Today, we take a moment to remember Maila Nurmi, who passed away this week. She was 86.
In 1954, inspired by Charles Addams’ Morticia, Nurmi created a character she called Vampira. She not only gave her model flesh, she co-opted it for her own, creating an iconic horror figure as indelible as Frankenstein’s bolt-necked Monster, yet Nurmi’s Vampira became a central pop culture figure without a slate of classic movies, comic books or toy lines to reference. Vampira percolated into popular consciousness on the sole strength of her image: A stunning, sex and death, black and white vision in an impossibly wasp-waisted, low-cut dress, black lipstick, nosferatu fingernails and a thousand league stare.
She was a vampire Garbo, a cool ghoul moving to a beatnik bongo beat. As one of the first TV Horror Hosts, she was a fifties sensation, yet hardly anything of Nurmi’s weekly performances survive, save short, tantalizing clips. She is seen gliding through a corridor of roiling fog, and sitting and smoking on a death’s head settee. A silent clip shows her waltzing with Liberace in a Las Vegas show. She appears briefly but memorably in Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956), haunting a cardboard graveyard, leading with her insect fingers. There’s too little left, mere seconds, yet, surprisingly, it is enough to appreciate how unique and electric she was.
Now, Maila Nurmi is gone, but her Vampira will remain with us forever as a cult figure, a powerful image fused in every Monster Kid’s DNA, and a direct, ongoing inspiration to Goth girls all over the world.
Black and white photos of Vampira charm us, calling across a gap of fifty years. She slinks and vamps in cobweb sets, heavy lids under boomerang eyebrows, holding cigarettes or dry-ice martinis. Sexy, menacing, teasing, with intelligence and humor evident.
My favorite picture is this one (from a LIFE magazine photo session), cars and clothes firmly setting it in the early fifties, of Vampira rising from an old jalopy's rumble seat like a cobra out of a coffin, hypnotic eyebeams lasered on children who are mesmerized and delightfully scared. Look at the little girl’s hand.
After all these years, we remain transfixed.