On August 24th 2023, Windham Lawrence Rotunda – best known as his wrestling alter-ego Bray Wyatt – passed away at the age of 36. A master of re-invention, his horror-infused ring persona struck a chord with fans around the world, calling out the euphemised nightmares of modern life for what they were, while offering a way to address the darkness in the world around us. To that end, I think it’s worth remembering two of his performances in particular.
Rotunda went by many names over his early career as a wrestler. The monikers Axl Mulligan and Duke Rotundo hinted at the past achievements of his grandfather and father in the same business. As he sought to get ahead in WWE, meanwhile, taking the title Husky Harris saw him adhere to one of the promotion’s most enduring albatrosses; that someone’s abilities and weaknesses are entirely defined by their physical traits – a compromise Rotunda would later admit to disliking.
After those approaches struggled to gain traction with fans, however, Rotunda realised he needed to step out from under the shadow of his family, and the stale expectations of WWE owner Vince MacMahon and his ‘creative’ department. He did this by delving deep into the world of horror, to deliver a character the likes of which had never been seen in the mainstream promotion.
A backwoods cult leader, decked out in Hawaiian shirt and a straw fedora, the new persona of Bray Wyatt initially borrowed heavily from Max Cady, Robert De Niro’s character in Cape Fear. I think it’s a bit of a limitation to understand Wyatt as just that, though. As captivating as De Niro’s turn as Cady was, it was confined to a two-hour class-sploitation thriller – which seems to derive as much ‘fear’ from a member of the lumpen proletariat gaining literacy as it does from the crimes he commits.
As weeks turned to months, and eventually a whole decade, however, Wyatt’s character flourished into something much more interesting. Perhaps informed by the bruising encounters of his early career, or management’s apparent distrust in performers whose appearance didn’t fit the company’s merchandising aesthetic, Wyatt developed into a deliverer of scathing, satirical judgement. In an environment where he was no doubt aware if you weren’t built like Hulk Hogan or John Cena, you wouldn’t be a ‘top guy’, he spent his promos deconstructing exactly what the ‘top guy’ within American capitalism really embodies.
Wyatt’s WrestleMania bout with The Undertaker – a decorated company man, who Jimmy Rudiger has extensively panned on Tube Rats for his role as WWE management’s enforcer – embodied this contrast. As I wrote for the Norwich Radical, in 2015:
The Undertaker’s character is an undead myth that literally refuses to be laid to rest. He is the embodiment of every idealistic capitalist’s fantasy self-image; the rugged individual. ‘Taker’, whose gimmick is literally being undead, is an anti-hero who, whilst motivated first and foremost by his own desires, does unintentional ‘good’ unto others by serving his own needs… [But] the self-made man is a myth that comes with a dark contradiction at its heart. The truth is there is not as many as one ‘self-made’ maverick millionaire in the world. There is but one route to the top of capitalist society — and it is climbing a ladder built from the bent and broken spines of other human beings.
Throughout his speeches to promote the battle, Wyatt evidently had great fun flagging up the “empty, and shallow, and hollow” ideology that underlined the Undertaker persona, and which we were supposed to see as an increasingly old and limited – not to mention infamously reactionary – performer revered as some irresistible force of nature. To that end, I added:
Wyatt is a figure who not only embodies the insanity of his own surroundings — but perceives that insanity — the horror within a world of contradictions. Where austerity-mad politicians make ‘hard decisions’ to line their pockets; where we make war in the name of preserving peace; where the state monitors people’s internet use in the name of ‘freedom’… Rotunda has created a monster to shake us from our slumber, and make us aware of the horror around us; inside us and our heroes.
But while there were positives to having lots of exposure for this character, there were downsides too. Most obviously, in a line of work where one person usually has to take the fall and appear weaker than their opponent, Wyatt’s reputation as his own horrific force of judgement suffered. In the wake of losing to Undertaker, Wyatt would go on to win both the WWE Championship and Raw Tag Team Championship, but like most wrestlers he still lost just as regularly as he triumphed.
Rather than periodically appearing to dominate, before slipping into the shadows, this meant he came across as a mid-tier figure, with a greatly diminished level of threat. That kind of over-exposure can be the death of any horrific persona – see Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers (and frankly Mike Myers). As brilliant as his further reinvention with The Fiend – sporting a mask made by legendary effects artist Tom Savini to bring out an extra ghoulish level of menace for his fights – was, it also suffered a similar fate.
