Ghosts On Strings: WWE Uses Puppets To Insult Its Audience

"Few things are more perverted than circus freaks staging a pathos play that draws from real-life tragedy," writes Justin Henry.

“We have suffered two terrible tragedies in the last week—the blinding of Chris Adams and the death of Gino Hernandez.”

– Bill Mercer, World Class Championship Wrestling announcer, February 15, 1986

Adams and Hernandez are memorable names in Dallas lore, a notch below the mythos and mania surrounding the troubled Von Erich dynasty of the region. Like the first family of Texas wrestling, British grappler Adams and placid-eyed heartthrob Hernandez would become linked to death in ignominious ways. Adams perished in October 2001, shot in the chest by a friend during an alcohol-fueled fight, shortly after Adams had been indicted in the drug-related death of a recent girlfriend. That’s fifteen years longer than Hernandez’s shortened life, ending in early February 1986 after what was ruled a cocaine overdose at age 28. At the time of Gino’s death, he was embroiled in a swelling rivalry with former partner Adams, the latest twist of the screw seeing Hernandez blind his former ally with a hair removal product. Adams’ subsequent absence to sell the blindness was classic kayfabe; Hernandez’s death less than a week later was the precise opposite.

Removed from sworn storytelling, Mercer’s statement is downright galling. In the confines of professional wrestling history, before the business openly beat its consumers over the head with how put-on and pre-arranged all of the goings-on were, it wasn’t all too uncommon to blend ugly truth with flexible fiction if it meant bolstering interest. There was nothing to sell in the case of Hernandez’s tragically-shortened life, but the juxtaposition of two starkly different news items presented with the same liltless voice doesn’t exactly invoke wistfulness today.

World Class Championship Wrestling was something of a haven for what some refer to as the exploitation of real life tragedy. Across four consecutive years in the 1980s, Fritz Von Erich’s family business was ‘awarded’ The Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Most Disgusting Promotional Tactic award. In 1985, increasingly-frail son Mike Von Erich was forced back into the ring by father Fritz, following a bout of toxic shock syndrome that was believed to have given him serious brain damage. Fritz billed his son’s comeback as a miraculous story, even though it was clear to observers that his uncoordinated son, now slurring his speech in promos, did not belong anywhere near a ring. Mike killed himself two years later. According to freelance journalist Irvin Muchnick, while police searched for missing Mike and while most of the family came together in a vigil, Fritz was publicly declaring ‘foul play’ was suspected in Mike’s present circumstances, a tie-in to some potential storyline twist. It didn’t appear to take long for Fritz to turn unspeakable loss into an attempt at gain.

Kevin and Kerry Von Erich in World Class Championship Wrestling

Kevin and Kerry Von Erich in World Class Championship Wrestling

Weeks after Mike’s body was discovered, Fritz promoted what was the fourth annual David Von Erich Parade of Champions, named after his departed third son, who’d passed in Japan in February 1984 under disputed circumstances. The first annual Parade drew a shade over 50,000 fans to Texas Stadium to see affable brother Kerry win the NWA World Championship from Ric Flair in David’s memory. The next pair of Parades drew 24,000+ each at the same venue. In 1987, the fourth incarnation, now with Mike’s name affixed to the header, drew just 5,900 paid. While the business was shifting greatly in the favor of the ever-expanding World Wrestling Federation, a case can be made that Dallas was overdosing (to turn a phrase) on death. The more Fritz spoke, the more the facade of human decency whittled away, and even revelers in the family name were finding it hard to buy into their drug of choice as being good for the soul.

There are a number of elements to a successful work, trust being chief among them. It is also why professional wrestling will continue pandering to what is perceived to be the lowest level of intellect in their prospective audience, because that’s where the money comes from. The fans that attend Royal Rumbles of the latter day, booing anything that was an affront to Daniel Bryan, are not the target demographic. Would Penn and Teller tailor their act to a showroom filled with snides that yell “I can see the strings!” or “Same old s–t!” every time out? Wrestling is for a variety of observers, but wrestling marketing is for the true believers, or even just those that want to believe. Promoters have an eye for the rubes, the ones that will spend $20 for a photo-op with a B-show headliner. It’s this mentality that dominates wrestling production, even as a select segment of the audience becomes smarter to political machinations and lost character continuity. Loud as those gallery occupants are, the wisened promoter averts his eyes away from the screams. There’s no money in their blissful silence.

There’s a quietly-persisting rumor around the interwebs that World Class referee David Manning, under orders from Fritz, took to signing 8X10s of departed David, and Fritz sold the photos as keepsakes for grieving fans. 50,000 fans for David’s first memorial card shows that crowds held fanatical trust in the Von Erich name, while 5,900 fans just three years later marks a harsh downturn. In late-1985, during Mike’s horrific descent, Fritz trotted out local athlete Kevin Vaughn as family cousin Lance Von Erich, a ruse which angered fans quickly saw through. On Christmas night 1987, during an attack by The Freebirds, Fritz worked a heart attack angle in an apparent bid for sympathy. Stories suggest that on WCCW television, the announcers would report a decline in Fritz’s condition whenever house show attendance dwindled, while claiming an uptick in his health whenever the houses went up.

As David Shoemaker of Grantland wrote in The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling, “…the Von Erichs had turned their backs on the unspoken agreement between the actors and the audience. They treated the fans as dupes instead of coconspirators.”

