I must confess that I have found researching my planned new book about midcentury moral panics to be surprisingly amusing. Typically, when I research a topic, the people involved turn out to be somewhere on the spectrum between unpleasant and evil. Many are wildly racist, and most have all the color and excitement of the sepia-toned photos in which they now exist. For the most part, the people I learn about don’t really do things so much as write about them, and many of the people are known only as names (cough, Annianus and Panodorus, cough), and that makes most of the research an exercise in textual analysis.
So imagine my amusement to learn that in the first three days after seeing the first flying saucers, Kenneth Arnold had not only discovered that becoming an overnight celebrity was horrifying (he literally flew away in a small plane to escape the crush of reporters and gawkers) but had already suffered an identity crisis and had already encountered all three of the major threads of ufology that would forever haunt the UFO field.
In the days after seeing the saucers, Arnold was besieged with phone calls, telegrams, and letters to the point that he began to freak out and tried to escape his newfound celebrity. He emphasized to reporters that he wasn’t some unmanly, scaredy-cat kook but was an all-American, red-blooded male and insisted that they report that he had been a high school football star, as though that would take the taint from his encounter with the uncanny. The reporters dutifully included the detail, including descriptions of his weight and musculature, to vouchsafe that Arnold was a real man and not some hysterical effeminate type who might see things that weren’t there.
But that was nothing compared to the bizarre details of Arnold’s next hours, which saw the birth of the three major explanations for flying saucers—all proposed by everyday folk, reported in the papers, and then canonized for the next three quarters of a century. Arnold himself proposed that flying saucers were secret government projects that the military was covering up, while his friends suggested that they might be incursions by Soviet spy craft that the government was trying to keep secret. The military issued a blanket denial to the press later that day, compelling Arnold to write a telegram not long after demanding full UFO disclosure. That was one thread. Then, Arnold got a phone call from a preacher who told him that the flying saucers were demonic and were harbingers of the End Times and that he would be preparing his flock for doomsday. That was the second thread. When he went to a café for a meal, a woman began shrieking hysterically, shouted that Arnold was the man who had seen “the Martians” and demanded to know what could be done to save the country’s children from space aliens before running from the café shouting wildly. After the papers reported that, the floodgates of alien speculation opened. That was the third and most important thread.
It’s all there, right at the beginning. Everything since then has simply been the playing out of the random nonsense that bubbled up around Arnold in the first hours after his sighting.
However colorful that was, I wasn’t half as amused as I was after reading about how James Dean and Vampira got into a public grudge match over satanic powers. It was weird, and sad, and part of a growing collection of utterly absurd details that seem custom-made to overwhelm what started as my fairly serious thesis about midcentury moral panics. I do hope, however, that I get the opportunity to write this book. It won’t be exactly what I first planned, but it can’t help but be entertaining.
Anyway, the story below can be gleaned from incidental references in a number of books but isn’t usually given in full, so I have pulled as many of the details together as possible for what I believe is the first time the whole story has been assembled in one place. W. Scott Poole tells this story in a somewhat disjointed and abbreviated form in his 2014 book on Nurmi, deriving the story from a 1975 biography of Dean, but oddly enough doesn’t put events in chronological order, making the sequence unclear. He also seems a little hazy on Dean’s side of the story and has several errors and fairly major omissions.
Around the time Dean spent a night in 1954 terrorizing Marilyn Monroe with a motorcycle at the Chateau Marmont and then glowering at her from across a party, the two having developed a mutual antipathy, he started chatting with Maila Nurmi late one night at the nearby Googie’s coffee shop in West Hollywood at the suggestion of his friend and likely lover Jack Simmons, who was also Nurmi’s friend. Dean had been intrigued by the press accounts that she practiced witchcraft and, like Monroe, was a friend of his screen idol, Marlon Brando, who in turn had angrily demanded Dean stop stalking him and would soon recommend him a therapist (because—of course). Nurmi had just started a job hosting horror movies as Vampira on KABC, and the station had planted stories in the gossip press about her ghoulish behavior and supposed witchy powers to spark interest.
At the time, Dean and Nurmi were about evenly matched. He was an up-and-coming TV actor on the brink of his first big movie role. She was a newly minted TV star with ambitions. They became fast friends, but neither fully understood what the other was really after. Nurmi thought that by hitching herself to a rising movie star she might realize her ambitions to break out of local TV and get into movies. They could, she thought, help each other. Dean thought he had finally met someone of depth and seriousness who shared his abiding interest in metaphysical questions about life after death. (Yes, that is serious. His ex-girlfriend, Pier Angelli, even told of how charming it was that on their dates he would take her to the beach to talk about “our problems [and] life after death.” Ah, romance.) Dean talked of death quite a bit, to the point that Nurmi eventually started to realize that while she was putting on a macabre character for fun, Dean wasn’t just playing along with her. One night she asked him why he was so obsessed with death. “That’s the only way I’ll have any peace,” he told her earnestly.
The fascination Dean at first felt for Nurmi faded fast when the real woman failed to match his imagined version. But her interest in him only grew. Anyway, the mismatch was bound to create problems eventually.
For his part, Dean brought her to Bungalow 2 at the Chateau Marmont to visit director Nicholas Ray on the night he decided to tell Ray he was interested in Rebel without a Cause. They cut quite the scene, with the statuesque Nurmi standing between Dean and Simmons, the two men dressed and styled as twins, galivanting into Ray’s bungalow, with Dean somersaulting backward across the floor and interrogating Ray about stories Nurmi had told Dean about Ray. He never actually got around to expressing interest in the film that night. Dean later took her to the Rebel set. For her part, Nurmi supposedly (or so she said) convinced Dean to appear in a somewhat risqué skit on her show in disguise as a naughty schoolboy and later recalled that she imagined the two of them to be freedom fighters looking to break the constraints of 1950s conformity. He was disappointed to find her a social climber who vastly oversold her intellectual depth and her insights into the world beyond this one. She became smitten and wanted a romantic relationship with the boy nearly a decade younger than her. He was tired of her and wanted her to go away. When the gossip rags suggested that the two were dating as she was going through a divorce, he seemed to suspect that she had planted the stories, and that was the last straw.
