“Why are so many of us drawn to the idea of a damaged world, especially when it’s so often worse than the one we inhabit?”
- Natalie Haynes, The i Newspaper
People like to be scared.
An astonishingly haunting idea that has been explored in impeccable detail by theorists and psychoanalysts such as the celebrated Sigmund Freud, the concept of fear and the wicked subliminal thrill derived from apprehensive experiences has been one of our vices for hundreds of years.
Interestingly, if one is to scratch beneath the surface of everyday life, several aspects that would be discovered support the idea that the human race, as a whole, has an inherited and seemingly natural obsession with staring directly into the face of abject fears.
In terms of physical activities, for example, somewhat common activities such as amusement park attractions, driving fast cars and certain sports actively take the participant into the heart (and exhilaration) of a real threat of danger.
Psychologically speaking, a look into the field of the creative arts and entertainment that have become part of everyday life provides a valuable look into the idea of pleasure derived from fear. From the phantasmagorias of Etienne Gaspard-Robert and art pieces such as Edvard Munch’s The Scream through theatre like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and into modern day mediums like film and television, history suggests that people, from as early as the late 1700s, have gotten a kick out of being scared.
Indeed, a quick glance at the recent success of AMC’s The Walking Dead series and the extensive hype surrounding the newly released Brad Pitt blockbuster World War Z is seemingly proof enough to support the claim that audiences still have an uncontrollable, and almost unhealthy, interest in the thrill of fear.
Live Action Morality Play
Creed Noir, of the investigative film website Machinations into Madness, suggests that the human obsession with fear can be attributed to the need to “escape from routine life where everything is predictable and perfectly controlled… and fantasise with the unknown.”
Professional wrestling, an extension of performing arts and theatre, has often been cited as a form of such escapism. It is also, like most other mediums of entertainment, a platform that exploits the idea of fear to create interest in and enhance its own product.
Performers putting the fear of life into audiences, thus creating intrigue in feuds and upcoming matches, is a tried and tested formula that pro wrestling has relied on for decades.
Notable names such as The Original Sheik and Bruiser Brody, through their sheer believability as mad men who were intent on causing serious harm to everyone and everything, built their careers on literally scaring audiences into buying tickets to see top babyfaces like Bobo Brazil and Gino Hernandez attempt to knock them down a notch.
Over the years, some of the most memorable pro wrestling characters have been designed to implant psychological fear in the heads of the audience. Indeed, one only has to look at Mark Callaway’s Undertaker character of the early 1990s to find an ideal example of a gimmick that was produced purely to scare the fans.
The Undertaker, as the slow-moving and chillingly slow-speaking mortician, had WWF fans cowering in fear upon his entrance to an arena and in segments such as the Funeral Parlour with his equally eerie manager, the aptly named Paul Bearer (for a particularly morbid angle, see the Deadman’s brutal casket attack on the Ultimate Warrior from the 13/04/91 edition of WWF Superstars).
In more recent history, however, there has been a sincere lack of genuinely "scary" superstars in American professional wrestling, an issue that stretches across all promotions from the indie leagues to the WWE.
In fact, it could be argued, with a few notable exceptions such as CM Punk’s Straight Edge Society gimmick from 2009-10, that there has not been an authentically terrifying character since the ECW days of the brain-washing Raven and his faction of grunge-inspired social outcasts, The Nest.
This may be attributed to the fact that the mainstream pro wrestling world has become largely family-friendly, and it could also be a result of fans becoming increasingly smart to the inner workings of the business, and thus harder to convince as a character. Perhaps it could even be attributed to the fact that performers simply need to try harder as, like Heather Hickey of TJR Wrestling has commented, “it takes an effort to continually instil a fear of the dark.”
Despite the shortcomings mentioned above, it would be inaccurate to say that the art of terrifying audiences is completely lost. A series of vignettes that have aired on the majority of WWE broadcasts over the past month suggests that a change may be coming, and that the psychological warfare once conjured up by the likes of Raven may be returning to professional wrestling.
