Many actors spend decades building impressive careers, but all Maila Nurmi needed was one night to create a legend. Most famous as the woman behind Vampira, television’s first horror host, Nurmi's life was like one long Halloween party—in the best and worst ways. From fame to celebrity gossip, messy relationships and horror stories; Nurmi lived it all. It’s time to give due credit to the woman behind the mask by exploring these nightmarish facts about Maila Nurmi.
1. She Lied About Her Birthplace
Maila Nurmi was born in 1922 in the US to Finnish immigrant parents, but for some reason, she insisted that the US wasn’t her birthplace. Instead, she constructed a fantasy. Nurmi claimed she was born in Petsamo, Finland, but her birth certificate said otherwise. She was actually born in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She admitted in her own diary, found later, that her Finnish birthplace was a fabrication, but it’s not clear why she felt the need to lie about such a thing. It was also certainly not the only disputed claim she ever made.
2. She Had Impressive Relatives
Another contested fact in Nurmi’s backstory is her relationship to the Finnish long-distance runner, Paavo Nurmi. Nurmi claimed the Olympic medalist, who was also referred to as “Flying Finn” or “Phantom Finn,” was her uncle. Yet, there are no official documents to support her claims. It seems Nurmi never let the truth get in the way of a good story—and there were plenty more lies where that came from.
3. Her Talent Made Others Jealous
Despite coming from nothing, Nurmi dreamed of becoming an actress. And so, on the path to establish herself, she had a brief career on Broadway. It is there that she met legendary American surprise, Mae West. Nurmi acted alongside West in the play Catherine Was Great—but West ended up betraying her for an incredibly frustrating reason.
West, who was already an established actress, feared Nurmi was upstaging her, so she forced the producers to fire her Finnish competition. Fortunately, Nurmi managed to find success elsewhere.
4. She Made It On The Spooky Side Of Broadway
Before she became Vampira, Nurmi garnered some attention on a Broadway horror show. She appeared in Spook Scandals, a horror-themed midnight show on the Great White Way. Nurmi played a seductress who lay in a coffin, screamed, fainted, and lurked around a cemetery. All of these would serve as inspiration later for Nurmi’s greatest creation.
5. She Hand-Made Vampira’s Prototype
In 1953, Nurmi attended the costume ball that would change her life. Nurmi went to the Bal Caribe in a hand-made costume that made heads turn. She arrived in a ghostly, Morticia Addams-inspired costume that cost her no more than $3.67. Her look that included a recycled tight black dress she cut and sewed herself won her the first prize at the ball.
She owned the whole night—but, though she didn't realize it yet, she'd actually accomplished much, much more than that.
6. She Had Ulterior Motives
Nurmi and her husband at the time, screenwriter Dean Riesner, wanted to attract the attention of Charles Addams through Nurmi’s costume. The couple hoped the Morticia Addams-inspired getup would show the New Yorker cartoonist the television possibilities for his cartoons. This plan didn’t pan out, but something even better happened.
7. She Was The Missing Piece Horror TV Needed
Nurmi might have failed to catch the attention of Charles Addams, but she managed to mesmerize television producer Hunt Stromberg Jr. Stromberg was on the hunt for a host for his late-night horror television show. His program ran cheap, B-rated films, and he needed something, or someone, to make people stay up late to watch them.
Well, guess who was at the Bal Caribe that night? Stromberg took one look at the pale, gothic woman in the form-fitting black dress and realized he'd found exactly what he'd been looking for—but then, she vanished!
8. She Pulled A Vanishing Act
Just like Cinderella with her glass slippers, Nurmi was in and out of the ball in a flash, leaving Stromberg in awe but with no way to know who she was. Although he felt she was the one, he didn’t know her name or how to contact her. Just like that, Nurmi almost missed the opportunity of a lifetime—but one man saved the day.
Fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, also in attendance, came in clutch and remembered Nurmi’s name. He provided Stromberg with contact information, and Vampira was born.
9. She Had Many Influences
Offered the opportunity to appear on TV, Nurmi immediately got to work on enhancing her Bal Caribe costume to create her TV host character. Alongside Morticia Addams, Vampira also took influence from the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the Dragon Lady from the comic Terry and the Pirates.
