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This profile is my humble tribute to the Godmother of Horror Hosts. If Vampira were alive, today it would be her 98th birthday. But since she can be considered immortal, here it goes: Happy b-day Vampira!
I believe that the world in general, and horror fans in particular are indebted to Maila Nurmi, the pioneering, defiant creator of the Vampira character.
Let it be known, and repeated, Maila “Vampira” Nurmi was a way larger than life personality.
I don’t have concrete proof for what I think about her, but I’ll share it anyway: I think that if she hadn’t existed, horror would be a very different genre from how it evolved in the 60+ years since she changed the genre from what it was before her. There are other implications of Maila’s influence in American culture, but I rather let such tangential explorations to historians and sociologists.
I’m an enthusiast about Vampira because I was always interested in horror hosts. Not because I fancy to become one myself (I don’t) or anything like that. I love horror hosts simply because I was exposed to them since I was a little child and they never stopped fascinating me.
In mid-2020 I read the book by W. Scott Poole “Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror” and it changed my life forever.
The more I learned about Vampira, the more I felt identified with her, with her love of horror and adventure, camp and comics, radness and reclusiveness, and, ultimately, with her hard time fitting in square society at large.
Of especial mention of the things “Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror” taught me that I loved about her, and saw myself in her, was her love for comic books when she was a young girl.
Still, the parts of that book that I enjoyed the most were the parts that told about her struggles to carve a niche for herself in Hollywood amid adversity.
For the life she lived, it’s obvious that Nurmi didn’t espouse the rats-race ideology in the least, and society made her pay the price of not conforming and living life as an independent, free entity.
The price was, first, the industry’s deplatforming with the cancellation of her T.V. show, and soon after, how the majority of the public ended up forgetting about her.
Maila Elizabeth Syrjäniemi (her family name also figures as Niemi elsewhere) claimed that she was born in Petsamo, Finland and that she was taken to the States when their family immigrated when she was aged two.
There’s another version that she was born on December 11th, 1922, in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
She grew up in a Finnish community in Ashtabula, Ohio.
Her family moved a lot and by the time she was in high school they were in Astoria, Oregon. In the Land of Hard Cases, she graduated from Astoria high school in 1940. *2
Soon after graduating from high school, in 1940, she relocated to Los Angeles to work in the film industry as an actress. She didn’t last long in the City of Angels the first time around and soon after she was in New York City.
In ‘43 she worked in the Mae West play “Catherine The Great” on Broadway. She was a stage horror face in New York before being a TV horror hostess in Los Angeles. In New York, she acted in a spook show/vaudeville play (that featured her making a stunt with a coffin) that was named “Spook Scandals”.
Howard Hawks, director, producer, and screenwriter working for Fox since 1925, saw Maila acting in, “Spook Scandals”, in 1944. He was stricken by the proto-Vampira character that Maila played in it and connected with her.
Second time in L.A. — Settling down
Maila returned to Los Angeles in 1945 following up on Howard Hawks’ assurance that he would give her work in Hollywood. *3
Her plans to become a Hollywood actress didn’t materialize right away and she had to resort to relatively backwards model/vedette gigs to maintain a sense of self-sufficient autonomy.
In Los Angeles, Maila was part of a clique of beatniks known as The Night Watch, a group that included James Dean. Dean’s nickname for The Nigh Watch cadre was “The Spooks”.
They congregated in Googie Coffee Shop, in Sunset Blvd and Crescent Heights, in West Hollywood; one block from what could be called the entrance to Laurel Canyon.
The story of Maila’s stunted economical development and fight for survival is dramatic and a very sad one at that. What I understood as the bottom-line of her season on T.V. was that she was banished and forgotten by the suits that could have integrated her in the world of television.
I think that the said suits may have felt that for the sole fact of existing, she was, to borrow a phrase from Scientology, a “potential/confirmed trouble source”.
You may feel that I’m over-thinking it, but what I learned about her background from Scott Poole’s book is that she had a rather left-wing leaning karma, due to the environment she grew up in.
Even if she worked hard to wash it off, going to market (LA, NYC and then back to LA) as soon as possible as she did, the prejudices that scrutiny of her background may have awakened, may have proven career-killing due to the situation in the film industry in those ugly old days of red scares and nation-wide communism paranoia.
Still, what she has left behind makes me think that she was stubborn on being true to her ideals.
