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Squared Circles of Hell

Randy Orton’s ‘WrestleMania’ match against the Fiend is the latest chapter in an increasingly compelling horror universe. Can a fake sport make for real horror?

Ian Klarer

Remember when A.J. Styles was murdered at WrestleMania? Last year’s “Boneyard Match,” one of the first batch of WWE’s pandemic-era “cinematic” matches, saw the Phenomenal One buried alive by the Undertaker, who dumped a mountain of dirt in the open grave where Styles lay unconscious. Sprouting from the dirt was Styles’s unmoving hand, proof that the rest of the wrestler was prone beneath that pile, choking on dirt and worms.

We never saw Styles escape, though it was to be expected. Wrestlers don’t die in the WWE, not in kayfabe. But when Styles reappeared a month later, he had little to say about his presumed final resting place aside from “that was then” and “this is now.” There’s no harrowing story of his unburial, no vows for revenge. The Undertaker was gone, after all, the dust kicked up by his Harley having long settled. What else is there for Styles to do but move on?

Is this disappointing, this lack of consequence? Of course, but the modern WWE fan has become accustomed to it. The current product, unwieldy and amorphous, doesn’t lend itself to longform storytelling. There are injuries, schedules, and scandals to worry about. There are shareholders and PR campaigns and McMahons with very strong opinions and unquestionable power. The WWE is a machine of moving parts, and everything, from wrestlers to characters to stories, eventually gets crushed in the gears. It’s important, then, to aim for those marquee moments, the matches that spawn memes, discourse, and YouTube clips that rack up millions of views.

In that regard, the boneyard match was a huge success. It gave us an enduring meme—‘Taker, bathed in ghostly light, creeping up behind Styles— and WWE’s YouTube clip of the match has more than 2 million views. Similar matches haven’t had the same fanfare, but they nevertheless lit up the internet for a spell. In October, for example, NXT’s Cameron Grimes wrestled the spooky Dexter Lumis in a “Haunted House of Terror” match that saw Grimes accosted by an army of zombies. After getting put to sleep by Lumis, Grimes was then set upon by the undead, who descended upon him amid a ring of fog. WWE tweeted out that Grimes “belongs to the zombies now.” If that’s true, though, then why did an unscathed (and, well, alive) Grimes reappear two weeks later to interfere in Lumis’s match against Timothy Thatcher? Where did the zombies go? Does any of this really matter?

It’s that latter question that permeates today’s WWE product, but there’s one story bucking the trend. It’s also a horror story.

Bray Wyatt’s meteoric rise and unceremonious plummet is a sore spot for WWE fans. When the character debuted in 2012, he brought with him a fresh gimmick—a deep-fried cult leader with an aesthetic modeled after Robert De Niro’s Cape Fear baddie—and a “family” of sheep-masked followers that included hirsute giants Luke Harper and Erick Rowan. It was as creepy as it was sustainable, a stable rich in potential mythology. But, after a handful of exciting feuds, Wyatt suffered two definitive losses, first to John Cena at WrestleMania 30 and then to the Undertaker the following year. Both signaled WWE’s unwillingness to anoint Wyatt as a leader of the new generation, but the loss to ‘Taker carried extra weight, as many saw Wyatt as the Dead Man’s successor. Later, a brief, 49-day title run in 2017 was undone by a dud feud with Randy Orton that more or less spelled the end of the Wyatt Family as a stable. And, as Wyatt limped through a program with Matt Hardy, news of a divorce and an affair swirled outside the squared circle. The man otherwise known as Windham Rotunda vanished from WWE television in the summer of 2018.

His return eight months later was special for a number of reasons. For one, he wasn’t “repackaged,” at least not in the traditional sense. Sure, he was clad in an incongruous red sweater and surrounded by puppets, but this cheery host of the “Firefly Fun House” children’s show was still named Bray Wyatt. He even acknowledged his past as the enigmatic cult leader, calling his former alter ego a “pathetic slob loser” who he’ll “never turn into ever again.” As an exclamation point, he took a roaring chain saw to a cardboard cutout of the character. Notably, however, Wyatt’s pet name for his fans—fireflies—persevered. “All my fireflies can feel safe here,” he promises inside the Fun House. The lines began blurry and that continued with the debut of the Fiend, the dark half of Wyatt’s new persona. The Fiend, a grinning demon in a warped clown mask, walks to the ring carrying a lantern molded after Wyatt’s head, a cruel subversion of his previous form. Instead of ignoring his previous incarnation, as WWE is wont to do, Wyatt’s new manifestation actively antagonized it.

