Ring of Horror #1: The Horror-Wrestling ConnectionBooks/Art/Culture,Columns,Movies/TV,News Joe Kleiber
Since the rise of sports entertainment in pop culture during the 1980s, there’s always been a connection between professional wrestling and horror. Be it characters, storylines, music, violence or the occasional bloodshed, fans crave more chaos in the ring as do horror fans on the screen. Once pro wrestling garnered larger exposure on television, fans saw the connection for themselves, as some wrestlers’ gimmicks, such as the Undertaker and Papa Shango, were ever darker and creepier.
Fans were legitimately afraid of these wrestlers; they came complete with eerie entrances, macabre music and storylines ripped from a fright flick. The Undertaker, for example, began as a character supposedly back from the dead who wore a frightening costume, had a thunderous voice and even had a manager known as Paul Bearer by his side (who, in turn held an urn that had the power to control Undertaker).
On the other hand, Papa Shango was a Voodoo villain that donned skull face paint, a top hat, and carried an unsettling skull to the ring. Shango’s storylines saw him place curses on opponents, the most famous of which pitted him against the late Ultimate Warrior. Like The Undertaker, Papa Shango also had a creepy entrance and symbolized a darker change in pro wrestling.
As the ‘90s progressed, Undertaker became a huge star in the WWE, even defeating Hulk Hogan to win the Championship early on. Though originally a villain, Undertaker’s popularity grew until he turned face as the first fan favorite who also happened to have horrific inspirations. In 1992, Undertaker wrestled Kamala in the first ever casket match, in which you had to stuff your opponent into a casket in order to win. This became a signature match in his career as he wrestled several of these and won the majority of them. In 1994, he wrestled Yokozuna twice in casket matches, one of which included scaring the hell out of the 500-plus pound wrestler and rising from the casket after the first match as a spirit. It was some of the finest storytelling wrestling had ever seen.
Horror didn’t just influence those wrestlers, however. In 1996, Mick Foley debuted as the terrifying yet tragic Mankind, adorning a mask inspired by both S&M and Hannibal Lecter. Mankind was dark and disturbing, prone to self-mutilation and bizarre psychotic rants. Even stranger was his finishing move, “The Mandible Claw,” in which he wore a glove with two fingers exposed and jammed them into the opponent’s mouth until they tapped or passed out. Mankind had ethereal piano music, ripped his hair out at times, cut promos backstage in the boiler room and sometimes had pet rats; He had everything that creeped out wrestling fans without the supernatural angle of Undertaker or Shango.
Mankind became the character fans loved to hate, especially after he attacked The Undertaker, spurring a long and historic rivalry. He and Undertaker defined several horror-themed matches such as a Boiler Room Brawl, in which you had to escape the boiler room, make your way to the ring and grab Undertaker’s urn in order to win, and a Buried Alive Match, in which you had to bury your opponent. Some fantastic storytelling was born out of this feud, which ended when Mankind later became a fan favorite and WWE champion.
Of course, there’s an even more direct line between horror and wrestling: Kane. Kane first debuted in 1997 as the Undertaker’s “brother,” burned beyond recognition after the Undertaker had set their family home ablaze. Hence, Kane wore an iconic red and black face mask, which matched his ring attire and the red flames that would shoot from the turnbuckles during his entrance.
Kane was on a war path in the beginning of his career, destroying wrestler after wrestler in post-match exercises of power. Kane would wrestle identically to his kayfabe nemesis Undertaker, and their on-and-off-again feud brought upon some of the harder hitting matches in WWE history. Luckily, Kane would become a big star in WWE, which led to his maskless alter ego, Glenn Jacobs, starring as Jacob Goodnight in 2006 slasher SEE NO EVIL.
Undertaker’s character became much darker in the late ‘90s, heading an occult-inspired faction known as the Ministry of Darkness. This storyline included the abduction, brainwashing, and the leaving of characters as human sacrifices. This came at the height of the Attitude Era, where storylines were darker and raunchier, including the infamous Black Wedding storyline featuring WWE owner Vince McMahon’s own daughter.
Meanwhile in World Championship Wrestling (aka WCW), the wrestler known as Sting reformed his colorful ’80s character and adorned a new visage, one similar to Eric Draven from THE CROW, and carried a baseball bat with him. He would also be brought down from the rafters to intimidate or surprise his opponents. This look and attitude ended up defining Sting’s career.
On the lower side of the roster, the faction known as The Brood emerged, featuring a vampire character known as Gangrel and his two seemingly human partners, Edge and Christian. The Brood’s signature move was something called a “Bloodbath,” where the lights would suddenly go out as their creepy theme music would play; when the lights returned, their opponents would be covered in blood. This was an especially creepy fan favorite event during the Attitude era, and the faction would come out of a fiery floor on the entrance ramp, after which Gangrel would spit out fake blood from a goblet he carried with him. It wasn’t long before The Brood disbanded however, as Edge and Christian became successful as a tag team as well as solo performers, while Gangrel fell into obscurity.
As the Attitude Era came to a close, the aforementioned storylines and characters turned down the frightening atmosphere. Kane lost his mask after filming SEE NO EVIL, making him meaner, but less terrifying, whileUndertaker adopted a new look as a bad-ass biker. Undertaker ultimately returned to his original character a few years later, and even brought the late Paul Bearer back for a short while.
Meanwhile, Extreme Championship Wrestling (aka ECW) was revived by the WWE on the Syfy Channel and featured some horror- inspired characters. It was short lived however, and those wrestlers soon returned to the WWE roster. In the last years of WCW, horror-inspired wrestlers such as Vampiro, a demonic wrestler who wore death mask face paint, entered the fray.
Horror was sparse in professional wrestling until 2013, when the WWE introduced The Wyatt Family. The Wyatt family is a very dark and cult-like group led by Bray Wyatt, inspired by Southern Gothic and redneck horror. In this storyline, Bray Wyatt claims he is “pure evil” and “the eater of worlds,” wearing a big beard and deep voice. Bray often enters the ring in darkness, illuminated by a lantern and sitting in a rocking chair. Erick Rowan wears a signature sheep mask to the ring and in promos, creeping out both wrestlers and fans alike. Luke Harper is the other Wyatt Family member, also wearing a big beard and is equally as unsettling despite lacking a trademark gimmick.
Most recently, however, wrestling and horror collided with PRO WRESTLERS VS. ZOMBIES, a Troma release that features current wrestlers such as Kurt Angle and Matt Hardy as well as legends like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan. The movie hit theaters and VOD earlier this year, and follows a group of wrestlers who are pit against zombies in an abandoned prison by an evil occult leader. Of course, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper is no stranger to the genre, having previously acted in movies like John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE and HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN.
As of this writing, the connection between horror and wrestling seems alive and well, with wrestlers appearing regularly at horror conventions and in horror movies alike. In fact, the WWE announced last year to be further expanding into the world of horror, producing and releasing such recent horror features such as THE DAY, THE CALL, NO ONE LIVES and OCULUS, while rebooting both the LEPRECHAUN and SEE NO EVIL franchises, starring their superstars Hornswoggle and a returning Kane, respectively.