Image Source: wwe.com
It is a thrill and an honor that Tim Kail of the Work of Wrestling has written a piece for The Spectacle of Excess! And what a great thing, he took on the concept of spectacle in wrestling, put his own brand on the underlying idea that inspires this blog. Enjoy Tim’s musings (a manifesto, almost) about the nature of spectacle in professional wrestling. –Andrea
We will not remember most of our lives.

This is because the majority of our existence plays out in mundane, robotic activities. As sentient beings, people are not content with that kind of existence. Not only do we yearn to punctuate our existence with experiences of significance and splendor, some of us want to etch our name into the very fabric of the universe so that we might become immortal. The desire to have memorable experiences and the desire to be remembered is how we arrive at art. The Audience consciously or subconsciously wants to be jolted out of their apathy and the artist wants to defy death. Audience and artist experience communion through this process, reminding each other that life is not only worth living, but incredibly precious. One is not necessarily more important than the other because one would not exist without the other. Where we once huddled in caves and carved tools out of stone to take care of each other, we now huddle in theaters and arenas to tell stories.

But what happens when the stories aren’t enough? Seeking this experience, a deviation from the mundane norm is not unlike seeking a new high. When that high has plateaued, watching movies, playing video games, reading novels, listening to new music, and watching television can easily fade into the mundane mush of easily-forgotten experience. Similarly, for the artist, relentlessly creating in a particular medium can lead to malaise, discontent, and even disillusionment. What was once inspiring and intoxicating becomes dull and uninteresting.

What can audiences and artists turn to when they become tired and jaded, when simply telling good stories and partaking in familiar rituals is not enough?

Spectacle is the answer.

Professional wrestling doesn’t merely epitomize spectacle. Professional wrestling epitomizes the virtue of spectacle.

Pro-wrestling is an extreme form of storytelling where its primary players literally endure pain so as to effectively tell their story. It is impossible to be a professional wrestler and not, in some way, risk bodily harm. The extreme nature of that fundamental conceit of the medium makes pro-wrestling inherently a form of spectacle for both the audience and the artist. This pain, combined with the grandeur of flamboyant moves, heightened dramatic rivalries, broad displays of emotion, elaborate fire-works shows, booming entrance songs, and a singular focus on moving crowds toward The Moment of Pop (public catharsis) creates a highly controlled, spectacle-oriented form of performance that serves as the ultimate jolt to the apathetic soul. It is impossible to not feel refreshed, perhaps even reborn, after participating in a good pro-wrestling show. Where other mediums certainly serve that same purpose, other mediums may be examining a particular worldview, philosophy, political perspective, or societal issue that’s not necessarily designed to induce an uplifting catharsis. Also, when other mediums rely too heavily on spectacle, they often compromise their integrity and lose the value of their story in favor of wowing audiences with empty special effects (see modern cinema for a myriad of examples of this).

Spectacle is woven into the very fabric of professional wrestling, and so it’s able to create massive, elaborate displays of drama without necessarily compromising the integrity of its stories. For example, The Undertaker’s entrance (the most well-known form of pro-wrestling spectacle) needs to be as grande and operatic as it is or else it would fail to tell The Undertaker’s story. In fact, the more elaborate an Undertaker entrance is, the better it will typically be received and comprehended by the audience. If The Undertaker walked to the ring wearing a tee-shirt and jeans without any musical accompaniment, no dry ice, and no black-light then not only would audiences feel deprived, they wouldn’t even be able to make any sense out of what they were witnessing. Pro-wrestling must amplify reality if it’s going to be as effective as possible.

Pro-wrestling is not immune to the dangers of spectacle, however. When pro-wrestling takes its already extreme form of storytelling to even greater extremes, it veers into masochistic territory and reveals the worst in us; a public thirst for blood. This is why professional wrestling has a responsibility to itself to keep the reigns on its form of storytelling. Without care and consideration, pro-wrestlers, promoters, and audiences can push themselves to a point where they are only satisfied by blatantly life-threatening maneuvers or cartoonish displays of violence (gimmicky scenes of torture, sex, or abuse). This kind of match or skit is often appropriately dismissed by veteran pro-wrestlers as a “high spot fest” or a “car crash” or “trash TV”. When pro-wrestling injects even more extreme spectacles into its already spectacular form it becomes redundant and even hard to watch. Such moments have, mostly for the worse, defined public perception of the medium.

Given that pro-wrestlers must endure pain to perfect their craft, it’s more essential in pro-wrestling than perhaps any other medium that creative decisions always mean something. There’s very little room for error. To risk paralysis purely for a cheap pop or to depict acts of abuse that could only be adequately presented and examined in mediums like literature or film is to negate the medium’s artistic merit and corrupt the ways in which it represents spectacle’s value to society.

The best pro-wrestlers are aware of this. They understand that it’s important to condition an audience to be moved to an emotional high through the execution of even the safest of maneuvers and the most believable of exchanges, saving the biggest risks for when they’ll receive the greatest emotional return on their physical investments. The ideal conditions for an experience of spectacle are those where the artist maintains control of their creation so as to ensure the audience maintains control of their lust.

And, at its best, pro-wrestling is able to strike that appropriate balance in a way that no other medium can, offering controlled bursts of spectacle in genuinely beneficial ways. It is a completely unconstrained, unapologetic purging of everything human beings bottle up in their brains.

This is one of the reasons people love it so much. It reminds them, without reservation or qualification, that life is more than a forgettable collection of mundane moments. Pro-wrestling reminds us that life is vibrant, loud, ugly, angry, colorful, and overflowing with magic and wonder. It is the perfect means of shaking one’s self out of boredom and staking a claim on immortality.

The spectacle of professional wrestling encourages us to remember that life can be beautiful.


Tim Kail is the creator of The Work of Wrestling website & podcast. He has a MFA in creative writing from Hofstra University where he was mentored by award-winning author Julia Markus. He earned his BA in English Literature at Long Island University. The Work of Wrestling represents his combined love of arts analysis and professional wrestling. He’s been writing THE RAW REVIEW since 2012, and his favorite wrestlers include (in no particular order) Steve Austin, Mick Foley, The Rock, CM Punk, The Four Horsewomen, & Sami Zayn.

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