Maila Nurmi, come on down! Mike Decay has turned his deep and abiding love for the now-iconic actress into a one-off publication called Playghoul, which is a chronological collection of clippings, photos, writings and other ephemera of the actress’s life and career. Decay, who also runs the Coney Island spook show, Phantom Creep Theatre, is a one-stop expert on what would otherwise be a lost piece of vintage Americana. Eric Davidson spoke with Mike Decay at his Brooklyn crypt for PKM
American pop culture is packed with odd characters that were regarded as salacious, C-grade blips in the beginning, but eventually morphed into monumentally influential icons. Think how Little Richard was considered a freak when he came around; Jim Thompson was a forgotten paperback hack; Andy Warhol wasn’t a real painter; the Ronettes were just another Phil Spector product; Roger Corman made cheap teen trash; John Waters movies were rated X; the Stooges couldn’t get on the purportedly “open-minded” FM airwaves; Dolemite was just a failed comic looking for a cheap gimmick; the Ramones couldn’t play; Madonna couldn’t sing; the Sugarhill Gang was just guys yelling over a beat; and on and on…
Vampira was a near-last ditch attempt from a flailing actress to nab a spotlight that sure seemed like it would fade quick. Whipped up for a regional late night horror movie host gig that lasted about a year, Maila Nurmi then took her femme fatale take on Dracula to some minor films (that also became formerly forgotten, touchstone B-flicks) and into the TV terrain of the early 1960s. Her long, lanky, sexy Vampira formed the template for every she-bloodsucker to come.
Luckily, Vampira/Maila Nurmi (1922-2008) lived long enough to see her sideshow become an underground legend, and spent much of her later years taking in praise and affection from horror movie, vintage monster magazine, and punk rock fans at ephemera conventions all over.
Local sideshow presenter himself, Mike Decay, has been a huge Vampira aficionado since his teens, and has turned (one of) his obsessions into a new, long-gestating book, Playghoul. Chock full of hundreds of vintage magazine articles about Vampira amassed over the years, surrounded by cool comics about Mz. Nurmi from Decay and friends. It’s a lovingly rendered peon to the pulpy, staples and X-ray Spex ad-festooned teen reads of the midcentury that were forgotten junk themselves, until the vintage revival of the 1990s that has interior decorated the cool corners of society to this day.
We pried open the 12-inch-thick iron door of Decay’s cobweb-covered Brooklyn lair, opened his Misfits and Meteors stickers-covered coffin, and asked him all about Playghoul, horror punk predilections, his long-running Coney Island spook show, Phantom Creep Theatre, and more!
PKM: Alright, some background. Where were you born, and what are some early memories of getting into vintage horror stuff?
Mike Decay: A long time ago my family crawled out of the sea, but I was born on Long Island. There was a mom and pop video store, as well as a comic book store, a really short bike ride away from my house. I’d go there all the time renting anything I thought looked gross or exciting. Although I always gravitated to Dracula. Even before it was easy to find copies of Nosferatu, I’d be transfixed by the shortest clip of the Murnau film anywhere I’d stumble upon it.
In the early/mid-90’s, Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine started being printed again. I used to buy it and cut it to pieces to make my own zine, called Today’s Decay. That, paired with this amazing book by Ron Borst, Graven Images, really got my interest into seeing movies that weren’t easily available. Some of them were lost to time, but the write-ups and graphics were too cool!
PKM: Were you an early convention-goer, or did you hunker down in a basement and devise how you were going to “get out of this damn square town?”
Mike Decay: I don’t remember cons being on my radar really early on. But I started working in a sandal factory after school when I was 14 to afford this nonsense. It was a $4 cab ride to get to the train to get into the city for a world of rare movies and music. I never even figured out how to get a car growing up because all eyes were focused on NYC.
PKM: I know you’re a big music fan too. Who were some early favorite bands that kind of nosedived into your burgeoning horror flick interest?
Mike Decay: I borrowed a copy of the Misfits Collection I cassette from a friend, and that suddenly brought my worlds together. I used to listen to it walking through the halls of high school, and it transported me far, far away. Especially side 1, the more Bobby Steele-era. I definitely made it my mission to see all the films [Glenn] Danzig was writing about. Which of course was frustrating because as it turned out, he wasn’t really singing directly about the films he was referencing.
This was a moment of insane luck: I found a copy of the Meteors’ first LP, In Heaven, in the dollar bin at Infinity Records in Seaford, LI. Not sure how that record happened to wind up in suburban America, much less in the cutout bin, but it was a major life changer for me for sure. Other early influences would be the Cramps, the Damned, and then Demented Are Go, as well as slightly different takes on the same horror/rock’n’roll idea, Skinny Puppy and Alien Sex Fiend.