It’s kind of ironic that she became known globally for Vampira, the character that pretty much incarnated her ideals during her most tender age; her stance towards life around the time when she graduated from high school.
Maila Nurmi’s Looks
Working on a basis of Norse beauty of clear eyes, and a harmonious, feminine nose and brow, Maila constructed Vampira’s only slightly obfuscating her natural good looks. A dark funeral-widow-lookalike, spooky femme-fatale of horror that attracts and repulses at the same time.
It was a look that became the most prehistoric and primordial template of the female goth’s look. I’m okay with that, except for other cultures that jumped in the bandwagon, whin I’m not going to going to even name right now.
While Vampira’s image wasn’t 100% original, the sick twists she gave to the (yet unnamed) Morticia Addams comic strip character that inspired her made Vampira look similar, yet sexier, and at the same time scarier than the Addams cartoon.
Elements of the look that you don’t see in Addam’s character are for instance the long talon-like nails, the widow’s peak, and the fishnet stockings.
Without a trace of a doubt, the most stunning and worthy of note element of her image was her unnaturally tiny waist, which measured only 17 inches, the bees knees in waists!
She was the cover model for a magazine called Glamorous Models. Poole writes in his book that he thinks that the picture may be the product of a photoshoot during that brief time she spent in Los Angeles, before going to New York. *4
Maila loved Charles Addams’ cartoons and the seminal version of the Vampira character, which caused a sensation in a 1954 Halloween party, was a freestyle, bare-footed emulation of the Homebodies’ Female Ghoul, who later became The Addam’s Family’s Morticia.
Maila’s Significant Others
She married three times. The first time, to a screenwriter, Dean Riesner (who won an Oscar as director of the 1948 film Bill and Coo) who, she lamented, never wrote something for her.
Her second husband was the actor John Brinkley, who she married in 1958. The third marriage was to Fabrizio Mioni, in 1960. *(source)
Other than her husbands, the names of the Hollywood men she dallied with are all big, household ones: Dean, Welles, Elvis, Brando.
The Ghost of James Dean
Maila’s life changed and was forever haunted after the tragedy of James Dean’s death.
This is mostly all hearsay, and, as I came to learn, difficult to confirm. You know that you can’t believe practically anything from tabloids, 99% being sensational distortions of reality to sell issues.
Something true was that she had sent Dean a postcard that had a photo of herself sitting by an open grave, in a cemetery, with the phrase “Darling, come and join me” and her signature.
The tabloid’s version about this event is that James Dean died because Vampira did a work of black magic on him. This page tells the story in detail.
Vampira and The 1950s
I see the 1950s as a pomaded, moccasined, uptight era. I espouse the cultural and artistic ideology of the late 1970s and early 1980s: punk rock (in my case hc-punk) culture.
I can’t say I share the political convictions and causes of the hc-punk crowd, but in the aesthetic and social (as long as it’s not related to a political cause) branches, I identify myself with them.
Now, most people that know at least a wee bit about youth culture know that punk rockers of the mid to late seventies decreed a regulation for punk: rejecting hippies and their psycho-social idiosyncrasies.
I don’t know much about the fifties, but for the little that I do know, let me tell you this, I’ll take the 1960s over the 1950s any day, even if they were a decade owned by the flower power children, that I don’t care for.
Let me get this straight, the leaders (or those with potential to become leaders) of the changes that arrived in the sixties may have been targeted for covert assassination, and the population may have been also targeted for repression with the excuse of unamerican activities, still, I see the balance of power totally skewed towards the bad guys in the 1950s, that’s why I prefer the following decade, warts and all.
The 1950s look to me as a very trying moment to be alive if you have a punk-grade level of detachment, social autism, and a sense of personal freedom like I guess Maila had.
They were hard times for her, and I decided not include any of the data on Scott Poole’s book about the period when she was in Los Angeles before the T.V. show.
She needed to work, but she wasn’t about to degrade herself letting anyone think that she was at the level of Ed Wood. She made her opinion on Wood public, so everyone would know. She said that she, when she met Ed Wood for the first time, thought “This little creep thinks I’m going to work for him”.*5
I think that Vampira’s case of being forgotten by the TV and movie industries boiled down to the interplay between her dignified sense of self-worth, and her background and social class in the eyes of powerful film industrialists.
