So, they’re finally here. The Wyatt Family have arrived in the WWE to the excitement of much of the online community. Their darkness and genuine, grown up creepiness has impressed and intrigued many, and, whilst plenty of people have pointed out the numerous horror movie references and influences on the Family (along, of course, with the ever present Charles Manson, the godfather of dark gimmicks, having influenced everyone from Cactus Jack to CM Punk), this isn’t the first time pro-wrestling has taken it’s lead from horror movies.
“You Could Say I’m Here To Save You”
There’s a snobbery to horror films. First of all, it’s important to dismiss everything that’s a remake, or American, and to fetishise everything that no one’s seen and is preferably from Eastern Asia. There’s also a snobbery when it comes to making accurate comparisons. For example, The Wyatt Family aren’t the the Swayer Family, the Ed Gein influenced cannibal hillbillies of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, nor are they Papa Jupiter’s inbred tribe of flesh eating rapists from The Hills Have Eyes. They’re not even the Yankee-hating population of Pleasant Valley from Two-Thousand Maniacs.
The Wyatt Family are a new type of redneck.
They’re not inbred, they’re not cannibals, they’re not overtly racist and they aren’t particularly stupid. Bray Wyatt is book smart, well spoken, quasi-religious and suffers, somehow, from both an overt messiah complex and an introverted lack of self-esteem, constantly assuring us that he’s not a stereotypical stupid redneck. It’s here that the real root of Wyatt’s character is given away, as that’s almost an exact quote from the 1991 remake of Cape Fear, a film that walks the fine line between a horror movie and a thriller in which Max Cady (played by Robert de Niro in the remake, and Robert Mitchum in the 1962 original) haunts the family of the defence attorney that sent him to prison for rape. Whilst Mitchum’s take was simply a slightly icky con-artist, it’s de Niro interpretation that Bray Wyatt truly gets his inspiration from.
De Niro’s Cady is a murdering, violent, obsessive psychotic, unable to understand human emotion, convinced he’s helping his victims by destroying their lives, under the influence of a fringe, personal interpretation of Christianity, which encourages him speak in tongues, cover himself in tattoos, and inject himself with snake venom. In a speech that could easily be on of Wyatt’s pre-debut promos, Cady states, “I’m better than you all! I can out-learn you, I can out-read you, I can out-think you, and I can out-philosophise you, and I’m gonna outlast you.”
Bray interpretation is subtle, respectful, and commendable because Cady’s a relatively minor character in the pantheon of horror deities. That said, this isn’t the first Max Cady gimmick we’ve seen in pro-wrestling; the little remembered Waylon Mercy was an almost exact rip off, even dressing the same, and sporting similar artificial tattoos. Mercy portrayed the stereotype of a traditional Southern gentleman, but with the added twist that we would go totally insane upon entering the ring. It could be argued that Jake “The Snake” Roberts was influenced by Max Cady on his return to the WWF in 1996, when he began portraying the character of a traveling born-again preacher, with his new snake, Revelations, a possible reference to a scene in which Cady describes his family’s belief that snake bites brought them closer to God, and toughened them up.
At the heart of the character, Max Cady is simply a stalker, and pro-wrestling has had it’s fair share of stalkers, from the abortive Nailz, who plotted revenge against his former warden, the Big Boss Man (in the same way Cady stalked his former prosecutor), to Diamond Dallas Page’s embarrassing and ultimately career ending run as a man obsessed with The Undertaker’s wife (another similarity to Cape Fear, in which Cady stalks and harasses the female members of his enemy’s family).
“I’ve Seen Enough Horror Movies To Know That Any Weirdo Wearing A Mask Is Never Friendly”
Of course, Cady isn’t the only creepy weirdo to influence pro-wrestling.
The afore mentioned Sawyer Family from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, specifically the clan’s most famous member, Leatherface, has had a wide influence on the sport, from full on rip-offs like Japan’s Super Leather, to more subtle takes, like Mick Foley’s original Mankind, a self-mutilating, mask wearing sociopath, with a subtlety suggested metal retardation, and a habit of making pig noises when excited. When Foley morphed back into Cactus Jack, the influence of Leatherface stayed with him in the form of his new tag team partner, Terry Funk, then known as Chainsaw Charlie, a chainsaw wielding hillbilly with a translucent sock over his head.
Mankind also took aspects from other popular slasher villains, most obviously A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Kruger, with both characters sharing a habit of hanging out inside boiler rooms. In Wes Craven’s iconic series, Kruger’s boiler room world was a nightmare-scape fantasy land, whilst, in the WWF, Mankind lived in literal boiler rooms, somehow managing to immigrate between the boiler rooms of each arena RAW visited. Foley also took inspiration from surreal rat-revenge tale Ben, and mother-obsessed classic Psycho.
Along with Leatherface and Freddy Kruger, the other crown princes of slasher movies, Michael Myers from Halloween and Jason Voorhees from Friday 13th, have their fair share of influence too.
From little touches, like, Sid Vicious wearing Jason’s vintage hockey mask during his run as the brilliantly named Lord Humungous, to broader interpretations, like the influence of both characters on Kane.
Kane is, along with Mankind and The Undertaker, one of wrestling’s few perfect horror gimmicks, collecting disparate limbs of various franchises, like a pro-wrestling Victor Frankenstein, before piecing them together into something new and not immediately recognisable. Kane took the semi-immortal, mask wearing, family avenging burn victim of Jason Voorhees, but confounded the original by not acting like Jason, but like Michael. Kane took Michael’s head tilt, his slow sit up, his inability to talk, his somewhat uneasy relationship with fire, his ability to spring back to action and no sell his opponent’s after a moment’s rest. Kane was Jason Voorhees trapped inside Michael Myers. One storyline trait that Kane did take from Myers, however, was that both characters were driven to madness, obsession and evil over the urge to destroy their sibling. In Halloween, Myers decent into serial murder begins after he’s escapes a metal asylum, where he’s been locked up for fifteen years after murdering his older sister, whilst Kane (clearly named after Cain, the brother-murdering Bible character) arrived in the WWF with no motive other than to persecute and, occasionally, to literally murder his older brother, The Undertaker.
