“In his essay on the uncanny, ‘Das Unheimliche’, Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. If the [horror] genre required any justification, I should think this alone would serve as its credentials.” —Stanley Kubrick, discussing The Shining with film critic Michel Ciment.
In a medium that constantly tests the boundaries of “suspension of disbelief,” it’s a constant challenge to find an act that is able to at once provide you with something that seems believable in its violence and intensity, but also has a presentation that is not only unique, but more importantly, engaging to the point that you not dare look away. pro wrestling is a brutal eco-system and crucible, where lack of a gimmick can neutralize whatever appeal your prolific technical skills may offer, or where the right presentation can elevate one to heights of popularity far beyond what may be justified by their in-ring talent. And when a given talent or act can provide both a presentation that captures the audience’s imaginations, then in-ring action that captures their senses—you have the rare combination of ingredients that can build legitimate stars. Malakai Black and those that fall under his banner in the House of Black are a test case for just how far you can test that barrier of “suspension of disbelief” in the modern age of wrestling. Indeed, you can see that this test is a calculated one, not only rooted in the history of wrestling reaching back decades, but also one that doesn’t push the boundaries nearly as far as it may seem on the surface.
A House Unlike Any Other
Before discussing what makes the House of Black’s unique presentation work, their presentation itself bears some level of discussion. Especially given that Malakai Black’s faction finds itself in AEW, where overly theatrical gimmicks are seldom employed, and the overall metaplot of the promotion’s stories and canon remain mostly grounded in reality, one might think that the House of Black isn’t a readily logical fit for the All Elite mosaic. However, one need only listen to the arena response to the House of Black’s entrance (in any of their myriad configurations) to know that this group is accepted whole-heartedly by the AEW faithful. And indeed, this isn’t such a big surprise because the signs were there from the beginning, as it was Malikai Black that was one of the first reasons the AEW audience began to turn against Cody Rhodes.
If nothing else, Malakai’s presentation ever since his debut in AEW has been a consistent one.
But what is the presentation of Malakai Black? It’s one full of dark, pagan symbolism, chock-full of occult imagery—accompanied by all-too-appropriate death metal entrance themes, and a bit of stage lighting manipulation to add unmistakable atmosphere and ambiance. The eerie aesthetic the House of Black brings blends primal and horror imagery to create a look that sticks in one’s head. However, it’s an aesthetic that is also cloaked in a great deal of mystique—many of the symbols used by the House of Black clearly hold some sort of significance to them and their group, but their importance is not explicitly explained. There is more to be found regarding the House of Black, but only if you’re curious enough to take your fandom beyond what we see on Dynamite, Rampage, or the YouTube shows, and start engaging with what Malakai Black is putting out online. Finding these answers, though, requires that your curiosity, and interest be piqued, and that you want to delve into the insanity of Malakai Black on your own. But more on that part later, because in spite of Black’s claims to the contrary—even through the lens of kayfabe, the House of Black’s “Lore” is a mirage.
What’s important to keep in mind right now, is that the theatrical presentation of the House of Black is resonant. It’s an act that gets a notably positive fan reaction in any city in which they appear. Where we’ve seen some AEW acts get a range of reactions—depending on the city, the House of Black’s seems consistent and universal. Their reaction is overwhelmingly well-received from the moment of their entrance. Be it in singles, tags, or trios matches, the House of Black grabs the attention of the arena audience from the moment they arrive, and in turn, receive a strong response from the fans.
Of course, Malakai Black, Brodie King, and Buddy Matthews sustain that fan energy by providing devastating and well-executed in-ring work. But this is the balance of both theatricality and athleticism that makes the House of Black fascinating to watch. Not only are they objectively good, but it’s so very different from most of what else we see not only with AEW specifically, but wrestling at large. Instead, their presentation is something more akin to what we might see in a heavy metal concert or gothic scene. A sort of showmanship that is intentionally manicured to provide a pervasive and consistent feel: from costumes, music, cinematic style for vignettes—all of this combines into a House of Black aesthetic. A sort of full-sensory branding that allows instant recognition, as employed by musical acts like KISS, GWAR, and Prince for decades that makes you know who they are the instant any of your senses become aware of them, regardless of which sense was first.
