Horror in wrestling has a long tradition. Big deal. Do you know what else has a long tradition in professional wrestling? Everything else. Name a facet of pop culture and it’s been represented by an avatar: the Honky Tonk Man channeled Elvis, WCW’s Glacier was an “homage to Sub Zero” and not a total ripoff of a Mortal Kombat IP, not to mention a wrestling version of the Kiss Demon called the Demon which was based on the Gene “the Demon” Simmons from Kiss debuted during a Kiss mini-concert on WCW Monday Nitro. Just go with it. It’s called kayfabe, bay-bay.
If we’re being honest, the success rate of a pop culture based character has a very short life in wrestling and very few are even remembered. Then again, sometimes there’s something so complex and multi-layered going on that it’s invisible even to the hardcore, casual, and non-wrestling fans; something so niche but fascinating if you put in the time to examine the subject for what it should be. This is why we need to talk about Bray Wyatt.
One of the most important traditions in wrestling is the name change. It’s where life really starts for the being that is created in the merging of character and performer. The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels came into life as Shawn Hickenbottom. The Undertaker was born Mark Calaway. Bray Wyatt? He was born Windham Rotunda…son of Mike Rotunda (also known as I.R.S.), grandson of Blackjack Mulligan, nephew of Barry and Kendall Windham. I just named four monsters that share DNA with Windham who are perfectly capable of snapping your soul in half with an open hand slap across your chest. Knowing that, what was Windham Rotunda’s awesome name as he was coming into the spotlight of professional wrestling?
Le F***ing Sigh. This is not unheard of. You’re a rookie. You want to show difference to those who know more than you. Plenty of wrestlers have had bad names even several years into their career*. Windham went with it, embraced the character of Husky Harris, and even had some minor success as part of a stable of “rookie” wrestlers called the Nexus before he was literally kicked off of television.
Then Husky Harris sort of disappeared. He went back to Florida Championship Wrestling (which would become the much beloved WWE developmental brand, NXT) and had programs with various people including his own brother, Bo Dallas. It was during this period that an old family friend came into Husky’s life.
A long time fixture of professional wrestling, Dan Spivey was a freak of nature with borderline male model looks. He had spent the bulk of his wrestling career playing up his size (6’8, 290 lbs) and generally being a dangerous man to be around. His eyes, Jesus, his eyes – this guy could have been a henchman in a Die Hard movie. The constant through his career, oddly enough, was his hair. He had always sported bleach blonde spikes with a mullet on occasion (torture chamber in the front, party in the rear). Spivey had a couple of runs in the WWF and had developed a character along the way named Waylon Mercy… who didn’t have blonde hair.
When Spivey arrived for his final run in the WWF in 1995, the Francis Ford Coppola Cape Fear remake starring Robert De Niro was still very much in the cultural zeitgeist and if you’re working for Vince McMahon, you will become a response to a question posed in pop culture. In this case, the question was, “What if Max Cady was a wrestler?”**. If you are at all familiar with the character failures of that era of professional wrestler, one thing you have to admit is that they were so bad that couldn’t be forgotten,*** but there was something different about Waylon Mercy. He was very much the one generation removed carbon copy of De Niro’s Max Cady, but it’s hard to ignore Robert Mitchum’s interpretation of the character in the 1962 Cape Fear that informed De Nero’s performance. There was something in Dan Spivey’s performance that seemed to leapfrog De Nero’s turn at the character, trying to get back to easy vibes of Mitchum’s go at Max Cady (if you squint your eyes, Waylon Mercy looks like an ex-jock who’s really into Jimmy Buffet).
Dan Spivey channeled something special with deep, deep roots. These questions, however, were being postulated on a Saturday morning wrestling show that had him fighting a clown, a guy playing Scarface, and Bret “Hitman” Hart who I learned isn’t a real hitman. Turns out he’s just some guy from Calgary who likes cool sunglasses, leather jackets, and jorts.