Perhaps Rotunda’s creation was a little undermined by a lack of scarcity that he might have enjoyed, had he just been a character in a film. There was often speculation of a Bray Wyatt horror film being just around the corner – and a preaching Bray acting as the harbinger of a Fiend always lurking in the shadowy periphery might have been the way to get the absolute best out of both incarnations – limiting their visibility, and increasing their threat exponentially.
With his tragic passing at the end of August, it seems such a project will never manifest. But perhaps that potential also explains why one of Wyatt’s fights also ended up being the stand-out bout at 2020’s WrestleMania. Filmed behind closed doors, due to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, Wyatt and the Fiend were freed up to move beyond the realms of physical, real-time possibility, in a bizarre battle with John Cena.
I revisited the fight after Wyatt’s death – reportedly a heart attack which may have been brought on by the strains of coronavirus complications – prompted by Tube Rats co-host Jason Overman (who I have said for years might have been separated from Wyatt at birth). And while like so much of his achievements in WWE, it seems like it works in spite of the company’s apparatus rather than thanks to it, the match manages to deliver a glimpse of what might have been – in the ring, or on screen.
Paired against another storied company guy, Wyatt invites John Cena into the Firefly Funhouse – a spoof children’s show, populated by a crew of nightmarish puppets. Through a series of initially humorous vignettes, he sets about a gleeful dissection of Cena’s career, and what his success has come to embody. Heckled on by a conspicuously horned puppet of Vince McMahon, one sequence sees Cena desperately pumping iron while aping the 1980s promos of Hulk Hogan (a genuinely terrible human being, happy to tread on whoever to succeed); while another sees Cena decked on in the clothes of his early career as a ‘rapper’, casually throwing fat-shaming jokes at Wyatt, and lecturing him on “blowing every chance”.
It’s this moment that the tone of the whole confrontation changes. Turning on a dime, Wyatt shifts from his bouncing, energetic kids’ host schtick, to confront the character before him. I’m not sure of what John Cena is like as a person in reality – it seems he is at least a long way from being a Mark Calaway or a Terry Bollea – but the archetypal figure he represents here is what matters more.
In a riposte which seems to be aimed as much at management as their man in the ring, Wyatt states, “You’re the golden goose, John. Your chances are unlimited, you’re untouchable. But you’re not a hero, John. You’re a bully. You’re a horrible person. You take the weaknesses of others and you turn them into jokes. You do anything for fame. Congratulations, you’re The Man now.”
In a company which often makes its leading figures ‘stand up to bullies’ in the ring, WWE is a historic haven for bullies – people who torment others for their own profit. But who is defined as the ‘bully’ in the fabricated world of kayfabe often rests entirely on physical characteristics, or accident of birth. WWE’s ownership is going to cast you as the villain if you can’t keep your weight down, or you have a foreign accent, or your skin isn’t white. And to be ‘top guy’, who maximises merchandise sales in middle America, you need to have the right figure, skin-tone and accent, while at the very least keeping your head down in complicity with that culture – if not to be actively involved in enforcing it like Calaway and Bollea. So, the number one stars of the company, however many Make a Wish trips they make, or anti-bullying speeches they give, are figures which try to normalise a toxic and inhuman mode of production.
Following this introspection, the violence escalates – and finally, results in the emergence of The Fiend, who has been held back until the climax. Revealed in an unnerving shot over Cena’s shoulder, he precedes to end the match. While the choices of shots, slow-paced editing and organic sound design leave a little to be desired (hamstrung by a clear desire by production to still present this as a ‘normal’ match), it’s still a suitably unpleasant finale – in part because The Fiend’s version of the Mandible Claw seems to see him jam most of his arm down Cena’s throat.
In many ways the fight summed up why Wyatt rubbed some people up the wrong way. In the case of the Vince McMahons of this world – who allegedly hounded him about his weight and appearance – Wyatt was speaking directly to their parasitic tendencies, and they didn’t like it one bit. For wrestling purists, meanwhile, Wyatt didn’t make any sense in a form of artistic combat which they want to seem as real as possible. But for the many more Fireflies who lit up arenas with their phones during his darkened entry, Wyatt touched on their reality in just as meaningful a sense.
He was my personal favourite wrestler because of this; he was an artist whose performances called out the empty respectability politics of social, economic and political elites, who demonise anyone that speaks against it. And by embracing elements of independent horror in his persona, he let us all know that if refusing to bow to this harmful, hateful status-quo makes us monsters, we should wear that like a badge of honour.