Much has been written about the series of Wyatt Family promos that have been featured on a number of WWE shows since the 27/05 edition of Monday Night RAW. Beautifully produced and edited, the series of promo videos hyping the upcoming full-roster debuts of NXT talent Bray Wyatt, Luke Harper and Erick Rowan have created an astonishing amount of attention from all sections of pro wrestling fans.
The focus of the group is firmly placed on Bray Wyatt, a character whose Manson-esque macabre and sinister intent of cleansing the world of modern society has drawn comparisons to likes of the aforementioned Raven and one of the greatest talkers in the history of the business, Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
Wyatt’s calm yet menacing Southern twang, his talk of lost souls and his self-declaration as the “Eater of Worlds” have gotten over hugely with the WWE audience. Like the reactions earned by the great monster heels of years past, fans have spoken of the genuine fear that the Wyatt character creates in abundance.
This initial success (and the emphasis on initial needs to be known, as the Wyatt Family, as of writing, have still not made their RAW debut) of the Wyatt character can be a direct reaction to the fact that the fans are appreciating his fresh approach to being a heel.
Although performers using apocalyptic monologues and psychological mind games is nothing new in professional wrestling, it hasn’t been seen effectively in the WWE for the better part of 20 years, and the Wyatt character, as noted by Jim Ross on his personal blog JR’s BarBQ, has “put the freshness tag over the top” of a WWE product that is, arguably, the most stale it has ever been in its 50-plus year history.
The Bray Wyatt character originated in Florida Championship Wrestling (now NXT) shortly after WrestleMania XXVIII, and the fact that a character as solid as Wyatt’s found his feet in the WWE’s developmental league and not on the full roster speaks volumes about the promotion and the performers currently inhabiting it.
Prior to a short bout against babyface Aiden English in April 2012, Wyatt cut an exceptional debut promo, with his claim to be an all-seeing, all-hearing entity and his references to Jesus Christ setting the tone for a gimmick that is soon to challenge the boundaries of the PG WWE product.
This raises an interesting issue for the Wyatt Family upon their promotion to the premier WWE broadcasts. In his first appearances for FCW, it is clear that Wyatt was given free rein in his promos to get his character over, using the leniency to see what works for his gimmick and, ultimately, what does not.
Unfortunately, Wyatt will not be afforded this luxury on RAW and/or SmackDown, as the WWE flagship shows are heavily scripted, and deviating from the plans is generally frowned upon by the creative brass, Vince McMahon included. A PG-censoring of the preaching cult-leader gimmick would be disastrous for Bray Wyatt and his "family," but it may also be inevitable.
To say that Wyatt needs to completely tone down the gimmick in order to fit in with the restrictions of being a fully-fledged WWE “superstar” may be slightly erroneous, but Wyatt could learn a valuable lesson in adaptation from a gimmick that was last seen in 1995, and a character that used similar themes and theology, but on a greater subliminal level—and that, it could be argued, may be the most terrifying level of all.
A Peaceful Individual
The World Wrestling Federation of 1995, as is the case with the WWE of 2013, featured a product that was conceived to be entirely family-friendly. This was still the age of cartoonish and colourfully over-the-top characters such as the short-lived magician Phantasio and the ludicrous half-man/half-bull Mantaur gimmick, but it was also a period of transition for the company.
The likes of Shawn Michaels and Diesel were emerging as the new generation of WWF talent, and the company was desperate to move successfully forward into the post-Hulk Hogan era.
As a result, 1995 saw an influx of new talent join the organisation, with famous names like Triple H and a pre-Kane Glenn Jacobs making their WWF introductions throughout the year. Another notable debut, however, began with an early June ’95 episode of WWF Superstars, a show that saw the beginning of a series of vignettes.
Much like the recent introductory videos for Bray Wyatt and his “sons,” these stories centred upon a Southern gentleman who, despite his seemingly calm and collected nature, featured content that was, for all intents and purposes, incredibly disturbing viewing for a pro-wrestling show aimed at children.
Inspired by Robert De Niro’s Max Cady character from the 1991 Scorsese remake of the psycho-thriller Cape Fear, the Waylon Mercy gimmick, portrayed expertly by former WCW and All Japan Pro Wrestling worker Dan Spivey, was an intimidating big man who was mild and well-mannered outside of the ring, but a completely different beast inside it.