Nurmi took these inspirations and produced something out of them that was truly uniquely her. Later on, she would herself become the inspiration for Maleficent from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
10. She Brought Her Vision To Life
Nurmi had two goals when modifying Vampira from her early prototype: make her “campier and sexier". She appeared on TV wearing a pitch-black wig and a tattered black dress with a plunging neckline. She had a perfect hourglass figure, with an alleged 17-inch waist that she gained through strict fasting. She drew on arched eyebrows that reached for the skies and finished the look with three-inch-long claw-like black nails.
But while the look was important, Nurmi also had another ace up her sleeve: She knew how to put on a show.
11. She Had An Iconic Routine
On May 1, 1954, The Vampira Show premiered. Vampira had a spooky routine at the start of each episode. She would approach the camera from a dark, mist-filled corridor; an illusion created by dry ice. At first, only her silhouette is visible, but as she gets closer her figure becomes more clear. Finally, the camera would zoom in on her face, she would let out a sudden piercing scream then smile and say “screaming relaxes me so". And she had much more to offer.
12. She Possessed Undeniable Charisma
The Vampira Show was bizarre in every way, especially for viewers in the 1950s. Television audiences had simply never seen anything like her—and her look was only half the story. Vampira didn’t just host the show; she was the show. She would lay barefoot on her Victorian sofa, decorated with skulls, of course, sometimes chatting with off-camera “ghosts,” and other times petting her little spider Rollo.
Nurmi also had an...interesting sense of humor.
13. She Made Terrible Films Watchable
Nurmi managed to do something not even her producers ever thought she could. She found a way to convince viewers to sit down every night and watch some really bad horror films—but her methods were rather unexpected. Instead of pretending that the B-pictures her show played were any good, Vampira acknowledged how bad they were. She would mock and make fun of the films while introducing them on her show.
Viewers also had Vampira’s characteristic bone-chilling jokes to look forward to.
14. She Was A Dark Comedy Queen
Vampira had a sense of humor that was almost as bizarre as she was. She liked making ghoulish puns and sharing spooky cocktail recipes such as, “one jigger formaldehyde, two jiggers vulture blood, garnish with a glass eye". And hey, clearly the audience was into that, because The Vampira Show was a huge success.
Maila Nurmi was about to realize that her life would never be the same again.
15. She Became An Overnight Sensation
The Vampira Show was an instant hit. Within a few weeks of being on-air, Nurmi appeared in articles and photo spreads for TV Guide, Newsweek, and Life magazines. She also took a cruise around Hollywood in her Vampira costume on the back of a 1932 Packard touring car as part of a publicity stunt. With the top down, she waved to her fans and perplexed on-lookers.
Speaking of fans, her fanbase apparently included some well-known names.
16. She Had A Celebrity Fan
Tragic heartthrob James Dean was a fan of The Vampira Show. Dean watched Nurmi in his downtime and even guest-starred on the show, in a scene where he had his back to the camera. Nurmi also reportedly visited Dean on the set of the film that made him a sensation, Rebel Without A Cause. Despite their incongruity, the pair of them seemed to be thick as thieves—though there might have been more to their relationship than met the eye.
17. Their Friendship Was In Doubt
Dean and Nurmi’s friendship was apparently not what it seemed. At least, that's what Hedda Hopper, a gossip columnist, claimed in her scandalous 1962 memoir. In the book, Hopper relates a story from Dean, where he told her that he found Nurmi “void of any true interest except her Vampira make-up". Obviously, those words must have been devastating for Nurmi—but that's not the whole story.
Hopper, an unrepentant slanderer and devout supporter of the Hollywood blacklist, was never above making up a story if it dragged someone she didn't like. Don't worry, though: Nurmi stood her ground.
18. She Found A Kindred Spirit
Despite the claims made in Hopper’s memoir, many have defended Dean and Nurmi's relationship, including Nurmi herself. Director R. H. Greene, who did a 2012 documentary on Nurmi titled Vampira and Me, heavily contested Hopper’s comments on Nurmi and Dean’s friendship. Nurmi also spoke often of the connection she shared with Dean, whom she said shared "the same neuroses."
I suppose we will likely never know the truth—but between Hopper and Vampira, I'm siding with Vampira.
