When WWE's action morphs into Extreme Rules violence, fans' eyes get even wider and hearts race even faster.
The amplified violence in "hardcore" matches is even more attractive than WWE's everyday fare because of its unique style, its undeniable reality and its inherent dramatic nature. It satisfies a savage part of the audience's psyche, satiating bloodlust we may not realize needed feeding.
Why humans hunger to watch violent images is a question about our innermost desires.
Jeffery Kotter argues in The Lust for Blood: Why We Are Fascinated by Death, Murder, Horror, and Violence (h/t PsycCritiques) "that the fascination with media violence (and violence and death in all forms) is something natural, an intrinsic facet of the human condition."
Perhaps it's born from something primal in us, an inability to leave violence behind. Is it because we are scared of real violence and seeing it onscreen is a way to cope with that fear?
Either way, as Bill Cosby said of violence, "The world is addicted to it."
That applies to the WWE world as well. Standard WWE action is violent, but nothing compared to what occurs No Holds Barred bouts, Street Fights and the kind of matches the company celebrates each year at the Extreme Rules pay-per-view.
Why seeing a man maul another with a chair or throw someone through a ladder is so exciting can at least be partly attributed to its departure from the banal.
A WWE fan may see up to 10 hours of in-ring programming a week. Those who subscribe to the WWE Network have a wrestling buffet awaiting them.
The majority of all that onscreen action is tame compared to WWE's most sadistic highlights.
Dropkicks, armbars and chinlocks are commonplace. When wrestlers resort to more extreme measures, they create memories with staying power.
There has been only one time in WWE history that someone has lit a table on fire and speared his opponent through it.
It's sometimes hard to stand out in a world as spectacle-heavy and over-the-top as WWE's, but a sudden journey through a flaming piece of furniture will do just that.
WWE's most extreme moments shock. They stray from the norm so dramatically and savagely that one can't help but lean forward in one's seat.
John Cena cracking a chain-wrapped fist against Brock Lesnar's forehead, or Alberto Del Rio smashing his hip against a propped-up ladder causes the crowd to exclaim.
One instinctively shouts "Oh my God!" a la Joey Styles. That's a feeling folks don't often experience throughout the day, or even during WWE's most understated offerings.
These moments aren't just infrequent, though. They derive power from their potency as well.
Reality in a Scripted World
Pro wrestling demands that one consistently suspend disbelief. Even though it's a violent industry, much of the violence is controlled and subdued, its sharpest edges softened for safety. That's why it's so easy for critics to call it "fake."
Punches are pulled. Kicks don't make full contact.
Fans accept these elements of the business. They are even lulled by the action at times after seeing so many clotheslines and spinebusters. When wrestlers trade headlocks for chair shots, though, the lull ends.
There is something startling about just how violent the components of an Extreme Rules match are.
Clear evidence of how destructive they are lie in the ring. Lesnar left behind pieces of broken chairs when he attacked Big Show at this year's Royal Rumble.
It's hard to not gasp while watching an attack like that. It's hard to utter the word "fake" after seeing metal break over flesh.
These kinds of images stand out. They shock a desensitized audience. The action in the ring impacts the audience.
Welts form on a back after suffering a beating with a belt.
Look at Sheamus back after being beaten by Mark Henry with the belt pic.twitter.com/OYxlyosSMa— Cleo De Nile (@kikilayne) May 11, 2013
A gash requires medical attention after a skull collides with a ladder.
Cm Punk getting stitches following the Money in the Bank pay-per-view. pic.twitter.com/NEcWYQ9d9o— WrestlingHeadsRadio (@wrestlingheads) July 15, 2013
The pain normal wrestling moves cause aren't as evident as the aftermath of WWE weaponry. That makes the results of chair shots and ladder crashes inherently more exciting. They require no imagination.
They pull at the crowd with alarming images. It's those images that make WWE's storytelling an easier task.
A splintered kendo stick, a bent steel chair, a busted announcers' table all tell a story.
As dramatic as standard wrestling moves can be in the right context, there is nothing like smashing a hated foe with a weapon to generate emotion. It's a visual cue for the audience that is the opposite of subtle.
When Paul Heyman wanted to punish his former friend and client CM Punk for leaving him, he turned to a pair of handcuffs and a kendo stick.
His crony, Curtis Axel, could have simply held Punk down while Heyman popped him with punches. It wouldn't have had the same effect, though.
Heyman walloped Punk with the stick until it broke apart. The crack of the stick against Punk's chest was nearly as powerful as Heyman shouting out, "I loved you!"
These kind of attacks go beyond WWE's normally violent parameters, shocking the audience and creating pity for the victim.
Randy Orton's attack on Daniel Bryan last September had fans' attention, but once he sent him crashing through the table, it became a more powerful moment. Here was the warrior lying face first on the broken pieces of an announce table, his fiancee attending to him.
This was a more memorable visual than what we would have seen had Orton simply slammed him on the mat several times.
Bent chairs, broken ladders and trashcans indented by human skulls not only remind fans that they aren't watching pantomiming in the ring; this is what explosions are to action movies—effectively exciting tools.
WWE once relied on wrestlers bleeding to show a hero's pain or a villain's suffering. Since banning blading, the company has had to rely on the components of Extreme Rules bouts to provide the same power to stun.
It's at the Extreme Rules pay-per-view and when WWE books Street Fights that it reaches our primal side the most.
The animalistic, unfeeling part of the audience that enjoys brutality as much as the Romans once enjoyed their gladiators is made happy, titillated, appeased.