From the Grotesque to the Sublime, WWE’s Gothic Superstars – Part 1 and Series Intro
To call something “Gothic” invokes questions of eligibility. People balk at holding the same umbrella over your formulaic Hollywood-generated slasher flicks as the works of Edgar Allen Poe. When we think of our classic Gothic, we envision monolithic castles of grey stone, hard and unyielding; we envision an unseen specter, haunting you of ancient travesties; and we envision, so deceptively simple, the unfathomable dark. As I see things, however, what experiential effects that conjure the Gothic experience permeate more than the tropes and motifs of American Gothic or its forerunners in Europe. Of course, I never would put many of those slasher flicks on the same mantle as Poe’s bust. However, there are works that are unjustly precluded from the Gothic by judgment of their stigmatized medium alone.
Professional wrestling, or rather the performers therein, are such works. Granted, many of the characters listed below may only invoke or allude to the Gothic in shallower ways, may only nod toward tropes, creating in their audiences just the basest parts of that Gothic experience. However, I believe there are those rare blackened gems who exemplify some of the most fundamental qualities of the Gothic experience. These are Superstars who invoke genuine emotions in their audience akin to the same feelings of your 19th-century reader timidly thumbing through the pages of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In this series, I set out to critique those characters that fall short of true Gothic experience. Also, I will accentuate and hail those few exemplars of Gothic traits, those pioneers who spearheaded a new application of Gothic, an application in professional wrestling.
The Boogeyman – a living, breathing, worm-eating Gothic trope.
Most people probably couldn’t remember their first reaction to The Boogeyman, although I imagine it was some form of, “Eww.” His most infamous shtick involved filling his mouth with worms and then spewing them into people’s mouths and faces after he’d rendered them unconscious. As a gag, it was certainly effective and helped make him stand out. It was this near-cartoonish act that invoked Gothic characteristics that most fans probably didn’t stop to notice between fits of gagging.
Abjection. In the study of Gothic literature, it’s considered the process by which we convert the gross materiality of the human body into taboo. The Boogeyman certainly has no shortage of abjection. Spitting worms into another person’s mouth? How much grosser can you get? However, I’m uncertain this act alone would seem like much more than playground bullying were it not for another couple important characteristics.
With strange, decorative face paint and a bizarre, feathered shawl, The Boogeyman looked absolutely grotesque. When we think of the grotesque, we think of distortion, whether aesthetically or intellectually. The grotesque has also classically dealt with the fantastic, something drawn from imagination, even mythological creatures. Considering the character’s obvious routes, it’s no surprise he’s able to conjure up a fantastical, surreal quality. Couple that with his apparel and mannerisms, always askew with hegemony, and you get a character pulled straight out of a nightmare, something parents tell their children about before bed to keep them from misbehaving.
And that leads me to another subject: The Boogeyman’s terrorization of youth. Early into his debut especially, The Boogeyman was known for chanting snippets of children’s nursery rhymes. As anyone who’s been a kid knows, children are especially susceptible to fright. Without a working knowledge of the world to compare relative abnormalities to as they encounter them, what might seem like an everyday object to an adult morphs into something bizarre and frightening for a youth. The Boogeyman reciting nursery rhymes – a tonal source of comfort and familiarity for children, wherein they can nuzzle up to the familiarity of the piece’s rhythm and rhyme – invades a place where a child might otherwise feel at ease. Even adults might, in recalling their youthful memories, be unsettled by hearing their childhood rhymes tainted.
The Boogeyman struck a lot of different chords in the Gothic, but what really tied it all together was how it took place. When he spat worms into a person’s mouth, he had often concussed him with his finisher, thus rendering him unable to protect himself from The Boogeyman’s attack. In this way, The Boogeyman undermined a person’s agency, left them bereft of their own devices to prevent themselves from being molested by his deviance.
If I could levy a criticism against The Boogeyman, it’d be that although he nodded to a lot of Gothic devices (and most obviously the trope of The Boogeyman itself), he reduced the act to nothing but a raunchy shtick. Some of the aforementioned qualities of his characters, especially the unsettling of an opponent’s agency, could’ve been something explored in more depth. David Cronenberg’s The Fly, a film inspired by a short story of the same name, ties together the concepts of the abject, the grotesque, the uncanny and agency to spin a tale of a man who, when invaded by a foreign agency (the fly DNA), has his identity slowly deteriorated as he breaks further and further (in body and mind) from societal normality. The Boogeyman could have been that outside agency, someone that reduced opponents to traumatized messes askew with hegemony. Instead, we got “gross-out” gags that were never explored as anything more than such.
Nevertheless, The Boogeyman was an elaborate example of the Gothic in professional. A successful agent of terror? Maybe not. But he was just one in a long line of characters who explored the qualities of the Gothic in professional wrestling, adapted to our medium and the unique narrative challenges it entails. The Boogeyman might not have been an exemplar of Wrestling Gothic, but in the coming weeks we’ll examine some who speak to the potential of the Gothic in pro wrestling.
Nicholas LeVack is a junior English creative writing major and media studies minor whose interests include writing, wrestling, video games and occasional outdoorsy things. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.