PKM: What was the first live show you saw?
Mike Decay: Hmm, I begrudgingly saw a few things earlier, but the first show I was excited about was Bad Religion, Supersuckers, and Samiam at Roseland. That then led to immediately finding venues like CBGB, Wetlands, ABC No Rio, eventually Coney Island High, etc, where tons of great modern and older bands were regularly playing. Long Island was really big on hardcore music, like Silent Majority, VOD, Warped Weeble Wobbles, Bor, etc I preferred the Blanks and Casualties.
PKM: So what are some of your absolute favorite bands; and the ones who have informed your movie lust too?
Mike Decay: To quote the Sting-Rays: “The Cramps and the Meteors!” There’s this great book called the Wild Wild World of the Cramps, where Lux and Ivy not only list off their favorite movies but explain why they think they’re so good. There’s something important in handed down teachings. The same could be said about the likes of Forry Ackerman (who ran Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine), Mad Mike, and Billy Miller/Miriam Linna (Norton Records) sharing with the world what makes them tick.
PKM: But what came first – music or movie love?
Mike Decay: My mom would regularly play the Pointer Sisters and Billy Joel, so definitely the 1931 Dracula for me all the way! Ha ha.
PKM: Favorite movies?
Mike Decay: Ever? Not just this stroll down memory lane? The Crowd, by King Vidor. Phantom Creep Theatre horror hosted it last summer. A good chunk of it was filmed on location in Coney Island in the late 1920’s, and it captures these gut-wrenching human fears better than anything I’ve experienced elsewhere. Terry Gilliam ripped off one of its most memorable shots for his movie Brazil. The Crowd should be sent up into space so if aliens ever wonder what this long dead species of ours was all about, they could just watch the film to get the full experience. The Man Who Laughs and a series of Lon Chaney, Sr. films can tie for second place. A Page of Madness is a fitting title – a silent Japanese take on Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by a filmmaker who had only read about Caligari. He made it because the write-up interested him, but they couldn’t get it in Japan in the 1920’s, so he just made it himself, which doesn’t wind up resembling Caligari at all, but almost something David Lynch could have made. Black Sunday and Black Sabbath I can re-watch whenever. I’ve been gravitating to Phantasm, Hellraiser, and Monster Squad a lot recently.
PKM: So what was your first introduction to the world of Vampira and Maila Nurmi?
Mike Decay: The Ed Wood movie by Tim Burton came out when I was 14, so paired with the Misfits, the Damned, and Famous Monsters magazine, she would have been everywhere I turned in 1994! I definitely remember watching a VHS rental copy of Plan 9 from Outer Space in my parent’s room. I completely do not agree that Plan 9 is one of the worst movies ever made! Forry Ackerman told me, and I believe him – while Tim Burton’s movie was fun, it played for laughs instead of accuracy.
PKM: Did you soon concentrate on collecting articles about Vampira, or did you just collect in general?
Mike Decay: No, the collecting of Maila Nurmi articles has been a much more recent development over the last five to ten years. They were on my radar, but I didn’t realize just how many magazine appearances she had, how interesting the content was, or if you were buying the right issue or not. Needless to say, I now have a lot of issues!
PKM: What else do you collect? Tell us about some of your favorite artifacts?
Mike Decay: I’ve been building my own version of the Ackermansion since I was a kid. That’s to say, Forry Ackerman had a classic monster museum in his mansion in Los Angeles. He’d give free, open house guided tours every Saturday for over 50 years to whomever would knock on his door. Lots of kids who read the magazine would strive to create their own shrines in their bedroom to Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolfman.
I have a bunch of photoplay novelizations of lost films. The negatives and all the prints are lost to films like Lon Chaney, Sr.’s vampire mystery film, London After Midnight, but you can read the promotional tie-in novel that was issued when the film was first released. Or you can, if you’re here at my place! I have some original paintings that hung in Forry Ackerman’s house in the 1960’s. These were paintings Forry had commissioned by Albert Nuetzell, the original cover artist for Famous Monsters, before Basil Gogos took over. There’re photos of Forry giving Anton LaVey a guided tour with these paintings just over their shoulders.
PKM: So give us a quick history of Phantom Creep Theatre, where the idea came from, and your work in and around the Coney Island Freak Show.