Once the bell rang, after Mercy had shaken the hands of the referee, his opponent, and occasionally the fans, his demeanour transformed into that of a maniacal sadist, ruthlessly attacking his opposition with what Nicholas Johnson of Online World of Wrestling described as “reckless abandon.”
Unfortunately, Waylon Mercy lasted less than a year, as a collection of injuries forced Spivey to retire in October 1995 with only a pay-per-view loss to Savio Vega and a handful of meaningful TV bouts with the likes of Bret Hart and the then-WWF Champion Diesel to the character’s credit.
Despite the short time frame that the gimmick was active (even Spivey himself, in an interview with WWE.com, has admitted that his character “just wasn’t around long enough”), it would be wrong to conclude that there is nothing that an up-and-coming talent like Bray Wyatt could learn from his time on WWF television.
Many see the Waylon Mercy idea as the blueprint for Bray Wyatt and his current gimmick. Spivey, best known to WWF audiences prior to 1995 as one half of the US Express’ second incarnation with, ironically, Wyatt’s real-life father Mike Rotunda, touched on similar themes that Wyatt uses today.
Both men speak of ideals such as redemption and restitution in their deliberately slow, yet menacing, promo segments. In fact, Wyatt has even adopted the same handshake routine that became a staple of the Mercy gimmick almost 20 years previously.
However, unlike the recent Goldberg comparisons that have unearthed the theory that the Ryback character is literally a carbon copy of WCW’s most successful home grown star, Wyatt is so much more than a mere Waylon Mercy rip-off.
Blatantly aggressive, Wyatt’s behaviour is considerably more “in your face” (as evident in his NXT feuds with Corey Graves and others) and openly evil in comparison to the presentation of Mercy—a fact that, as alluded to earlier in this article, may overstep the mark of WWE’s current PG ruling.
Therefore, the lesson from Mercy that Wyatt may need to brush up on is how to become more covert in his character. Part of the reason why Mercy’s character is still remembered fondly to this day is because it left so much to the imagination of the audiences, and that in itself—in the opinion of this writer—is far scarier than the threat of actual violence.
Additionally, the subliminal and psychological elements of Mercy’s persona did not directly break the family-friendly house rules, despite being incredibly sinister viewing, and if Wyatt himself could apply these facets to his overall personality, the path to the top of WWE may be unobstructed.
Indeed, the key to the life of Bray Wyatt’s character, as the man himself used to claim, may be in Waylon Mercy’s hands.
Hard Bark on the Family Tree
To further examine the Bray Wyatt package, an in-depth look at the man behind the kayfabe is imperative.
With WWE’s current interest in family lineage opening up several spots on its roster (Cody Rhodes, Ted DiBiase, Tamina Snuka etc. have all benefitted from having famous family members), the fans could have been forgiven for expecting big things from Windham Rotunda upon his main stage debut in October 2010.
Rotunda, as the grandson of NWA superstar Blackjack Mulligan, the nephew of ex-Four Horsemen member Barry Windham and son of former WWF star-turned-road agent Mike Rotunda (better known as the tax man heel IRS), made his first appearance (excluding his role as part of the awful NXT “reality” series) at the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view alongside Michael McGillicutty (now known as Curtis Axel, another beneficiary of the success of his father).
Rotunda helped Wade Barrett defeat John Cena, earning themselves a place in the still semi-interesting Nexus stable in the process.
As Husky Harris, Rotunda had been gifted a spot in a top-level stable that was in the midst of a storyline with the two biggest babyfaces in the company at that time, John Cena and Randy Orton. An incredibly promising position to be in, undeniably, but many believed his spot on the card to be unmerited, and purely given to him to appease his illustrious family members.
At the time, Fin Martin of Power Slam Magazine summarised the thoughts of skeptical fans when he stated he did not believe that Rotunda “would be where he is, or would have even been signed to a WWE developmental contract, if his father were not a WWE road agent.”
In the end, it could be argued that Rotunda’s association with nepotism, whether warranted or not, was the catalyst for his undoing, as his first run at the top of WWE can be considered a major flop. Ultimately placed in the underwhelming New Nexus stable as a lackey to CM Punk, Rotunda’s only moments of worth came at the 2011 Royal Rumble event, a show in which his group acted as an integral aspect.
