Undertaker and Bray Wyatt are the exceptions; WWE most often stumbles went it ventures into the world of the occult, when it attempts to take wrestling from circus to horror show.
The supernatural and the mystical can easily come off as corny in the squared circle setting. And it has. Looking back at Papa Shango's eyes rattling in his head as he cursed the Ultimate Warrior from ringside, it's hard not to chuckle a little.
The witch doctor's presence was jarring, even in a world as regularly ridiculous as WWE.
What does it say about that kind of character that the man behind it had far more success as a sauntering pimp? What does it say that Gangrel's proteges outpaced him? Or that Kevin Fertig twice tried gimmicks outside the normal realm and flopped?
Success in wrestling is a difficult task, but it's an even rarer feat when one trades the usual braggarts, cowboys and corporate henchman who fill the WWE ecosystem for characters who deal in the dark arts.
Undertaker is celebrating his 25th anniversary. That in itself is a landmark accomplishment. The fact it has come on the back of a character who shot lightning out of his hands and was supposedly already dead is even more impressive.
His act caught on to the point WWE felt inspired to add a spin-off character, introducing his fire-controlling brother, Kane, to the mix.
And now as Undertaker prepares to step away, to hang up his hat and seek out a life of normality, WWE has a man ready to supplant him as its chief supernatural being.
Wyatt began as simply eerie, but he has since stepped toward the same kind of immortality Undertaker has long boasted. He represents WWE's willingness to toy with the medium. He is a modern witch doctor, a villain with actual superpowers and a monster who believes himself to be God.
That combination has been susceptible to failure in the past, limiting a wrestler, making them more punchline than powerful at times.
How Does It Feel to Not Be in Control?
Cutting through a cloud of smoke, cackling and promising the wrath of evil spirits, Papa Shango emerged on the WWE scene in the early '90s.
Charles Wright had wrestled under a number of personas before this and would follow his stint as Shango with even more alter egos. He competed as everything from a ripoff of Charles Barkley to a fun-loving pimp with a train of prostitutes trailing behind him. It was during his run as a witch doctor when WWE most strained fans' suspension of disbelief.
Shango's character centered on mystical elements wrestling rarely tapped into: curses, the spirit world and witchcraft.
WWE clearly fashioned Shango after Baron Samedi, a spirit of the dead from Haitian folklore with an affection for debauchery. He donned a skull painted on his face and a top hat just like the man sometimes called Baron Saturday did.
But he wasn't just Samedi moved into the squared circle; he was a mishmash of stereotypes from various sources. He wore a bone-lined necklace like something from Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom and carried around a shrunken head, which added a South American flair to his mostly Haitian-inspired shtick.
In 1992, Shango aimed his dark arts at WWE's top talents.
He interrupted the WrestleMania VIII showdown between Sid Justice and Hulk Hogan to throttle the Hulkster. He quickly moved onto stalking the Ultimate Warrior, setting up a strange clash with the hyper-charged superhero.
Warrior was booked to be as difficult to bring down as Hogan. You had one of two choices when facing the rope-shaking gladiator: cheat to win, as Sgt. Slaughter did in 1991, or lean on powers from a world not our own.
That's how Shango had Warrior reeling—once drawing black goo from his eyes, once causing him to vomit green goo in a scene stolen from The Exorcist.
This was a dramatic departure from the standard wrestling storyline, even in that cartoony era. WWE was now bringing horror-movie elements into its world, asking that fans not only buy scripted violence in the ring but magic too.
WWE booked Shango to be the most powerful wrestler on the roster. Sure, Tatanka boasted an impressive winning streak, Warrior could bench press human beings with little effort and Bret Hart was portrayed as an in-ring expert who could outwrestle anyone. But Shango was the only one who could put a sleeper hold on one's soul.
He showed off that power during an interview with Gene Okerlund. Shaking as he spoke, he delivered measured lines, talking of a "black circling closing."
Okerlund soon found himself bleeding from his sleeve.
Even though Shango wielded that kind of power, he didn't dominate. In fact, he was treated like a novelty act more than a destructive force. His momentum trailed off after his feud with Warrior before Wright morphed into a more traditional tough guy in Kama.
