Vampira and Subversion: From Outsider to Icon

Vampira and Me Documentary
Vampira and Me Documentary

The 2012 documentary VAMPIRA AND ME (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vampira-Me-Maila-Nurmi-aka/dp/B00ECXJBX8) documents the blink-and-you-might-have-missed-it unlikely rise and unfortunate fall of Maila Nurmi — a.k.a. Vampira — a b-movie television hostess in 1950’s California that may well have been the inspiration for countless goth girls that have come after her. Best remembered for all of the wrong reasons — from her performance-under-protest work for Ed Wood in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=Ln7WF78PolA) to her failed law suits thirty years with the far-more-successful Cassandra Peterson (a.k.a. Elvira)  — Vampira is much more than caricature, costume, or campy comedienne. She is, in many ways, a dark subversive reflection of the seemingly perfect America of the 1950’s, and as such, a figure that should not only be trotted out for Halloween, but be named among breakthrough stars the likes of Lucille Ball (to whom Nurmi oddly enough lost a daytime Emmy).

The documentary tells all, was well reviewed, and is highly recommended. But only hinted at in its exploration of everything from the vagaries of the Hollywood system to the dark side of stalker fans is the suggestion that — with Nurmi’s beatnik roots firmly in place — Vampira was quite a subversive figure for television in 1954 and ’55. Yes, as the documentary makes clear — as does Scott Poole’s biography Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vampira-Goddess-W-Scott-Poole/dp/1593765436) (2014) —Vampira, on her velvet sofa, sipping a bubbling cocktail that was “one jigger formaldehyde and two jiggers vulture blood”, was the antithesis of every June Cleaver housewife that had a gin and tonic ready for her husband as he returned from work. But she was much more sinister than that.

Vampira enjoying a cocktail
Vampira’s cocktail was “one jigger formaldehyde and two jiggers vulture blood.”

Nurmi’s Vampira was not the cheesecake model nor pinup-girl-next-door; those were acceptable images for red-blooded American men to ogle. Instead, she was part of a tradition that, for Nurmi, had its roots in the work of Charles Addams, and, for many a cultural commentator, was part of a long tradition of the vamp in twentieth century culture. She was an outsider, and a potential threat to masculinity.

Count Mora and Luna in Mark of the Vampire (1935)
Count Mora and Luna in Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Long has the male vampire’s victim been a part of the horror movie tradition. In addition to Morticia Addams, Nurmi may have borrowed from the brides in DRACULA (1931). Or perhaps Carrol Borland, the actress who portrayed Luna — the female companion / co-conspirator of Bela Lugosi’s Count Mora in 1935’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. But these women are tied to men: the brides, a lover. Morticia, a husband; and Luna, a father.* It’s the makeup. The pose. The presence of these women. The men who helped define them. That was the foundation.

But Vampira was all her own. Though Nurmi was married (her husband had curiously enough come up with the name of the character), Vampira had no male companion. She was the first “vamp” to step off the page or screen and be seen driven about Los Angeles, greeting fans with no male vampire at her side. She would show up as a guest on other television shows, but never as seductress. Always something alien. She was sexy, certainly. But the sex seemed dangerous.

Men were portrayed as scared of her — not attracted to her. A surviving bit of footage from the George Goebel Show has Goebel running away when a date with the strange Vampira (and her literal smoking sofa) starts getting a little too weird for his tastes. A joke, to be sure, but one that has at is base a fear of any woman that doesn’t fit the mold of the ideal, all-american girl. Nurmi’s voice is never flirtatious. Her movements never demure. She is, in fact, threatening, best known for saying “screaming relaxes me” after an ear-piercing shriek that started her every show. Is it a scream of terror? Or ecstasy?

Unlike the over-sexualized Elvira that would follow her years later, Vampira never appeared to be so much an object of desire as one of disturbance to men. Except for her anemic (and silent) turn in Ed Wood’s terrible PLAN 9, Vampira’s presence in footage that has survived always seems to present her as something alien. Whereas men desire Elvira, men are threatened by Vampira. Why? To Vampira, men would appear to be unnecessary.

Cruel then that the surviving image most of us have of Vampira — whether we know the character or not — is that the makeup, clothing and other trappings of the character are labeled “sexy” this and “hot” that on the packaging of many a halloween costume today. It’s almost as if what was once dangerous has been tamed and made to be just another commodity in the 21st century.

Perhaps this cultural appropriation of the character of Vampira into what is now the fun and fantasy of Halloween is, in some way, exactly what the character should embody: a fantasy, yes, but also nothing out of the ordinary. Subversion succeeds not when it’s on the fringes, but in the homes of millions of otherwise “normal” people. She may be a pose only acceptable on one day a year, but Vampira has found her way into more American homes now than her small Los Angeles television show could ever accomplish in the 1950’s.

She has outlived the June Cleavers of the world.

She survives not as an outsider, but as an icon.

 

*Dracula’s own daughter, played by Gloria Holden in Universal’s first real sequel in 1936, looked nothing like Vampira, Luna, Morticia or Lily Munster for that matter. DRACULA’S DAUGHTER rightfully deserves its own post about the female monster with no need for men. Possibly the first Lesbian vampire — long before any adaptations of Le Fanu’s Carmilla — Countess Marya Zaleska is more an exercise in psychiatry than it is in vampirism.

