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Best Fiend

Will Bray Wyatt (finally) take over WWE?

WWE/Ringer illustration

We’ve been here a million times before. Bray Wyatt is back. Bray Wyatt is awesome. At this very moment, Bray Wyatt is the most exciting character in WWE. Wyatt has spent much of his career at the center of a maelstrom of hyperbole. While few would say that he set the world alight as Nexus member Husky Harris, fans and critics alike have predicted transcendent success roughly every six months since the moment that Hawaiian-shirted cult leader Bray Wyatt appeared in 2012.

His latest incarnation, however, feels legitimately special. Starting in April, Wyatt donned a cardigan to deliver cryptic promos from within the children’s TV paradise of the “Firefly Fun House,” before revealing his alter ego—the Fiend. According to the Mr. Rogers half of Wyatt’s persona, the Fiend is a manifestation of his darker, more sinister urges—the Green Goblin to his Norman Osborn. In the midst of a WWE product often criticized for pandering to PG, child-friendly audiences, the new Bray Wyatt is edgy, dangerous and, most importantly, unique.

On Sunday night, in the dying moments of the Clash of Champions pay-per-view, Wyatt made his presence felt by laying out Seth Rollins after his grueling Universal Championship bout against Braun Strowman. The show’s final scene was of the Fiend unleashing an animalistic roar as he choked the life out of the champion amid blinking strobe lights. He now seems on a collision course with Rollins for a contest within the historically violent confines of Hell in a Cell at the next pay-per-view. As main event arrivals go, Wyatt’s was a clear statement of twisted intent.

WWE is often accused of holding back performers and characters at the expense of pet projects like Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar, or Triple H’s never-ending farewell tour of 30-minute rest hold extravaganzas. It cannot be accused of doing that to Wyatt. When the Fiend debuted inside the ring at SummerSlam, his opponent was only a footnote in what proved to be a searing debut for Wyatt.

His entrance was a creepy, elaborate example of wrestling at its most theatrical. The Fiend emerged in darkness, carrying a lantern seemingly constructed from the severed head of his previous character and accompanied by a metal-inflected remix of his theme music.

In the ring, Wyatt was a formidable beast. He dominated Finn Bálor, despite the Irish superstar’s slippery athleticism. The Fiend unveiled a succession of devastating new moves, including a neck snap that was almost certainly the closest thing to a Michael Myers kill we’ve seen in a WWE ring since the advent of the PG rating. He finished Bálor off by choking him out in the Mandible Claw, with the referee counting the pinfall on a limp Bálor while the Fiend’s fingers were still clawing at the back of his throat. Throughout the match, Wyatt seemed to visibly struggle with the Fiend, as if trying to break free from the devilish force, in a far more compelling inner battle than he ever managed when WWE briefly flirted with introducing Sister Abigail as an in-ring character.

As opposed to Wyatt’s numerous previous “reboots,” which amounted to little more than shading along the margins, the debut of the Fiend felt like a clear statement as to the kind of character Bray Wyatt is going to be, as well as the direction WWE is looking to follow. Vince McMahon’s quasi monopoly will face the existential threat of the more adult-skewed All Elite Wrestling when that company begins its weekly television project on TNT in October—the same week that WWE SmackDown makes its lucrative move to Fox Sports. Wyatt, with his dismembered body parts and slasher villain moveset, is a character ripped from an era less concerned with what the marketing folk at Snickers think of the show’s content. If a new wrestling war is afoot, he could provide an edge.

The tension between PG and TV-14 content has been a constant sticking point for the Wyatt character since he first appeared. Supernatural performers, and their associated horror movie iconography, are fraught with difficulty in an environment constantly worried about sending too much of a shiver down the spine of besuited boardroom execs. It’s the difference between the macabre heyday of the Undertaker in the Attitude Era and a character like the Boogeyman, who arrived in the final few years before the PG Era officially took hold. Boogeyman was fun, but he was too silly to ever feel like a threat. It is this curse that has afflicted Wyatt, with his bag of tricks often skewing the wrong side of goofy. His match with Randy Orton at WrestleMania 33—which featured images of maggots and other assorted spooky things projected onto the ring canvas—was named Worst Match of the Year by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, and his House of Horrors contest with Orton several weeks later was also panned for its cartoonish absurdity.

Much as Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine never truly sparkled on the big screen until the R-rated Logan allowed him to hack and slash his way through bad guys, Wyatt is packing a set of blades he hasn’t been allowed to unsheath. The Fiend looks as if it might be his Logan, and certainly the “Firefly Fun House” hasn’t shied away from genuinely unsettling images—or chain saws.

It helps that Wyatt’s latest character reinvention has coincided with an apparent sea change in WWE’s approach to its PG rating. Vince McMahon’s now infamous recent remarks distancing his company from the “blood and guts” of AEW look ironic and short-sighted in the face of several brutal angles, not least the assault from then Universal Champion Brock Lesnar that left Rollins spitting stage blood from his mouth while screaming in agony, just weeks before their SummerSlam clash. There has also been an uptick in adult themes—the 24/7 Championship division is largely geared around both Mike Kanellis’s and Drake Maverick’s lack of sexual success—and commentator Corey Graves audibly yelled “holy shit” after the explosive conclusion to a match between Braun Strowman and Bobby Lashley on Raw in July. The show airs on a delay of several seconds, so the decision to leave the profanity uncensored was a clear creative choice.

