WWE: The influence of horror on professional wrestling

WWE Hell in a Cell Credit: WWE.com
WWE Hell in a Cell Credit: WWE.com /

Pro wrestling (in and out of WWE) has a long history that’s closely intertwined with horror, especially in terms of both genre fundamentals and aesthetics.

Former WWE NXT Superstar and new IMPACT World Champion Sami Callihan had a recent interview with AXS TV, during which he talked a lot about horror movies, especially those that have inspired his character. He’s far (so, so far) from the only wrestler to be influenced by horror.

At a fundamental level, pro wrestling as a medium and horror as a genre have more in common than just the wrestlers who pull their gimmicks directly from movies.

There’s something inherently wicked about professional wrestling. Mysterious and often mischievous, where the line between what’s real and what’s fake can become blurred. Sometimes intentionally so, to drag on and exacerbate whatever emotional excursion a feud or match has the audience on.

That’s a main characteristic of horror. Its purpose is to entertain through anxiety, fear, dread, and suspense incited through violence and dramatic irony. It’s whatever makes the audience cringe, cry, throw their phones, or stare with their mouths agape. It naturally plays upon empathy to draw out visceral reactions through different iterations of torment and brutality.

Wrestling can be very similar. It’s a vicarious exploration of the invasion of personal space and battering of bodies, all as consensual as the production of scenes between actors in a movie.

Suspense through wrestling occurs much in the same way: by succumbing to the pitfalls of ignorance. Just as you’d expect the characters in a horror movie to stick together or to run out the front door instead of up the stairs, you would expect a person to struggle away from precarious holds or easily dodge a move with a long setup — but that’s the magic that allows for moments of desperation and an audience who’s gripped. Someone somewhere braces for a chair shot, the ref falls for an obvious distraction and fails to spot a low blow, the sun rises and sets.

That’s to say nothing of aesthetics. The presentation of wrestling is like horror in that both can fit comfortably with almost any other genre. Wrestling has seen all styles of characters, from the undead and supernatural to kings and deities to just people, like average people who just also happen to wrestle. To inject horror into wrestling is easy — the suspense already exists in the unknown. The application of aesthetics is where things get interesting.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll throw out only a couple of examples. What should be noted is the use of other elements, usually done live in front of the audience, to amplify the effects of a wrestler or match that’s striving to inspire fear and uncertainty rather than lighthearted exhilaration. Lighting is an invaluable tool in the conveyance of horror, specifically to alter the viewer’s perception — after all, how can you protect yourself against something you can barely see?

The Fiend’s presentation, to use a timely example, displays a level of control that he possesses over his environment — the implication being that the audience, other wrestlers, and even management are all just living at his mercy, that mercy to be rescinded at any moment. There’s usually a sudden light cut, dropping the entire arena into pitch darkness, until The Fiend appears. Strobe lighting is effective too, especially to obscure as much of the action as it’s illuminating. Both can be seen in this clip of The Fiend’s attack on Mick Foley:

This isn’t anything that’s particularly new, since Bray Wyatt has had a significant career being creepy and terrifying to great effect. This most recent persona builds on that history and compounds it with an excellent and unsettling appearance, but also the gradual reveal through Firefly Fun House and it’s own disquieting blend of the childlike and the ghoulish. Now we see more use of dramatic elements, like the bloodbath of red lighting illuminating his Hell in a Cell match with Seth Rollins, reminiscent of Kane’s 1997 debut.

Another predictable example is The Undertaker, who established a sense of otherworldly unease from his appearance alone. In his original and most recognizable persona, he was massive, immovable, and without much emotion at all. He was a jarring record scratch among the bombastic and campy environment he dropped into; a striking mirror of classic horror movie monsters whose motives were unknowable and, therefore, couldn’t be easily confronted, yet impossible to evade.

Mind games reign supreme when discussing the influence of the horror genre on the medium of pro wrestling, but fear doesn’t come exclusively from frightening character or ominous scene — sometimes it comes from the overt destruction of the body. That’s right: let’s talk about blood.

Blading needs to be mentioned, as rarely as it’s used now due to the numerous health risks it poses. It describes the act of a wrestler intentionally cutting themselves – usually on the forehead – to bleed, often to the “crimson mask” effect, in order to heighten the sense of peril and physical danger to the viewer. Slasher and other body horror sub-genres are the obvious connection, and it goes further when wrestling goes into hardcore and deathmatch territory.

The most evident desired effect of hardcore wrestling is the focus on ‘realness’ and visible harm, all of which is embellished with the spectacle of blood and elaborate weapons. It’s hard to ignore chairs and bats bound by barbed wire, the explosion of icy glass from a light tube, or the rush of blood from a wrestler’s broken body — it’s almost beautiful.

Just like the popularity behind slasher films, it’s the spectacle that draws in an enormous crowd. The threadbare veil between real and fake is threatened with bloody pro wrestling and that sense of real danger and pain excites many people into suspension of disbelief that is inherently weaker yet more genuine than what’s inspired by horror movies and their oceans of fake blood.

Deathmatch wrestling also exemplifies the lasting visual narrative of pro wrestling. While the horror movie ends, the crowd goes home, and the actors return to their regular lives, someone like Jun Kasai (a personal favorite) walks around with the evidence of his bloody feuds with him forever. The endless array of scars and long-healed chunks taken out of his flesh are ghoulish, awe-inspiring, and very, very real.

Although this article only briefly touches upon a few specific examples out of a vast pool of others, it’s clear that the horror genre has had its teeth in pro wrestling for a while, primarily thanks to the fact that horror is reflective of human nature. Aside from the obvious character influences, the fundamental characteristics of horror are woven throughout, drawing fans and keeping them hooked through suspense, concern, and – of course- fear.

dark. Next. WCW: 5 of the greatest matches in Halloween Havoc history

Reality, regardless of how closely moderated, will always be scarier than fiction.