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The Absence of the Heels
March 11, 2005

by Erin Anderson
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com


When was the last time a wrestler scared you?
No, I don't mean when Lita nearly telescoped her spine on a botched suicide dive. When was the last time a wrestling villain was legitimately scary? Rick mentioned on Wednesday the time when the Undertaker locked the Ultimate Warrior into a coffin. I remember that vividly, and I was definitely scared by that. But I was also only a little kid

at the time, so I can't objectively look at that particular instance.

Considering that the term "villain" doesn't even apply to most of WWE's heels, it's no wonder I had to wrack my brain to answer my own question. Sure, heels may technically fall under the definition: "A deliberate scoundrel or criminal." But "villain" implies evil; the word has a sinister undertone to it. Today, most heels are more easily classified as assholes or badasses. What I'm looking for is a heel who, when facing off against your favorite wrestler, makes you legitimately fear for his (or her) safety? A heel you wouldn't want to meet outside of the wrestling arena? I don't mean a heel who might beat you up. I mean a heel who might beat you up, dismember you, and send a few body parts to friends and family members via FedEx, just because he thinks you deserve it.

The answer is simple: there isn't one. Today, wrestling is more focused on getting the audience to hate the heels rather than fear them. We aren't afraid for our favorite wrestlers; we just cheer them on in hopes that they shut the heels up. I assume this is because it's easier to create an asshole than it is to create a frightening human being. Creating a scary character takes imagination, something the WWE creative team is sorely lacking.

Yes, they've tried to, and failed miserably almost every time. The most recent attempt is the revamping of Kane after his unmasking (I'll mention Kane a lot in this column, because he is WWE's idea of a scary heel. I like Kane, and most of my criticisms are not leveled at him but instead at the writers who have gotten their greasy paws on him.) On paper, the premise must have looked good: his scars were in his head, and only a truly delusional, psychotic man could have worn a mask all those years to cover up perceived deformities. It could have been scary, and Glen Jacobs has proved on several occasions how committed he is to portraying his character. In execution, it tanked. So where did WWE go wrong?

When I think of great, scary villains, my mind always goes back to Hannibal Lecter. He's arguably the greatest villain in the history of cinema, and he is equally frightening in Thomas Harris's books (I'll keep my comparisons limited to the movies, because most everyone has seen them.) I realize a villain of that magnitude would be impossible to re-create in the wrestling world. I don't expect a wrestler to act as well as Anthony Hopkins, nor do I expect the writers to churn out Harris-caliber prose every week. I would ordinarily say that a wrestler who is a cannibal would be an unacceptable character for WWE, but this is the same company that brought us rape, necrophilia, forced marriage, miscarriage, and a storyline in which a woman screwed her much-older husband to death. Cannibalism can't be too far off. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that Hannibal as-is would be a no-go. Besides, any attempt to copy the guy would be a ridiculous knockoff, and the fans would spot it a mile away.

But Hannibal has all the characteristics of a great villain, and they can be broken down and applied to a form of entertainment as basic as wrestling. And quite frankly, I'm tired of assholes on my TV screen. I just want someone who's totally evil and scares the shit out of me. Is it too much to ask for just one good, scary heel? Only a few qualities are required, and it's not exactly rocket science:

1. Intelligence.

One of the scariest things about Hannibal Lecter was his intellect. A monster is always more frightening when he has a brain, because his deplorable actions come from a place of reason. A true villain doesn't enjoy doing something just because it is wrong (and since the Attitude Era, would more likely be a babyface in the tradition of Steve Austin.) No, a true villain doesn't see his actions as being wrong in the first place. He knows that there will be a moral backlash to his actions, but he won't understand why because he views his actions as perfectly justified.

Perhaps I should alter this trait on the sliding-scale of wrestling intelligence: just get a character who isn't a total idiot. This provision immediately disqualifies Snitsky from the "scary heel" category. Same goes for Heidenreich. Most of the men behind the characters are pretty sharp guys, so the intelligence of the wrestler portraying the character usually isn't the issue. The writing for the character is.

Take Kane, for instance. Forcing women into marriage, tombstoning the CEO of the company you work for, and electrocuting men in the balls with car batteries are activities more likely to convince me that you're a fucking idiot than convince me how evil you are. Had his marriage to Lita stemmed from some sort of preexisting angle, I might have been a little more lenient in my criticism of it, but no: Kane's desire to marry Lita and have a kid came out of thin air. An intelligent person does not act without motivation.

Let's examine the other end of the spectrum: Triple H. One of his many nicknames, the Cerebral Assassin, explicitly tells the audience that he is smart and therefore dangerous. It's a nice idea, but in my experience as a wrestling fan (since late 2001), it's nothing more than a hyperbolic moniker that Trips himself came up with to stroke his own ego. Sure, when he speaks, you can discern that he's a reasonably intelligent guy. But for the most part, I just see him as a guy with ridiculous Rube Goldberg-esque schemes and a big sledgehammer/phallic symbol.

