[Editorial] Pomp, Circumstance and Scares: A Collection of Horror at WWE WrestleMania
WrestleMania is a household name by this stage. After 35 iterations of the Show of Shows, it stands as professional wrestling’s premier institution. This weekend, the show goes on in the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, FL, and while the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic has changed the course of events, there stands to be a solid card that will be broadcast on the WWE Network across two nights, this Saturday and Sunday. Undertaker returns to face “The Phenomenal” AJ Styles in a dream match that, while a few years too late, is still a welcome one. The NXT Women’s Championship makes its first appearance on the main show as champion Rhea Ripley defends against “The Queen” Charlotte Flair. “The Man” Becky Lynch rounds the corner on one full year as Raw Women’s Champion as she collides with “The Queen of Spades” Shayna Baszler.
For a show that will have no physical audience for obvious reasons, there’s a lot to like about this year’s card, especially for horror fans who enjoy the sport of kings. Throughout its decades-long existence, there have been plenty of horror-themed goings-on on The Grandest Stage of Them All, and while, spoiler alert, many of them involve The Undertaker or Kane, it turns out that the Brothers of Destruction aren’t the only ones making their dark marks on WrestleMania. Below is a sampling of some of the most iconic horror-tinged moments at the springtime showcase, and while not all of them are stellar, they’re memorable for one reason or another.
The third installment of the Showcase of the Immortals made history for its time, between the stone-cold classic Intercontinental Championship match between Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat and the clash of the titans that was WWF World Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan against Andre the Giant. Following the Steamboat/Savage showcase was Jake “The Snake” Roberts against The Honky Tonk Man, and doing so was no small task.
The cool, cocky, and bad Elvis impersonator brought “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart to ringside, but the calculated Roberts knew better than to come alone. Along with his trusty python Damien, Alice Cooper, a native of nearby Detroit, accompanied Roberts to the contest, and even participated in the proceedings with a post-match taunting of The Honky Tonk Man with Damien, while Roberts held his adversary for Cooper’s menacing. Though Roberts lost the actual match, the WrestleMania moment that he and Ol’ Black Eyes made stood out.
While the second of the Trump Plaza-hosted WrestleManias may have been the very definition of a one-match show, it did feature a showdown between Jake Roberts and Andre the Giant, with Big John Studd serving as special guest referee. The build for this match centered around Andre’s fear of snakes, which was purely kayfabe yet completely believable. Despite Studd saving Andre from the menacing python Damien, the two wound up in a standoff that echoed their Body Slam Challenge from the original Mania. Said standoff ended in the gargantuan Frenchman being disqualified. Following the bell, Roberts hoyed Damien at Andre, who ran for the hills to end the segment.
The showdown between the future Brothers of Destruction was months in the making, following Kane’s shocking debut at Badd Blood, ripping the door off of the Hell in a Cell structure and attacking The Undertaker, who manager Paul Bearer taunted for weeks leading up to the match. It was revealed that Kane and Taker were brothers, with the allegation coming from Bearer that Undertaker set the funeral home fire that killed the boys’ mother and horribly scarred Kane. With the presumed-dead Kane being presented as an invincible monster, similar to his older brother’s first iteration some eight years before, this clash was set to be something right out of a horror movie.
Kicking off with a Tombstone to baseball legend Pete Rose (the first of three such incidents at WrestleMania, in a running gag that somehow worked out), a slew of druids and “O Fortuna” preceded The Undertaker’s grand entrance. The seventeen-minute affair, the semi-main event of the night, saw Undertaker hit not one, not two, but three Tombstone Piledrivers to finally put away his younger brother. The feud was far from over, as the next month at Unforgiven, the two would engage in the first-ever Inferno Match, continuing their brotherly feud that would go on again, off again for the next decade.
Widely regarded as the forgotten Hell in a Cell match, this was smack in the middle of Undertaker’s “Lord of Darkness” phase. At the behest of Mr. McMahon, the Cobb County corrections officer was sent into the sadistic structure to put an end to The Undertaker and his months of tormenting McMahon and The Corporation. The match itself was nothing to write home about, standing as one of the poorer of “The Streak.” Despite being the semi-main event of the night, the aftermath of the ten minute affair is what stands out. As The Deadman signals to the heavens, Edge and Christian, then known as The Brood, descend from the rafters and drop a noose down into the cell. Once it’s wrapped around The Big Boss Man’s neck, the cage was raised up, and the Philadelphia crowd of over 20,000 fans was made to believe that they witnessed a hanging. Later reports told of Boss Man wearing a harness under his gear, which sold the hanging from the rafters without putting the real-life Ray Traylor in any immediate danger.
