Maila Elizabeth Syrjäniemi (known professionally as Maila Nurmi), not a name you’d be familiar with but you’re sure to recognise the character she is most well known for. A true icon of horror – Vampira. The original Glamour Ghoul.
February is Women in Horror Month and when I pitched a piece about Vampira I was looking forward to discovering more about the macabre maiden. As it turns out it was harder than I expected. As befitting a horror legend she’s something of a mystery. It was hard to find more than just the basic information about her.
I know there are a couple of documentaries about her but I struggled to find them, so I read as many interviews as I could find, watched as much of her as I could, but annoyingly she’s always asked the same questions.
She was born in Massachusetts, or Finland, depending on who you ask. Already something of a successful model, Maila enjoyed shooting ‘cheesecake’ and pin-up shots and she was in a revue called Spook Scandals, where she played a vampire. She’s always had a taste for the strange and unusual.
Maila was spotted by a TV exec while she attended choreographer Lester Horton’s annual Bal Caribe Masquerade and had dressed as Charles Addams creation Morticia Addams (there was only the New Yorker comic strip at this point, no TV show) and the TV exec was looking for a horror host for his network KABC-TV. Her first husband, screenwriter Dean Riesner, came up with the name Vampira and a legend was born.
She arrived on American television on the 30th of April 1954 gliding through a corridor filled with smoke and with a piercing scream she announced “Screaming…it relaxes me so.”
Her 3 inch nails painted her signature “haemorrhage red” and her indescribably tiny waist dressed all in black was in stark contrast to women on television at the time. (So small was her waist that she often told people she was in the Guinness World Book of Records for her 17” waist.)
Vampira was a sophisticated spook. Her sex appeal and campy humour made her an overnight sensation. This was post-war America and television was in its infancy. Women also had very strict roles in both society and the entertainment industry.
Vampira was the antithesis of your standard women characters on television. After The Vampira Show, which ran from 1954-55, Maila starred in ‘the world’s worst movie’, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Originally her character in the film had lines but Maila refused to say them as she thought the dialogue was awful; however, in Ed Wood she recognised another outsider. Another person who could think outside of the box.
Which brings us to the mystery of why such a popular character would only remain on TV for a year. There are rumours that ABC tried to stop her from pursuing different projects, as their intent was to completely own rights to the Vampira character. Maila didn’t want to play the Hollywood game and this resistance to being controlled was just another reason to admire her.
What else do we know about Maila? Well, she dated Orson Welles and she was friends with James Dean. There are some who believe her fall from fame was related to the death of rising star James Dean and some who claim that she put a hex on James Dean, causing his death. After his death, she appeared at a Halloween party with a friend who was dressed as a dead James Dean. This did little to change perception.
She famously tried to sue fellow horror host Elvira for an alleged $10 million for infringement of intellectual property, which is fair enough once you find out the following.
The story goes that sometime in early 1980 a TV station contacted Maila as they were interested in bringing back Vampiria to television. She worked on the project for a while but ended up quitting over a dispute as to who should play Vampira. Maila wasn’t interested in resurrecting the character herself anymore and wanted to quit when the producers hired Lola Falana to play Vampira. A casting call went out and they ended up choosing Cassandra Peterson who became Elvira.
It’s interesting to note that long after the lawsuit Maila claimed that any money she would have won in court would not have gone to her but to a cat charity. I don’t think she ever really got over losing the lawsuit as she became something of a recluse shortly after.
During her time on The Vampira Show she took home $59.60 a week and years later she would be offered $8,000 for a cameo in Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood. She ultimately declined to be in the film and Burton’s girlfriend at the time, model and actress Lisa Marie, played Vampira in the film. She openly admitted that she struggled financially in her later years. She was the owner of Vampira’s Attic, an antique shop and created her own line of clothing and jewelry.
Something you might not know about the first horror host is that she was a talented artist and chose to paint portraits of her iconic character. It was through her art she was able to pay her rent and it offered her fans the chance to own a piece of art from the first horror host.
During the 80’s she fronted a punk band called Satan’s Cheerleaders, although she wasn’t a fan of punk music in so much as she liked the people involved. In the 50’s Maila had been a beatnik and truly understood what it was like to march to the beat of your own drum.
Sadly, Maila died alone in L.A in 2008 and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, but her legacy lives on. The industry may have forgotten about her but horror freaks from around the world still love her.
The fine purveyors of horror t-shirts Fright Rags have just released a new range of excellent Vampira t-shirts which just goes to show her endurance as a horror icon. Vampira made us spooky girls feel right at home and she’s still inspiring us to this day.
“Vampira became an enduring icon because she offered a place to stand for all the misfits who hear a stifled scream beneath the smiley face pasted over so much of modern life. And she was empowered to do this by the fact that the woman who created her meant it with every molecule of her being.” ~ R.H. Greene Director of documentary Vampira and Me