Marking Out As A Form Of Religious Ecstasy
For all its creativity, the main purpose of professional wrestling has always been to part as many rubes as possible from their money. Wrestling is not compelling despite this goal, but because of it: it’s a form of entertainment that has evolved to stimulate to the point of euphoric delirium, a suggestible state in which we can then be encouraged to fork over everything we have just to buy some of the ugliest T shirts ever manufactured. Religious people might call this altered state of consciousness “ecstasy.” Wrestling fans call it “marking out.”
Wrestling has much in common with religious ritual. Both are highly symbolic practices meant to invoke a kind of spiritual fervor, buoyed by the shared belief of its witnesses in the ritual’s power. All the pomp and camp and drama of the opening of a wrestling match is transfigurative— the formulaic match announcement an incantation (complete with a call and response section: “the following contest is scheduled for one fall— ONE FALL!”), the entrances an altar procession, the ringing of the bell like a hypnotist’s command. Witnessing and participating in these actions is a process by which we collectively agree to the terms of what we are about to witness, and in that agreement, we trust the magic will occur. All you need is to gather enough true believers in one place, and anything can happen.
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Spring Break’s Sacred Space
That place is Joey Janela’s Spring Break. For the last few years at Wrestlemania weekend, Janela’s wild, surreal shows have quickly established themselves as one of the only places where wrestling’s capitalist and artistic tendencies can coexist harmoniously, a rare place in which it’s commercially viable to experiment with new paths toward mark nirvana.
Given the show’s reputation, a match announcement for The Invisible Man vs Invisible Stan was not incredibly surprising (especially given The Invisible Man’s historic win in the previous year’s Clusterfuck). Still, everyone was wondering how a match between two nonexistent wrestlers would actually work. It’s one thing for a real person to fight an imaginary foe, but how would they fight each other? As soon as referee Bryce Remsburg entered the ring to officiate the match, all became clear.
The Bryce is Right
Bryce is a veteran of the industry, and if you watch a lot of American indie wrestling, he’s something of a Zelig figure: there he is reffing Samoa Joe vs Necro Butcher at the ECW arena, here he is with Asuka and Sara Del Rey in a gym in Tennessee. A good referee is invaluable in wrestling. They set the structure within which the match plays out, and their reactions guide us through that story. But when they’re at their best, what they contribute to a match is so seamless, it’s barely noticeable. After more than 15 years as one of wrestling’s most capable background players, Invisible Man vs Invisible Stan is Bryce Remsburg’s time to shine.
So yes, this match is a humorous demonstration of the incredible amount of information encoded into a good referee’s performance. There is so much symbolic action by Bryce here that it’s easy to follow the story – the dramatic donning of the latex gloves to indicate an opponent is bleeding, one half of a spirited argument about a contested two count, mounting tension between Bryce and the heel that ends in an assault. It’s funny and well paced— Bryce is also a comedian when he’s not refereeing, and he’s a gifted physical comic. “I remember approaching the match as a stand up comedy set— this happens, which sorta leads to this, then that happens,” he tells me.
This alone would have made this match required viewing for anyone interested in the craft of wrestling. But Invisible Man vs Invisible Stan isn’t really a one man show— it’s carried and elevated by the audience’s credulity. As Bryce explained to me: “The true stars of that night were the crowd. Without GCW’s storytelling, and without Joey Janela’s commitment to the absurd, they wouldn’t have been invested in such a ridiculous spectacle. And if they weren’t invested, they wouldn’t have reacted. And I woulda looked like a doofus for eight or so minutes.”
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Believing Feels Good
The crowd is in it from the get-go. Invisible Stan and the Invisible Man both get entrances in which they are viciously booed and loudly cheered, despite, you know, not technically existing. The ritual structure of wrestling is so strong, its participants so devoted, it has no need for physical embodiment. After following Remsburg’s cues through a chop battle, some rolling two counts, an argument, and some blood, the climax of the match comes when Remsburg chases the two brawling wrestlers through the crowd, up to the balcony. In another classic nod to wrestling’s artifice, a cadre of auxiliary referees and wrestlers emerge from backstage to stand directly under the balcony and plead for the invisible men not to go over. Inevitably, Bryce indicates that the invisible wrestlers have plunged to the floor, and the dozen or so GCW employees fall to the ground with them. The crowd goes wild. This is a moment of sublime cooperation. Everyone in this building responds the way they do because they’ve decided to buy in. There’s no need for proof in the form of physical wrestlers acting out the story. This is faith: they believe not because there’s proof, but because believing feels good.
I think to the Jim Cornettes of the world, Invisible Man vs Invisible Stan probably looks like a bunch of smug dorks patting themselves on the back for being so clever. That’s certainly one way to read it. But to me, there’s no way to enjoy wrestling with that level of irony. In order to have a good time watching it, you’re forced to take what you’re watching as credible on its terms. Most wrestling attempts to earn that credulity through realism, but there’s no reason it needs to. Wrestling can work just because the audience wants it to.
Aside from being an entertaining comedy match and a showcase for the immense talents of a beloved industry veteran, I like Invisible Man vs Invisible Stan because it’s celebration of the transformative power of the wrestling ritual, and of shared belief. This match engages with so many symbolic elements of the genre, without those pesky wrestlers getting in the way to distract us from the fact that the reason any of this works is because we will it to. What’s usually seamlessly integrated into the performance of wrestling is here intentionally made artificial, and the audience accepts it wholeheartedly. The artifice is so strong, and the belief of the audience so strong, that the whole thing can be carried off without even a feigned attachment to reality. We can mark out just because we feel like it. And best of all, we can do it without being manipulated into consumerism: invisible wrestlers don’t have merch for sale.