The Shango gimmick remains memorable in part because of its uniqueness. Powerhouses came and went through various eras. Voodoo priests with a taste for the macabre did not.
It failed to sustain itself, though, because WWE had little room left to take the character. Where was he going to go after making a warrior vomit? Would he inhabit a man's body? Would he summon a dark creature from the netherworld to be his tag team partner?
The character met with criticism aplenty.
Some viewed it as silly, too far away from the basics of wrestling booking. Shango cleaned house with the 1992 Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards, per Chris Harrington's Indeed Wrestling, winning the the Worst Feud, Worst Gimmick and Most Embarrassing Wrestler categories that year.
It was also uncomfortable from a racial standpoint. Shango represented the worst stereotypes of Haitian voodoo. It was a representation that was not uncommon in other mediums, as well. For one, Live and Let Die featured a Shango-like villain.
These characters twisted the truth about real voodoo. As Dodai Stewart explained on Jezebel, "The Bond movie/Eurocentric/Americanized viewpoint presents Vodou as an evil, primitive version of witchcraft. But it's a religion like any other, with a moral code, gods and goddesses. Many ceremonies deal with protection from evil spirits."
Stewart went on to talk about how these characters are almost always black and almost always attacking white people, perpetuating a them-against-us mentality.
Shango continued that tradition. And whether it was revulsion to racism or simply a character not being able to fit within the confines of a medium, it didn't catch fire.
Wright's time as The Godfather saw him achieve far more success. He was more popular and held more titles. It's no wonder, then, that he preferred the pimp to the dark priest.
He told of John Powell of Slam! Sports, "Let me see, dress up like a voodoo man, put paint on your face, act like a jungle idiot or walk out with beautiful women? Come on, man! Which one would you choose?"
What Kind of Creature Is He?
Fans' memories of Gangrel are often about the mood he created, the haunting atmosphere that defined him more than his matches or interviews.
When David Heath slipped on a puffy shirt, bore his fangs and gulped "blood" from a goblet until it dripped from his chin, he forced the audience to remember him. Wrestling had stolen from the movies before, but it had yet to pluck a Lost Boys-like vampire from the big screen.
And Gangrel arrived at just the right time. The Attitude era was just as much about sinister vibes as it was about sex and middle fingers.
Black gear became commonplace. Undertaker had grown into a dark priest of sorts. With a leather mask on his face and a cock-eyed glare, Mankind spoke of the childhood torture that shaped him into the monster he became.
The landscape was ripe for a character such as Gangrel.
This was the bloodiest era in WWE's history. It's one of the rare times a wrestler who famously doled out bloodbaths would fit in.
Gangrel began as a solitary predator in 1998, a man who unsettled his opponents as much as he did the announcers. He preceded each contest with a long drink of fake blood. His name was derived from a vampire clan in a role-playing game.
This is as far as his vampire tendencies went, though.
There would be no stealing women in the night or feasting at the necks of his foes. He did, however, have the ability to move swiftly in the dark and pour blood all over his opponents before the lights turned on again.
The sudden appearances and implied teleportation was similar to what Undertaker had done before him and The Wyatt Family has carried on after him.
After an early winning streak, Gangrel began to lead The Brood, with up-and-comers Edge and Christian at his side. This is where he gained the most momentum. The trio had one of the most eye-catching entrances of all time, rising up through a circle of fire, strutting down the aisle to throbbing bass as red light bathed it all.
Edge and Christian shared a similar goth-inspired fashion sense. But as dark and mysterious as they were, their characters were more vaguely supernatural. They weren't outright creatures of the night as Gangrel was.
That's partly what allowed them to evolve as solo acts. Edge became a sly opportunist. Christian was eventually more of a typical whiny, cowardly heel. As a team, they were the alternative version of The Rockers, a fun-loving, risk-taking championship duo.
Gangrel couldn't make that jump. Blame the fact he was not as charismatic as Edge or as skilled in the ring as Christian for part of that.
But his vampire character was also difficult to build on. The gimmick typecast him, pushing him into the novelty-act niche. It's hard to imagine WWE pulling the trigger on making Gangrel a world title contender.
