After zombies crowded the ring at WWE’s recent Backlash pay-per-view, fans recoiled at the “cringe” inclusion that saw The Miz and John Morrison savaged and eaten. It was as a tie-in for the release of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead (in which former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista stars), but the outcry labelled it as a travesty and a betrayal of wrestling. AEW’s Chris Jericho even claimed the Zombies Lumberjack Match “set wrestling back 30 years”. But criticisms for the event fail to acknowledge that professional wrestling, including in WWE, has always taken place in a fantasy world.
While recent WWE programming has attempted to buff out the “realism” of wrestling by focussing on athleticism, it’s hard to avoid the fact that wrestling naturally exists in an entertainment bubble somewhere between sci-fi and fantasy.
That’s even before you start discussing WWE’s long history with necromancers, vampires, yetis and zombies.
The rabbit hole gets deeper the more you think about it — but it starts with the existence of “alternate” reality shows like Total Divas and Total Bellas, which exist in opposition to and alongside WWE Raw and Smackdown.
While these shows were originally created to be throwaway reality shows that platformed WWE’s women in a time when they barely got airtime, they quickly evolved into intriguing (and usually entertaining) mini-documentaries that reveal a behind-the-scenes look at the world of wrestling.
But while early seasons of Total Divas focussed on the ‘reality’ behind the scenes and included wrestlers like Naomi (aka Trinity) going by their real life names, later seasons expanded on Raw and Smackdown by exploring how staged WWE angles bled into the ‘real world’ despite their scripted nature.
In one episode of season nine, wrestler Nia Jax gets angry at Ronda Rousey for coming into a wrestling ring and delivering a speech about being the best women’s wrestler around. The speech, like much of WWE’s show, is scripted.
But this episode of Total Divas is presented as reality.
In later scenes, Carmella and Corey Graves discuss the bullying and resentment caused by their relationship, and Carmella breaks down over how she’s being treated on social media. So while Jax is reacting to “fake” events, Carmella is reacting to “real” events.
It’s wrestling, right? You’re not supposed to think about it too hard. But if you do, the ‘realism’ in WWE unravels pretty fast. The only way every WWE show can exist in harmony is to assume they take place in alternate worlds. It’s a stretch, but it’s also the only explanation for how WWE can accomodate worlds where zombies are real and fake at the same time.
It’s on this weird cusp of reality that WWE operates, and why we get things like zombies, demons and vampires alongside relationship drama and hair-pulling.
To complain that WWE Backlash was “too over-the-top” or that the zombie lumberjacks were “cringe” is to deny WWE a huge part of their history, and what makes the shows so fun. Sure, WWE has presented its wrestling as more realistic over the last decade — but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for supernatural shenanigans.
The Undertaker, one of WWE’s most iconic wrestlers, is canonically a zombie who returns from the dead again and again. Breakout character The Fiend is a demonic split-personality of another wrestler named Bray Wyatt. Alexa Bliss has recently been possessed by an evil spirit and has the ability to shoot fire from her palms.
Even Randy Orton, a wrestler with a fairly generic “good wrestler” gimmick, has somehow returned from the dead after being burned alive.
Zombies are frankly the least of the issues WWE’s wrestlers face on a daily basis, and there’s far darker beings lurking in the shadows. In this strange, alternate reality, anything is possible.
Were the zombies at WWE Backlash a little bit silly? Sure. But are they setting wrestling back by 30 years? Absolutely not.
Modern professional wrestling shows have never been about wrestling. They’ve been about silly antics, flimsy feuds and (sometimes) heartfelt narratives. They’ve also been about zombies, ghostly possessions, and people having their houses burned down.
It’s time to embrace wrestling as the silly fantasy drama it’s always been, and to enjoy everything that comes along with that — even when it’s zombies. Trust me, it’s much more fun when you learn to let go.