Dan Spivey wasn’t going for the Oscar, but he was going to get a reaction out of you…that sense of unease, of the storm hiding behind the closed the door, the smile of a clown without makeup. He never had to hide in the shadows and never had to use harsh language. It was enough for you to have an idea of what the intentions of this man were. Again, mimicking the Bob De Niro version of Max Cady, Waylon Mercy was soft spoken until the moment of action arrived. Then he would unleash the monster hiding behind the thin layer of skin. I would describe his presence as claustrophobic. What I mean is standing next to the man might make an open field and a blue sky feel like being stuck in a grave full of dirt.
1995 didn’t turn into 1996 for Spivey. He left the company and within a few years was retired altogether, destined to be lumped in with the start-stopped, the one-offs, and the jabronis of that era’s WWF.**** But he wasn’t. As a wrestling fan, I can personally attest that some things just get burned into your memory which you find is part of the collective memory. A lot of people remembered that single year run in 1995 of Dan Spivey. He had already low key seduced an entire generation wrestling fans. The fruits of this seduction were not to be his, but they would be granted to another…
Now dealing with being called up to WWE television and then being sent back down to developmental, Husky Harris was attempting an evolution but was spinning his wheels, stuck in a character that didn’t really stand out. However, there was an idea gaining form and taking shape. Harris would show up at a small group of shows as Axel Mulligan, which I could only describe as the tweaked out, punk music version of Casey Jones.
The spirit was there but it wasn’t working just yet. It was when Windham Rotunda reached out to the now retired Dan Spivey for advice. This string of conversations resulted in Dan Spivey’s blessing of Rotunda’s next evolution: Bray Wyatt.
Put these four characters next to each other you can see their very strong, common authorial DNA. From Mitchum to De Niro to Spivey to Rotunda, this essence has been passed, this idea of the violent, cordial Southern gentleman. This character, coupled with iconic characteristics (the fedora, the cigar, the Hawaiian shirt, the tattoos, the sweat) has continued to exist and even thrive. This character, this Southerner, this monster on the verge of being set free, this horrid being that enjoys the torment too, too much, is now and forever “a thing”. Kinda like Freddy Kruger, Frankenstein, and La Croix in a can.
Bray Wyatt carried the essence of Max Cady. He was a soft spoken Southerner from the swampy backwoods somewhere on the Gulf Coast. Clad in the Hawaiian shirt and fedora worn by the men before him, in this incarnation, the violent yet polite Southerner was cast as a backwoods cult leader of the Wyatt Family. When he entered the arena, the mood completely changed. This had a lot to do with picking a slower tempo song (the truly incredible Broken Out in Love aka Live in Fear by Mark Crozer) as opposed to the speed metal and rap that WWE leans on heavily for its performer’s entrances as well as Wyatt’s reliance on his “fireflies” to light the way. Really, it’s an awe inspiring sight. Not to mention, his creepy the Exorcist deleted scene inspired “spider walk”.
Flanked by his most imposing of followers (which have included a big bald dude with a red beard and a white sheep mask, a big dude with a big beard and no mask, another BIGGER dude with a bigger beard AND a black sheep mask), Bray would appear to challenge the moral fabric of the WWE’s most stoic and upright performers while delivering the most cryptic, rambling, fascinating on-air promos that even Charles Manson would find “a little confusing” and “a bit much.” Those promos are amazing, by the by.
Part of the identity of the cult is that Bray Wyatt was inspired to carry out his mission by an unseen woman named Sister Abigail. This woman wasn’t revealed, explained, or utilized, never showing her true form, being spoken of as if she were an essence that was independent of the mortal coil but determined to alter it. She had fleetingly appeared as a hologram and (I’m being generous with this interpretation) used Bray as a vessel which she spoke through. Years later though we would get a clue about their relationship and who was actually controlling whom.
After developing crazy magic mind control powers and the ability to persuade WWE management to spend money on crazy gimmicks, Bray Wyatt managed to screw with the likes of John Cena (using a choir of little kids wearing sheep masks singing “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands”) as well as mind controlling all time great Daniel Bryan and making him part of the Wyatt family. Wyatt was still a man who could control an arena of people with his words. His sparse Twitter offerings were profoundly sinister and there was an air of actual menace when this man entered an arena and urged everyone to, “Follow the buzzards.”