In fact, he didn't win a single championship during his WWE tenure.
He was the sideshow freak—never the star. And it's not as if WWE could have him leave his vampire ways behind him. He really had his teeth filed to a point. Those fangs weren't going away.
Edge told Slam! Sports "He doesn't go around and bite people in the neck and suck their blood. That I know of. But, those are real teeth and he lives the lifestyle. That's his thing."
He and The Brood temporarily joined The Ministry of Darkness, WWE combining its two most shadowy, horror-inspired groups. The alliance didn't last, and neither did Gangrel's time in the spotlight.
After leaving The Ministry of Darkness and a brief partnership with The Hardy Boyz, Gangrel was lost in the tide.
Still, ask a fan of wrestling during the Attitude era about Gangrel and they will inevitably perk up. He was memorable, different and a smart usage of a love of vampires that refuses to die down. Gangrel, though, was unable to sustain that.
With such a gimmicky act, his short-lived time in the spotlight is not surprising. But it makes it even more impressive that Undertaker was able to begin as a zombie and end as a legend.
Into the Sanctuary of Eternal Darkness
Garbage men, barbarians and mounted police all populated the WWE landscape when Undertaker arrived in 1990. He was as much of a cartoon character as his peers, but his gimmick ventured further, traveling into the realm of the strange.
WWE merged Western movies with a can't-keep-him-down monster to craft a gimmick that had no business lasting as long as it has.
Grey gloves stretched over his hands, he strode to the ring through fog. A portly, pasty man clung to his side, clutching an urn that possessed the source of Undertaker's powers. This could have easily become a punchline, not the catalyst for a trip to legendary status it has been.
The rest of the colorful, outlandish roster did not have the ability to summon lightning. The other wrestlers had their own props that sat in the corner of the ring, but not an amulet that was supposed to contain some mystical force.
And the other wrestlers he faced weren't undead.
WWE was not completely overt about his zombie state, but it hinted strongly that The Deadman was in fact no longer among the living. Writers didn't have him scour the streets in search of brains. The zombie idea served only as a starting point.
Undertaker morphed from there into a wizard of sorts, a gladiator with superpowers.
At first, the big man plodded toward his prey. His immortal nature was most often hinted at when he suddenly sat up after suffering sustained punishment in the ring. WWE would later let loose and get weird.
Near the the end of the 1994 Royal Rumble, Yokozuna, an evil, anti-American sumo wrestler, led an assault on Undertaker. The heels ganged up on the black-clad hero, stuffing him inside a wooden casket. Green smoke billowed from the urn as the beatdown happened.
Undertaker soon appeared on the big screen from inside the casket, telling us that he would not rest in peace before his black-and-white, translucent spirit rose toward the heavens.
How much one enjoyed this likely depended on one's age. For kids, this was a dazzling moment beyond anything they had seen in wrestling. For many adults, it was hokey.
Had he continued with this version of his character in the years to come, the Attitude era would have passed him by. Just as Adam Bomb couldn't not exist in a grittier, more realistic WWE, neither could this Undertaker.
And so he evolved.
He traded in his long coat for a leather getup out of a sci-fi movie. He moved away from the kind of hocus pocus we saw in 1994 to something far darker. There was suddenly a more satanic tone to his gimmick.
Candles flickered on the screen as he entered. He was now known as the Lord of Darkness.
The late '90s saw wrestlers grow more vulgar, storylines get more sexual and, in Undertaker's case, shift toward the look and narratives that would appeal to the brooding goth teens who may have otherwise thought wrestling simply couldn't be cool.
As Undertaker became less corny, he became more controversial.
He assembled his own cult, The Ministry of Darkness. A brainwashed Dennis Knight became Mideon. The goofy, rotund rapper Mabel turned into Viscera. Ron Simmons and Bradshaw painted symbols on their chest and wore pentagrams on their tights.
During this time, Undertaker symbolically sacrificed Steve Austin by hanging him from a steel version of his logo. He tried to stab Stone Cold in the heart with a dagger. And in the spring of 1999, wrestling fans almost witnessed an unholy marriage between Undertaker and Stephanie McMahon.
Undertaker was practicing blasphemous rituals right in front of us.
