Professional wrestling fuses actual athletics with scripted theatrics in a way that's unlike any other sport in the world. While nowadays its over-the-top sagas and carefully crafted redemption stories make it seem more like live theater than anything else, there was once a time when the audience—and even some wrestlers—couldn’t separate the in-the-ring theatrics from real life. The new VICELAND series Dark Side of the Ring investigates stories from the sport's heyday in the 70s and 80s, when what was going on offscreen was frequently much more violent and deadly than what the cameras captured.
Wrestlers at the time were rewarded for making their characters seem as authentic as possible, which led to real-life consequences for many. The series looks at characters for whom this rang true, like the humungous Bruiser Brody, known for charging into the audience and hitting people with a giant chain—and the tricky aftermath of trying to get justice for him after he was murdered in a mysterious locker-room stabbing. It also delves into stories of abusive real-life partnerships between famous co-ed tag teams like Macho Man and Miss Elizabeth, who had a parallel abusive relationship plot line in the ring. More than an inside peek into dark rumors of the wrestling world, though, the series is a study in human nature and the spiral effect of pseudo-reality entertainment.
I caught up with director Jason Eisener to hear more about how the era's chaos got so extreme in the first place, and what that chaos says about the nature of entertainment.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
VICE: Why did you feel compelled to start telling these stories?
Eisener: Wrestling is unlike any other art form or sport. The time period we’re really interested in is when the audience thought wrestling was real. Every wrestler had to live their character's persona in their everyday public life; if they were playing a larger-than-life character, they’d have to act like that out in public, or if they saw their rival in public they’d have to act as if they were at odds with each other.
Bruiser Brody, for example, did such a good job at protecting his character that no one knew the real person. But that actually ended up working against him after his murder; his killer was taken to court, but the jury couldn’t separate Brody's actual persona from his evil character. Since you could watch Brody in the ring swinging a chain and running up into the audience, parting seas of fans and scaring people, people back then thought that’s who he really was. They didn’t know that underneath that character, he was a super-brilliant, loving father and husband. He would play the character, but no one knew he was also part of the camera crew, editing footage and calling some of the camera shots as well. So that’s one of the big reasons we really fell in love with his story.
What do you think allowed all of this drama to boil over behind the scenes at the time?
The sport went to great lengths to protect the mystique. One of the stories that got us really interested in doing this series was hearing about people like Rowdy Piper in the 80s. He’s considered to be maybe the greatest wrestling villain of all time; people hated him so much he used to have to wait for everyone else to leave the arena before he went to his car so they didn’t throw rocks and bricks through his window. But one night he ended up saving a woman from being attacked by three guys in the parking lot, getting stabbed in the process. They had to hide it from the press; if people heard he was a hero, that would go against his character in the ring where he’s supposed to be a villain that everyone hates. I think it’s so fascinating.
Do you think fans knew that what they were watching had off-stage consequences?
One of the things that made me want to tackle this was hearing how much people really believed it. There are stories from back in the 70s of Bobby the Brain Heenan, a villain character, who people hated so much that they used to pull out guns and shoot toward him. There are stories of people being shot in the neck just because they were next to the ring. Back before wrestlers had a separate entrance to use, they'd have to walk amongst the crowd and you’d hear these stories of wrestlers just fighting for their lives to get back to the locker room. And then they'd get back there and look down and see knives sticking out of them from people who had stabbed them. So yeah, people really believed it.
Why would anyone want to keep subjecting themselves to such a dangerous environment?
That’s a good question. Some people didn’t really have a choice. They may not have had another option. It was an ok livelihood and they may not have had other options. When you read the stories of Rowdy Roddy Piper, he got in the business when he was fourteen or fifteen and it was like running away to the circus in a lot of ways. Some probably ended up loving it. I imagine there’s an addictive feeling, even if you’re playing a villain and you get the crowd so mad at you they want to kill you, there’s gotta be a thrill behind that.
Are there still remnants of that culture today of wrestlers acting like their characters or experiencing repercussions because of their characters in real life?
I think there’s a little bit of it. That’s one of those reasons I really like Ronda Rousey, because there’s this blend of who she was in the MMA world and her transition into the wrestling world. It seems like they’ve done a good job of blending her personal life with her character and the blurred lines there are pretty fascinating. It’s not quite the same as it used to be, but there are still moments where people wonder whether it was real or scripted.
People may not be fighting each other off-camera because of their characters anymore. But since wrestling still relies on creating entertainment out of these plot lines, can’t that still inspire negative real world attitudes?
Well, looking at the Macho Man and Miss Elizabeth relationship, when his character was mistreating her in the 80s, the fans wanted to speak up for her and wanted her to leave him. Wrestling can do some powerful things reflecting the culture. That could empower other people to see "oh, this relationship isn't good," and there are probably other people in relationships like that. So when they see the characters going through those sort of scenarios, seeing people want to defend them and get them away and make them stronger, I think that’s good for people to see. And that always happens in wrestling—they figure out a way to reflect what’s happening in culture and you can always learn something from it.
What’s the reaction been like from wrestling fans?
My favorite reactions have been from die-hard wrestling fans who showed it to their friends or family who don’t understand why they’re into wrestling, that it really opened their eyes to this art form. And to me, that's like a gift to other wrestling fans like us who feel like they can show it to their friends and family and help them understand why we like pro wrestling and get a perspective on it they might not have had. So that means the most to me.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.