Sports in general are not typically considered “scary”. There are certainly scary things that can happen, but due to the real world nature of sports it’s not really the same as watching a horror movie. The horrifying elements of sports instead tap into a real-world fear of injury and death, something sports fans get to watch play out in agonizing reality and thus makes it much less fun. The one sport that can claim a hold in the world of “fiction” and therefore can truly prey on man’s fears without honestly entering into reality would be Professional Wrestling.
Pro wrestling sits at this bizarro intersection between the reality of sports and the sort of “hyperreality” of fiction, and thanks to its scripted nature can use the language of story-telling to impress the audience. Both in the duration of a match and in the meta-reality of a wrestling “program” or storyline a distinct story is told. Heroes and villains clash, twists leave the viewer wondering where things are going to go, and grand finales ending stories in the biggest ways possible. However, few wrestling matches ever really tap into the fictional horror like horror films can. The due to the physical limitations of the body wrestling matches still have to adhere to the laws of physics and reality. One man, though, triumphed over all that and became one of the scariest forces in professional wrestling. That man is The Undertaker.
You might ask, why exactly would someone come on a film blog and not only come in talking about professional wrestling but a single professional wrestler? Well, the Undertaker is more than just an athlete and a man. Thanks to the creative forces of professional wrestling The Undertaker was crafted into a character rivaling slasher film monsters in terms of brutality, intimidation, and yes-even horror.
The Undertaker benefited from coming up in the “Attitude Era” of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, the biggest wrestling promotion in America and the world). This era of wrestling, defined by a “take-no-prisoners” mentality and bolstered by an “anything for ratings” creative mindset, seemed to thrive on anti-heroes. This was the era that gave us “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, an alcoholic violent redneck who wrecked cars, beat up women, and just generally didn’t give a shit; The Rock, an attention hog larger-than-life superstar who beat up his friends and battled with authority in the name of “the people; Mankind (who will be important later), the underdog hardcore wrestler who put his body on the line in order to destroy his enemies and later became a “corporate champion”; and most importantly gave us The Undertaker, a supernatural terror who could be almost anywhere and destroy almost anyone, whose weakness was an urn in the hands of a backstabbing manager called Paul Bearer, and who got known for claiming to have set a fire that killed his family and scarred his half-brother, the psychotic giant wrestler Kane.
This feud with Kane, Undertaker’s debut in the WWE, ended up defining the Undertaker character. This was one of the feuds I most distinctly remember growing up due to the horror-tinged nature of it. The feud was built on psychologically terrifying “promos” (video packages or in-arena incidents outside of the match designed to psych out opposing wrestlers and build up a feud in the minds of the fans), including The Undertaker’s trademark of shutting off the lights in the arena and appearing behind Kane while Kane was in the middle of a match, or sometimes just not appearing at all. Through the work of aforementioned backstabbing manager Paul Bearer, Kane was built up as a formidable opponent to Undertaker with a legitimate grudge, and the feud finally boiled over in a legendary Inferno Match. Due to the real world risk of burning alive, mixed with the knowledge of wrestling being scripted, this became one of the most terrifying matches and one of the three big career defining matches of Undertaker’s career.
Undertaker’s other defining matches also play on our human fears to deliver exciting and exhilarating action. He made famous the concepts of the “Buried Alive” and “Casket” matches, rather self-explanatory ideas that continue to mix real-world fear with the scripted nature of professional wrestling. These matches were used especially in his feud with Mankind. However, the match that truly made Undertaker a legend and defined him as the scariest thing alive didn’t involve fire or dirt, just two men and a steel cage that became the hallmark of a generation of wrestling.
The concept of the “Hell In A Cell” is simple. Upping the ante of the traditional steel cage match, participants are completely encaged in a chain link structure. The match is a No Disqualifications match, allowing for some of the most brutal wrestling anyone can see. Born from the Attitude Era, an era defined by hardcore wrestling, a lawless brutal and bloody genre of wrestling, the Hell In A Cell is most often used for “blow-off” matches, the final match in an extended storyline.
The ’98 Hell In A Cell match was the climax of the long-running feud between Undertaker and Mankind. Mankind is a hardcore wrestling legend known for putting his body on the line at all costs, and it goes without saying that the match is more or less his showcase for this. The match starts with Mankind on top of the cage, challenging Undertaker to come to him. Undertaker, the ever-ominous villain, meets that challenge, and as the two men grapple on top of the steel cage there is a palpable sense of malice and danger. Undertaker edges Mankind towards the edge of the cage and, in a moment that shocked the world, pushes him over onto the Spanish announcers table.
Staged or not, that’s not a fall one can fake, and everyone in the stadium met the fall with the appropriate response: shrieks and silence. No one knew whether Mankind was ok, and no one was prepared for what would come next.
As doctors checked out Mankind, Undertaker continued to glower from the roof of the cage. As stretchers came to get him out of the ring, Mankind leapt up to finish the match. Climbing up on a dislocated arm, he prepared for one last battle with the prince of darkness, not unlike any number of heroes in a slasher film. One last grapple, and then a completely unscripted moment: Mankind falls. Again. Through the roof. With genuine concern for his safety, doctors and trainers ran to the ring to check on him, and all the while the man that put him there stood above all. Undertaker, the unstoppable slasher film villain, would prove victorious again latter in the match, after many more insane things happening. But no scene could be as indicative of Undertaker as a frightening man right out of horror movies as that last, completely unscripted shot.
As the years went on the toll on Undertaker’s body continued, and he shifted from villain to hero and eventually part-timer, but even Jason and Freddie had to become comedy acts eventually. We all remember those shocking moments from them though, and none can really compare to the real world terror of The Undertaker.