Last Sunday was the WWE’s Hell in a Cell pay-per-view event, a much-heralded set of wrestling matches that take the cage-match concept to a more brutal extreme. The main event, which pitted Dean Ambrose against Seth Rollins, brought an even creepier moment.
Suddenly, the arena lights went out, leaving fans watching from home staring at a darkened screen as a gravelly voice spoke in tongues. When the picture returned, Ambrose stood transfixed by a glowing, ominous hologram shrouded in smoke, out of which came Bray Wyatt, the "Eater of Worlds."
The scene was intended to be scary, but there was one problem: The audience was delighted to see him, welcoming the villain back with a sea of glowing cellphones.
Wrestlers using spooky, scary or even occult gimmicks is nothing new. Even wrestling legend Gorilla Monsoon once appeared as a savage Manchurian giant before he became Bobby Heenan's bespectacled straight man.
Then there was WCW booker Kevin Sullivan, who used to lead a Satanic cult called the Army of Darkness.
The Godfather was a voodoo witchdoctor known as Papa Shango.
And of course you can't talk about scary wrestlers without mentioning the Undertaker.
All of these wrestlers tapped into audience fears to generate hatred for their villainous characters, and increase sympathy and concern for anointed heroes they faced in the ring.
The Undertaker provides a particularly interesting case. For nearly half of his two-decade career, fans cheered the evil character because he followed the principle of fair play. Once Taker started following the rules of wrestling —and punishing those who didn't — he became a good guy in the eyes of fans.
As sacrosanct as the Fair Play Doctrine is, there's something even more important than that, which is what made Bray Wyatt a fan favorite in Hell in a Cell. Wyatt boasts an unusual and catchy theme song, a crowd participation-friendly entrance, an outlandish throwback gimmick, and phenomenal ring work.
He's Irwin R. Schyster' son and he talks like a character from a Twin Peaks/Justified crossover – even when he's attacking guys we love. How can we not cheer him? In other words, he offers everything fans love about wrestling in one hefty, hirsute package.
The nature of a monster in WWE has changed considerably since the early 1990s, evolving from terrifying villain to corporate jerk.
WWE's scariest bad guys these days are more interested in costing you your job than your soul. Even Kane, who made his debut as the physically and emotionally scarred, fire-controlling half-brother of the Undertaker, has not so subtly tweaked the nature of terror he inspires. He traded in his mask for a suit and now competes in dress slacks as Corporate Kane, WWE's Director of Operations. Naturally, he still controls fire.
In more ways than one, Bray Wyatt is a throwback to an earlier style of wrestling. His build isn't the pretty-boy, shredded physique that WWE has favored for so long. He intends to frighten you not from behind a Brooks Brothers ensemble, but from an outfit that looks like it came out of a Goodwill bin.
Wyatt has struggled to get the audience to hate him; many fans prefer to cheer on the Eater of Worlds in matches against wrestlers such as John Cena and Chris Jericho.
But just as a good heel can inspire sympathy in a face, a good hero can generate righteous rage against a villain. And if anyone in late 2014 WWE has the crowd support to get folks hating Bray Wyatt, it's Dean Ambrose. We’ll have to watch to see if he can manage that.
Guest author Aubrey Sitterson also hosts his own wrestling web series, The Straight Shoot. Click here to view the most recent episode.