In World Wrestling Entertainment, particularly in today’s ballyhooed ‘Reality Era’, the idea that such transparent throwbacks could be employed is a rankling idea. The business has evolved, though it remains unclear what exactly it has ‘evolved’ into. It’s a world where nostalgia mollifies the nerves of long-time fans, but character concepts like The Ascension and Bull Dempsey are ridiculed, dismissed as poor imitations of The Road Warriors and the myriad of 1980s heavies that Dempsey trails. WWE Network comes accessorized with rose-tinted 3D glasses, and acts as a digital hole-in-the-wall where longtime fans can revert to a younger age, but only as an escape. Just because you were seven years old when The Ultimate Warrior ran roughshod doesn’t mean you want the braintrust to treat you like a seven-year-old today.

There exists this hard-to-satisfy duplicity among differing factions of fans, with the general consensus reading: “We want wrestling like the way it used to be, but we don’t want to be treated like we’re idiots.” Problem is, for many fans, their most magical years of fandom came from a time where they were much less aware and cognizant, if not less, well, intelligent. There of course exists formative fans today that digest yet another R-Truth vs. King Barrett bad-comedy buffet with unconditional acceptance, and hey, good for them. The happy consumer can be admired as much as he is reviled by someone who questions everything. It’s why Dr. Oz’s audience is held in as much contempt as Dr. Oz himself.

Why do we get R-Truth waving a toilet plunger as a makeshift scepter, anyway? The lowbrow, painfully unfunny nature of such an occurrence is probably a reflection of what WWE’s top dogs prefer their audience to be. There’s always the explanation that Vince McMahon’s sense of humor prefers an all-midget rendition of Policy Academy 7 to anything else, but there’s that very real, very grim carny veneer, looking at the audience as drooling rubes with buck teeth and a speed-limit IQ.

It’s also a reflection of modern entertainment. What’s a fair inventory of today’s junk television? Reality shows filled with egocentric dullards, talk shows filled with sob stories, and tacky, ‘safe’ sitcoms, right? How many times has WWE tried to co-opt vapid reality fodder, even outside of Total Divas or Tough Enough? How many times do they hit the ‘we’re good people’ button for Susan G Komen or Connor’s Cure? How often is the audience inundated with comedy that makes Bazooka Joe comics look like a Jim Jefferies routine? As entertainment at large gravitates toward the lowest common denominator, so too does WWE. No amount of clapping after a sweat-drenched Sasha Banks-Bayley epic is going to change the idea that the dumbest people are more trigger-happy with parting with their money, and WWE, to their credit, would be doing the stockholders a disservice if they didn’t wield a Shop-Vac in the vicinity of everyone’s pockets.

Now, you can argue that this approach is a failing one, since even reaching a 2.3 rating for Monday Night Raw these days requires a Herculean struggle, which seems to prove that much of the audience is indeed tired of having their intelligence insulted. If WWE could replace the most logically-vocal fans with the demographic that watches The Voice, or Real Housewives of Medicine Hat, Alberta, they would. It’s clear who the modern product attempts to appeal to, even if it’s nowhere near as potent an appeal as they wish it would be.

Ironically, that’s where old carny rasslin’ and the pandering tendencies of modern media intersect, and we saw it when Paige denigrated the name of Reid Flair on Monday Night Raw. It’s been hashed out by a great many commentators, none with more credible and just indignation than Dave Meltzer, precisely how disgusting the shoehorning of real-life sorrow was for a storyline in dire need of something palpable. Combining the accounts of Meltzer, Ric Flair, and others, it seems that WWE came up with the idea of invoking Reid’s name, and Charlotte went along with it, lacking the tenure or pull to say no to it. The optimist would say that after the tepid presentation of the ‘Divas Revolution’ over the last four months, people are talking about the Divas in a manner other than, “Yeah, they exist.” Some of those fans have praised the nuclear heat it’s getting, and good for them. At least they can say they’re enjoying what they’re watching.

For everyone else, it’s a betrayal of trust that has long since eradicated. Eddie Guerrero’s death ten years ago hurt so many, because it was clear that Eddie, through all of his struggles, was a loving and caring person with an unsnuffable twinkle in his eye. When WWE trampled the gravesite in Rey Mysterio’s subsequent storylines, it was unforgivable. WWE could still be watched, and it could still entertain, but now they were the company that went ‘there’. Such a defiling lingers in the mind, and innocence goes out the window, lost forever.

WWE and the fans came together in grieving the loss, and then WWE held up its Guerrero marionette anyway, hastily gluing a halo on the head of it. Few things are more perverted than circus freaks staging a pathos play that draws from real-life tragedy.

The negative response to the Reid Flair plot point is two-fold. One, most of the audience simply felt it was wrong, for the obvious reasons. Two, on a more inclusive level for wrestling fans, it’s further evidence to their distaste for where wrestling is at today. Plainly, more than ever, die-hard WWE viewers see themselves as the dupes, not the co-conspirators, in Shoemaker’s words. It was merely a generation ago, the Attitude Era, that WWE and the fans held each other’s hand as they clotheslined both WCW and media advocacy groups as a winning tag team.

That’s what’s missed most from the Attitude Era: the inclusion. Not the bloodshed, not the suggestive stories, not Austin wreaking havoc with McMahon every whichway, but the symbiotic partnership between the powerhouse and the populace. WWE had become the Rocky Horror Picture Show, with fans dressing en masse in official t-shirts and shouting catchphrases in unison with the stars. Now the continental divide is such that WWE puts itself on man-made pedestal, looking downward with equal parts contempt and huckstering at the same fans that helped them win a war once.

Nothing drives more fans away than telling them how stupid you think they are. Insulting intelligence is one thing, but overtly showing someone their assigned place on the intuition seating chart keeps them from coming back. Those same people can remember when they had the good seats.

Follow columnist Justin Henry on Twitter .

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