Built On History’s Foundations
While many look to the 1990 Survivor Series debut of then-dubbed (Kane) the Undertaker as catalyst point where supernatural and occult themes took root in the professional wrestling zeitgeist, it would actually be nearly 10 years earlier, as Kevin Sullivan, as the Prince of Darkness, would descend upon Championship Wrestling from Florida. Sullivan borrowed from disturbing social events of his era and before to craft a new sort of pro wrestling villain: one who worshiped demonic forces. By borrowing imagery and rhetoric that harkened to Charles Manson and his Spahn Ranch Family, and playing to fears that coincided with the Satanic Panic of the 1980s news media—Kevin Sullivan took his in-ring performance which was certainly at an acceptable level, and created a persona that crowds truly reviled in the territories he worked, which elevated Sullivan to the highest heights, such as noteworthy feuds with the American Dream, Dusty Rhodes.
Dusty, the paragon of the sorts of American Culture and Values that were the very thing under assault from insidious tools of the Devil, such as heavy metal music, various expressions of urban culture, and Dungeons & Dragons to name a few… that Kevin Sullivan embodied as the Prince of Darkness. As he attracted followers around him, the prophecies and mysticism that Sullivan espoused in his promos seemed to become manifest to the studio wrestling audience of FCW and Georgia, thus the anti-Christian character he played grew in influence—making him a top-level heel during the final days of the territories.
Likewise, the early ’80s would bring in multiple talents from Japan that would go on to make their marks in the United States, in ways that many of their predecessors from earlier eras were unable to. One of the figures instrumental in making talents like Kabuki and the Great Muta legendary wrestlers in the collective unconsciousness of American wrestling fans, is Gary Hart. In earlier decades, simply being of Japanese origin was enough to earn heat from American Wrestling fans, with just mentioning something like Pearl Harbor able to evoke venom and disgust from the audience. However, by the 1980s, World War II was fading into memory having ended decades earlier, and Hart would concoct a new formula to make his Japanese clients a genuine attraction throughout the wrestling world’s territory days.
During the Great Kabuki’s debut in Georgia Championship Wrestling, Gary Hart described a ritualistic savage means by which pro wrestling was conducted in the wilds of Southeast Asia, describing life as cheaper, and deathmatches in exotic locales such as Singapore and India as a way of life. Gordon Solie, ever-the-straight man of wrestling play-by-play would go on to unironically describe Kabuki as a “mystic” in a match with Vinnie Valentino, and that he wore the trappings of generational robes that held some sort of mysterious significance. And of course, there was the strange mist that Kabuki spewed from his mouth, which was sold straight as having paralytic effects, the way someone might describe an alchemical potion. Racially insensitive as it was, this formula would work for Hart and Kabuki, as well as Hart’s other charges from Japan such as a young Keiji Mutoh, who was dubbed the Great Muta, was billed as being a descendant of Kabuki. Ironically, Gary Hart would only take this approach with Japanese wrestlers, and this formula was notably absent with North American wrestlers associated with him, such as Al Perez or Chris Adams—whose in-ring personas were played completely straight.
As we look back to the roots of occultism in pro wrestling, we can likewise see that the House of Black seems to borrow from these earlier approaches to themes found in horror, and leans on some of the philosophies adopted by Kevin Sullivan and Gary Hart. And in truth, the House of Black’s method seems to harken back to an even earlier era of North American professional wrestling—one that goes right to the root, when wrestling was part of the traveling carnival moving from town to town… the ring itself positioned not overly far from the fortune teller’s tent and the freak show. Using the trappings of the occult to create unique visuals that not only shock, but force attention onto the performer even down to their in-ring attire (where that attention might not be so easily held otherwise), while using the mysteriousness of their aura and aesthetic to capture the imagination of the fans not only in the spaces between the match itself, but linger afterward as well.