By its very nature, the gimmick was in constant danger of going too far. And where WWE simply abandoned the Shango storyline before it truly reached that point, it didn't pull the plug on the Ministry angle in time.
With the help of his cronies, Undertaker hanged the Big Boss Man inside Hell in a Cell at WrestleMania XV. Undertaker's dramatic "death" at the 1994 Royal Rumble was so over the top it was more scoff-worthy than offensive. This feigned murder, on the other hand, did not sit well with many.
Wrestling wasn't supposed to get this real. As the moment unfolded, an air of discomfort rose inside the building.
David Shoemaker (aka The Masked Man) wrote for Deadspin, "The announcer did his best to undercut any notion of implied reality by screaming, "Is it symbolic?!?" over and over, even as [Ray] Traylor played dead."
In the years following that hanging and Undertaker's subsequent run as a biker, his next stage saw him become more of an MMA fighter than metaphysical being. He slipped on cagefighting gloves and played his character more on the reality side.
From time to time, though, he would revert back to his supernatural ways.
He dragged his foes through a hole in the ring, the announcers selling it as The Deadman taking them to hell. Undertaker frightened Booker T with lightning striking on the ring posts. He destroyed the ring with that same power as Kurt Angle watched on.
More recently, he called upon his control of the elements and flung a lightning bolt straight into Wyatt's rocking chair.
The Undertaker persona flies in the face of wrestling convention. More often than not, it's the characters who are most like the wrestlers themselves (Austin, Hogan and John Cena) who most thrive.
This kind of gimmicky shtick threatens to pull the audience out of the experience, to invite laughter, to leave the writers scrambling to handle it all. Yet it has worked with Undertaker and has done for a quarter of a century.
It endured because it evolved. It was at its most over the top during the over-the-top early '90s. It was at its darkest during WWE's darkest period.
WWE didn't have Undertaker go further into supernatural territory as he progressed, but instead it moved him closer to humanity. When he did whip out some mystical power, it was made more powerful by its rarity.
But in the end, Mark Calaway, the man WWE trusted with this role, deserves an abundance of credit. Had the company put any other man under that black hat and asked him to roll his eyes toward the back of his head, it's hard to imagine it turning out so well.
Calaway was the perfect fit. And somehow he managed to make a potentially laughable gimmick a fearsome one.
I'm Coming to Get Ya
A being that has often been the center of children's stories and the hobgoblin kids imagine crawls in the darkness under their beds took the form of a wrestler in 2005.
The Boogeyman was, in a way, a toned down version of Papa Shango. His witchcraft ties were more implied. The red-faced, worm-eating monster shook a strange stick and carried around oversized clocks.
These elements of his act weren't explained. They were just hollow props.
And whereas Shango called upon the spirits from another dimension, Boogeyman was supposed to be one of those spirits. But he was no malicious being despite his monstrous appearances; he was the unlikeliest of babyfaces.
He hid in red fog stalking WWE's most unscrupulous characters before popping out to scare them. John "Bradshaw" Layfield was one of his first victims. Booker T and Sharmell were further down on his list.
At WrestleMania 22, a cloud of smoke encircling him, his eyes wide, his tongue slithering like a reptilian tail, he frightened his enemies with little effort.
Kissing Sharmell with worms in his mouth lead to the not-so-classic line from Tazz: "She got worm stuff on her face."
WWE seemed to recognize how ridiculous Boogyeman was. Had it tried to present the character as a real threat, it would have flopped. This was an early '90s gimmick trying to survive in the mid-'00s.
So the company played the angle for laughs. It was a treat for kids, a series of gross-out gags. Boogeyman was more sideshow freak than a being from a horror movie.
That was made clear by having him team up with Little Boogeyman, a little person in the same red bodypaint and straw-lined ring gear, to face Finlay and Hornswoggle.
At WrestleMania 23, Donald Trump encountered the strange creature. The businessman was unafraid.
And so was the audience. It's easier to be ridiculous than frightening, so Boogeyman's chances to succeed were higher. Still, there is only so far you can take a character such as that.
What kind of arc can you really have with him?
WWE didn't want him to embark on any long narrative, though. It needed a short-term attraction. And Boogeyman was exactly that.
