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‘The Fiend’ Bray Wyatt steals the show at WWE SummerSlam

Bray Wyatt’s re-emergence is proof that no WWE Superstar is beyond repair.

The saccharine “Firefly Fun House” intro distorts and fades away, giving way to host Bray Wyatt’s desperate plea over the past several months: “Let him in.” The LEDs covering every square inch of the SummerSlam stage slowly black out, section by section. A heavy remix of “Broken Out in Love” screeches over the arena’s speaker system, as a horrifying lantern fades into focus — a lantern fashioned out of Bray Wyatt’s severed head. The Fiend is here.

Sunday’s SummerSlam provided several memorable moments, but this year’s Biggest Party of the Summer will forever be remembered as The Fiend’s coming out party. The Fiend, Bray Wyatt’s terrifying new persona, made his in-ring debut after months of buildup in the bizarrely captivating “Firefly Fun House” segments, defeating Finn Balor, a man who’s also no stranger to otherworldly alter egos. But The Fiend is more than just a macabre visual; it’s a reminder that given the right story and amount of creative freedom, any character can be rehabilitated and taken seriously, no matter how badly they were misused in the past.

The ensuing match was almost an afterthought (for posterity, The Fiend dispatched of Finn Balor in 3:25 via pinfall while the Mandible Claw was cinched in) — this was all about seeing how The Fiend would fare in an actual in-ring situation. It’s one thing for a character like this to come off well in a pre-recorded, vignette-style series with the benefit of post-production; it’s another entirely for it to translate into a compelling wrestler. While it wasn’t quite the one-sided trouncing many expected, it was a very dominant win over a former Universal Champion. Balor getting what little offense he did in actually served to enhance The Fiend, as it helped show that regular wrestling moves, even from great wrestlers, will not be enough to take this monstrosity down.

The Fiend was basically a boss in a video game you fought early on and beat handily that came back at the end of the game, ten times more powerful and frightening than before. The vessel that was once occupied by Sister Abigail is now fully controlled by The Fiend, something the likes of which WWE has never seen. Instantly, The Fiend became the most compelling character certainly in WWE’s current product, definitely in years, and possibly ever.

Of course, it’s only been one match, and WWE has a tendency to tee up a hole-in-one only to completely botch the rest of the holes on the course. It remains to be seen if Bray Wyatt will continue to be used and written in such a compelling way, but there are some promising factors:

Firstly, rumor is that Wyatt has had near unprecedented levels of creative control with this character and angle, resulting in something that manages to escape the sanitized sameness of nearly everything else on Raw or SmackDown each week to present something wholly unique.

Secondly, WWE seems to be investing a lot of time and money into this character. Prosthetic makeup artist Tom Savini, known for lending a horrifying aura to movies such as Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th, created The Fiend’s mask and severed head lantern.

Finally, WWE’s proverbial back is against the wall in several respects, facing down a risky move to Friday nights on FOX for SmackDown Live, sagging ratings and the specter of legitimate competition for the first time in two decades.

If nothing else, though, The Fiend is proof positive that no matter how badly a WWE Superstar is “buried,” no matter what manner of character assassination takes place, no matter how irrelevant he or she becomes to the program or downright reviled they become to the audience, that Superstar can be rehabilitated and taken seriously once again.

“The Eater of Worlds” incarnation of Wyatt went from creepy cult leader to feckless snake oil salesman; from a prophetic doomsayer to the boy who cried wolf. He never quite backed up his apocalyptic warnings, making the outcomes of his feuds predictable and his words meaningless. This new incarnation looks to change that, and the best part is, it’s doing so not by completely forgetting about the failures of Bray Wyatt and repackaging him, but by incorporating them into the character, using long-term continuity in a way that WWE rarely does anymore.

Even former tag team partner and fellow purveyor of the paranormal Matt Hardy chimed in, suggesting the Hardy Compound’s Lake of Reincarnation was responsible for unleashing The Fiend into this world:

Now that’s long term booking.

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