In addition to their run-in at the conclusion of the WWE Championship bout between Randy Orton and The Miz, Rotunda and the New Nexus took part in the special 40-man battle royal headliner. Alongside his stable mates, Rotunda entered a good showing, eliminating several participants including Mark Henry and a returning Booker T.
However, in what can be seen as a metaphor for his uninspiring first run as part of the WWE roster, Rotunda was dumped out of the bout, unceremoniously, by the lumbering Great Khali.
A few weeks later, an Orton punt kick wrote Husky Harris out of WWE storylines, and Rotunda was sent back to FCW.
It is interesting to note that Windham Rotunda was not the only member of his acclaimed family to have a lacklustre first crack of the WWE whip. Earlier this year, his brother Taylor Rotunda, under the guise of Bo Dallas, was called up to the RAW roster from NXT to work a mini-feud with Wade Barrett that was, presumably, supposed to lead into WrestleMania XXIX.
Dallas, as a nondescript babyface, floundered on WWE TV. Despite earning a clean victory over the then-Intercontinental Champion, the angle was nixed shortly after it began. Dallas returned to Florida almost immediately following the storyline.
Even though he is currently the holder of the newly-created NXT Heavyweight Championship, he has since shown no signs of the character development and charisma needed to warrant a recall to the flagship shows.
Happily, the opposite can be said for his brother, as Windham Rotunda being shipped back to FCW in early 2011 was ultimately a blessing in disguise.
Rotunda used his time back in Florida to perfect the Bray Wyatt character, after several unsuccessful attempts at re-branding and the setback of a pectoral tear that placed him on the injury shelf for most of 2012.
Importantly, and to his credit, he refrained from marketing himself as simply a member of the Rotunda/Windham family in an attempt to exploit his family roots, a scenario that has been seen most recently in the case of Curtis Axel (the son of legendary performer Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig, Axel has seen his stock rise since he adopted a gimmick that openly references his family).
The Bray Wyatt character is a huge step forwards for Rotunda, and one that promises to help him find his true feet as a WWE performer.
It remains to be seen whether or not he can equal the legacies of his relatives, but it must be encouraging for Rotunda to know that there has been a WWE star in the past that managed to overcome the hazardous trap of nepotism to become one of the most memorable performers in the history of the organisation.
In his autobiography Cross Rhodes, Dustin Runnels speaks honestly about several matters, including his failed marriages, his addiction to drink and prescription drugs and his somewhat patchy in-ring career.
On the subject of Goldust, his most successful gimmick that has had several stints in WWE over the past two decades, Runnels admitted that he instinctively saw the character as “the way for me to step out of my father’s shoes and forever move myself out from under his shadow.”
Runnels, son of former NWA, JCP and WWF legend “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, struggled with the pressures of having a famous father for a significant portion of his career.
A solid worker who was technically sound between the ropes, Runnels’ early days in the professional wrestling business were sadly stifled by his association with his father. His initial stints in the WWF and WCW were marred by lifeless gimmicks that relied upon his father’s star value to get him over (ring names such as “The Natural” Dustin Rhodes are examples of how Runnels was presented as a mere extension of Dusty, and not a performer in his own right).
Destined to take a back seat to the legacy of the family name, the son of “the son of a plumber” would fail to rise higher than the lower mid-card.
As noted in his book, Runnels’ career took a complete nose-dive when he was fired from WCW for violating the no-blood policy in his offbeat King of the Road bout with The Blacktop Bully in March 1995. Out of options, Runnels seemingly had little future in pro-wrestling. Luckily, a McMahon-approved olive branch was just around the corner.
As was customary in the World Wrestling Federation of September 1995, vignettes began airing on WWF Superstars that heralded the arrival of a performer known simply as Goldust.
A strikingly androgynous character that was clad in entirely golden attire and covered in gold and black face paint, Goldust spoke of his disdain for performers such as Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker, whilst using ghostly quotes from such films as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to emphasise his thoughts.