It allowed an average wrestler in Martin Wright to carve out a niche. Boogeyman remains one of the most memorable characters WWE has presented, even if it didn't translate to a sustained career or a wealth of championships.
The company didn't have him strain one's suspension of disbelief by using mystical powers. His character was instead left vague, a one-dimensional contributor to the circus of the squared circle.
And in the end, he was simply an unexpected good guy, a monster playing the hero. In an interview with Justin LaBar for Bleacher Report, Wright said, "That's what wrestling is all about—good versus evil. You go out there and tell a good story and that's what it's all about."
The Pale Rider Thundered Out
Kevin Fertig was both the preacher the congregation tuned out and the monster who failed to unsettle the villagers.
Twice, WWE presented the Memphis native as a mysterious figure from another world. Twice, his act failed to catch on. He was meant to be a foil for Undertaker but never reached The Deadman's rung on the company ladder.
In 2004, the WWE fanbase came to know Fertig as Mordecai through a series of vignettes. With burning candles dotting the floor around him, the white-haired, bearded priest spoke to his God about the sins he witnessed within the WWE world. He promised to bring a reckoning.
Mordecai came off more cult leader than clergyman, some disturbed practitioner of the dark arts.
Scotty 2 Hotty served as his first victim. At Judgment Day 2004, Mordecai walked between two columns of flames, his hood over his eyes, a cross tight in his grip.
The whiteness of his outfit and his beard was meant to symbolize his supposed purity, but it also acted as a reverse of the expectation that bad guys wore black. His whole gimmick toyed with the standard hero-villain dynamic. He was God-fearing and driven to change the world for the better.
Those are not exactly hallmark heel qualities.
It wasn't that unconventional approach to the role of the villain that held Fertig back, though. A long list of things doomed Mordecai.
For one, the character felt recycled, a Ministry of Darkness-era Undertaker in white.
Insufficient charisma doomed him too. Fertig was a run-of-the-mill wrestler with middling presence tasked with trying to get a risky, outside-the-box gimmick over with a finicky fanbase.
An incident outside of the ring hurt him beyond his lack of specialness. Fertig told Matt Johnson of Slam! Sports, "I had got into a fight in a bar a few weeks before it started and put a kid in the hospital. I was in lawsuits and they had to protect themselves." WWE reportedly sent him back to the developmental territory. "I had to deal with it," he said.
And so he had little chance to see whether the gimmick could gather more momentum. By the time he made it back to WWE, he was wrestling under a new name, his white robes gone in favor of a leather coat.
In 2006, Fertig reemerged as Kevin Thorn in WWE's revamped ECW, an eyeliner-wearing vampire.
WWE played up the sexual energy far more than it did with Gangrel. While Gangrel had a subtle sensual side to his character, Thorn spent much of his time pressing up against Ariel, a buxom tarot card reader and his sexy sidekick.
Like with Gangrel, much of the character was built around atmosphere. Red lights buzzed and club music rumbled as he entered the ring. He spit blood into the camera, but there was little that was vampire-like about his actions beyond that.
He didn't feast on any of his opponents. He didn't showcase any supernatural powers. He was more of a lifestyle vampire, far removed from what Bram Stoker envisioned years ago.
WWE saw once again how limited a vampire gimmick is. Unless it planned to have its shows move more toward a sci-fi and horror feel overall, Thorn and Gangrel both had to remain more vaguely vampire-like.
Thorn didn't last two years before moving to the developmental level again. Blame both a one-dimensional character and Fertig being average in the ring and in terms of presence. It certainly didn't help that WWE chose to make ECW its outlet for the strange.
When the promotion stood on its own, it was a celebration of the grittier side of pro wrestling. It was the anti-WWE, choosing violence over melodrama, hardcore over hackneyed.
Yet WWE wanted to have it morph into an alternate universe of sorts, where a full-on movie zombie wrestled.
Fertig explained on the Two Man Power Trip podcast that Syfy, which carried ECW at the time, wanted aliens, zombies and other strange phenomenon to be a part of the wrestling. The hungry, young wrestler went for it, holding nothing back.