19. She Inspired Songs
Nurmi and her character Vampira inspired many songs, one, in particular, focused on her relationship with Dean. English punk rock band The Damned released a song about Nurmi and Dean in 1979. Titled Plan 9, Channel 7, the song is a reference to an...interesting film Nurmi starred in later in her career. The lyrics describe a love affair between Nurmi and Dean.
Whether the two were just friends or lovers or neither, Nurmi certainly thought that she had a special connection with Dean—maybe a little too special...
20. She Could Speak To Ghosts
In 2004, Nurmi guest-starred in an episode of a British paranormal reality show about Dean’s tragic untimely demise. On camera, she made some hair-raising comments. Nurmi talks in the show, D*ad Famous, about how she sensed Dean was gone before she heard the news about his passing. She also says that his ghost contacts her through fire (i.e. candle flames and cigar butt flames).
That doesn't sound very healthy...but fortunately, she had other living friends that she was in contact with as well.
21. She Had A Celebrity Crush
Like just about everyone in the 50s, Nurmi found Elvis Presley fascinating. His defiance of gender norms and his provocative and controversial performance style spoke to her. Discussing Presley, Nurmi once said, “I had never seen someone boldly standing on a stage—supposedly a heterosexual male—wearing turquoise eye shadow and grinding his hips like that". The two were reportedly friends and Nurmi claimed Presley even gave her guitar lessons.
Sadly, while Nurmi’s friendships were blooming, her career was in jeopardy.
22. She Had A Short-Lived Prime
All good times must come to an end, and this goth Cinderella’s story didn’t have the happy ending she had hoped for. Nurmi’s “15 minutes of fame” ended in 1955 when the television station canceled her show after only one year on air. As for the cause for the cancellation; the reason was quite sad.
23. She Refused To Sell Vampira
Nurmi understood what a priceless commodity Vampira had become, and so did the television station. Push came to shove—and Nurmi lost. The station canceled The Vampira Show because she refused to sell the rights to the character. This was only the beginning of a lifelong battle to keep and defend those rights from those who wanted Vampira’s influence without caring for the women who created her.
But that fight would come later on. Nurmi had other, more disturbing problems to worry about first.
24. Her Fame Brought Misfortune To Her Doorstep
The uncanny and attractive character Nurmi created unintentionally attracted a lot of stalkers and creeps. Nurmi suffered from many terrifying incidents that left her traumatized. One time, she received a letter from a “fan” telling her that they were going to sacrifice a cat in her honor. Later on, the body of said cat was left on her doorstep. Nurmi, who loved animals, was obviously horrified. Yet that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
25. Her Husband Got Cold Feet
Nurmi's husband, Dean Riesner, full-heartedly supported her at the start of her career, but as time went on his support dwindled. He had not only accompanied Nurmi to the costume party that changed her life, but was also the one that gave Vampira her name. As Nurmi’s popularity grew, however, Riesner began to change. He refused to go out in public with Nurmi if she wore her Vampira getup. Clearly, this wasn't going to work.
The couple divorced around the same time as The Vampira Show’s cancelation. But Nurmi didn’t stay single for long.
26. She Never Found "The One"
After her divorce with Riesner, Nurmi married twice in quick succession. In 1958, she married an actor called John Brinkley, but their marriage only lasted three years. Nurmi divorced Brinkley in 1961—then turned around and wed Italian actor Fabrizio Mioni. The couple later divorced as well, but it's unclear when exactly it happened. This is where Nurmi's story starts getting more mysterious.
You see, Nurmi fell almost completely off the radar after The Vampira Show ended—though not before making a few, sometimes horrendous, attempts at reviving her character.
27. She Starred In The “Worst Film Ever Made”
In 1959, Nurmi revived her character, Vampira, to appear in the sci-fi horror film Plan 9 from Outer Space. The bizarre film, written, directed, and produced by Ed Wood, featured aliens, a doomsday weapon, the undead, and, of course, Vampira. Critics dubbed the film the “worst film ever made,” and Nurmi agreed.
28. She Was Desperate
When Nurmi agreed to join the Plan 9 from Outer Space cast, she knew she was making a terrible mistake. She retrospectively explained, “At the time I thought it was horrible. I knew immediately I'd be committing professional hara-kiri, but I thought, 'What choice do I have?' Somehow, I seemed to be gone already".
