Even as dark and disturbing as the real world can be, haunting characters like Bray Wyatt still speak to the audience.
The need for escape, a contrast to normalcy and the thrill of being unsettled is at the heart of the appeal of wrestlers like Wyatt. He continues a tradition of incorporating elements from horror movies into WWE, one that has boasted a number of psychopaths and poets.
The leader of The Wyatt Family has made WWE his pulpit.
As Husky Harris in 2010, Windham Rotunda made little impact. Harris was a generic wrestling tough guy.
Rotunda went back to WWE's minor leagues. He soon slipped into a new character, one that would catapult his career forward.
Fans locked in on him from that point on.
A part of that is because Wyatt was a better fit for him than Harris, but this was also the latest case of WWE tapping into fans' fascination with darkness. WWE's history is dotted with monsters like him, who both disturbed and enthralled the audience.
There is an inherent appeal to characters like Wyatt.
Psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis conducted a study exploring the attraction to people exhibiting narcissism and psychopathy. As Daisy Grewal wrote of the study in Scientific American, "The initial appeal of the narcissist or psychopath may be hard to resist."
That has been true for Wyatt since his days in WWE developmental to when he took his sinister act to the brighter stage of Raw.
In one of his early rants, he grinned as he asked, "Want to see something really scary?"
The answer, almost unanimously, has been yes. Fans do want to see something scary, characters who make them uncomfortable and force their skin to tingle.
Jake Roberts satiated that desire in the late '80s and early '90s.
Roberts lived up to his nickname of "The Snake" in several ways. He was never to be trusted, quick to strike and always dangerous.
His interviews offered fans a trip into a shadowy place.
He drew the audience in partly because he offered an alternative to the status quo. Reality is often boring, which is sometimes a comforting thought.
The man playing "The Snake," Aurelian Smith Jr., would have still entertained, but his character was an amplified version of the most sinister parts of man. That has infinitely more appeal than normalcy.
His performances were explorations of the psyche, a man digging out the most lurid parts of his mind and laying them out for the world to see.
During his feud with Randy Savage in 1991, Roberts told him, "You look at my eyes and you see two black holes in the sky."
He intended to scare Savage and his wife Elizabeth, but he scared everyone watching. His threats to Elizabeth and the alarming way his mind worked added up to an unsettled, but entertained audience.
Watching Roberts ramble like this is a chance to explore parts of ourselves that we are normally not allowed to. In everyday life, anger and bloodlust are held in check, replaced by civility. Roberts was never limited in that way.
It's no surprise then that he became such an iconic character in WWE history, as he was more than just a wrestler threatening another wrestler—he was the catalyst for a cathartic experience.
The Devil's Favorite Demon
As scary as Roberts was and Wyatt is today, the audience watches them from a safe position.
Their evil is not real. Actual darkness, dictators, corruption and bloodshed born from zealots is frightening in a different way.
Someone like the sadist and pyromaniac Kane exists only in WWE's world. That allows him to be entertaining to watch rather than a source of actual terror, the same way a roller coaster is fun and airplane turbulence is not.
It's a form of escape, providing an alternate universe far different from the one folks actually occupy.
Heroes need monsters, anyway.
Characters like Kane and Wyatt provide a contrast to WWE's good guys, dragons for knights to slay. There is something satisfying about seeing a monster fall, more so than a man.
Kane has undergone many transformations, but he was at his most appealing when he was tortured, unstable and hungry for ruin.
Many of WWE's characters have come and gone. Kane has endured in part because of those traits. As the aforementioned study suggests, we're naturally drawn to psychopaths.
That explains why Hannibal Lecter is so hypnotizing.
Wyatt's speeches are much like Lecter's, infusing intelligence with insanity. His words speak to another fascinating element of his character: the fact that no one knows what he is capable of.
WWE's heroes—Ricky Steamboat, Bret Hart or John Cena—seem to have the same approach: fight hard no matter the foe and defend honor and all things good.
Darker characters offer the excitement of the unknown. They don't comfort the audience with a consistent moral code. Instead, they force fans to expect just about anything from them.
Mankind did that like no one else.
At any given moment, he could wish someone a nice day or cram his hand into their mouth and apply a nerve hold. That was evident when Jim Ross interviewed him in 1997.
A part of what is fascinating about Mankind is just how strange he is. As a bonus, he made the audience feel more normal, more clean in comparison.
It was his volatility that made it most difficult to look away from him. A man who says, "If there was something wrong with my mind, I think I'd be the first to know," is not one to be trusted, but it certainly makes entertaining TV.
This is where Wyatt excels. He forces the audience to watch him whether he is delivering a diatribe or torturing his opponent.
When the camera points his way, anything is possible.
He is like the snake he spoke of when he told the story of Sister Abigail. "A rattlesnake's skin is the same color as the leaves," he said.
Like that rattlesnake, he may just slither by or he may strike. One can't tell when his menace is like that of the rattle, a warning, or if it is a precursor to an attack.
Wyatt thrives in his role, delivering acting quality not often seen in WWE settings. Scratching at fans' insides, he carries on the legacies of men like Roberts and Mankind, of Abdullah the Butcher and The Sheik.
His transformation from Husky Harris to Bray Wyatt has given him a far more successful career already, appealing to WWE fans' love of all things born from the shadows.