Late last year, the Fiend revived one of Wyatt’s old feuds. Randy Orton’s torching of the grave of Sister Abigail—Wyatt’s spectral touchstone—still stung this new Wyatt. At December’s Tables, Ladders & Chairs event, the two engaged in an inferno match that culminated in Orton setting Wyatt himself (or, to be precise, the Fiend) ablaze. With Wyatt (and the Fiend) off TV to “recuperate’, Orton was forced to contend with Wyatt’s surviving Firefly, the diminutive Alexa Bliss. She interfered in his matches, taunted him in promos, and, through some otherworldly trickery, caused black goo to pour from his mouth. She teased the Fiend’s resurrection all the while, often while sitting in the center of a pentagram.

It’s the most explicit horror story WWE has told in years, and one clearly indebted to the ones that came before it. The black goo, specifically, harkens back to Papa Shango, Charles Wright’s notorious, short-lived turn as a “voodoo practitioner” in the mold of Baron Samedi. In his unconsummated feud with the Ultimate Warrior in the early ’90s, Shango was capable of casting curses that would cause black ink to drip down Warrior’s forehead.

The occult nods, meanwhile, can be traced to both Kevin Sullivan’s Army of Darkness and the Attitude Era’s Ministry of Darkness. The Ministry, for example, built its stable via blood rituals in which jobbers like Dennis Knight and Mabel were transformed into macabre grapplers after drinking the Undertaker’s blood. Undertaker’s initial feud with Kane, built on flames, revenge, and loss, also hangs heavy over the story.

Orton and the Fiend have gone a step further, though. Because, according to the internal logic of the story line, when Orton set the Fiend on fire, he killed Bray Wyatt. Like, actual murder. Consequences, at last.

The problem with placing supernatural characters into the world of wrestling is that, eventually, they have to wrestle. There’s a big overlap between horror and wrestling—hulking bruisers, dramatic lighting, sensational storytelling—but there’s also something irreconcilable. If the Undertaker can summon lightning, why is his finisher a pile driver? If Gangrel, bygone leader of the Brood, is a fanged vampire, why drop DDTs?

That disconnect, however, speaks to the strange suspension of disbelief that wrestling demands. It’s fake, but it’s also not, and its unique appeal is that the line between what’s real and what’s not is often blurrier than we even realize. The strikes are practiced, but the bruises are real. The feuds are fake, until they’re not. But then, in the midst of so much ambiguity, an undead mortician surfaces to choke a smiling guy with an American flag. The ambiguities of wrestling are stabilized by its characterizations—it’s always clear who is “good” and who is “bad.” Genre tropes can help in that regard.

“An audience comes to the shows to see their heroes and their villains and then you get a little something more,” says Jason Eisener, genre filmmaker and executive producer of Viceland’s Dark Side of the Ring. “[Supernatural characters] help encourage you to allow your imagination to go beyond what it would if you were watching another sport.”

For Kefin Mahon, cohost of the Attitude Era and How2Wrestling podcasts, horror story lines signal that “the gloves are well and truly off” for that particular portion of the show. “I don’t think I’m going to get scared, necessarily, from some of the story lines,” he says. “But if I know that they’re going to do a horror thing, I know I can expect people being set on fire, rings imploding, perhaps wrestlers wrestling inside their mind palaces, things like that. I like to see that in my wrestling show.”

Eisener agrees. “There’s a balance you’ve obviously got to have, but, for me, I love the idea of everyone going into the arena and opening themselves to the idea that these things can happen in this world,” he says. “[Horror angles] were what always attracted me to wrestling more than other sports.” To this day, he can vividly recall Papa Shango’s black goo, the Undertaker’s penchant for stuffing opponents in body bags, and the harrowing 1991 sequence that saw the Ultimate Warrior locked in a casket. “I remember pounding on the TV, I was so upset,” he says with a laugh. “I was scarred.”

But the ability to create an indelible scare doesn’t always translate to a sustainable in-ring career. Papa Shango is the perfect example: For months, he was teased as an otherworldly presence who could set opponents on fire and telepathically hobble them, but it turned out those tricks worked on only jobbers. “The problem was, with a character like Papa Shango, once the losses piled up, the character lost a lot of that mystique and invincibility, and it was all downhill fast from there,” Wright said in a 2012 interview.

You could say it was too much, too soon when it came to Shango. The character’s cultural and religious iconography was so distinct, his powers so defined by the character, that there was nowhere to go. Contrast that with the Undertaker, who arrived as a blank slate with a spooky silhouette and a mutable persona defined primarily by aesthetics. He can be a mortician, he can be a satanic cult leader, he can be a “badass” biker—just swap out the hats for hoods and the hoods for bandanas. And, unlike Shango, the Undertaker won. A lot. “While his character certainly had its issues, he wasn’t a character who lost a lot on television,” Mahon says. “People get very hung up about wins and losses in wrestling, I think, but if you’re trying to be the scary horror monster, there has to be that element of, ‘He’s a monster.’”

Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to both be a monster and remain a monster than it was 30 years ago. It was easier to not lose on TV when there wasn’t so much TV. Between Raw, SmackDown, NXT, 205 Live, and Main Event, the WWE runs up to eight hours of content a week, and that’s not counting the monthly pay-per-views. The frantic pace not only demands routine exposure for stars who are best left mysterious, but it also forces stories to unfold and evolve faster than they should. But where this truly hobbles horror angles is that it deprives them of definitive endings. And horror stories need endings—a bloodbath, an exorcism, something. If slashers have taught us anything, it’s that monsters can’t simply mosey on to their next kill, not without some manner of death and rebirth.

“The Ministry of Darkness is a great example of the growing pains you can get with a horror angle,” says Mahon, recalling the group’s anticlimactic, unceremonious end, which came after WWE CEO Vince McMahon became its de facto leader and was then kayfabe “banished” from the company. “Imagine if the Halloween franchise ended with Michael Myers being told he had to just go away.”

The members of the Ministry drifted into different directions, some by shedding their horror personas (the Acolytes rebranded as the hard-drinking APA) and others by stagnating within it (Knight’s Mideon resurfaced in a comic role as “Naked Mideon”). The Undertaker, meanwhile, departed to tend to an injury, returning months later as a decidedly non-supernatural biker dubbed the American Badass. The leathered husk of Viscera was all that remained of the Ministry’s dark footprint.

WWE audiences are expected to suspend their disbelief, but they’re also expected to forget. We forget the sins of the heel turned babyface. We forget the past feuds that complicate the new ones. We forget that the guy who played Papa Shango went on to become a wrestling pimp. It’s more fun that way.

The Fiend’s deal, though, is that he won’t let us forget.

Not everybody is enjoying the saga of Bray Wyatt’s crispy corpse. “The Randy Orton vs. Alexa Bliss and Bray Wyatt feud is in dire need of some established rules,” Cageside Seats opined after Wyatt’s goofy resurrection at Fastlane. And some haven’t enjoyed the Fiend for a long time. Last year, Uproxx decried the character as “breaking the internal consistency of [the] fictional universe by having superpowers nobody else gets to have.” It went on to add that the Fiend’s ability to bounce back after enduring an onslaught of punishment harkens back to “Hulk Hogan–ass cartoon wrestling.”

“When the Fiend debuted, he’s being hit in the head with a sledgehammer and shot in the face and then thrown off a bridge—they were basically doing the Rasputin finish on him every night and he was kicking out,” Mahon says in defense of the character’s seeming invincibility against foes like Seth Rollins and Daniel Bryan. “And, as horrible as that was, as unbearable as it was to watch at the time, I am really glad they did it just because it drew a line between Bray Wyatt, the guy who lost all the time, and the Fiend, this immortal-seeming wrestling horror monster character.”

Strung between these perspectives is a question: Is the modern WWE designed for an “immortal-seeming wrestling horror monster character”? The argument seems to be that, no matter what powers a character displays outside the ring, they shouldn’t work inside the ring, lest they tip the scales too far in the supernatural character’s favor. That’s a valid perspective that, in some ways, speaks to the emphasis of “sports” in “sports entertainment.” Though McMahon still loves his giants, the WWE has spent the past decade inching open the door for cruiserweights and strong style athletes, allowing for a balletic, more athletic brand of wrestling to thrive on sports entertainment’s biggest stage. But that style has too often served as a substitute for character. In WWE, who is Shinsuke Nakamura but someone who strikes poses and hits hard? Who is Ricochet outside of his flips? We’ve become so accustomed to dynamic wrestling devoid of stakes and story that someone like the Fiend, with his blunt, bone-snapping move set and deep mythology, feels jarring because, unlike everything around it, it’s a character so firmly rooted in fiction. We all know wrestling’s fake, but, in recent years, the fakest stuff has become some of the most divisive.

That’s inevitable, but disappointing considering the Fiend is easily one of, if not the most, complex horror characters in WWE history, wholly original but informed by several horror and genre staples. Like The Exorcist, the Fiend’s story is one of unwilling possession—in his feud with Braun Strowman, the old Wyatt reemerged to reveal he’s still there, helpless behind the Fiend’s mask. Elsewhere, the character has been able to summon wicked manifestations of his opponent’s fears and insecurities, in a Pennywise-like manner. His relationship with Bliss echoes that of the Joker and Harley Quinn, though the occult elements Quinn teased in his resurrection skew it closer to the latter Child’s Play movies, specifically Bride of Chucky. And, like the Friday the 13th franchise, the story is driven in large part by revenge.