Dean met with his favorite gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, and told her that he wanted to rebut the rumors in print. Nurmi was, he thought, nothing but a cartoonish poseur. “I had studied The Golden Bough and the Marquis de Sade,” he told Hopper in private, at least in her later telling, “and I was interested in finding out if this girl was obsessed by a satanic force. She knew absolutely nothing. I found her void of any true interest except her Vampira make-up. She has no absolute.” Hopper and Dean cleaned up and expanded these thoughts for a statement Hopper could run in her gossip column. The resulting composite text was, well, somehow worse:
I don’t go out with witches, and I dig dating cartoons even less. I have never taken Vampira out, and I should like to clear this up. I have a fairly adequate knowledge of satanic forces, and I was interested to find out if this girl was obsessed by such a force. She was a subject about which I wanted to learn. I met her and engaged her in conversation. She knew absolutely nothing! She uses her inane characterization as an excuse for the most infantile expression you can imagine.
That phrase—an “adequate knowledge of satanic forces”—became the foundation for a cycle of urban legends about Dean’s supposed occult leanings, and the Satanic rites of his motorcycling friends, the Night Watch, that baffled his longtime friend and lover William Bast. Until his death decades later, Bast never understood how those ideas took root. A comparison of the two versions of Dean’s statements to Hopper shows how the gossip columnist tried to make sense out of what was probably Dean’s word-salad approach to what he took for high-minded rhetoric. He wanted to know if Nurmi had supernatural insights into life after death, as she had claimed, but that’s not quite what came out.
Nurmi was infuriated. This was a betrayal of the worst kind, not just giving her the kiss-off in a newspaper column, but insulting her professional persona and her entire publicity campaign. She put her own insult into print shortly after. She blasted Dean where it hurt, claiming he was a pretentious ass who was hardly as smart as he thought he was. “I’ll challenge him to an intelligence contest any time,” she said. Weirdly enough, Marilyn Monroe had had almost the same thoughts in private after her run-in with him a few months earlier.
The trouble was that Nurmi had overplayed her hand. She hadn’t realized that Dean had expected to find in her a depth that went beyond ambition and show business, and she had also failed to estimate exactly how bright his star would burn after East of Eden hit theaters or how much hers would dim. Her show was already on thin ice due to FCC complaints, months of bad publicity, and the scandal from her collapsing marriage. She needed Dean much more than he needed her, and eventually this realization dawned on her. In September 1955, she tried to rekindle their relationship. She had heard that Dean had posed for a photo in a coffin, so she grabbed a publicity photo of herself sitting in a folding chair in full Vampira costume before an open grave and wrote on the back “Having a wonderful time—wish you were here.” She meant California, but Dean thought she meant death when he heard about the picture secondhand. (Due to the photo caption in a Whisper magazine article the next year, most later writers wrongly claim the photo had “Darling, Come and Join Me” written on it.) She had sent the photo to a restaurant he frequented because they had fallen out of touch and she no longer knew where he lived, and a waiter had relayed the message to Dean by phone. Dean called her to ask what the message was all about, and Nurmi told him it was just a joke but didn’t explain the intended meaning. He died the next day.
His death crippled her career, since she was now (wrongly) seen as his last paramour and a possibly satanic presence. KABC canceled her show.
Nurmi’s association with Dean and the swirling rumors about her witchcraft and occult practices with him led Whisper magazine to print a February 1956 cover story about Nurmi’s dark magic, calling her Dean’s “Black Madonna.” She tried to embrace the publicity. She photographed herself at a Satanic altar and attended a Halloween party with an actor made up to look like the resurrected corpse of Dean. Eventually, she would claim to receive messages from Dean through the radio, and to call up his spirit in ectoplasm.
She tried to take her Vampira character to a rival station only to have that show canceled when the Washington Post repeated the Whisper story and all but openly accused her of killing Dean with black magic, alleging that she had predicted his death at a party and said she used witchcraft to determine his fate.
Nurmi tried to attach herself to Liberace right after that, and then Elvis Presley, all of 21 years old, who was a super-fan of James Dean, imitated him for his own persona, and memorized Dean’s part in Rebel without a Cause for impromptu performances of scenes. Presley tried to have sex with Nurmi, apparently to be close to his idol. One day in Las Vegas, he said he knew she was “getting old and all,” but would be “proud” to take her to bed. She befriended Presley for a little while, but her efforts to attach herself to Liberace and Presley failed.
Unable to find regular showbiz work after that, she accepted an offer from Ed Wood to appear in Plan 9 from Outer Space as a zombie resurrected by space aliens. She earned $200 for the role. The same week she was to film Plan 9, Walt Disney used her as a life model for Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, again paying her very little. Disney kept such models secret as a matter of course, but the controversy prevented her role from coming to light for half a century. A couple of months later, and now impecunious, she nearly burned to death after setting her apartment on fire while frying Christmas doughnuts for her new boyfriend. A photo taken that day is the sad mirror image of her arch portrait with the fake James Dean. Now she is the one in bandages, cradling her cat, devastated by disaster. She disappeared from public view for more than two decades, until the revival of interest in James Dean and Ed Wood in the mid-1970s sparked new interest in her and, ironically, restored in part the career she had imagined having in the 1950s.
Now, admit it: That was a much more entertaining story than trying to decipher whatever Ancient Aliens or Tom DeLonge are babbling about now.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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