t long until Elizabeth Syrjaniemi left her home like the quarter of a million teens who wanted to escape the 1930s Great Depression to find better fortune and freedom. The alienated teen “knew there were others” like her, and she went to find them.
One of her first modeling jobs was in Los Angeles, and by the time she landed in New York City, she had become Maila Nurmi. The new name represented independence, a step forward, and a step farther from her past. Nurmi began to do pinup modeling, and by age 18 she appeared on the cover of Glamorous Models, where Marilyn Monroe would be years later. Nurmi also made monologues for radio, modeled for advertisements, and worked as a cigarette girl in various New York clubs.
Nurmi was married to the screenwriter Dean Riesner for six years, and as a housewife whose husband worked from home, she went out to prevent distracting him. Nurmi spent most nights at Googie’s restaurant in Hollywood with aspiring actresses, failed poets, and beatniks, among them the soon-to-be star James Dean. In 1953, she got invited to a Halloween party in Hollywood, which she attended in a black dress, a witch’s hat, and white face makeup. She won best costume that night, and so began her creation of Vampira.
Her scream is sharp as it cuts through the fog and the television screen. The black widow figure wrapped in a black dress to match the long, raven hair that swings when she moves, and those claws, those arched eyebrows, that voice that can put you at ease but also terrify with her chosen words. The film she’s about to present will transport you into another dimension and frighten away your sleep. It was Halloween every night from April 30, 1954 through 1955 in the form of the series The Vampira Show, Vampira Returns, and Vampira.
The “perfect” 1950s had housewives, obedient children, and hardworking men, which were interrupted by late night screening of science fiction and horror films hosted by Vampira — as played by Maila Nurmi. She came before Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone frightened us with ordinary people spooked by masked normal events or alien thrillers.
Vampira’s scream and appearance was a form of rebellion that cut through the happy-go-lucky appearance of the American housewife and its materialistic culture. Instead of wearing pastel dresses and cleaning the house, she wore a wiggle dress with a deep neckline and served herself a cocktail. “There was so much repression,” Nurmi said years later, “and people needed to relate with something explosive, something outlandish and truthful.”
Nurmi described Vampira as a mixture of “Pola Negri, Marie Antoinette, Marilyn Monroe, Norma Desmond, and Tallulah Bankhead rolled into one.” With that girly and seductive personality and gruesome dark taste, Vampira was the kind of woman many repressed wives wanted to be.
It has been rumored that Vampira was in love with actor James Dean, but he never returned the affection. The TV horror host was blamed for his death because of her gothic style linked to witchcraft and the occult. Historian David J. Skal said both Dean and Vampira shared an interest in the occult, and as a result of his “unrequited love,” Vampira did something about it. It has been claimed, however, that Vampira had an altar built to save Dean from death as a result of his dangerous car racing habits. Did Vampira have something to do with the actor’s death? Was this an altar welcoming his death as a way to punish him for rejecting the goddess of horror? It is uncertain, and Vampira herself never cleared up those rumors.
Not long after Dean’s fatal accident, Vampira showed up to a Hollywood party, uninvited, dressed in black with a witch’s hat and accompanied by a bandaged man in a leather jacket and wavy pompadour hair. Vampira had played with the gossip, adding that if she could make Dean die, she could also have him resurrected from the grave. There were even rumors that Dean was not dead. It was a story made by his family because he was supposedly disfigured after the accident.
Turns out, Vampira’s career reached its own doom shortly after her lover’s death in 1955 as a result of her supposed ties to his fatal accident. She returned in the sci-fi, horror film Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and did other small appearances in TV and cinema leading up to the year 2000.
Vampira was a rebellious creature rising from the tomb of 1950s America. Her appearance, personality, and welcoming scream was the portal to women’s freedom. Decades after being a TV star, Vampira’s independence, sexuality, and ability to find others like her continues even after Maila Nurmi’s death in 2008.