As much as commentator Michael Cole drove the act home as being “symbolic,” the capacity crowd watched gobsmacked. While Big Boss Man was brought down from the rafters and carried out on a stretcher back in the arena, scenes from the previous night’s Wrestlemania Rage Party were shown to the Pay-Per-View crowd, who again, believed they had witnessed a real-life hanging. Horrific? Sure. A striking visual? Sure. Odd placement, being that it came before the main event and all of its overbooked madness? You bet.
This event is widely regarded as the greatest WrestleMania of all time, and with plenty of good reason. Between the short and sweet opener between Chris Jericho and William Regal, the second-ever Tables, Ladders and Chairs match, a father vs. son Street Fight (you heard me), a chaotic semi-main with Triple H and The Undertaker, and Rock / Austin II for the WWF Championship, there is a hell of a lot to love about this swan song to the Attitude Era.
Third on the card was a delightfully mad Hardcore Championship Triple Threat match between The Big Show, Kane, and reigning champion Raven. Two seven-foot giants and a crafty hardcore veteran made for a delicious stew of batshit bumps, including Raven getting hoyed through a window, Big Show and Kane crashing through a backstage wall, and a golf cart chase that nearly killed the entire pay-per-view feed and driver Raven. Ending with a rare diving leg drop (from the top of the stage set, no less) from The Big Red Machine, Kane notched his first Hardcore title reign. Given that he would hold the WWF Tag Team, WCW Tag Team, and Intercontinental Titles in the months following WrestleMania, not to mention become one of Team WWF’s key players in the dicey Invasion angle, it served as a launching pad for one of WWE’s most enduring and endearing characters to have one of the most decorated years of his lengthy career.
The rematch between Kane and The Undertaker was set for Madison Square Garden again saw the two work the semi-main event, as The Undertaker went back to basics. Bringing back Paul Bearer and returning to his Deadman persona, Undertaker concluded his months-long absence following being on the losing end of a Buried Alive match at Survivor Series, with Kane tipping the scales in favor of Mr. McMahon. When Paul Bearer, a legitimate mortician, let out his signature “Ohh yes!” cry, the New York crowd erupted, as druids lined the ramp before the iconic gong signaled the beginning of the end.
While their first encounter is more fondly remembered from an in-ring, workrate perspective, the event’s tagline of Where It All Begins… Again didn’t ring more true than in The Phenom returning to his old digs, reigniting a classic feud, and his most recognizable cornerman back to guide “my Undertaker” to success on SmackDown!
At least until the Concrete Crypt Match. That’s for another article, though.
Trish Stratus had held the WWE Women’s Championship for 448 days going into this event, and her challenger was the sweet but psycho Mickie James. Introduced as an obsessed fan, James idolized the champion, even dressing as Stratus for a costume contest on the Halloween episode of RAW. As time went on, James challenged Stratus for the title at New Year’s Revolution, only to fall short. Following this, the two teamed at Saturday Night’s Main Event, and that’s when James went off the deep end. After attacking Trish, the confrontation set up a title match for WrestleMania.
Until the recent Women’s Revolution, James vs. Stratus was regarded as perhaps the best Women’s match the company ever put on. The in-ring work of both Superstars was solid, the story was scintillating, and the right woman won. It even managed to get Mickie, the established heel of the program, a babyface reaction by the end of the match. As Mickie held her newly-won prize, Jerry “The King” Lawler declared that “the inmate’s gonna be running the asylum!” And even though an explicit gesture from James earned her an alleged tongue-lashing from Mr. McMahon himself, and the quasi-lesbian trope was played up heavily in the build, the WrestleMania women’s standard was set for years to come.
The premise of a Casket Match is straightforward enough. No disqualification, anything goes, and lock your opponent in the casket to win. As The World’s Strongest Man Mark Henry went on a tear of destruction that predated his Hall of Pain run, the shoot strongman set his sights on snapping The Undertaker’s then 13-0 undefeated streak at The Showcase of the Immortals. In just the second match to be built more or less solely around The Streak, the match was more spectacle than anything else, and had to follow the previous entry to boot. That being said, Taker getting the 400-pound Henry up for The Last Ride and the finishing Tombstone was a crowd-popping sequence for sure. The only Casket Match in Mania history saw Undertaker go 14-0, in one of The Deadman’s more dominant showings at the event.