Mike Decay: A quick history, you say! Well, we’re a spook show troupe. Spook shows are a nearly forgotten branch of horror history that peaked in the 1930’s-40’s. Morbid magicians would tour the country performing in movie palaces between double feature monster movies, conjuring ghosts over the audiences heads and calling audience members up to saw their arms off or turn them into gorillas. These weren’t exactly horror hosts, but I’d say they set the stage for them. When drive-ins came in, that pretty much killed the spook shows, but they died a slow death, truly running out of steam by the early 1970’s.
In about 2004 or so, me, Ronni Raygun, and Shane Morton decided to bring spook shows back to life with the Silver Scream Spook Show. We were the first in a generation or more to fully embrace the spook show template.
That then morphed into the 8mm Movie Matinee, and then Phantom Creep Theatre. They include giant robots, monsters, black out sessions, live musicians, and a bunch more. Our on-stage characters go on adventures that compliment or tie into the film we screen after the performance. We have more of the particulars on our website with way too many photos in no particular order, but we started in Coney and they keep having us back! Which is nice, because my family actually has their roots there.
I’m related to Lionette the lion-faced girl, who worked at the World Circus Sideshow as a bearded lady from 1925-1940. We conjured her ghost one Phantom Creep Theatre, and had her tell her whole story about how, in part, my grandfather would stand outside to wait for her to get off of work to walk her home because people would try to beat her up.
PKM: What are some other favorite Phantom Creep Theater performances; and what is planned for this year?
Mike Decay: I really wouldn’t know where to begin. Most of them include bucket list-type content for us. I was just talking about how we set an entire show on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean with giant monsters like Godzilla, the Great Garloo, and King Zor fighting over the fate of ancient Lemuria. We’ve performed live recreations of lost Lon Chaney, Sr. films, such as Thunder, London After Midnight, and A Blind Bargain. Our Vampira show several summers ago was one for the history books; We conjured her ghost, and she performed her lost TV show content based off of the original shooting scripts, which haven’t been available publicly anywhere. We haven’t announced what we’re cooking up for next year yet!
PKM: You’ve mostly been doing the recent shows in the Freak Show theater, but you used to do them upstairs in the Museum there. Why did that change occur?
Mike Decay: They said we can make more of a mess on the side show stage!
PKM: I’ve sometimes snuck up to that Museum above the Freak Show gift shop after it’s closed, and it’s creepy up there with all the lights off. Have you ever experienced any supernatural shakes at the Museum or Freak Show, like well after the end of the show while cleaning things up?
Mike Decay: Anything I’ve experienced there I’ve attributed to the family of raccoons that live in the wall… but could it in fact be something much more insidious and otherworldly?!
PKM: I will say yes, it’s the otherworldly shit! I love the Freak Show theater, the Museum, and the Freak Bar is one of my favorite places to get a beer in the whole city. But every time I go there, I get that nagging feeling it could be the last. It’s all way too cool to survive encroaching gentrification. Do you have any inside scoop as to the health and sustainability of that building, as Coney Island keeps getting re-worked?
Mike Decay: They recently were granted museum status, so I think as long as we don’t bring the ceiling down on people’s heads there again, everything should be fine forever!
PKM: Whew! Maybe I should know this, but were you involved with the great 2000s NYC cable access show, Ghoul a-Go-Go?
Mike Decay: Nope, but I love them! We screened some of their content at our Silver Scream Spook Shows in the mid 2000’s.
PKM: So, back to Vampira! How did the germ of this Playghoul book idea begin?
Mike Decay: I forget which one I was reading when I suddenly realized, “This means something!” We’ve all seen the iconic photos of her with a near-Chelsea cut, but who knows the story behind it? Well, it’s in the small print in that article, which has never been reprinted before ever.
PKM: Tell us of your basic idea about it. Essentially, you collect the articles you’ve collected and add new comics interspersed with the vintage articles, right?
Mike Decay: Playghoul is a chronological collection of Maila Nurmi appearances in pulp magazines from 1950-1964. You see her entry into the cheesecake/bikini modeling world, her experimenting with more artistic endeavors, her achieving notoriety as Vampira, and then as it gets away from her within exploitative tabloids. Interspersed with all that are adventures of Phantom Creep Theatre characters in comic book form. She’s telling her life story and we’re occasionally chiming in. We are horror hosting Maila Nurmi’s life.
PKM: Can you confidently feel you have attained all, or at least all English language articles, about Vampira that are out there?
Mike Decay: I wouldn’t rule out that there’s more out there. There is no comprehensive list of her appearances in the pulps. I’ve seen a list or two, but they were missing important content… of which we’ve got here.