He's like a Bond villain: his evil plans are always so overblown and complicated that anyone with an IQ exceeding his waistband could figure them out. His motivation for his latest plan: avoid facing Batista at Wrestlemania. Rather than go the simple route of paying someone to beat up Batista and blaming it on Bradshaw, he instead has several Smackdown! promos air on the Titantron, gives several unconvincing pep talks, cuts a few promos, and arranges a vehicular assault. WWE finally did get one right when Batista saw through the smoke and mirrors, but the idea that Triple H is a deadly genius is a difficult pill to swallow.

A great villain shouldn't tell you how smart he is (mmm... anvils.) A great villain simply is smart. I've spoken about this quality before, and Mick Foley has mastered it. Raven, on the other hand, has not. Neither has Triple H.

Intelligence. Logic. Reason. Wrestling writers often joke, "But this is WWE, so I'm asking too much." But really, we are not.

2. Some Amount of Likeability.

Hannibal Lecter was a charming man. When we first encounter him in "Silence of the Lambs" (yes, I'm excluding "Manhunter," because nobody can touch Anthony Hopkins, in my humble opinion), he's engaging and almost likeable, despite his jail setting and creepy manner of speaking. You might hate the guy, but he does make you chuckle, and for a while, you forget that you're listening to a brutal serial killer speak.

And that is what is so frightening about him. How could a man so educated, so cultured, so witty, be capable of his unspeakable crimes? It's shocking to see Lecter attack two security guards in the latter  half of the film after seeing him so helpless for the first half; it's a jarring juxtaposition. Bad guys are supposed to be easily distinguishable from the rest of society - at least, we all think that they should be. The truth is, the most despicable of our real life villains are not.

And this becomes a problem with wrestling. The need to so clearly draw a line between the good guys and the bad is almost cartoon-like. Heels sneer on their way to the ring, they all hate the audience, and they only get along with other heels. I'm not even suggesting that all bad guys should fall into the gray area of the heel-face continuum. But a scary, evil-to-the-core heel should not spend his every second on camera trying to project "scary" to the audience. Crack a joke. Have a backstage segment with a babyface that isn't hostile. Have a backstage segment with another heel that is hostile. Don't take every opportunity to cheat when the ref's back is turned. Don't show distaste for the live audience - if they know your character, the boos will come. Don't beg for them.

The Heel-o-meter shouldn't always be dialed up to 11, because a character will quickly become predictable that way. If a heel does and says things that likeable characters say and do, it makes the evil things more unpredictable. And unpredictability is scary. Remember when Gene Snitsky's music hit while Christy Hemme shot t-shirts into the crowd? Even if some people were appalled, nobody was actually frightened because they knew Snitsky was coming down the ramp to beat up the girl. There was no chance of anything else happening because Snitsky is supposed to be a bad guy, and randomly beating up people with no particular motivation to do so is something bad guys are supposed to do. Snitsky never does anything else.

On the other hand, if Snitsky took to heart some of the above advice, I might have actually held my breath when he approached that ring in anticipation of what he might or might not do. Instead, I got bored and waited for Kane to show up like he always does.

3. Self-Awareness and Premeditation.

Hannibal Lecter never acted in a fit of rage, nor did he let his emotions get the best of him. Every move was carefully planned out and executed. An atrocious act becomes far more frightening when you know it took time and careful consideration to carry out.

Kane got this one right when he impregnated Lita, but he fails to meet the other two qualifications I've established. Mick Foley nailed all three in his feud leading up to his hardcore match with Randy Orton, but he was a babyface at the time. Triple H spends so much time plotting that he never stops to ask himself, "Is this the smartest idea in the world?" Edge often loses his cool and acts out of anger, so he's out. Flair is just plain nuts. JBL is too funny to even be considered.

And so I return to my original question: when was the last time a wrestler scared you?

For me, it was in late 2003, and the man is Kurt Angle. Eddie Guerrero had somehow ended up in a match with Paul Heyman, with the stipulation that his wrestle with his hands tied (in this case, handcuffed) behind his back. Angle had earlier been established as not even being in the city that night. The Eddie/Heyman match went on for a few amusing minutes, until Angle made a surprise appearance at the top of the ramp.

Kurt Angle is an intelligent man. He also has a natural talent for being goofy and getting a laugh out of the crowd, even when he is a heel, and he prides himself on his wrestling ability and doesn't need to use standard heel cheating tactics to win a match. You often forget how vicious of a competitor he can be because of that. And he had no doubt carefully planned his supposed absence and surprise entrance that night on Smackdown! Eddie stood alone in the ring, handcuffed, with his only way out blocked by his own lowrider.

Maybe it was the intense look in Angle's eyes as he took his time making his way down the ramp. Maybe it was the way he slowly taped up his fists, one at a time, without ever looking away from Eddie. Maybe it was the surprise of seeing him there at all, or maybe it was the look on Eddie's face when he knew that he was a dead man.

That moment? It was genuinely frightening, as was the beating that followed it. It took the right man, the motivation, and a simple plan to create seven minutes of chilling footage. Hannibal would have been proud.


Erin Anderson is an Atlanta native and a student at Georgia State University. It is unwise to piss her off, because she is a Criminal Justice major and in a few years will have the power to arrest your sorry ass.

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