Some titanic clashes - or colossal tussles, if you will - fail to deliver, and even the highest spot of the match can fall flat. Such was the case when The Great Khali battled Kane in a match that amounted to little more than publicity for Kane’s horror venture See No Evil. Kane busted out a hook on a chain, the favorite weapon of his slasher hopeful Jacob Goodnight, and choked out the Punjabi Nightmare following the match that barely went five minutes.
Even though their Mania clash was a bust, both Kane and Khali were prominent in the World Heavyweight Championship picture for much of the rest of the year, with the latter winning the gold later in the summer. While the real horrorshow would come in the second-ever Punjabi Prison Match, again, different countdown.
Those just getting into pro wrestling fandom may not be hip to Bray Wyatt’s previous incarnation, as a lantern-wielding, rocking chair aficionado / cult leader. In his WrestleMania debut proper against John Cena, Wyatt was played in by Mark Crozer and the Rels, after Wyatt himself tapped Crozer’s song “Broken Out in Love,” though it was renamed “Live in Fear” to better fit the bizarre nature of Wyatt’s character.
The match was arguably one of Wyatt’s best of the “Follow the Buzzards” era of the gimmick, even though some argue that John Cena once again won when he didn’t need to. It was Wyatt’s first pinfall loss as part of the RAW roster, and a loss that he wouldn’t really recover from until his capture of the WWE Championship some three years later. At least this year’s event will see a rematch between Cena and Wyatt, even if the bulk of the fanbase (and even his once-opponent, Roman Reigns) would rather have Bray as Universal Champion going into The Show of Shows.
Thanks, Saudi Arabia.
For what would be the death knell for the much-lauded Streak, The Undertaker’s entrance needed a visual that would stand out above any other. Next to the entrance stage, a series of coffins were arranged in order of the victims throughout twenty-one shows. Closest to the stage was one for Brock Lesnar, The Deadman’s opponent for the night, and his bore an ominous 22, at least it did before a special effects lightning bolt lit the vessel ablaze, in an image that was pure foreshadowing.
Perhaps more terrifying than that was the fact that Undertaker’s Streak was broken on this night, though the actual match suffered after an early concussion incurred by Taker. To call the New Orleans crowd stunned following the fatal three-count would be an understatement, with Lesnar’s advocate Paul Heyman even selling the feat better than anything he ever sold before (though depending on who you ask, Heyman legitimately didn’t know that Lesnar would go over). Even the eventual championship triumph of Daniel Bryan only did so much to lift the crowd’s spirits, after the event’s institution within an institution came to an end.
The Eater of Worlds’ ascension to the WWE Championship was a legitimate shock, but damn if it wasn’t a) well-deserved and b) overdue. Now with “The Apex Predator” Randy Orton aligned with the delightfully drab Wyatt Family, it looked as though Wyatt would go into WrestleMania with literally anyone else. Orton had won the Royal Rumble Match months before, which granted him a WWE or Universal Championship Match at Mania.
But as Jake “The Snake” Roberts before him insisted, never trust a snake. Orton turned on the Wyatts, even going as far as to burn down the Wyatt Compound, affirming that he was gunning for Bray’s title. The match itself was fine, at least until the lights went down and projections of maggots, insects, and all manner of creepy crawlies were shown not on the TitanTron, but on the ring canvas mid-match. Even the most hardened wrestling fan had difficulty suspending disbelief. Again, the wrong man won, as The Viper notched his fourteenth World Title in WWE, and even the follow-up House of Horrors match at Payback was, well…
Another countdown for that one.
In last year’s semi-main event, reigning Intercontinental Champion Bobby Lashley defended the white and gold strap against one of Ireland’s finest exports, Finn Balor. For the Show of Shows, the once-Prince Devitt donned his Demon persona, reserved only for major events with high stakes, complete with body paint, headpiece, and a theatrical entrance. In what was the second-shortest match of the night, Balor dethroned Lashley in around four minutes, earning his second Intercontinental Title, and introducing his darker side to the spring classic. Following the downer that was Kurt Angle’s retirement match, this blink-and-you’ll-miss it title change was a curious but welcome uptick before the historic women’s main event.
WrestleMania 36 will air on the WWE Network on Saturday, April 4 and Sunday, April 5, with both nights’ broadcasts beginning at 7pm EST.