As I write this, less than 24 hours have passed since the utter debacle that was the Hell in a Cell match between Seth Rollins and The Fiend. Between the spooky red lighting, the Fiend that wouldn’t die, and the referee acting as Seth’s psychiatrist, it was clear that this was Vince McMahon’s vision of what horror is. Unfortunately for him, it isn’t scary in the least. At best, it was goofy. It was like taking a short film that would be ripped to shreds years later by MST3K and watching it on your Virtual Boy.
— WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) October 7, 2019
Horror in wrestling isn’t as hard to pull off as you might think.
WWE has actually done it well in the past themselves. Whether it was the Boogeyman’s gross-out spots with worms or Kane setting people on fire after losing his mask, WWE has proven themselves to be scary. I lay the HIAC disaster at the feet of Vince because Bray Wyatt himself has shown that he knows how to use horror well when left to his own devices. The initial cult leader Wyatt character was legitimately creepy in NXT and the early editions of Firefly Funhouse had a great scary vibe to them.
But here we are now and the Fiend has spooky lighting and a giant mallet.
As a whole, professional wrestling is a scary thing. Sure, it’s all simulated fights, but there is a constant air of danger hanging over it. One wrong move and someone could be seriously injured. That’s something that we, as fans, often forget about and are largely desensitized, but there is one realm of wrestling where you can’t ignore it:
To me, the most effective horror is that with more than a hint of realism to it. The Blair Witch Project broke the mold for realism in horror by making people believe it was a documentary. While prolific killers like Jason and Freddie might have big followings, no one would say that those two are scarier than something like a movie about a home invasion. Freddie won’t actually come into your dreams to get you, but The Strangers can make you fear about who is in your backyard for weeks after watching.
When it comes to realistic horror in wrestling, deathmatches are the place you go. While these wrestlers are trained to make these spots look as devastating as possible while staying as safe as they can, they’re still breaking through glass, landing in thumbtacks, and bleeding real buckets of blood. When you’re seeing wrestlers slam through panes of glass, you can’t help but cringe or worry for their wellbeing. It’s just a natural response. When you see something like G Raver ripping his underarm open and running to the back while blood pours out of him, that sticks with you. When Nick Gage says he died for this, he’s not lying. Outside of when he’s talking about how much he loves his gang and giving out the most aggressive hugs, Gage is quite possibly the scariest person in all of wrestling right now. He feels real. He feels authentic. You know he would die for this because he already has and that is terrifying.
With good horror comes suspense. Where’s the killer? Where’s the ghost? Where’s the next thing that’s going to deeply upset me? Oh god, what’s going to happen Masashi Takeda faces Abdullah Kobayashi in a match where the referee isn’t allowed to stop it?! In a deathmatch, there’s always that feeling of suspense before the big weapon is used or when a wrestler is building their contraption to throw their opponent into. Takeda is great at introducing a weapon and making it scary. He’ll introduce a pair of scissors into the match, but he won’t just use it. He’ll play to the crowd first and get their brains running at a million miles an hour thinking of what will come next. When he plunges the blade of the scissors into his opponent’s head, you don’t see the point of impact, but that makes it worse. One of the scariest scenes in movie history for me in the ear cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs purely because the camera turns away and you’re left to imagine what happens. Nine times out of ten, what we think happened is way worse than what actually happened. On the other hand, it can sometimes be equally effective to see everything that happens. I’ll never forget the moment from night one of Joey Janela’s Spring Break 3 when Takeda drove the scissor board into Jimmy Lloyd’s chest. The look of genuine fear in Lloyd’s eyes as he was convinced that a blade sliced into his throat will stick with me for the rest of my years.
— LARIATOOOO!! (@MrLARIATO) April 6, 2019
There’s no greater example of using suspense in a wrestling match than Atsushi Onita’s time bomb deathmatch against Hayabusa. I’ve written at length about this match before because I truly believe that it’s one of the greatest matches in wrestling history. The countdown clock looms over the match as these wrestlers try to finish their opponent before they both get blown up. When the sirens kick in and the announcer starts counting down, you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for the blast and waiting to see if these men survived it.
An under-discussed aspect of horror is the relief that comes from a character surviving the ordeal and that was definitely at play here. The sigh of relief that comes from seeing these two men finish out the match following the blast is a big one.
When it comes to adding drama and stakes that feel real to a big match, Onita is one of the best to ever do it. Megumi Kudo and Combat Toyoda had an incredible Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch on their own, but when the camera cuts to Onita watching in the crowd, it adds something to the match. The pained look on Onita’s face as he watches these two women tear each other apart makes you feel a greater sense of worry for them. After all that Onita has been through and seen, his reactions say a lot. If he’s scared of what’s happening, how should I feel?
Of the many aspects that go into horror, the two most important for me are suspense and empathy.
You have to feel something for the people involved or it all falls apart. Neither of these two were on display at the Hell in a Cell main event. It was horrifying to watch, but not in the way that was intended. It all comes down to a lack of understanding their audience and how to effectively build horror. You can’t just spooky lighting your way to being scary. This match is just one example of a systematic problem.
WWE no longer knows how to tell stories and the further they stray from their typical genre, the more apparent that becomes.