I guess that once the decision-makers knew her biography up to then, they didn’t like what they saw very much.
The dynamic between those two things, coupled with the inherent economic exploitation so much prevalent in Hollywood in those years just made for a career-killing combination.
The reason why “Dig me Later Vampira” was pulled from the airwaves is proof of what I said at the beginning of this article, that culturally, the world in general, and certain specif crowds are indebted to her.
The crowd that adopted her more actively than any other was punk, and she contributed to punk’s musical canon.
Still, there’s something that she did that is maybe not as evident as her active participation in punk rock, but an influence of extreme importance to punk rock. I’m talking about why they axed the T.V show.
It was because Maila, eight months in after the shows premiere, refused to sell the Vampira character to the WABC station.*6
She refused to sell out, and that gesture went a long way. One of the communities that welcomes her the most, punk, has taken that attitude to heart, and sellouts versus credibles is a classic polarization of punk thought.
Vampira was one of our earliest social distancers. She made sure of making her life strictly private. She made a point of not being treated as a commodity by being fastidious about her decision to be unavailable for virtually everyone.
Her legacy is kind of elusive too, if you don’t know where to begin your search. In my experience except for Vampira photos, most other media by her, about her, or featuring her is hard to come by.
While maybe the most precious items of all of her output, the T.V. episodes of her show, are lost and only a very tiny sample survives, there is a lot of Vampira merchandise with the potential of entertaining collectors for a long while.
Another thing is, the articles I read off the internet about her T.V. show, all parrot the same statement that there isn’t anything that survived because the episodes of the show were broadcasted live.
Still, for persons like me, that can’t accept a thing like that there’s always hope that something will be unearthed sometime, and prove the naysayers wrong.
Or maybe this is the maximum we can aspire to…
… a recreation of her show utilizing snippets of footage of her show sandwiching a movie to create the illusion of having watched an episode of her show.
It shows an introduction to the program, but sadly it doesn’t have an accurate presentation of the movie. If you think you can sit through “The Corpse Vanishes”, until the end, you’ll be rewarded with around one additional minute of her show’s footage wrapping up the experience.
Vampira’s Attic, the makers of this strange horror artifact even went as far as splicing commercials of the era in choice parts of the video, and those ads certainly do flesh-out the experience even more (no pun intended, you’ll understand when you watch it).
Vampira/Maila Audiovisual Media Appearances
Listing only available media. These are movies in which Maila had a part.
“Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1957)
“Too Much Too Soon” (1958)
“The Big Operator” (1959)
“The Beat Generation” (1959)
“I passed for White” (1960)
“Sex Kittens Go to College” (1960)
“The Magic Sword” (1962)
“Population: 1” (1986)
“I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” (1998)
“No Way In” (2000)
Special mention goes to Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood”, featuring Lisa Marie playing Vampira.
My knowledge of Vampira was superficial until I read W. Scott Poole’s book. I knew her from before thanks to the Misfits, though.
When I was researching for this article, I found out for a second time (I had forgotten) that there’s an article about Vampira on Fangoria issue #30.
I’m sure that I went through all the pages of every Fangoria up to present times and I reckon I did read that article 8-10 (or more) years ago, but I couldn’t remember it, and when I read it yesterday nothing in it ringed to me as if I had already read it.
The magazine calls it an interview but is more of a monologue by Maila, alluding herself in both first and third persons.
When I read the book by W. Scott Poole, I found out that she met and hanged out with The Misfits at a place in West Hollywood called Vinyl Fetish.
It’s incredible and somewhat disappointing how an event like this has practically nil coverage on the web, even if it happened almost forty years ago.
I did search for hours with more than a dozen different search engines, and could not come up with anything other than the following paragraph (via Halloween Sheending):
Forrest Ackerman and Vampirella
Ackerman, the publisher of Famous Monsters was a close friend of Maila. In a way, he ripped her off creating Vampirella, without giving her any credit.
I say in a way, because the two characters, as Poole notes, don’t have much in common.*7 Forry Ackerman wasn’t like Maila, he sold Vampirella to Warren, the publisher of Creepy and Eerie.
Collectibles by Maila
If you care about Maila, and not so much about Vampira, there’s a considerable stockpile of works that you can resort to see her or her work’s influence.
Only recently I had the idea to search for original art pieces by Maila Nurmi. Since she was selling (remotely, through her website) original art since 2001, I thought that something, at least information there had to be.