 

Deadly Sins and Thrill of the Kill: Motive in the Case of Cosmo DiNardo

Only a few miles from my home in the bucolic, historic county where I’ve lived all of my life, a vigil was held at the 9/11 Memorial in Newtown, PA, recently for the victims of Bucks County killers Cosmo Dinardo and his cousin Sean Kratz. DiNardo, according to authorities, is responsible for the killings of four men: Jimi Taro Patrick, 19; Dean Finocchiaro, 19; Thomas Meo, 21; and Mark Sturgis, 22. Kratz is named as an accomplice to three of the murders. Each charged with multiple counts of homicide, the pair leave behind families with unbearable grief, friends with tears and anger, and the rest of us, worldwide — as the story has been covered by media outlets all of the globe — with questions as to motive.

While the details of the crimes (http://www NULL.philly NULL.com/philly/news/pennsylvania/4-missing-men-bucks-county-search-timeline-20170712 NULL.html) continue to surface, many ask how could a pair of young men so brutally take the lives of others. Was it drugs? It’s clear that victims were lured with the promise of buying large amounts of marijuana. Was it robbery? Certainly, DiNardo’s confession laid out such a plan. Some have suggested mental illness played a part. DiNardo had allegedly suffered a head injury recently, and had been hospitalized before with the press reporting a possible diagnosis of schizophrenia. Even if he were somehow more predisposed to aggression following his injury (as some research has suggested), it wouldn’t account for his cousin’s behavior, nor would it fully explain his. Common sense mathematics alone would show that the vast majority of those who have experienced traumatic brain injury (TBI) or suffer from mental illness of some kind never commit a violent crime.

Violent crime is and pretty much always has been a fact of life in America. There have been 382 homicides alone in the city of Chicago so far this year. Motives vary.  Greed. Revenge. Jealousy. But DiNardo and Kratz would seem to be different kind of killers altogether with motives unclear or at least mixed. And those who study crime will inevitably argue over the types of killers they are. Are they serial murderers? Mass murderers?

The FBI has spent some time defining the difference between serial murder and mass or spree killers (see a report from 2005  (https://www NULL.fbi NULL.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder)still used by the FBI today).  The report makes it clear that “a break-in-time [is] necessary to distinguish between a mass murder and a serial murder. Serial murder required a temporal separation between the different murders… generally, mass murder [is] described as a number of murders (four or more) occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders.” And thrill killers? As the name implies, a thrill killing is murder that is motivated by nothing more than the sheer excitement of the act.

Hieronymus Bosch: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things

The seven deadly sins may give us a vocabulary for motive. And motive might get us to type. The sins of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth (defined over seven centuries ago by fourth-century monk Evagrius Ponticus) pretty much cover all of human corruption and depravity. Certainly, if DiNardo and Katz robbed their victims, covetousness and envy are involved. But those actions really don’t explain pulling a trigger. There would seem to be no anger. Unlike serial killers with a hatred of prostitutes, for example, or spree murderers who felt wounded by society or were dedicated to some horrible cause, DiNardo and Katz did not commit their crimes with anger at their core. Even if shorted agreed-upon funds for marijuana as some reports say, these two degenerates — DiNardo at least — did not need the money. DiNardo, after all, came from wealth. Katz had prior arrests for burglary, but theft is theft. There’s no anger involved unless provoked or threatened. By all accounts, the victims were non-confrontational, and never a threat to the cousins. Anger would therefore seemingly not play a large part. Unless it was displaced and misdirected from some other, earlier, unrelated perceived slight (like getting a beating from some other incident, as apparently DiNardo was). As for theft, Katz stole before without violent incident.

Perhaps it was some deadly chemistry between the two that led to homicidal intentions. That said, killer couples are rarely same sex partners. There are only a few documented cases of such pairs. Italians Wolfgang Abel and Marco Forlan claimed ten victims in the 1970s and early 80s; their motive would appear to have been a neo-Nazi hatred of those they considered “sub-human.” Then there was the pair of compulsive braggarts Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole who claimed hundreds of victims during the same period; their motives were many but always would seem to include the thrill of getting away with murder.

Perhaps the closest counterparts DiNardo and Katz have in criminal history are Britain’s Kray brothers of the 1950s and 60s. One was schizophrenic. Both were thieves. Both ended up murderers. But they were part of organized crime. Their actions were often in the pursuit of building a criminal empire.

Could that possibly be the end game of DiNardo and Katz? To be gangsters?

Certainly, DiNardo and Katz appear neither smart or organized enough to build anything, let alone a criminal empire. But an inflated sense of self — distorted pride — may be the best guess at motive in this grisly business. DiNardo, with his love of guns (as evidenced in a social media post (http://media NULL.philly NULL.com/images/dixon-71243-f-wp-content-uploads-2017-07-727617_aa4d70a44b3c467-1200x800 NULL.jpg) run by many media outlets) and material things (some reports ran photos of dozens of expensive sneakers), may have thought of himself as urban thug (and not the overprivileged suburban punk he was). Katz might have been drawn to DiNardo’s pose — and had a need of his own to conflate petty larceny and “gangsta” lifestyle. This is not a cultural indictment of any kind, but it is an attempt to get at the psychology of those who think of themselves as gangsters. Their motivations are prideful — showing an arrogant disdain for those they view as weak. In their distorted worldview, such killers see themselves as better than others and their violent actions as empowering. In the moment of pulling the trigger, they find pleasure — an adrenaline rush of inflated ego. They may technically be serial killers, but the best description for their unfathomable actions: thrill kills.

We may never get the full story. There’s a chance the miasma that is motive here might be explored by both prosecution and defense in the trials to come. Perhaps some day some a journalist or true crime author will get access to the two in prison and be able to more fully explore their sick and twisted motivations.

Perhaps we’ll never know.