Pro Wrestling Demystified: Suspension of Disbelief
My first “Pro Wrestling Demystified” article focused on wrestling being “fake.” If you haven’t read it, do so. I’m proud to bring you the next entry in this series. Today, we’re going to take a look at suspension of disbelief — a commonly used term in professional wrestling parlance when describing the total immersion of oneself in the storyline and/or match that’s taking place.
As pro wrestling fans, we don’t care that what we’re watching is entertainment. That’s the whole point! We’re not morons who think wrestlers are legitimately trying to harm one another. We go into it completely understanding that Vince McMahon, Triple H, and the rest of the creative team backstage is pulling the strings and laying everything out ahead of time for us. Frankly, I’m glad the wrestlers aren’t trying to actually harm each other. What kind of barbarian would I have to be to think otherwise? Most importantly, pro wrestling is all about suspension of disbelief. Like any great art form, when you get totally wrapped up in the storytelling and the magnificence of what’s on display, you momentarily forget that what you’re watching isn’t “real.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve cried while watching movies, TV shows, and even musicals because I was so moved by what I was witnessing. The same holds true in pro wrestling. I’ve gotten chills, jumped to my feet and cheered, and, in some cases, gotten choked up over what I’ve witnessed in the ring. It’s only human to do so. And who are we to judge other people for being human? If any form of art or entertainment generates that type of visceral reaction, then it’s doing its job.
For many decades pro wrestling existed behind a veil of secrecy. It was the era of kayfabe, which is a wrestling term that means the portrayal of wrestling as being genuine. Wrestlers protected the business and maintained kayfabe by living their gimmick. In other words, the babyfaces (i.e., good guys) wouldn’t be seen traveling with the heels (i.e., bad guys) because that would fly in the face of what they were portraying on TV each week. This wasn’t done for malicious purposes. It was done because pro wrestling started off as being legitimate many decades ago and gradually transitioned into the entertainment form we know today, and promoters didn’t want to risk losing their audience by owning up to the fact that it was more spectacle than sport.
Various events took place in the 1990s that broke the fourth wall, letting the audience in on the reality of pro wrestling. The biggest of these events is known as the “Montreal Screwjob” where Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWE (then WWF), ordered the referee to ring the bell during his main event to effectively strip the champion, Bret Hart, of his title. Why did this happen? Well, Bret was on his way to the competition, Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW), and Vince didn’t trust Bret. He thought Bret might show up with the championship belt on his competitor’s program, causing irreparable harm to the WWF. This screwjob took place on live TV and I watched it happen. After the bell rang, Bret got up and looked at Vince with confusion in his eyes. It quickly became apparent what was going on and chaos ensued as the broadcast came to a close. As a fan, I found this to be incredibly fascinating because it was a glimpse behind the curtain at the drama going on backstage.
Today, Vince McMahon and his contemporaries refer to wrestling as sports entertainment, which it is. It’s an amalgamation of athleticism and performance art. As my buddy and former three-time WCW world champion Diamond Dallas Page has said, “This fake stuff really hurts!” His point being that you can’t fake gravity. Wrestlers regularly get injured doing what they do, and they should be respected for the risks they take to entertain the fans. While wrestlers in WWE are of the highest caliber, mistakes happen. People break bones, tear muscles, bleed, and more. They sacrifice their bodies so fans like myself can marvel at their athletic virtuosity, and I’m eternally grateful that they do so.
While it’s true that reports of pro wrestling being more spectacle than sport surfaced long before Vince McMahon decided to publicly refer to it as sports entertainment, suspension of disbelief is more important than ever. Rather than thinking that wrestling is a shoot (i.e., opponents legitimately attacking one another), fans know it’s a work (i.e., planned out). As a result, the business has to try even harder to capture the attention of fans. This is infinitely more true when you think of our increasingly short attention spans due, in part, to the fact that a myriad of entertainment options and devices are vying for our time. Being completely compelled by and totally immersed in any form of entertainment or art is hard to come by these days. When it’s firing on all cylinders, pro wrestling can do just that.