Funny enough, the film actually gained a cult following years later as the peak of the “so-bad-it's-good cinema"—but that didn't help Maila Nurmi.
29. She Could Do Anything To Get By
Nurmi was always a great craftswoman and a jack of all trades. Even with her acting career behind her, she could still use her other skills to make a living. In the 1960s, she opened her own antiques shop, Vampira’s Attic. She created handmade jewelry and clothing for celebrities, and even had a linoleum flooring installation business. Maila Nurmi was nothing if not resourceful—but soon, the money started running out.
30. She Got Help From A Famous Friend
Even after losing her own celebrity status, Nurmi retained some of her famous friends; or more like she couldn’t get rid of them. In the 1970s, Nurmi was struggling financially. Fortunately, her good friend Marlon Brando helped a little by paying her phone bills. The reason why he did it, though, was a little...self-serving.
31. His Friendship Came With A Price
Brando was another one of Nurmi’s handsome celebrity friends, but he might have loved chatting just a little too much. He was incredibly close with Nurmi—to the point that it started getting creepy. As in, he reportedly used to climb into her apartment through the window because who needs doors? As for why he paid her phone bills, according to the Los Angeles Times, it was “so he could call anytime to discuss his favorite subject—himself".
However, as annoying as Brando must have been, I'm sure Nurmi still preferred his antics over what was coming next...
32. She Was Against The Vampira Revival
In 1981, KHJ-TV woke Vampira from her slumber for a project that aimed to revive the character for television. The station promised Nurmi an executive producer credit, but eventually, she quit. They had hired Cassandra Peterson to play Vampira over Nurmi’s favored pick for the role, a decision Nurmi was very unhappy with. They also did so without consulting her first. But did Nurmi leaving the project to stop it from going forward? Nope.
33. Her Legacy Was Stolen
With Nurmi gone, the TV station could no longer use Vampira’s name. Therefore, they just came up with another character, and Elvira's Movie Macabre was born. Peterson played the titular horror hostess Elvira—though she wasn't exactly creative about it. She copied Nurmi’s Vampira with just enough differences to escape infringing on Nurmi’s rights.
34. She Never Hid Her Distaste
Peterson’s Elvira obviously imitated Vampira’s puns and style. It made Nurmi absolutely furious. Nurmi claimed that Peterson copied Vampira’s “distinctive dark dress, horror movie props, and...special personality". She also made it very clear in public comments how much she hated Peterson, sending her ill wishes and mocking her for getting plastic surgery for her chest, among other...impolite words.
Nurmi wasn’t giving up without putting up a fight, so she went to court with her claims.
35. Her Lawful Battle Left Her Disappointed
Nurmi sued Elvira's Movie Macabre for plagiarism, but the result was disappointing. Her lawsuit didn't succeed because the court ruled that while Elvira bore a close resemblance to Vampira, it was not an exact likeness. This ruling was devastating for Nurmi—and the success of Elvira's Movie Macabre was even more devastating.
36. Her Copycat Outperformed Her
Elvira enjoyed success and renown that far exceeded her predecessor’s. Elvira's Movie Macabre ran between 1981-1986. It had five seasons compared to The Vampira Show’s single-season run. In fact, the show was so successful that Peterson got to star as Elvira in a feature film titled Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. But hey, at least Nurmi still owned the rights to Vampira, right?
37. She Made Her Own Merch
In 2001, a 79-year-old Nurmi was still holding on, just barely, and still protective of her Vampira rights. She only authorized a few merchandising contracts for Vampira in her lifetime as she didn’t trust others with her precious creation. She painted her own Vampira portraits and sold them alongside other autographed memorabilia on eBay. These actions were sadly out of necessity for Nurmi who lived in poverty at that time.
38. She Felt Unsafe
After multiple experiences with stalkers, including the home break-in, Nurmi was understandably concerned for her safety. She also lacked the money to make her living situation feel safer. She once confessed in a conversation with filmmaker R.H. Greene that she didn’t envy top celebrities for their money and fame but for their “electric fences". Since she couldn’t do much about the money, she hid from the outside world.
39. Her Character Outlived Her
Maila Nurmi lived in obscurity in the later part of her life, but Vampira’s popularity was still raging. As author W. Scott Poole put it in his book Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, “Vampira continued to live on, but in some ways very much without Maila Nurmi". Vampira fans contacted Nurmi all the time. This initially made her weary, so she only accepted letters through emissaries and never shared her address. But eventually, her loneliness got the best of her.