House of Ill-Repute
The occult and horror themes that are central to the House of Black’s presentation, do not exist in a vacuum, however. Even giving wrestling luminaries like Kevin Sullivan and Gary Hart their due, a lot of their attempts to blend occult themes into their presentations were hit or miss, especially with hindsight viewing. And while there may have been some genuine and unique heat to be had with this approach in the eighties, there are other examples of supernatural approaches taken in wrestling that are admittedly cartoonish. Given that Malakai Black is a member of the AEW roster, a promotion where the wrestling product is presented as mostly grounded and where gimmicks that blend realism seem to garner the best reaction from both fans and critics—the House of Black and their aesthetic approach to wrestling seems risky. Juxtaposed against “serious wrestling,” an approach with so many arthaus trappings can threaten a cringe-worthy response, if not shatter the suspension of disbelief entirely.
Seeing what WWE has chosen to present as far as supernatural themes in wrestling, it’s hard to blame anyone for having a kneejerk reaction to seeing the House of Black in AEW and dismiss everything that’s put in front of them without paying it much due and just reciting an inward mantra of “just get to the wrestling…” When we see the cryptic pretaped vignettes for the House of Black, many fans seem to have an almost PTSD-like response, a defensive reflex that they’ll be subjected to meandering skits that were the hallmark of The Fiend, or a reaching to the sky to summon a bolt of lightning as The Undertaker has done in WWE.
In recent years, treatments of the occult have been primarily showcased in WWE and Impact! Wrestling, where what we see on screen can’t exist in a world that isn’t entirely divorced from reality. Given the cynical nature of many wrestling fans, when they see that the House of Black is going to take “the spooky approach,” it’s easy to presume this will be in the vein of thousand-year-old beings that exhale clouds of death smoke, and matches where the resolution sometimes leads to (albeit temporary) on-screen deaths in swamps, or graveyards, or the underworld realm, or what have you. Admittedly, this sort of thing, even with some of the absurdities of wrestling we accept as a matter of course, is ridiculous. However, this is not what the House of Black is portraying.
Perhaps then, it’s time to talk about the House of Black’s so-called “Lore.” The Lore behind the House of Black’s beliefs and philosophies aren’t something you’ll find on AEW programming. Instead, any details that one might find are to be gleaned from Malakai Black’s various interviews, and social media, where those who are of a mind, can begin to piece together the meanings behind what we see during the House of Black’s presentation: the antlers, the masks, the blackness over Malakai’s eye. And the stories behind them are indeed, outlandish. Discussions of pagan beliefs from a more ancient time in Europe, Celtic gods and mysterious things like Moloch, and a mark on his eyes that grows as it gets stronger. Reading that, it’s even easier to assume that the House of Black isn’t all that different from the Halloweenish caricatures that we’ve seen in WWE or Impact! Wrestling, however, the differences are rather stark indeed.
When looking at characters such as The Undertaker or The Fiend—they are presented without any sense of irony. Everything said about these two characters, especially within the context of WWE Universe storytelling, is entirely literal. Any powers that are said to fuel Undertaker or the Fiend, as well as any powers they’re said to possess are not only repeated straight-faced and ad nauseum by the talent, it’s repeated by the commentators, the backstage interviewers, and of course—the powers are then demonstrated on screen. There is no mystique to these presentations, because everything is shown in absolute blatancy, and from that, our ability to suspend disbelief shatters. Abilities that should be reserved for the realm of fiction are being presented in a medium that it’s entirely inappropriate for—no matter how dead kayfabe may be, wrestling still pretends to be a sport more often than not. It’s not all that surprising then that when some see the House of Black, they’re ready to paint with the same brush, especially as AEW is meant to stand as an alternative product to the WWE philosophy.
However, as much as AEW is an alternative to WWE, the House of Black is an alternative to how occult themes can be presented within wrestling without threatening to ruin the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief as they watch.
One of the key differences that we get with the House of Black, as compared to other supernatural gimmicks, is that the presentation for the group is a nuanced one, and it isn’t one where you can or should accept everything you see or hear at face value. Instead, it’s important to look at the whole when it comes to Malakai Black’s words, his actions, and his history in AEW, to get a full view of what it is that House of black stands for, and what it is they’re actually doing.
