Fans of The Simpsons will be familiar with the ‘Treehouse of Horror’ specials, annual Halloween-themed episodes that exist outside of the show’s normal continuity.
I’m not sure how good they are in modern times (is anybody?) but in the series’ heyday they allowed for outrageous, over-the-top entertainment that couldn’t otherwise exist.
But imagine how baffling it would be if these specials cropped up at any time throughout the year, and rather than being safely self-contained, were actually part of the canonical storyline.
That’s modern-day WWE.
Yes, I’m talking about the WrestleMania Backlash zombies. How could I resist - especially as they’ve threatened to overshadow one of WWE’s better shows of 2021. The WWE Championship match was a blast, the main event delivered in spades, and the respective women’s title pictures both carried on their form from ‘Mania.
But also, guys: there were zombies.
It was a surprise for sure, but not a huge one. There have been moments covering WWE where something has completely thrown me, and I’ve had to make a conscious effort to focus on the rest of the show, but this wasn’t an example. I’m not alone in that; the general response online seemed to be somewhere between a mocking laugh and a frustrated sigh. When John Morrison first revealed the zombies backstage it was certainly an eyebrow-raiser, but not much more.
Why is that? Perhaps because we were quickly aware of it being a shallow movie plug, or perhaps it’s not been long enough since we last saw zombies (at NXT's Halloween Havoc, which was at least seasonally appropriate.)
But I don’t think that fully explains our collective eyeroll.
This should have angered us more, as it was a more blatant affront to our sensibilities as wrestling fans. It took place on a main roster Network special, in a feud otherwise devoid of demonic or supernatural elements, for no reason other than to promote Batista’s next blockbuster. If this had happened five years ago during the height of the anti-Reigns movement, it would have set WWE’s disgruntled fanbase ablaze.
Maybe we’ve finally become desensitised. Or at least desensitised to this particular brand of pseudo-booking, because over the past year or so, WWE has completely fallen in love with ‘spooky stuff’ - a term I promise I’m not using for lack of a better one. I truly feel ‘stuff’ accurately sums up the creative effort involved: a series of half-baked ideas and a few special effects, only for the whole thing to be discarded and never referred to again. 'Stuff' indeed.
By my estimation, the seeds were sown with the 2019 debut of Bray Wyatt’s Fiend persona, and the infamous Hell in a Cell match with Seth Rollins a couple of months later. Come the pandemic era, with no live audience to fool, Vince McMahon’s inexplicable Halloween fantasy could really blossom.
He didn’t even have the decency to wait until October, serving up The Horror Show at Extreme Rules in the middle of July. Instead of gearing up for the biggest party of the summer, we were predicting the winner of Wyatt vs. Strowman in a murky swamp, and wondering how on earth they’d fake an eyeball removal on the undercard.
But the stipulations weren’t the main culprit here. The most insulting thing was the lack of continuity.
Rey Mysterio’s eye miraculously came back, while Braun survived being boiled alive in the bayou. I understand that wrestlers have survived outrageous danger for decades - Chris Jericho was back on Dynamite far too soon for my liking - but I’d at least appreciate some sort of explanation, even a passing comment on the circumstances. We live in an era where Raw recaps its own opening segment every 15 minutes, but Braun Strowman can’t tell us how he survived the swamp fight?
Mid-2020 was frustrating enough, even with such relatively short storylines having meaningless endings. But come the end of the year we got the ballad of Alexa, Randy and Bray - and that certainly took things to a new level.
For weeks upon weeks, Raw became a show centred around a big, spooky set-piece, one which threw the overall tone completely out of the window. On the positive side, with genuine time and effort invested in the feud, surely there’d be a big payoff on this occasion...
Yep. Wishful thinking.
Instead, at WrestleMania 37 it became apparent that this draining epic would also have no ultimate meaning. The Fiend made his big return and, against all common booking logic, lost thanks to a Bliss betrayal. All three key players found themselves instantly worse off as a result.
Orton quickly forgot all about his brush with pure evil, and pivoted immediately into a friendship with the local stoner. Alexa took on the Fiend’s role, and now appears to have gotten herself caught in the mire that is the women’s tag division. Worst of all, Wyatt has barely been on TV at all.
This is where the situation gets worrying, because these attention-grabbing segments might not have compelling kayfabe consequences, but they do real world damage to the talent and the overall product. In a vacuum, the Backlash zombies are just a harmless piece of Botchamania-fodder to look back on, like Titus falling under the ring or Hogan forgetting the venue’s name. But over the past year, WWE have been pumping non-sequiturs into the product with increasing regularity.
This all links back to WWE’s well-documented obsession with ‘moments’, with the horror genre often simply used as a shortcut to create one. The promotion’s modern prioritisation of moments over patiently-built payoffs was a tonal annoyance in the 2010s, but things have worsened significantly since then.
The previous decade was peppered with instances where the ‘moment’ rudely took centre stage, knocking the surrounding storyline out of shape in the process - but at least there WAS a storyline in the first place. Nowadays, many of WWE’s moments simply happen, and then they stop - almost existing independently of the feuds around them, because they just feel so out of place.
Almost, but not quite, and that’s where the harm is done. As much as WWE presents them as such, these instances aren't stand-alone comedy bits, or mini horror movies separate from the rest of the product. They exist in the same world, because everything in a wrestling show is innately linked, and we’re expected to suspend our disbelief for the duration.
WWE seems determined to tell us that certain parts of its product don’t matter in the long term, but that’s a very dangerous game. If enough areas of the show stop mattering to us, pretty soon it all will.