Fans do not often witness Cassandra Peterson's alter ego, Halloween scream queen Elvira, show real emotion. The raven-clad horror maven usually relies on sex appeal and a barrage of wisecracks as her calling cards. But thoughts of friends lost to AIDS and those still living with HIV bring the Mistress of the Dark to tears.
'So many of my friends have passed from AIDS,' laments Peterson. 'At one point I couldn't even open my address book. So many people were marked out.'
But rather than wallow in her grief, Peterson instead committed herself to fighting the disease. She's used her Elvira persona to represent the the AIDS Healthcare Foundation's Out of the Closet fund-raising thrift stores at numerous events in California, including at June's gay pride parade in San Francisco. She's also headlined fund-raisers for the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team in Los Angeles, Hawaii's Gregory House Programs, Chicago's Children's Place Association, AIDS Services of Dallas, San Francisco's Stop AIDS Project, and numerous local AIDS walks. Screenings of her film Elvira's Haunted Hills also served as fund-raisers for AIDS groups around the country.
'I knew I had to do something,' Peterson says of her outreach and fund-raising work. 'There are so many young people out there who need to know this disease still exists. It's out there, you can catch it, and there is still no cure.'
The ties between Peterson's Elvira character and the AIDS epidemic--which emerged about the same time Elvira was 'born' 25 years ago--run deep.
Peterson says her best friend, Robert (the man responsible for helping perfect the Elvira look), lost his own battle against the illness about a year after the character was created. Three stylists who worked with her then, all close friends, also died of AIDS-related complications.
Peterson also saw several friends succumb to the disease while she was performing in the early 1980s with the musical comedy group Mama's Boys. As Mama, Peterson and her seven 'boys' ended their national tour with an extended run in the Massachusetts resort locale of Provincetown. While there, the men in her acting troupe began to get sick one by one. 'Five died of AIDS,' Peterson recalls, barely able to maintain her composure. 'That was hard. It's still hard.'