In On the Undertaker

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My mom thought watching professional wrestling would turn me gay, so I usually saw the WWF only at my dad’s house, on his twelve-397px-Undertaker_oldschool_2inch black and white television with aluminum foil for an antenna. Every other week I would stare at two hours of gyrating pretty boys, unexamined racism, heavy breathing, and the occasional obese man whose blubbery folds could endure endless punishment until he mercifully ended his match by sitting on his opponent. There was a Jewish accountant wrestler who would berate the crowd for cheating on their taxes. There was “Kamala the Ugandan Giant.” There was a clown. The greytoned pixels on my dad’s tiny television gave all this a timeless, literary quality, in the same way that Cary Grant can cross his eyes and do a spit-take and still end a scene without any champagne on his lapels.

On friends’ regular TVs, it was different; the colors on WWF Superstars seemed like they had been invented just for the Macho King’s sunglasses or the Ultimate Warrior’s arm tassels. They were in a new prism, one too vibrant to exist outside of a true, fake world. The only character who was the same in black-and-white or color was the Undertaker. His legend was slapdash, to the point that, if you thought about it, you’d realize he was misnamed; in his black hat and leather gloves, he cut the figure of an archetypical gravedigger, while his manager Paul Bearer’s garish mortician’s makeup and cheap suit actually typified an undertaker. In between-match promos, Paul Bearer handled the microphone, sounding like a cross between a preacher and a ghost on a “Spooky Sounds” cassette, caressing a golden urn, while the Undertaker made angry faces at the camera. The urn was supposed to hold some sort of key to the Undertaker’s power, which was never explained. I think the idea was that it had brought him back from hell. Sometimes Paul Bearer would hit a dude in the head with it.

The golden age of professional wrestling is whenever you’re twelve years old. You know superheroes aren’t real but still believe that, with a couple breaks, one day you might be one. The bad prove good on a whim, clearing blotchy consciences with an efficacy otherwise unseen outside of Stridex ads. You suspend disbelief on purpose, wanting things to be this way. At a time when you’ve begun to pose that you don’t care about things that really, really matter, it’s comforting to watch two men pretend to punch each other in the nuts.

The Undertaker was 6-foot-10. He wrestled in pants, not tights or briefs. He could walk across the ropes of the ring like a circus performer before leaping off—useless peacocking, but not without it’s own beauty. He never lost. He followed his finishing move, “The Tombstone,” by crossing his opponent’s arms over his chest while rolling his eyes back in his head so nothing showed but the whites, a parody of demonic possession, as the referee counted out the pin. It was terror made goofy, and you couldn’t tell which was the original intention.

Years later, I lived with a punk named Joe Piglet, who interned at the WWE offices in Connecticut (at some point the World Wildlife Fund won a lawsuit over the rights to the acronym; a rare victory for the effette). Joe paid for cable for the house, with the understanding that wrestling preempted anyone else’s TV watching.

Wrestling had changed.

The easy stereotypes and gentle homoeroticism I had grown up with had been replaced with something realer and nastier—the new crop of wrestlers had normal names and acted like the dads of my friends who had really bad childhoods. The character who had been a villain years ago because he flaunted his good manners now jabbed at his crotch while telling his opponents to “suck it.” The Undertaker was still around, but his character had evolved into something like a biker, and not the scary Altamont kind either, but the kind you might see eating brunch silently with his tired wife at a sidewalk café on Bleecker Street. Paul Bearer, apparently, had died. In real life.

All the new wrestlers wore all black, all the time. They made a lot of angry faces at the camera.

I used to imagine what it would look like if you constructed a perfect sphere out of a one-way mirror. What would you see inside? Would it just suck in light and show you a vacuum of nothing and darkness, or would there still be something within that nothing if you chose to see it? What gets reflected when the only thing in sight is a reflection? The Undertaker had captured the essential elements that make up the psyche of a twelve-year-old boy (at least one twelve-year-old boy)—the goofiness and terror and unearned vanity and wanting to be taken seriously and just plain wanting—and reflected them back. The reflection was black, in color or in black-and-white, but it lived and moved and clotheslined Jake “The Snake” Roberts, and you could still, faintly, make out your figure in it.  The men that reflected this reflection, even the simulacrum of the man who originated it, had made it grow darker and blurrier, and then held it to their crotches to shove your face in it and make you admit that you saw yourself there.

This, too, is true (fake). Despite his popularity (even my black friends liked him), the Undertaker himself was always on the fringes of whatever larger story was being told in the wrestling universe. The same silent, black-and-white void that let him reflect what you wanted to see also left him unable to walk the everyman’s tightrope of personality and facelessness, as navigated by the Hulk Hogans, the Tobey paul-bearer-in-ring-219x241Maguires, the Barack Obamas of the world. So when the Undertaker’s gestalt, though not the man himself, became the organizing principle of his universe, larger, crueler forces corrupted its dumb, macabre absurdity. Sometimes, when the good guys win, they become the bad guys. It’s a hard lesson to learn, and maybe one that some kid who had grown up with Andre the Giant and Rowdy Roddy Piper saw in the black-and-white and vibrating neon world of wrestling of the early ‘90s.

If change always changes, the question becomes one of how much an individual can do to influence the shape of these reorganizations. The shells of all bivalves grow according to patterns set by a fixed logorithmic spiral, but wouldn’t exist in the first place if not for the life inside. Was The Undertaker really a cipher in a trenchcoat, a dead man wrestling, or was he animated by genuine intention, the full spectrum cloaked in a parody of death’s black shroud? A void is only nihilistic if the believers stop looking inside. Into the turnbuckle, a flying elbow off the top rope, the ref never sees it, but no one ever believes the ref anyway. In my vague memories of the times Paul Bearer actually opened the urn that was intimated to hold the key to the Undertaker’s power, sometimes there was a beam of light inside, sometimes there was only ash. I don’t know which, if either of these, is true (fake), or if there’s even a difference between the two; the ash to which everything will be reduced and the light from which everything arises. I don’t know if this is funny or terrifying.


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