And after that a bunch of stuff happened.
Did you read the sentence I just wrote? Literally, a bunch of stuff happened because the creative direction of the character was starting to come off the rails. There was a feud with Randy Orton which included Orton being recruited by the Wyatt family, betraying the Wyatt family, burning their house down, burning the grave of Sister Abigail, helping Bray win the world title, helping Bray lose the world championship, and calling him a series of very mean names. There was a fight in an old house at night that was actually during the day (there was a glitch in the Matrix that Sunday, believe you me), there were roaches and maggots projected onto a wrestling ring. There were partnerships, titles won, titles lost. Finally after losing the tag team titles alongside partner “Broken” Matt Hardy*****, Bray Wyatt kind of petered out and disappeared into the void, not unlike Waylon Mercy before him. He was gone for a while. Then this showed up…
The Firefly Fun House. Jesus. If you just take a second and stop to think about the journey that’s gotten us here, would you ever in your wildest, weakest, highest, most open moment believe that this character would ever go the route of the live action kid’s show? Well, me too, and you’re obviously an intelligent and attractive person much like myself. We should watch Death to Smoochy sometime.
This Bray Wyatt presents himself as a friend to all children, not unlike Gamera. He is also on a major “I’m sorry” tour******, trying to apologize to other wrestlers (via Twitter in most cases) for all the horrible things he’s done to them in years past such as creeping them out, sending huge men in sheep masks after them, making them question their sanity….but there is an air of menace to it and that’s the brilliance of the character. This brings me back to Robert Mitchum.
Love and Hate/Hurt and Heal. Come on. It’s not that hard to make the leap in logic. It’s implied that the gloves dictate his next action. In the first instance of this happening, Bray was confronted with a cardboard cutout of his previous gimmick, the backwoods cult leader. Bray turns away, cups his ear with the glove that says “hurt” and hears something akin to a radio transmission. Suddenly he has a chainsaw in his hand. Then, laughing with joy, he slices through his previous visage. He turns to the camera…
Bray: Our fun’s just gettin’ started here. And remember, my fireflies, I’ll light the way. All you have to do…is let me in. I’ll see you next week!
I’m personally tickled by it because I am a big fan of 1955’s Night of the Hunter and of Robert Mitchum’s performance in it. Iconic to say the least. I believe Robert Mitchum was the Nic Cage of his day and I mean that with 100% respect, fondness, and sincerity in the most positive light possible. There was just something so open and inviting, as if by standing next to the man, we might believe we know him, but we never know how far and how deep those depths go. That has extended to Bray Wyatt, the character and the man playing him.
Of course Bray isn’t alone in his brightly painted funhouse. He has several new friends that has come along the way including the Fiend which is the alter-ego of Bray waiting to be unleashed…sort of like a cross between The Beast from Glass and the fairly recent version of the comic book Joker who cut his own face off, added straps, and then wore his own face as a mask. There is Waylon Buzzard, a not too subtle tribute to the man that helped Windham Rotunda become Bray Wyatt. However, it’s the relationship with Abby the Witch which offers a truly juicy clue to the overall story that is the life of Bray Wyatt…
While this isn’t 100% confirmed, it is thought that Abby the Witch is connected to Sister Abigail, if not in fact the same being. As mentioned before, Bray Wyatt always spoke of Sister Abigail being the one to set the example, but this incarnation, this puppet witch said something very interesting…
Abby the Witch: Why won’t you let me rest?
Bray Wyatt: (laughing) I’ll never let you rest, never!
Abby the Witch: I can’t stand it. I don’t wanna be stuck in this limbo anymore.
Holy shit. Hole. Lee. Shit. Just put it to the side that this is wrestling. Just drop it for one second and pretend this is a reoccurring character on Dr. Who or LOST. What was just said is a major friggin’ plot development. That’s like if we found out that Darth Maul was the Sith master and Palpatine the student instead of the other way around. The big difference is that this turn has taken place over years and has slowly bubbled into a moment.
