THE BLOG
09/12/2014 06:41 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

Vampira: Tracing the Life of a Forgotten Legend

Maila Nurmi is the most famous person you've never heard of. She made a monster, a sexy, daring, subversive monster called Vampira that, beginning with a short-lived local TV show in 1954, transformed American culture.

Vampira introduced bad horror and mystery films late on Saturday nights for KABC in 1954 Los Angeles. She fasted, sweated, shrank and cinched her waist down to frightening proportions, 17-inches that mocked the American ideal of healthy, child-bearing hips. Phallic fingernails threatened. Long black hair and a shredded black gown completed her gothic aura. America had never seen sex and morbidity done with such abandon.

She appeared at a period in American culture when flying saucers instead of famous monsters reigned at the movies. Into this world of high anxiety and supposedly happy homemakers, came a goddess of sex and death. She screamed her orgasmic scream at a moment when it seemed the world was about to go up in a giant nuclear meltdown and flameout.

Mainstream American ideals seldom had been parodied in such a peculiar way. In a post-World War II era when fear of communism led to a profound conservatism in all areas of the nation's cultural life, Nurmi used her monster to mock the ideal of the American housewife and the idea that sexual repression made for healthy, patriotic Americans. She was, in her own words, "blacklisted" for her rebellion and lost her stage.

In Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, I wanted to show that Vampira's appearance on our cultural stage, and the implications of her disappearance, tell us something not only about the 1950s but about the revolutions in cultural and social life that came afterward. She may not have set off the bomb that blew the fifties consensus sky high, but she certainly provided all the precursor elements thousands of other culture rebels needed to build the device.

Several years ago, it seemed that every popularly written book of cultural history described itself as "a secret history." These words, often appearing in subtitles, suggested that the writer had unearthed forgotten stories that revealed the real story, biographies and events and seeming minutiae that the authors believed explained "the big events."

Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't. But, even as a traditionally trained historian, I've always been fascinated with the idea of a secret history. I've often urged my students to ignore the linear chronologies found in textbooks. I've suggested they build their own narratives out of what my professional tribe calls primary sources; memoir, newspaper articles, photographs, letters, interviews, and various documents that your friendly neighborhood archive may or may not bother to collect. In other words, to seek out the raw materials of history, especially those left unmined by historians doubtful of their value.

Such histories connect us to forgotten pasts that help explain the present. Unfortunately, Maila Nurmi is the sort of person likely to be passed over even by social and cultural historians deeply interested in mapping America's vast cultural underground. Her television program only ran for about a year. Horror fans came to know her primarily from her brief, and mute, performance as a kind of space zombie in the infamously bad 1959 Ed Wood film Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Although Plan 9 disappeared into the B-Film ether soon after it was made, Tim Burton helped resurrect Ed Wood in his 1994 film of the same name. The performance of Lisa Marie as Vampira especially drew audiences. The film regenerated interest in Maila Nurmi, by then well into her seventies and transformed her into the cult figure she has become today.

What's the story here? And what's the history here? Does she matter if she's mostly forgotten (and so often confused with Morticia Addams or Elvira)? In particular, why should a historian care?

I'm certainly not alone in examining a topic that more traditional historians might frown upon. A close friend and colleague, Nina Kushner, has written an extraordinary book about eighteenth century prostitution in Paris while colleagues in my own department at the College of Charleston are unearthing stories of witchcraft trials, the not-so-secret world of abortion services in Ireland, what happened to convicts in the world of the Portuguese empire and the untold story of the "Dixie Mafia," an underworld of criminality that flourished in the 20th century South.

The story of Maila Nurmi's monster, however, offered some special challenges. Even many unconventional historical topics at least have an archival base. No such luck here. There are primary sources out there but many are held by private individuals, a few of whom are a bit reluctant to share the wealth.

On the other hand, the enormous fan community that has emerged after her death proved essential in finding some incredibly useful materials. Although I had already unearthed short pieces in the Los Angeles Times that coincided with her first appearance on TV, online fan forums pointed me to even more materials; short articles that detailed appearances at shopping malls and grocery store openings, the time she came in full Vampira regalia a film showing with wrestler Tor Johnson, the "Swedish Angel" that later appeared with her in Plan 9 In other words, bits and pieces of ephemera that tell the story of a woman who became a local celebrity well on her way to being a national celebrity.

A traditional biography simply didn't suit her, even though her life itself is a cracking good story. Her romantic relationship with Orson Welles fascinated me. A brief encounter with Elvis and a professional relationship with Liberace provided material that would give any writer chills. Her more well known, and much more complicated, entanglement with James Dean will probably be the most interesting aspect of her life for some readers.

But, as I read her story as a cultural historian, her true significance became clear. As R.H. Greene points out in his extraordinary documentary Vampira and Me, Maila Nurmi seems the origin point of everything from the Goth movement to hipsterism. Her relationship to west coast punk plays a prominent role in my book, as does her cultivation of a certain kind of ironic humor about those who claim power and privilege over others.

She also helped inaugurate a new era of gothic horror, a return to the grave that says something about 20th and 21st century America's anxieties about its nuclear brinkmanship and the costs of its foreign wars, corpses coming home by the tens of thousands that inspired the work of George Romero in Night of the Living Dead. Moreover, its hard not to see Vampira as the dark mother who gave birth to many of our current horror obsessions with walking dead, gothic soap operas and vampire epidemics.

Her life and career also raises a series of questions about how we treat women in our society who step out of line. Imagining powerful women who subvert social norms as monsters dates back to ancient Greece (say hi, Medea and Circe) but its also as modern as the reaction, especially the political reaction, to the Miley Cyrus "Wrecking Ball" controversy.

Interestingly, Maila herself once described the monster she made in mythological terms. In perhaps the last interview she ever gave, to horror fan magazine Rue Morgue, she compared Vampira to the Lilith, a figure from Jewish mythology. Conceived of as the first wife of Adam, cursed because of her refusal to submit to him. "That's who Vampira is in another incarnation, " Maila insisted.

Thus might seem bizarrely metaphysical to you when you read it, as it did to me. But Nurmi used this symbol to capture something essential about the creature she had made. Vampira refused to submit. She was punished but she still didn't surrender. This is why she's still haunting us. It's a haunting we need.

Read an excerpt from Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror here.