Elvira’s MTV Halloween Party

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It’s Halloween. Every year a certain demographic of people feel as nostalgic about Halloween as others do about Christmas. These “spooky” minded people watch horror movies for all of October and revisit their favorite Halloween television specials. Usually these television specials are a single episode of a television show that happens once a year like The Simpsons with their Tree House Of Horror. Some shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer have a couple of Halloween episodes from the over the course of seven seasons or just one single Halloween episode like Star Trek‘s Cat’s Paw.

Some networks produce television movies or a unique stand-alone special. These more prestigious productions run the gamut from It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966) to Halloweentown (1998). While these kinds of unique Halloween television specials were once a normal part of the spooky season they have, in the age of the streaming giants, become far more rare. It is for this reason that so many people who cherish Halloween as their favorite holiday return again and again to the Halloween television events of the past, introducing their children to their own cultural heritage.

Elvira’s MTV Halloween Party (1984) is one of cult classics of the Halloween television special. For many, it was this four hour event that introduced them to Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark (Cassandra Peterson) and cemented her place as America’s unofficial Queen of Halloween. Between an avalanche of music videos, Elvira participates in campy Halloween themed skits, “visits” John Carradine, hobnobs with Cheech Marin and Mark Mothersbaug, reunites with old pals Todd Rundgren and Laraine Newman then sings “Trick or Treat” with her trademark burlesque gusto. In effect, Elvira bridges the then contemporary MTV culture of new wave chic with the macabre campiness of the vintage horror movies of the fifties of sixties. Elvira wasn’t just a horror movie host, she was a cultural force.

Prior to her MTV special, Elvira had guest starred twice on the hit show CHiPs in 1982 and 1983. This appearance took the horror movie host and gave her a life beyond her show where she is part of a community and runs her own occult shop. Elvira permeated popular culture gradually through such television appearances and Coors commercials until she arrived on MTV and found herself as the spokesperson for Thriller Video. By the time that the decade came to a close, Elvira had starred in her own self-titled motion picture and shot a pilot episode for an unrealized sitcom.

The various sketches and monologues in Elvira’s MTV Halloween Party were co-written by Cassandra Peterson’s frequent collaborator John Paragon who would later co-write the screenplays for Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark (1988) and Elvira’s Haunted Hills (2001) with Peterson. As collaborators, Paragon and Peterson go back to their work with The Groundlings improve group where Paragon also began a long lasting working relationship with Paul Reubens. Larry Thomas, the director of Elvira’s MTV Halloween Party, also directed John Astin’s Halloween special Halloween Monster Bash (1991).

Besides the allure of the ever corny Queen of Halloween, the 1984 MTV Halloween special offers a variety of classic vintage music videos. These videos look high budget compared to Elvira’s goofball skits (Halloween carols is classic), but that’s just part of the charm. These music videos by artists like Bauhaus and Alice Cooper all feature spooky or macabre themes or images, reiterating the connection between MTV and the classic horror movies of the past. This gives the special a timeless visual lexicon that is built around a decidedly 80s cultural event.

Then, at roughly two hours into the show, Elvira introduces Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Before Elvira assumes her traditional role of horror movie hostess, there is a pre-recorded introduction to the film by director George A. Romero. Now legitimate horrors and weighty social commentary enter the milieu of the special. And while Elvira, Night Of The Living Dead and the music videos share an intertextuality, the plethora of commercials offer a harsh contrast. There’s an ad for a giveaway of Paul McCartney’s car from his movie Give My Regards To Broad Street (1984) that offers viewers an unadulterated nostalgia for eighties kitsch.

The diversity of content coupled with the consistency of tone and atmosphere is what has made Elvira’s MTV Halloween Party special a favorite for horror film buffs and Halloween revelers (and spawned a “sequel” special in 1986). Bootleg video cassettes recorded in EP mode of the special have been readily available on etsy and ebay for years. Whether one sits down and watches the special from start to finish as I do, or plays it on a television in the background of a Halloween party doesn’t really matter. The 1984 MTV Halloween special was one of the great television events of its day and is effectively a Halloween party unto itself that everyone should see at least once.