So, let’s summarize Bray Wyatt. He was a backwoods cult leader, sent on a mission by a mysterious woman to screw with the pure of heart in professional wrestling. Along the way, he developed weird black magic sort of voodoo powers, was betrayed by an enemy posing as a follower. He then lost everything and disappeared…then reappeared in the guise of children’s show host. The show, with an audience of kids, is possibly located somewhere in limbo and populated by the souls he has damned to eternal enslavement for his amusement. While previously having the power to do theatrics and conjure illusions, this Bray Wyatt seemingly has developed the powers to bend reality and imprison people by turning them into toys. As I’m writing this, I’m reminded of the classic Twilight Zone S03E08 episode “It’s a Good Life.” Bray Wyatt is Anthony Fremont for the wider wrestling world.
The truth is, wrestling has very few long term characters of note (check out Max Landis’ excellent video about long term story telling in wrestling here) and the fact that Bray Wyatt has found a way to evolve and stay relevant, you can’t help but route for the guy just to see what’s next.
So what’s next?
Does it matter? Professional wrestling, for better or for worse, does have a soap opera quality to it and I don’t mean the red hot backstage love affairs that end up in weddings that are always interrupted by cobra attacks or the current mayor of Knox County, Tennessee. I mean that these stories are ongoing and only the past and present are visible. You have to keep writing and thinking and postulating, trying to find new ways to move and places to send these characters. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When you step back however and take a full survey of everything that has happened, then you might be in a better position to judge the story.
The character of Bray Wyatt is one of those lucky few and his performer, Windham Rotunda, is only 32 years old. There are so many more stories to tell but when you think of the life of this character so far, when you really think of what he has put others through, he’s no different from Walter White, Frank Underwood, or Moby. He’s just an awful person who destroys everyone around him. This current incarnation of Bray, however, he doesn’t destroy people…he ensnares them and forces them to play out their little parts on a TV show that he’s “created.”
If this were an ongoing Netflix series, a lot more of you would be talking about Bray Wyatt. Because he’s relegated to professional wrestling, it can be a little hard to appreciate the journey that this is character is on. Perhaps that is the way that this character is cursed. A story so good, that it deserves better than the media from which it was birthed.
Perhaps the next vessel of Max Cady will really set the world on fire.
*Before he was Stone Cold Steve Austin, Steven Williams upon being hired by the (then) WWF was almost saddled with the name Chilly McFreeze. I shit you not.
** This was the M.O. of the WWF in the 80’s and most of the 90’s. What if XXXXXX was a wrestler? Some of the answers to that blank space were a Canadian Mountie, a monk, a guy from outer space, a garbage man, a prison guard, a clown, a guy that could throw up on cue, a vampire, a drill sergeant, a guy bathed in atomic radiation, a zombie mortician, a millionaire, a guy from the IRS, et cetera.
*** Mantaur, bitches.
**** That being said, Dan Spivey is no jobber. Not then, not now. This is a guy who has worked hard his entire life, made a difference in the wrestling industry, and kicked ass while managing to avoiding letting the demons of wrestling destroy him personally. He deserves all the accolades and deserved even more. Also he’s an ambassador for a chain of Breakfast restaurants in Florida. We should all be so successful.
***** Broken Matt Hardy is a possible future subject for this column because he, like Dr. Manhattan, can see all points of his existence stretching back through several incarnations. Think about this…this is a character in professional wrestling that can cycle through his various incarnations, retain the knowledge of his past lives, and can even control the very fabric of the universe. He also has a sentient drone, a hot plotting wife, awesome kids, a reanimated brother, a lawn-man who assists in their misdeeds, and a magical metal fishing boat. Again, kayfabe, bay-bay.
****** A really awesome trope in professional wrestling is the heel (bad guy) who is constantly apologizing for what they’re doing or feigning innocence while continuing to be a total asshole. This has led to, and I am not kidding, a wrestler punting a newborn baby like a football in the middle of an arena full of people. God, I love this sport.
Writer. Wrestling mark. Dog parent. Halloween enthusiast. Always wondering about the me on Earth 616 and what he/she/it’s up to. Currently residing in Los Angeles.
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