Halfway through Sunday's Payback pay-per-view, WWE cut away from the wrestling for 15 minutes to air a bad horror movie.
To be fair, the short film was billed as a match—the very first House of Horrors match, to be precise, cooked up in the dark imagination of Bray Wyatt in order to get revenge on his languid arch-rival, current World Champion Randy Orton. In it, Orton showed up at an old house filled with not all that creepy dolls, hastily assembled altars, and flickering lights. All of it was meant to unnerve the viewer; the actual effect was to simulate a cut-rate goth club from 1997 and make both men look incredibly stupid.
Orton blundered into the house screaming Bray's name, only to be ambushed more than once in a brawl where both men gingerly avoided actually hitting each other with household implements until Wyatt turned an empty refrigerator onto Orton. That ended the "match," at least until Wyatt entered the live arena; in a bit of Roger Corman–esque carelessness on the part of WWE producer/delusional auteur Kevin Dunn, he left the house at prerecorded night and entered the arena in live California sunshine, whereupon he was immediately waylaid by a teleporting Orton.
It was aggressively stupid and the arena crowd shat all over it. The House of Horrors match wasn't just bad in the sense that it didn't achieve what it set out to do, though. It was bad because it fundamentally wasn't pro wrestling.
The reason, to be clear, isn't the out-of-arena video production—elaborate vignettes and short films themselves aren't antithetical to pro wrestling. Going back decades, wrestling has toyed with what could be done outside the arena while still keeping it plausibly in the realm of pro wrestling. To do that successfully, however, there needs to be an element of the real—the cinematic equivalent of playing up reality to preserve kayfabe. It's what keeps pro wrestling "pro wrestling" rather than just television.
WWE has been a master at this style of out-of-arena filmmaking before. In one of the more infamous examples, Stone Cold Steve Austin launched a profanity-laced home invasion of Brian Pillman's home. The vignette started as an interview, with both Kevin Kelly and Vince McMahon chatting with Pillman, who was housebound due to a kayfabe broken ankle. Austin busted in after beating people up on the way through the door, only to confront a raving Pillman brandishing a gun.
It was very silly (and more than a little controversial at the time), but crucially the events on-screen upheld the illusion that what was going on was real. It was an interview, it acknowledged the presence of the camera crew, and we heard familiar voices. The camera even cut out at the climax of the scene, letting the violence slip into the realm of the implied while offering up a plausible explanation—technical problems—for why we didn't see what was happening.
Wrestling understood the importance of this lifeline to the real even in the 1980s. Early in their history, the Four Horsemen decided to get revenge on Dusty Rhodes for hurting Tully Blanchard. It was the early days of home video, and the spread of the technology allowed a perfect justification for why their attack on Rhodes in a parking lot was available to viewers: they took a recorder with them and recorded a video to intimidate anyone who might cross them.
In this case, there's no camera crew to acknowledge because the "crew" is just one unnamed accomplice, but the sense of a kayfabe reality is still there. We have grainy footage, improvised lines, and a realness to the violence; Dusty Rhodes sells the attack and his "broken" wrist like he's dying on screen. Because we have all of that on our wrestling television every week, it doesn't feel out of place with the rest of the show. It isn't slick.
But even slickness has its place. The introductory vignette, shown as a means of hyping up a wrestler, is one of the most timeworn pro-wrestling tropes. They all follow the same basic structure: a wrestler is shown outside the confines of the week-to-week wrestling world, in situations that exaggerate his or her character; there's a fair amount of post-production in terms of video and audio editing, and the quick footage is shown on the big screens in the arenas and on television.
The House of Horrors match came closest to mirroring those vignettes, at least formally. The real cardinal sin of the Wyatt-Orton fiasco is in betraying the ways we think of wrestling as fundamentally live entertainment. A vignette can have music and camera tricks because they're never presented as live; they're snippets that acknowledge they're cooked up in a video lab backstage. We know Curt Hennig isn't catching a football thrown to himself, just as we know his theme music is added in after recording for effect.
House of Horrors, on the other hand, was presented as being live, just like any other match. You cannot have live entertainment with non-diegetic sound, but the second Orton arrived at the house, a spooky soundtrack kicked in. From where? We don't know. It's live, supposedly, because it's a match, but it's also clearly not. The disconnect can't be bridged and we don't know how to treat this. As a wrestling match? It's not that. As a TV show? Closer, but it's a bad one, if so.
The frustrating thing is that WWE now has two examples of how to pull off the least realistic stuff in appropriate ways. They just hired the Hardys, whose Final Deletion event broke every rule for recorded material in pro wrestling, but the Hardys approached it with a wink and a nod and made it the best thing last year. It was self-aware and archly ironic—everything the House of Horrors match wasn't and could never be due to the personalities producing it.
The other is Braun Strowman. He's been built up as a monster on some outright fake feats of strength, culminating in him flipping over an ambulance with Roman Reigns in it. In the very same pay-per-view that had the execrable House of Horrors match, Strowman beat Reigns and left the WWE's golden boy spitting up fake blood. Is a man singlehandedly flipping over an ambulance less believable than two guys fighting in an abandoned house? Once you add music and fake baby laughter to the latter, the answer becomes no, and that's why House of Horrors sucked.
Perhaps the most damning appraisal came from Tyler, a kid in the audience who looked to be about six. He didn't get it. And what did he need in the match to get it?
"Pins, submissions, and count-outs," he replied, with a scarily adult level of exasperation in his voice.
That's really it. Even a little kid can get the formal arguments for what does and doesn't make sense in pro wrestling. And if you've lost the six-year-olds, you're in big trouble.
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