Not Just Another Bad Guy: Bray Wyatt and WWE's Occult Heel
Bray Wyatt left Sunday's Elimination Chamber pay-per-view as the WWE champion. He's also the latest specimen of a classic breed in pro wrestling: the occult heel.
Photo by Megan Elice Meadows/CC BY-SA 2.0
As expected, Bray Wyatt left Sunday's Elimination Chamber pay-per-view as the WWE champion, setting up a WrestleMania match with Royal Rumble winner and fellow Wyatt Family member Randy Orton—the culmination of months of buildup.
Wyatt, of course, has spent his years since being called up from NXT as one of WWE's almost-men, a fast-talking weirdo with bags of potential to be the promotion's next big heel, if only someone would pull the trigger. His short career has already run the gamut from exciting newcomer to midcard water-treader to overrated to, now, world champion. If the rumors hold, he's due for a decent run with the belt, too.
But Wyatt is not just another bad guy. He's the latest specimen of a rare breed: the occult heel. These villains represent the full embrace of pro wrestling's carnie tradition, men and women (but mostly men) portraying devil worshipers, living corpses, and magicians. Rarely solitary, they establish covens of fellow misfits and when they show up—in packs, like the characters in a World of Darkness game—the lights go out or lightning strikes the ring. They necessitate a suspension of disbelief that can only exist in pro wrestling, because we've already suspended so much in the moment anyway. What's a stray casket match between friends?
The most famous occult heel is the Undertaker, who needs no introduction. Before his run as the Bikertaker took the supernatural sheen off his career, the Undertaker was overtly weird. He did it all: he debuted as a living, invincible corpse and eventually did the cult leader thing, a gimmick that had him crucifying other wrestlers and forcibly marrying Stephanie McMahon in a quasi-Satanic ritual.
There were a ton of wrestlers working similar angles in Undertaker's orbit. Kane was presented as his brother, who was burned in a house fire that Undertaker had set to kill his parents. Kane went on to have a solid and lengthy career all his own after Undertaker began to wind down his schedule; he's now a part-timer and has spent most of this decade as Corporate Kane (yes, that's his official name), wearing a shirt and tie as befits his libertarian streak.
Two other Gen X stalwarts, Edge and Christian, got their start as occult heels, as well. They debuted alongside Gangrel, a vampire wrestler named after a Vampire: the Masquerade character type, proving the aforementioned World of Darkness link wasn't just for rhetorical purposes—as the Brood, a gang of young weirdos who lived "a gothic lifestyle." Unfortunately, the coolness of the gimmick couldn't outstrip the terrible promo skills of the trio, which resulted in one of the most hysterically awful interviews in pro wrestling history (Edge, who eventually went on to a Hall of Fame career, attributed their eventual breakup to it).
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Perhaps the greatest occult gimmick of pro wrestling's modern era is also one of the oldest. Kevin Sullivan was a squat, powerfully built wrestler working a traditional style down in Florida during the 70s and 80s. At some point, he started to pair some cool-sounding phrases he picked up while traveling in India and Malaysia with a heavy-metal look.
Since Sullivan worked in the Deep South, it didn't take much for "amateur Hindu mysticism" to become "devil worship." He ran with it, hard, the occult angle he stumbled upon snowballing as he went from town to town, scaring more and more people. According to Sullivan, Dusty Rhodes urged him to go even harder and what had started as something a little off the wall became an entire career that viewers took very seriously.
That's not an exaggeration. Growing up in the South in the 1980s, Sullivan was discussed as though he were a hardcore, open, very real Satanist. He (mostly) didn't go supernatural, as the Undertaker tended to do; instead, Sullivan kept to the mundane but much scarier character of a cult leader. And he was good at it in his early years, with his speaking extemporaneously about the power of evil while surrounded by moaning wrestlers. It was gibberish, much as Bray Wyatt's promos are mostly gibberish, but it was forceful, confident gibberish, which is much more important than intelligibility.
Sullivan could never shed the gimmick, despite an aborted attempt at working a straighter style in the late 80s as the leader of the Varsity Club, a group of legit amateur wrestlers gone rogue. By 1994, he'd returned to the ways of the kayfabe occult as the mastermind behind the Dungeon of Doom, one of the most inexplicably prominent bad angles of the 1990s. Sullivan lived in a cave with the Master and slowly recruited ex-WWF stars to the Dungeon, giving them new gimmicks straight out of Z-grade comic books. This was all a buffer for Hulkamania, which transformed into a mystical power all its own once it was defined in opposition to the magical forces of darkness that the Dungeon of Doom represented.
If you're thinking that Hulk Hogan becoming a demigod of purity and good through his feud with the Dungeon of Doom is the kind of thing Hulk Hogan was really into, you're right. The Dungeon was always expanding and it lingered into the late 90s, well after its sell-by date. Sullivan was the head booker at WCW for a while and eventually showed up on The Legend of Mick Dodge, where he was apparently a treasure hunter in Oregon.
Lots of wrestlers, lots of permutations on the theme. Papa Shango, Mil Muertes, perhaps Crow Sting from 1997, and dozens more; there are nearly too many to list. Connecting them all, however, is a simple idea: that evil is real and it is violent. It lives under your bed and sometimes shows up on your television screen or in a ring at your local armory, but it is always close. Pro wrestling never wants you to forget that. Bray Wyatt is simply the most recent reminder.
Wyatt's the man, at least for now, and he's going to rise and fall on the strength of his feud with Orton in the coming months. Taking down Orton will mark a passing of the torch, another pro-wrestling tradition with a long pedigree—old guys making young guys seem like worthy contenders through the act of doing the job in high-profile matches. Orton is an opponent who can make Bray Wyatt scary again.
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