“They Keep Coming Back”
There’s a fine line between slasher psychos are full on zombies. Both Jason and Michael appear to have some sort of death-defying abilities, and Freddy is, strictly speaking, a ghost, yet none are really viewed as undead.
Whilst 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is arguably the first zombie film, the pioneer of the genre is generally identified as 1932’s White Zombie, which first bought the concept of the zombie, a magically controlled living corpse from West African and Caribbean mythology, to the attention of Western pop-culture. Whilst the zombies of the movies quickly left their Haitian homeland for the streets of London, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, they weren’t so quick to move on in the wrestling world.
Straddling the line between zombie fantasy and voodoo reality was Papa Shango. Shango dressed and generally behaved like the voodoo spirit Baron Samedi, the hedonistic god of the dead, and of the resurrected. Samedi’s powers include the ability to heal the sick and save the dying, and he also fills the role of the traditional angel of death, a figure common to religions around the world, coming from the spirit realm to collect the souls of the living. Another interesting responsibility of Samedi’s is that he is also the god of rotting. To voodoo believers, rotting is an important process, it destroys dead bodies and stops them from being brought back to life as mindless zombies. Many pray to the Baron for a quick-rotting corpse.
The similarities between Samedi and Shango are too many to list, but the most obvious references are Shango’s painted face, a reference to Samedi’s exposed skull, the images of snakes on Shango’s ring gear (a reference not to the Baron Samedi of voodoo, but the character of the same name in the James Bond film Let And Let Die, who “dies” whilst trapped in a coffin full of snakes) and his top hat, an item of clothing common to both characters.
In true pro-wrestling style, the references weren’t perfect. Along with genuine references to voodoo culture, Shango was also full of anachronisms, sporting shrunken heads, which are from South America, not the Caribbean, and casting weird spells on his opponents, forcing them to throw up and bleed black, neither of which have any connection to real voodoo, and a more related to the semi-fictional Western attitude toward voodoo which is emphasises the more unusual aspects like zombies and voodoo dolls.
It’s here that Shango really entered movie-zombie territory, with vague magical powers, like those of the early zombie creating necromancers of Hollywood horror, before AIDS convinced us all that living death comes from a virus, not a magic book. At once, Shango was a voodoo God, a movie-land necromancer, and a Peruvian head shrinker.
An even more abstract take on vague-voodoo-ness came later in the form of the Boogeyman, a worm-eater who could be summoned by anyone saying his name (a gimmick used in plenty of horror films, most famously Candyman). The character of the Boogeyman was stacked full of horror references, not just in his appearance, but even in his promos, with his debut heralded with clear references to the Nightmare on Elm Street films, which also feature a creepy chanted children’s song. Even his name was a possible Nightmare on Elm Street reference, with “the boogeyman” often being a term used to describe antagonists in nightmares, a theory backed up by his strange use of over-sized alarm clocks.
Neither Shango nor Boogeyman were overt zombies though. They were certainly horror movie and voodoo influenced, but neither literally portrayed the living dead. One wrestler who took a literal zombie from the movies and transformed him into a successful gimmick was Sting. After almost a decade of being a colourful, bleached blonde California kid, Sting “died”, leaving WCW for a tour of Japan, away from American eyes. When he returned, he was a completely different Sting, dressed head to toe in black, with black hair and white face paint. Sting’s new look was overtly influenced by the film The Crow, the story of a semi-super-heroic zombified rock star, risen from the dead to avenge his own murder. Whilst The Crow rose to target murderers, Sting rose to target the NWO. The inspiration came from Scott Hall, who himself had experience in making gimmicks out of movies after he based his Razor Ramon character on Tony Montana from Scarface.
“Children Of The Night”
Of course, there’s one other famous undead gimmick; The Undertaker. A possibly immortal, magic powered cowboy-era mortician, ‘Taker has no one obvious inspiration but, like all the best horror gimmicks, takes various parts of different films, and welds them together into something truly undying.
The original Undertaker was mostly a sort of Frankenstein’s Monster; slow, lumbering, silent and death-white, he even came with his own mad scientist creator in the shape of Paul Bearer (who himself seemed to have taken inspiration from the likes of Vincent Prince and Peter Cushing with his camp, histrionic, and always fun performances). In later years, he transformed into various types of vampire, from the Dracula-influenced arch-Gothic Minister of Darkness, to the Lost Boys feel of the American Bad-Ass. Attitude Era ‘Taker also took on some traditionally vampiric powers, such as Count Dracula’s ability to teleport, but still kept some of the Frankenstein trademarks, such as his stiff sit up, and, in a famous storyline involving Stephanie McMahon, his sinister, psychopathic quest for love.
It’s perhaps a nice (though probably over-thought) coincidence that The Undertaker was such a hybrid of classic horror films, where as his younger, more destructive, less controllable brother Kane was a hybrid of slasher films from the last quarter of the 20th century, come to destroy the his old patriarchal figure by raising the bar in terms of scares and violence.
Undertaker isn’t wrestling’s only classic monster movie fan. The short lived Kevin Thorn was a much more overt vampire (though not connected to any specific film), whilst The Brood, who introduced us to Edge and Christian, mixed the 80s-cool gang mentality of The Lost Boys with the fashion and sexuality of Interview With A Vampire.