The Hammerlock of the Gods – Pro Wrestling and Horror – Carnivals and the counter culture
- The Hammerlock of the Gods – Pro Wrestling and Horror – Introduction
- The Hammerlock of the Gods – Pro Wrestling and Horror – Carnivals and the counter culture
- The Hammerlock of the Gods – Pro Wrestling and Horror – Good versus evil
- The Hammerlock of the Gods – Pro Wrestling and Horror – Hardcore wrestling and the slasher film
- The Hammerlock of the Gods – Pro Wrestling and Horror – Monstrous bodies and body horror
- The Hammerlock of the Gods – Pro Wrestling and Horror – The unkillable monster
- The Hammerlock of the Gods – Pro Wrestling and Horror – A Word On The Devil
- The Hammerlock of the Gods – Pro Wrestling and Horror – The Covid era and cinematic wrestling
- The Hammerlock of the Gods – Pro Wrestling and Horror – Conclusion
Carnivals and the counter culture
Professional wrestling had its genesis as a travelling carnival attraction around the turn of the twentieth century. Visitors to the carnival would pay a small fee to watch two grapplers go at it as part of a larger show. These earliest pro wrestling matches were not scripted, they were genuine athletic contests where two men would try to outwrestle and out-manoeuvre one another until they had put the opponent in a hold from which they could not escape, and thus would have to submit.
The only problem with this, as the protagonists soon discovered, was that they tended to pick up a lot of injuries, which in effect were costing them money on account of not being able to perform. It was not long before one wrestler hit upon a brilliant solution. They should stage or fix the bouts, so they protagonists worked together in sync and nobody got hurt. Ergo, nobody missed a payday. Thus, the pseudo-sport of pro-wrestling was born.
It is fitting that wrestling began as a carnival spectacle, for the very ethos of what it evolved into; the grotesque bodies, the constant rule breaking, the bizarre spectacle of the strutting self-aggrandising performers (perhaps only matched in the world of politics), is seen as something juxtaposed to everyday reality. Much like the carnival world is an introversion of workaday life. The clowning, buffoonery, and use of props in both fields can be likened to the Commedia Del Arte. Wrestling is an inversion of everyday life. Its purpose is to entertain via this inversion, and this can come in the form of invoking anger, rage, helplessness, desire, laughter, or all of these responses. The carnival is similar, though its intention is to cause laughter, an aura of disquiet always lingers just below the surface. Hence the number of horror stories set around carnivals, and the abject fear evoked in many people by clowns.
The carnival is also representative of lowbrow culture. It shares this perception with pro wrestling, which is always looked down upon by polite society. Not a real sport, rather a parody, a low form of mocking comedy. Beset by bad taste and offensive behaviour, and raw language, where wrestlers threaten to murder and dismember their opponents.
When wrestling reaches into the shadows and recesses for presentation, its purpose is to terrorise within the narrative context of a single bout or a longer running storyline. The type of evil characters presented in wrestling can also be found in horror cinema and literature. Killer clowns abound in the latter, and there have been numerous carnies in the theatre of wrestling. The original Doink the Clown, for example, as portrayed by Matt Bourne, was a sinister prank playing entity who sought to make the audience and fellow wrestlers feel uneasy by playing cruel tricks on them. Sadly, when Bourne was fired for unrelated reasons, other wrestlers who portrayed the character were not as compelling, and Doink was turned into a harmless comedy character and fan favourite. Before his career petered out, the original Doink had his genesis in Stephen King’s Pennywise, and in real life, serial killer John Wayne Gacy in his Pogo the Clown guise.
The world of carnivals also gifted wrestling its own original language. No longer in use, the term kayfabe was coined within the industry to protect its secrets back in the days when wrestling was presented as a legitimate sport, rather than a worked event. Old school wrestlers took kayfabe very seriously, and anyone who dared to break ranks and publicly admitted that it was a work would be ostracised from the ranks. Wrestlers were very protective of their craft, like magicians are of their tricks. In wrestling it is said that kayfabe was often achieved by wrestlers adding prefixes to words when discussing their matches in mixed company within earshot of outsiders. In particular the prefix “kiz”. This would make their words indecipherable to the untrained ear. In the social media age, when the secret that wrestling was fixed became open knowledge, the WWE even briefly experimented with a carny character based on kayfabe, who went by the name of Kizarny and spoke in the carny dialect. This did not translate well to a modern audience.
The carnival usurps the societal rules we rely upon to make sense of our world. In carnival, just as in wrestling, authority figures are mocked. The rules are broken and ignored. Managers involve themselves in matches, wrestlers who are not booked in matches insert themselves in the action, the space of the ring itself often fails to contain the wrestlers, who spill out onto the arena floor and into the scattering crowd itself. The referees are ignored and sometimes attacked by the wrestlers with no repercussions. The referees allow themselves to be easily distracted by the heel’s offsider, while the heel is obviously breaking the rules behind his back.
The carnival espouses inversion and a parody of everyday life, an escape from the drudge of reality. It both amuses and terrifies in equal measure. The jangly music, the smell of popcorn, the creepy clowns, the cultural memories of circus freaks. Its main inversion is that it offers disruption, the breaking of the rules that bind society. In wrestling, the rules are continually broken or ignored by the bad guys, the heels, the evil characters. In horror these same rules are continually broken by the monsters, the twisted killers who transgress morality and decency by wreaking havoc on the bodies of their innocent victims. Wrestling is unfair. The bad guys often cheat and win.
Horror is similarly skewed. In the horror world normal behaviour is turned upside down. The regular lives of protagonists are disturbed by the horrific events which befall them. This can take the form of supernatural or demonic forces within their home, or the stalking, slashing and murder of their friends and loved ones. The monsters stalk and slaughter the innocent victims, dispatching them cruelly and undeservedly. In both fields, the monster quite often becomes an anti-hero. Wrestling fans came to adore the Undertaker, a supernatural figure who transgressed the laws of mortality and continually returned from the dead. In horror we cheer on Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and other unkillable fiends because we obtain cathartic pleasure through their actions. Like wrestlers, horror villains exist only to go through their expected motions to drive the narrative and bring it to its conclusion.
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Anthony Ferguson is an author and editor living in Perth, Australia. He has published over seventy short stories and non-fiction articles in Australia, Britain and the United States. He wrote the novel Protégé, the non-fiction books, The Sex Doll: A History, and Murder Down Under, edited the short-story collection Devil Dolls and Duplicates in Australian Horror and coedited the award-nominated Midnight Echo #12. He is a committee member of the Australasian Horror Writers Association (AHWA), and a submissions editor for Andromeda Spaceways Magazine (ASM). He won the Australian Shadows Award for Short Fiction in 2020.