Starting in 2001, Nurmi sold autographed memorabilia and pieces of art through her official website. She seldom licensed the Vampira character for Vampira merchandise, but some items exist.
What about the pieces she sold through her website? I haven’t searched these items in depth. I’m not sure how many of them are extant, and how many of them are still available for sales or auctions. I came up with several auction listings here, here, and here.
The second link in the previous paragraph sold for $836. Not really expensive for a design by her, but neither what you would call cheap.
Licensed Vampira Collectibles
Examples of licensed, official Vampira collectibles:
- Pre-painted Figurine by Bowen Designs
- Coffin Case’s Skateboards and Guitar Cases
- Vampira Model Kit by Artomic Creations
There are and have been unlicensed ones, too, of course.
Something that deeply called my attention about Maila’s personality is her high level of self-dignity and her consequent reclusive tendencies.
The theme of struggling to make ends meet haunted Maila for a great portion of her life. Still, that is understandable, given the kind of free life without compromises, and aloof from the world at large that she wanted to live.
I’d say that as far I could learn about Nurmi’s life and personality, her main problem was money and assuaging the incompatibility of the need to make money with her independent way of being.
Still, it seems to me that it worked for her in the end.
When I studied her story, I felt very sorry for her. She was an idealist, and I think her ideas were way disruptive for the time and place she had the disadvantage of living in.
If she would have been born a few decades later, I think Maila’s enterprising dreams, the most bizarre ones, like the sideshow-church would have fructified.
Anyway, she had a lot to give and did let a lot of works for those that really care about her and everything she meant.
Moreover she didn’t miss being part of two crowds that borrow heavily from carnival culture: the horror genre, and punk rock music, two cultures that embraced her, and that were more suited to her personality and stance towards life and the world.
Maila had some very disruptive ideas about a life dedicated to show-biz and spiritual development. The point in the case, she wanted to synthesize two unrelated things: a traveling evangelist church, informed by carnival and sideshow culture.
Sadly, those most revolutionary ideas never fructified. However, she took care of sharing her desires and ideas. Things like that are valuable in the long run because they teach others how to dream the odd and unexpected.
Also, just to know what she wanted to do and never did, gives us a bigger sense of the scope of her creativity and of the richness of her personality.
She was a non-conformist in an age where that kind of person didn’t have big support networks like today. That’s why at the beginning of the article I said that the whole world is indebted to her.
The way she wanted to change society, and how she worked towards achieving that end, and the changes and repercussions brought about by her actions, (I’m thinking about how she changed minds with her personality) had an undeniable influence on where we are today, we who consider ourselves lovers of the horror genre, social misfits, and/or non-conformists in general.
Short article on Vogue.com with a video of an interview with Nurmi.
Website for the 2006 documentary by Kevin Sean Michaels.
Awesome pictorial article on MagnumPhotos.com
By W. Scott Poole, excerpt from his book.
The Misfits timeline’s entry for 04/17/1982 tells briefly the meet up of Misfits with Vampira in Vinyl Fetish.
Priceless page with a reproduction of an article by the Clatsop County Historical Society’s quarterly, CUMTUX. It has a various pages scanned from the quarterly with some incredibly self-effacing, but at the same time prophetic, writing by Maila.
A cool article making connections between the songs of Misfits with horror cinema lore. It has a Vampira section.
Cineaste article about Vampira with a handful of cool photos.
From an interview with Mike Decay I found on PleaseKillMe.com: “Playghoul is a chronological collection of Maila Nurmi appearances in pulp magazines from 1950-1964. You see her entry into the cheesecake/bikini modeling world, her experimenting with more artistic endeavors, her achieving notoriety as Vampira, and then as it gets away from her within exploitative tabloids.”
Interview with Mike Decay the creator of Playghoul.
A long article pondering about the truth and falsehood about the story of Maila as a witch. Wasn’t expecting to find something like it, because the topic seemed to me as kind of disposable and not that interesting. This article took me to the following entry…
An account by Maila on how she allegedly experienced the ghost of Dean soon after he had passed.
Sourced Content and Media
*1-7: Poole, W. S. (2014). Vampira: Dark goddess of horror. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press.
“Vampira” by Greg Scales
© Bholenath Valsan 2020-2021 — Maila ‘Vampira’ Nurmi Profile