I worked on this project with a fellow Vampira fanatic, Eric Hoffman, who lives down south. We would communicate back and forth like private investigators trying to track down more examples of her appearing in obscure bikini magazines, sometimes uncredited. Collaborating is good. I’m not really best as a lone wolf.
Playghoul is a chronological collection of Maila Nurmi appearances in pulp magazines from 1950-1964. You see her entry into the cheesecake/bikini modeling world, her experimenting with more artistic endeavors, her achieving notoriety as Vampira, and then as it gets away from her within exploitative tabloids.
PKM: A number of Phantom Creeps were involved in this too, right?
Mike Decay: A number of fantastic artists from around the world where involved with illustrating the adventures of various characters from Phantom Creep Theatre! The goal was to base the comics off of the aesthetic of the Eerie or Creepy magazines, with various artists taking on their own aesthetics every few pages.
PKM: Please explain the cool vintage printing process for Playghoul. And tell us about Creepy Cult, and how you got in touch with them to print it.
Mike Decay: I first got in touch with Lance Thingmaker from Creepy Cult when he repro-ed the Fantasy Fan fanzine, originally printed between 1933-1935, (which we just did a live stage play based off of the Boiling Point public feud between H.P. Lovecraft and fellow sci-fi fans). It was such a special and unique recreation I needed to know who did it and how we could work together. He then printed our Midnite Monster Hop calendars for a bunch of years, and then we decided to work on this project together.
It’s all traditional off-set screen printing and perfectly bound by hand. So that means the only digital anything done here was scanning in the original materials. Then the layout is designed, negatives with four pages on a sheet prepared and printed. The color pages had to be passed through several times. I’d be a lot easier if we just did digital, but when you see it, you’ll know the difference and be glad forever. Or so we hope!
PKM: Is the printing really only 666 copies?
Mike Decay: Yup!
PKM: How did Maila Nurmi concoct Vampira; and what was the main era when she worked the character?
Mike Decay: The most important take away is that Vampira came from Maila Nurmi’s head. She had some inspiration from the likes of Charles Addams’ creations, but Vampira is distinctly a Maila Nurmi creation.
What people probably don’t realize is she was five years ahead of her time. When you think about her “contemporaries” – Zacherly, Jeepers, Morgus, Ghoulardi, and many more – they didn’t get their start until at least 1957, if not the early 1960’s. Her show only ran in 1954 and 1955, and it was only locally broadcast in the Los Angeles area. She created a nationwide stir and changed programming across the country. That’s quite an impact for such a short run. Remember, most TV shows were broadcast locally back then, and even many magazines were printed regionally. It speaks to how powerful she was.
PKM: What are your favorite movie or TV appearances of hers?
Mike Decay: The George Gobel show where she moves in next door as his neighbor is terrific, and probably the best example of what the humor was like on her own show!
PKM: What are some favorite odd things you’ve learned about Nurmi over the years?
Mike Decay: Well, this goes into post 1964 territory, which will be covered in Playghoul volume 2.
PKM: Oh cool! Didn’t know a volume 2 was planned! She appeared at a lot of Spook Shows, right?
Mike Decay: She made personal appearances at theatrical events and on TV shows, but people also could have billed it as her while having a cheap copy appear. Such was ballyhoo life back then.
PKM: She had some famous suitors, no?
What people probably don’t realize is she was five years ahead of her time. When you think about her “contemporaries” – Zacherly, Jeepers, Morgus, Ghoulardi, and many more – they didn’t get their start until at least 1957…
Mike Decay: I’m guessing you specifically mean James Dean, of which they were connected, but to what degree remains unconfirmed. Upon his death, the vultures descended and tried to exploit her.
PKM: What of Vampirella – what did Nurmi think of that quasi-offshoot?
Mike Decay: Vampirella was actually a comic book creation by Forry Ackerman, who was friends with Maila. At the time of both of their deaths, they lived just down the road from each other. I am unaware of any animosity between the two of them over Vampirella. Although if we’re talking Elvira, that’s a whole other story, and one to be covered in Playghoul volume 2 too!
PKM: I’ll assume Nurmi moved on at some point, and found out later in life that there was a kind of cult for Vampira? What did she think of that; and when did she start to capitulate to going to horror conventions and such? Or, did she never really give the character up?
Mike Decay: There were many undeservedly dark times for Maila, both literally and figuratively. Playghoul volume 1 ends when the archaeological record found within pulp magazines grows cold in 1964. The second half of her story we will be telling in a different way. I don’t want to say too much about this yet, but we’re really excited to get this project going!
You can order Playghoul and other spooky delights at phantomcreep.com