Is the Fiend the manifestation of Wyatt’s dark side or an external demon intent on exploiting his anger? That, like much of the Fiend, remains unclear, but the character is nevertheless committed to settling the scores of the pacified Wyatt. It was at last year’s WrestleMania, for example, that he not only defeated Cena, but forced WWE’s golden boy to face the impact of the “Cena wins LOL” era. “You broke me, John,” says Funhouse Bray, “but the Fiend put me back together.” It was a definitive ending to Wyatt’s feud with Cena, but also to Cena’s career as a whole. (It’s unlikely to happen, Cena being what he is, but there would be nothing more narratively satisfying than for us to never see Cena in the WWE again.)

Orton’s feud with Wyatt needs an ending, too. Their underexplored 2017 partnership and fallout, which culminated in one of the worst gimmick matches of all time, is a stain on the legacies of both wrestlers. It was natural, then, to sigh when Orton and the Fiend clashed at TLC. But, in a desperately needed stroke of boldness, the match ended not with a pin but an honest-to-God murder—Orton burned the Fiend just as he did Sister Abigail’s grave those years ago. Orton had no motivation to ignite Abigail’s grave at the time, and there were no consequences outside of making Bray angry. But what was meaningless before is meaningful now; the Fiend didn’t simply saunter out on the next night’s Raw, Styles-style, in a smoking leather jacket, and that signals that this time, it matters.

And that’s part of why the Wyatt and Orton feud is working: It’s operating like a franchise. What happens in one film impacts the next, and the evolution brings new iterations of its antagonist, who’s now gone from human to demon to undead, scarred zombie. Is it occasionally corny? Sure. Horror stories often are. Wrestling ones, too. Is there a backstory between the Fiend and his amorphous powers? No, but origin stories are a drag anyway. If the Undertaker’s reskins felt like reboots, the Fiend’s feel like sequels. And, in horror, sequels often surpass the originals.

The problem with horror franchises is that lore often comes to overwhelm the story—just look at the latter Halloween, Texas Chainsaw, and Saw films. And it’s true that the “rules” of the character remain fuzzy. There’s the Fiend, obviously. And then there’s Funhouse Bray, who is (mostly) nonviolent but still malevolent. And then there’s old Bray, who, per his match with Braun, is “rotting in an endless pit, looking through my own eyes, not able to control my body or anything it does.” That’s a lot, especially since the old Bray comes with his own brand of spiritual gobbledygook.

What it all points to, though, is that the Fiend is, like The Exorcist’s Pazuzu, an individual entity, an orbiting demon capable of possession. If so, this is good news for the character’s sustainability, as WWE always has the option of exorcising it from Wyatt and unleashing it upon another performer in need of a refresh. The persona has conveyed more about Wyatt than any number of Raw promo parades, after all, highlighting time and again his desire for some kind of family, whether it be literal or figurative. He’s lashed out at Orton for his betrayal, begged Braun for a reteam, and threatened to steal away Miz’s wife and children. That Wyatt has “never been much of a solo act” is an observation that’s now become a key part of his psychological profile.

Lore and psychology aside, though, it’s just exciting to see horror in the WWE again. “It’s as old as wrestling itself,” Mahon says of wrestling’s embrace of genre. He recalls Jason the Terrible, the Jason Voorhees analog that wrestled in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling. Eisener, meanwhile, brings up Japan’s frequent use of American horror characters in the ring, specifically Michael “Corporal” Kirchner’s run as Texas Chainsaw’s Leatherface. “In the ’90s, way before you had Freddy vs. Jason, you could see Leatherface wrestle Freddy Krueger,” he says. “You’d see Leatherface wrestle Masato Tanaka, one of the best wrestlers ever. You’re watching Leatherface having, like, an actual dope match. It was really surreal.”

How surreal will Wyatt’s and Orton’s clash at this weekend’s WrestleMania be? Will the Fiend usher him into the Funhouse, exploiting the performer’s legacy in much the same way he did Cena’s? Or, within the confines of the mind palace, will Orton find a novel way to burn a monster who doesn’t play by the rules of the rest of the roster? Most importantly, will it give the feud the ending it deserves?

Whatever happens, let’s just hope it matters.

Randall Colburn writes and podcasts about movies, music, TV, wrestling, and the internet. He used to be an editor at The A.V. Club and he currently cohosts The Losers’ Club: A Stephen King Podcast. Find him on Twitter and Instagram at @randallcolburn.