Malakai Black, in spite of the specifics of his words during promos and pretapes, is conducting himself as a cult leader. This is why it was mentioned earlier that the “Lore” of the House of Black is a mirage: because whatever it is that Malakai Black claims that he can do, or what he claims to follow, or what he says is happening to his eye—are said in the tone, and tenor that we see used to indoctrinate followers into cults with bizarre and twisted beliefs. Indeed, to even get any real details of these beliefs, one has to step off the path of AEW curated content, and find Black’s musings on their own, implying that his cult-like beliefs aren’t something that AEW is willing to give voice or legitimacy to—at least from a purely in-character, and in-universe perspective. Even whether or not Malakai is meant to believe what he’s saying is still missing the point—it’s that what he’s saying, people are listening to, and his numbers are growing, slowly but surely.
There is a critique, however, that Malakai is being presented as more than a cult leader, and instead a quasi-supernatural being with powers and abilities, not dissimilar from The Undertaker or The Fiend, however, this isn’t the case. To date, there has been nothing on-screen that indicates that Malakai Black is possessed of any supernatural powers, nor has it been said explicitly that he’s done anything that can be construed as preternatural. Some may offer the following counterpoint: Malakai Black’s poison mist—which some have theorized has strange, mind-altering qualities, is in essence a superpower. It’s a fair point, but it’s incomplete.
We’ve seen that the poison mist that Malakai Black employs seems to work in similar ways that we’ve seen it used by others, causing pain, brief loss of sight, and usually providing an opening for Malakai or his House of Black cohorts to score a victory. We’ve seen the mist employed this way for decades by the likes of Kabuki, Muta, Tajiri, Kiyoshi, Bushi, and a myriad of others.
However, there have been two instances where the mist seemed to be the cause of longer-lasting effects: namely in the case of two victims—PAC and Julia Hart.
In the case of PAC, after receiving the mist to the eyes, he was out of action for several weeks. Upon his return, he sported a blindfold, implying that he’d suffered longer-term blindness from the mist, and likewise, his mannerisms while wearing the blindfold seemed unlike his former self. However, this was all in truth a ruse by PAC in order to create an opening for him and his Death Triangle allies to get a measure of payback against Malakai Black, and PAC had actually suffered no more ill effects than anyone else.
In the case of Julia Hart, she too was sprayed in the face with the black mist of Malakai, and for months she sported an eye patch, and likewise saw a change in her outward demeanor, after being exposed. In Julia’s case she did indeed join the House of Black after the events of Double or Nothing in May 2022. This then, must be Exhibit A to demonstrate that the House of Black Aesthetic is pushing things past the barrier or believability.
Or does it?
If one cherrypicks the examples of PAC and Julia, while ignoring Malakai’s other mist victims, such as Penta El Zero M, Brian Pillman Jr., and Cody Rhodes, then yes. But while looking deeper, we find it’s not the proof positive of introducing magic into All Elite Wrestling one might think it is. In truth, the number of those who have been exposed to the mist, and did not suffer long-lasting effects outnumbers the outliers like Julia Hart. It also requires that one fill in a great number of blanks themselves with assumptions about the House of Black, and their Lore, in order to arrive at the conclusion that something supernatural is afoot when it comes to Julia or PAC. And while the presumption that Malakai Black traffics with unholy powers to bring in new followers feeds the perception of his character and the aesthetic surrounding it—there’s nothing that’s actually said that is the case, either by AEW television, or really, by Malakai himself.
It’s in this way that we see that the House of Black is indeed unlike presentations of similar themes from WWE, and is more in the spirit of the occultism we saw from territory wrestling from the 1980s. While unnatural forces are implied by Black and his cohorts, we see nothing that’s deliberate in terms of vulgar displays of power. Everything is implied, hinted at, and can be easily explained by more mundane means: Malakai Black’s rhetoric and occult trappings have created a unique cult of personality around him that draws in followers. He uses strange and esoteric tools at his disposal to break down his opponents psychologically, and then takes their psyche to places that make his opponents face uncomfortable truths and take uncharacteristic measures—a tactic he said he explicitly employed against Cody Rhodes after Cody won their second match. Everything else, the horns, the turning out of the lights, the face paint over the eye—all of these are just smoke and mirrors to bring a psychological dimension to engagements against the House of Black. And should you believe there’s mystic power behind them—so much the better for Malakai Black and his allies. But Malakai Black claims he has powers in the same way that Charles Manson, Jim Jones did—simply as a means by which to manipulate and control his followers into committing atrocities in his name. It’s not magic, it’s simply psychology.