"I didn't care what they wanted to make me at that point. I would have done whatever," he said.
WWE asked him to do two often-panned gimmicks. They failed to amplify his abilities as the Undertaker role did for Calaway. As odd as the Thorn and Mordecai acts were, they failed to mask how ordinary Fertig was.
I and My Family Have Successfully Harvested the Souls
In an era when the occult, the supernatural or the mystical would most seem out of place, in came Wyatt, emerging from the darkness like a ghost.
When his career is over, Windham Rotunda's short stint as the generic bruiser Husky Harris will be a footnote. It will be his run as the backwoods messiah who became Undertaker's heir that will define him.
Despite only being on the WWE main roster since the summer of 2013, the Wyatt character has already shown itself to be able to change and grow in order to maintain relevancy. Unlike Boogeyman or Gangrel, this persona has multiple layers. It's not a single-direction gimmick but instead a character capable of adaption.
When Wyatt first brought his massive, brooding cronies to WWE, he looked to be a combination of Max Cady from Cape Fear and Reverend Harry Powell from Night of the Hunter, boasting a cult leader's charm and a mental patient's instability.
There was a religious undertone to both his speeches and to his actions.
He led a post-match attack on Kane at SummerSlam 2013 before carrying him to the back like villagers might haul off a witch. He looked to indoctrinate Daniel Bryan by way of beating him down again and again.
It wasn't clear what his full doctrine was, but he spoke of finding truth amid a world of lies. He spoke of himself as not just a clergyman but the actual deity. "I'm everything. I'm the dirt and grass between your toes. I'm a boxcar and a pack of matches."
The character caught fire. Not only was this the most original persona wrestling fans had seen in a while, but Wyatt nailed it. It fit him perfectly, and it was easy to forget it was Mike Rotunda's son delivering lines rather than an actual sinister patriarch.
WWE didn't give the Wyatt shtick a moment to atrophy. It was soon morphing, adding new elements.
For a while, his lone implied power was to pop up out of nowhere, standing in front of his enemies after a flash of darkness. His followers, Erick Rowan and Luke Harper, emerged in this manner as well. Then his arsenal grew.
At Hell in a Cell 2014, Dean Ambrose looked ready to vanquish archrival Seth Rollins, but the lights soon went out. A lantern appeared in the ring, and while he chanted, he first appeared as a phantom in the light.
That mix of campy special effects with the gritty live-action that is pro wrestling didn't sit well with everybody.
Jason Powell of ProWrestling.net wrote, "I definitely could have done without the cheesy R2D2-like effect and the smoke machine in the middle of the ring." Bryan Rose of Voices of Wrestling called it "ludicrous."
By stepping out of the box, WWE opened itself up for criticism. Fans all have their own vision of what wrestling should be like, some preferring the medium to be more realistic and some preferring this kind of borrowing from the movie world.
Wyatt has since moved further into the latter category.
A year after that ghost-in-the-lantern moment, Wyatt's supernatural side grew stronger. After Hell in a Cell 2015, he abducted Undertaker. The next night, his clan took Kane.
He claimed to have dragged them off to place he didn't name. One could imagine it as either a basement in a derelict cabin or else some sort of cosmic prison in another dimension. He was now siphoning their essences over time.
Wyatt told fans, "Right now, somewhere the Undertaker's soul is being ripped to shreds."
And in an unexpectedly bold move, he then claimed to have stolen both Kane and Undertaker's powers. He summoned lightning with his hands. He controlled thunder. He drew fire from the ring posts.
WWE had made it clear. Undertaker was not just passing down the torch to Wyatt but also a tradition of supernatural strangeness. Wyatt would be the new Undertaker, the character who defied reality, who forced the audience to suspend its disbelief to incorporate magic along with the scripted fighting in the ring.
Wyatt exists in an era far more tame than when Undertaker led The Ministry of Darkness, though, or when Gangrel satiated his hunger by drinking blood.
There will be no bloodbaths, no mock crucifixions and no men hanging by a noose.
Talent is on Wyatt's side, but for him to construct a career more like Undertaker's and less like Papa Shango's, he needs help from those penning his adventures. The line between corny and compelling is impossibly thin.