Whether as a result of general ratings panic behind the scenes at WWE, or due to AEW’s willingness to embrace the art form’s Grand Guignol side, the biggest player in global wrestling is seemingly leaving its merchandise-loving kiddie-core crowd behind in favor of the loyal, lucrative hardcore fans. These are the people who have been with wrestling for their whole lives. They have a thirst for the bloody, the grotesque, and the adult. With the Fiend now firmly ensconced within the Raw main event picture, this could be a show precision-tooled for that audience.

Wyatt himself is already benefiting from the apparent relaxation of the PG restrictions. His severed head entrance would have been unthinkable a year ago, but reports suggest that the lantern will be a major element of the gimmick going forward and will even form part of his Mattel action figure. The immediately memorable Fiend mask was designed with the help of horror movie effects icon Tom Savini, marking a statement of macabre intent. His moveset, too, is also a shade more brutal than PG would seem to allow, with his neck snap a clear sign that WWE is less worried about imitable behavior than they were when they forced Seth Rollins to stop using the “Curb Stomp” – another decision that has since been reversed.

Whether all of this adds up to an opportunity for Wyatt to finally reach the potential he has always boasted isn’t clear, but the possibility feels more real than ever.

WWE has repeatedly tried to force Wyatt into the Undertaker mold without laying the necessary groundwork, and when the company lacks the freewheeling madness of the Attitude Era, it’s an open question as to whether it’s even possible.

Wyatt’s only world title reign disintegrated amid the aforementioned fairground theatrics against Orton, and WWE seems incapable of positioning an occult-infused character as anything other than a replacement for Taker, with Bálor—by virtue of his demonic alter ego—and now NXT standout Aleister Black subject to similarly iffy, uncertain booking. Illness saved fans from a potentially damning Demon Bálor vs. Sister Abigail match at TLC: Tables, Ladders and Chairs in 2017 and, while many heads were scratched at Bálor leaving his Demon persona in the locker room for this year’s SummerSlam, the decision to avoid an overdose of the kooky allowed Wyatt to shine alone.

The problem for WWE is that Bray Wyatt is not the new Undertaker, in the same way that neither Finn Bálor nor Aleister Black is the successor to the Deadman. All four wrestlers in that sentence are discrete, idiosyncratic performers whose characters are vastly different from one another, united only by their horror-inflected iconography and affection for the mysterious. WWE’s desire to reach into the past and redo what worked before, whether it’s building up Roman Reigns in John Cena’s image or rehiring ’90s figures Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff to run their flagship television show, does a disservice to the roster of today—arguably the most talented of all time.

Wyatt is at the zenith of that roster, with verbal skills to spare, intense in-ring ability, and an overflowing résumé of ideas. His outside-the-ring close friend (and former Wyatt Family minion) Braun Strowman has stated that the “Firefly Fun House” concept was entirely born of Wyatt’s making, and “Fun House” director Jason Baker praised the performer for sitting on “the razor’s edge between genius and insanity.” At a time when Raw often feels like an exercise in recycling, the Fiend is a square peg who couldn’t be further from the round holes of the company’s prescriptive storytelling. He’s the sort of buzzy performer anyone could build a roster around, with viral potential—a crucial quality in the social-media-dominated wrestling landscape—and a gimmick that makes it impossible to change the channel.

But as with any popular performer, there’s the problem of overexposure, saturation, and prolonging the hype. WWE has been relatively judicious so far in keeping the Fiend off TV unless it has something for him to do. And when you have an act this hot, most veterans would agree that you HAVE to put him in the main event.

But with his uneven past, it’s easy to see a problem with the notion of Wyatt being thrust directly into the main event picture on the back of one, admittedly standout, match. The Fiend is composed largely of mystique—an aura of terror that will disappear pretty abruptly if he takes part in a 50-50 feud with Rollins between now and Royal Rumble in January. Conversely, if Wyatt is to win the Universal Championship in a similar steamroller display of power, he risks being turned into an overplayed commodity—the WWE equivalent of an Ariana Grande record. Everyone loves the Fiend today, but could the character survive 15 minutes of scene-setting microphone time at the beginning of each week’s Raw? The “Firefly Fun House” is not built to become “Miz TV” or Chris Jericho’s “Highlight Reel.” Or, frankly, the “Funeral Parlor.”

The banana skins are there, and there’s every risk of WWE slipping on them right into another House of Horrors match. In the meantime, though, fans of Wyatt have every right to be excited. He’s the hottest act on the roster, the most talked about man in sports entertainment, and a guy who can attract a “holy shit” chant just for his entrance.

He’s so good it’s scary.

Tom Beasley is a U.K.-based film and entertainment journalist. He’s a lover of horror, musicals, and wrestling—but not usually at the same time.