Two things caused me to actually pay attention to professional wrestling in the past two weeks. And both of them were deaths.
The first was the fictional death of Wrestling's head honcho Vince McMahon. For those of you who haven't heard, McMahon, who has long been a character on the show, was "killed" when his limo was blown up. The audience inside the arena was shown a video of McMahon getting into the limo, ostensibly outside the arena, and the limo exploding. At the same time a boom was heard from outside. When audiences filed out, they were greeted by the site of a burning limousine. Of course, the video was prerecorded and the burning limo was another vehicle all together.
Now, I pay 0 attention to wrestling. None. But this drew my attention. Really?! They killed Vince McMahon?! The burning limo trick was absolutely awesome, a terrific theatrical move, but theatrics alone wouldn't have gotten me to pay attention. Instead it was the death of one of wrestling's oldest, most recognizable characters. This got play in the national media, on Howard Stern, etc., and got people talking in a way I can't remember people talking about a wrestling storyline before. It made me, someone who has never watched wrestling ever, sort of want to watch and see what had happened, or at least see the death.
If you're a comic book reader, you know where I'm going with this. About three months ago, Captain America was killed in the pages of Cap #25. Maybe you heard about it. It would be hard not to - it was all over the news, front page of some major Metropolitan paper or other. My mom IMed me to say, "Oh my god, did you hear Captain America died?" Marvel EIC Joe Quesada went on CNN, the Colbert Report, probably some other places. Fox News criticized Marvel for killing Captain America in war time.
None of these people gave a good goddamn about Steve Rogers the day before he was killed. Captain America languished with sales of less than 50,000 a month. But as soon as he was dead, people came flocking to the comic shops trying to buy anything Captain America. Sure some of this was collector speculation, but some of this was the exact same thing that happened with me and Vince McMahon. There was a sense that something important had happened.
The second thing that made me watch wrestling recently seems a little tasteless to bring into the discussion, but you've already guessed what it is: The real life death of Chris Benoit. What I knew about Chris Benoit last night wouldn't have filled 10kb. But after the room mate eulogized him to me for hours as WWE replaced its normal program - what would now have been a fairly tacky three hour special on "Who Killed Vince McMahon?" - with a three hour tribute to Benoit, I got the impression that he was a pretty great guy. Heck, I started to kind of be a fan of this guy. "The Wolverine," they called him, because he was a diminutive Canadian with a bad attitude. Or something like that. Which was pretty cool, but not nearly so cool as when they showed this clip of him as "The Pegasus Kid" in Japan's Dragon Gate circuit. By the end I was sort of a fan of Chris Benoit... but I had to remind myself he was actually dead.
Vince McMahon is not actually dead, and neither is Captain America. Both will return to fictional life before too awful long. When they do, they might have a few new fans thanks to their deaths, but most will have stopped caring. But both fictional deaths caused a sensation and got people through the turnstiles. The irony of using a character's death as a promotional tool is obvious: the character that got people interested is the one who's no longer appearing. As with Benoit, we become fans of those no longer with us. Yet these fictional deaths have more drawing power than any single thing other thing you could do with the character.
When I started this post, I thought the reason for all this was that people were hungry to see something significant happen, and if you're not paying attention, death is the only thing of clear significance in a serial medium. But the Benoit thing has made me reconsider. Don't we do this when anyone dies, fictional or otherwise? When a major figure in public life kicks the bucket, be it entertainment or politics, don't we show retrospectives and devote more screen time to them than ever?
The truth is that humanity is obsessed with death. We are creatures who understand our own transience. Death is the thing that gives shape and meaning to all experiences. No story is really valid until it has an ending, and once that ending arrives, all interpretation of that story is by way of its ending. In fables, the moral is derived from the end position of all participants. In real life, there is no end position other than death, and it is only after a death that a person's life and importance can be made a story in our minds with all due reverence.
In a way, continual mediums like comics and wrestling imitate life in that they appear never to end. Each story may well have a conclusion, but no conclusion is final. The characters go on, have another adventure, and never have that deciding moment when they are put into context. Until you kill them off.
In the end, I still don't give a damn about professional wrestling. But for a little while, I was a fan of the Pegasus Kid.