40. She Was Lonely
In her last years, Nurmi lived alone and was desperate for human contact. Most of her friends had either passed or drifted apart from her. She wasn’t close with her family and had no children to take care of her in old age, at least not any that she was in contact with. So she became more welcoming to Vampira fans who wanted to know more about her. She met with fans in diners and gladly shared stories from her Vampira days. And when she had no human contact, she enjoyed the company of other creatures.
41. She Was A Cat Mom
All alone in her small North Hollywood apartment, Nurmi enjoyed the company of animals. She had multiple cats and a dog named Bogie. She also liked feeding pigeons, sometimes even inviting them into her home and giving them names. In this manner, the woman who was ahead of her time lived the last of her days.
42. She Had An Affair With A Famous Actor
In the 1940s, Nurmi had a messy affair with actor and director Orson Welles, for whom Nurmi fell head over heels. She would travel to different cities to meet with Welles, something she claims she never did for any other man. However, it seems she liked him more for his charm than his... "abilities." Nurmi once said, "Orson was not a gentle lover and was possessed of an urgency to complete the act." Drag him, Queen.
Eventually, she even became pregnant with Welles' child. It should have been her dream come true. There was a massive problem though—turns out, her dream was more like a nightmare.
43. Her Lover Abandoned Her
Nurmi's massive problem? Orson Welles was already married—to legendary actress Rita Hayworth no less! Though their marriage only lasted four years (Welles's affairs probably had something to do with that), she still held onto him for longer than Nurmi. After she became pregnant, Welles dumped her and left her heartbroken.
Devastated, Nurmi still had her unborn child to think of—and she had to make a terrible decision.
44. She Gave Up Her Child
After giving birth to her child with Welles, Nurmi decided to give the baby up for adoption. Years later, Nurmi’s mother met Welles by chance and told him about the child. His reaction was chilling. Welles apparently gave her $200 and told her to go away. As for the child’s fate? More on that later. Nurmi’s love life was in tatters, but at least her career was on a somewhat steady path.
45. She Had A Chilling Encounter
In 1955, shortly after the end of her show, a stalker attack Nurmi in her own apartment. The man trapped her in that horrifying situation for almost four hours, refusing to leave and holding her inside. Luckily, she managed to escape and get help. Later in life, Nurmi became an infamous recluse, in large part because of these harrowing encounters.
But stalkers weren't her only problem—her personal life was a total disaster too.
46. She Passed Quietly
On January 10, 2008, Maila Nurmi was found in her apartment, having passed from natural causes. Her niece, Sandra Niemi, flew to Los Angeles to sign her estranged aunt’s passing certificate and collect her effects. However, when Niemi arrived at the apartment, she got much more than she bargained for.
47. She Tried To Tell Her Story
Nurmi’s niece found her last unfinished project in that lonely apartment. Niemi found crumpled pages in Nurmi’s shirt pockets, hidden behind pictures, and taped to the backs of calendars. Piecing them together like a puzzle, Niemi discovered an unfinished autobiography. So she decided to finish it and tell her aunt’s story in her own words.
48. Her Niece Took Care Of Her Unfinished Business
She published the book, Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi, in 2021. However, she wasn't done there. After piecing together the book about the woman behind Vampira, Niemi made another big discovery. She used Ancestry.com to try to get in touch with Nurmi's son with Welles. Remember, the one she gave up for adoption in the 40s? Well, believe it or not, Niemi really found him!
49. Her Son Learned The Truth
Vampira’s son took the discovery of his mother’s history exactly as you would imagine: “Imagine being a 75-year-old retired attorney, living a life of comfort and very little remaining drama, then one day, through the magic of DNA, you find that your birth mother was a famous vampire…It was startling to say the least". Nurmi, who never had any children and never got to know her son, would have been startled as well.
50. Her Legacy Lives On
Nurmi always wanted to leave a legacy behind. She once said, “I don't have any babies or any social history that's remarkable, so I'm leaving something behind, you know, when the time comes to say goodbye, I'm leaving something". Little did she know, she was leaving behind a son, and a legend to be remembered for years to come.