House of the Rising Sun
“Look down at me and you see a fool, Look up at me and you see a god, Look straight at me and you see yourself.”—Charles Manson
Malakai Black, as well as Brodie King, Buddy Matthews, and Julia Hart, who together comprise the House of Black, is a group of talented in-ring performers who offer one of the most strikingly unique presentations to grace the pro wrestling landscape in many years. Combining imagery and music prevalent in the European Death Metal scene, the House of Black earns cheers from roaring crowds every time they appear live in an AEW arena, and leave television viewers at home with images that have both staying power and resonance. The presence and persona of Malakai Black came to AEW with such force that it was able to help dislodge Cody Rhodes as the promotion’s White Knight babyface, and the aftermath of Rhodes’ feud was a definite catalyst for the fans beginning to turn on Cody in his waning months with AEW. It’s impossible to say that the aesthetic of the House of Black hasn’t left its impression on the fans.
Admittedly, presenting the House of Black as they’ve been on AEW is a risk—if done poorly, the House of Black would seem like a discordant clash of styles with everything else that is All Elite Wrestling. But that’s not the case here, as what’s far more important is that the essence of House of Black’s style is coming through in their presentation—all of the rest is just an illusion of poetic license, just enough smoke and mirrors that your own mind fills in that which isn’t explicitly stated— “Malakai spewed mist in Julia’s face, and months later Julia’s the newest addition to the House of Black… EUREKA! It was the mist that did it,” but in truth, this is precisely the way a gimmick like this, and a cult leader lures you into their way of thinking. They say just enough so that you do the rest of your convincing yourself, projecting your own beliefs and assumptions to fill in any holes. However, in truth, we’ve seen far less on-screen sorcery from the House of Black than we have from Chris Jericho’s newly discovered talents as a wizard. Malakai Black isn’t the first to employ this trick. The road was paved by the Kevin Sullivans, James Mitchells, and Gary Harts who had been teasing fans with elements of the supernatural for years, and captured the imagination of fans without damaging the believability that is absolutely required to make wrestling great.
Many members of the House of Black are workers par excellence in their own right. But those who clamor for them to abandon their aesthetic to just ‘shut up and wrestle’ are missing the point. While the members of the House of Black could just as easily focus on their in-ring work, dropping their aesthetic for plain black trunks and wrestling boots, then they’d become just another set of talented mechanics in the ring that otherwise lack charisma and distinction from others who employ the gimmick of ‘serious fighter’. Even in an environment like AEW, we see that there are additional layers of nuance added to the Kyle O’Reilly’s and the Daniel Garcia’s, so it seems unsensible to strip away layers from the House of Black that makes them special.
And while there are fans that have every right to prefer that their wrestling not wander into the realm of supernatural powers and hijinks, it is unfair to paint the House of Black with this brush.
One needn’t enjoy or find the aesthetic of the House of Black appealing—Death Metal music is a fairly niche genre of its own, after all. But then the criticism should be an honest one: not that you don’t enjoy unbelievable tropes in wrestling like magic, because that’s not what’s happening. From the perspective within the “canon” of AEW, the House of Black has done nothing more supernatural than we would have seen out of Tajiri and Mikey Whipwreck whilst they were under the direction of the Sinister Minister in ECW, and certainly far less than we’ve witnessed from acts in the WWE such as The Undertaker, The Fiend, or even The Brood.
From the “out of character” perspective—the House of Black brings the momentary feel of being at a heavy metal concert as they make their way to the ring, a feeling best exemplified as they appeared at Double or Nothing 2022. There’s an unmistakable energy as they make their entrance, and the arena crowds respond in kind.
And while wrestling fans suffer enough derision for the medium they genuinely enjoy, and can get understandably defensive about gimmicks that undermine pro wrestling in its essential, the House of Black and their aesthetic aren’t going to put you into an embarrassing position any more than going to a metal concert would—unless that is you’re a believer in the House of Black yourself…