Much like the Bray Wyatt promos of 2013, the Goldust videos were astonishingly disturbing and made incredibly nightmarish viewing for the younger WWF audience.
His in-ring debut at the In Your House 4 pay-per-view in October ‘95 and his subsequent feud with Razor Ramon were especially well presented too, and his wild brawl with Roddy Piper at WrestleMania XII was considered to be one of the most entertaining gimmick matches of the year.
Incredibly, at the time, rumours were running rampant that McMahon and the creative team were even considering putting the greatest piece of pro-wrestling gold of them all, the WWF Championship, around the waist of “The Bizarre One.”
Concisely, Dustin Runnels, in a character that was a million miles away from the everyday working man gimmick his father used successfully for decades, had finally been freed him of the shackles of the Rhodes bloodline. His well-received cameo in the 2013 Royal Rumble Match, almost 20 years after his WWF debut, is representative of the fact that the Goldust character is still welcomed by fans to this day.
When mentioned today, Goldust is, quite rightly, remembered as the man that pushed the WWF envelope further than anyone had done previously in the pre-Attitude period of 1995-97, instead of simply the son of Dusty Rhodes.
Rotunda has the opportunity to mirror this in 2013, as his infectious Bray Wyatt gimmick is more than capable of adding a much-needed edge to the overly inoffensive way that WWE currently promotes its product.
The Wyatt persona, like the Goldust idea was for Dustin Runnels, could also be the gimmick that moves Rotunda from out of the shadows of his Hall of Fame family and highlights his capabilities as a performer in his own right.
In 20 years’ time, will fans refer to Rotunda as a cornerstone of the current generation of talent, or will he still be known, simply, as the son of Irwin R. Schyster? Only time will tell, but as Bray Wyatt, he has the tools to permanently distance himself, in a positive manner, from his family’s vast accomplishments.
Out of Darkness, Into the Light
The next stage of development for Bray Wyatt is set to be the most delicate yet. With the addition of Luke Harper and Erick Rowan, Wyatt now possesses what appears to be the complete package and thus a chance at being a real superstar.
However, it really is a case of whether, upon his initial appearances, he and his partners are handled correctly.
Upon their impending arrival on RAW, this writer believes that it is imperative that they are kept as far away from The Shield and other young heels as possible, to avoid even the slightest possibility of the Wyatt Family getting lost in the shuffle (à la Damien Sandow, Antonio Cesaro etc.).
A relatively short mid-card feud with a rejuvenated Chris Jericho or Christian could be effective in testing the waters, and full commitment from the creative team to the psycho-heel gimmick could be shown in a sustained push over said talent.
It is also important that Wyatt himself, as the leader of the gang, only wrestles sporadically, and refrains from performing on free TV—with the weekly RAW and SmackDown in-ring duties being picked up by Harper and Rowan.
It would be greatly beneficial to keep Wyatt as a pay-per-view only attraction, as the incredibly strong promo man that he is could use the weeks of free television between PPV events to talk audiences into paying to see him finally step into the ring against his opponent.
Using this strategy to create a high-profile winning streak over several months, Wyatt would be steadily built as the man to beat in WWE, and lead him into the inevitable headline programme with John Cena.
Most necessary of all, however, Wyatt needs to continue the hard work that has earned him a second attempt at the bright lights of the full WWE roster. As Jim Ross has recently stated, being called up to the main roster is when the real work begins, as getting over as a legitimate top-level star is “an on-going and evolutionary process.”
Regardless of what happens with the Wyatt Family going forward, it should be celebrated that Windham Rotunda’s hard work and determination in the WWE’s developmental league has earned himself the spot on the main roster that many felt he did not deserve the first time around. As Husky Harris, he struggled on the grandest stage, but as Bray Wyatt, the future seems fabulously bright.
Like Waylon Mercy and Goldust before him, Wyatt can overcome obstacles such as preferential treatment and political restrictions to carve out a truly memorable character for himself and the WWE audience.
The future does indeed seem favourable for the newest member of the main roster, and the fact that Bray Wyatt and his “family” is just getting started may be the something that is really scary after all.
He’s coming, and he’s standing upright.
Thank you for reading!
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