The first images were of decay. The abandoned degradation of small-town America—loose tires and wire fences, unpainted shacks and unpopulated storefronts, a church. The outermost borders of civilization just before the point where it vanished into the swamps beyond. The first words we heard him speak were, “Good things come to those who believe in Bray Wyatt.”
It was an assertion that would be tested constantly over the course of his WWE career. After all, no one believed in Bray Wyatt more than the man who played him, third-generation wrestler Windham Rotunda. Watching those early NXT video packages that officially introduced him in 2012, one gets the sense that Rotunda is talking not about his fictional followers, but about the Bray Wyatt character. “They don’t love you like I do,” he says. “They don’t know you, man. They can’t protect you like I can. And how am I gonna do that? With love.” Windham Rotunda loved Bray Wyatt, and that love fueled a blood-red streak of creativity in a world where creativity isn’t necessarily rewarded.
Good things did come to him, but two barriers popped up for every breakthrough, demanding that he overcome them next. For nearly ten years, his dark and innovative mind shepherded Bray Wyatt through a repeating cycle of destruction and re-birth. The character would change, and change, and change again, yet somehow remain the same, continually playing with themes and ideas that were present from the very beginning, shining a light on Rotunda’s relationship with wrestling, and with himself.
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Bray Wyatt was born alongside the show we know now as NXT, but by that time, Rotunda had already debuted on Raw, challenged for a championship, and been in the ring with Randy Orton and John Cena. As a “contestant” on the original game show version of NXT (in a piece of potential irony, his “pro” was Cody Rhodes) he had been given the demeaning ring name Husky Harris and was briefly part of both Wade Barrett’s all-NXT heel stable the Nexus and CM Punk’s New Nexus before being punted in the head by Orton and sent back to FCW. His main roster stint had lasted three months, and while his in-ring talent was undeniable, WWE had made it painfully obvious that he didn’t look like Vince McMahon’s idea of a wrestling star.
Bray’s early NXT packages seem to reference this history. “I been through hell, man. I know how cruel it can be. I know what it’s like. I know what it does to a man. It changes him. It makes you stronger…. It took away my ability to feel fear, to feel pain! I’m not afraid anymore!” Looking back, the creation of Bray Wyatt can be seen as a direct response to the frustration of being Husky Harris, humiliated and tossed aside. “What will they do when they discover they cannot hurt me?” he asks, briefly invoking Hulk Hogan in one of his line readings. “Whatcha gonna do to something like me?”
Wyatt never said who “they” were, but he didn’t need to. He feuded with other wrestlers, but his enemy, as he constantly made clear, was the machine, the systemic apparatus of the WWE that had judged him and found him unworthy. In the beginning, he was half fallen angel and half Antichrist (one early NXT promo involves him speaking in tongues) both of which had been done before in wrestling. His look was based on Robert DeNiro’s character from the 1991 thriller Cape Fear, which had previously been used as a gimmick by Dan Spivey, and he was far from wrestling’s first evil preacher. What made Wyatt unique was his vendetta against WWE itself, and crucially, the fact that he saw the fans as his allies.
The imagery of derelict houses and empty streets was no accident—Wyatt spoke in the language of the impoverished and abandoned, those whose dreams had been crushed, as his had, by forces too big to fight back against and too all-encompassing to escape. He was tapping into the class resentment of post-Occupy America, but he was also tapping into the resentment of WWE fans who had spent years enduring one of the promotion’s most creatively barren periods, resentment that would lead to total revolt at the 2014 Royal Rumble. In this era, it was no trivial thing to promise revolution, and as he refined his character’s ideology, Wyatt struck on a fundamental truth: “When we are alone, we are weak and frail. But when we come together, when we unite, we are strong! We are dangerous! We are family.”
The creation of the Wyatt Family was, counterintuitively, another reaction to setback. Wyatt wrestled his debut match on NXT’s fourth episode, but shortly thereafter was sidelined with an injury. He kept appearing to cut promos, though, and more importantly, he gathered his family, incorporating Luke Harper (the late, great, and much-lamented Brodie Lee) and Erick Rowan into his act. Bray Wyatt turned out to be very much a creature of community—his rare solo runs didn’t last long, and Rotunda’s storytelling style was ill-suited to solitude. He worked best as part of a group, playing on the relationships between the people around him and keeping his character consistent by referencing his own history with them. And of course, he had his fireflies, the fans who illuminated his dark entrances with lighters and cell phones as they swayed, entranced, to the rhythm of his sinister song.
Unfortunately, no amount of crowd support could get Bray Wyatt what he really wanted. It was a fatal flaw in the meta-narrative of the character: The system the fictional Wyatt raged against was a real thing that controlled his story, and as a result, he could never be allowed to win. For WWE to make him their champion, or even let him score a big symbolic victory by, say, beating John Cena at Wrestlemania, would be to acknowledge even the smallest bit of his critique, and that isn’t a tale Vince McMahon has ever been interested in telling.
Bray Wyatt was a heel who hated WWE, and heels who hate WWE lose to John Cena. The immutable truth of his dominance by actual, existing power structures had a profound impact on the Wyatt character. He could, it turned out, still be hurt. He could still feel fear. Sometimes anger isn’t enough. Sometimes community isn’t enough. Sometimes (almost every time, actually) you go up against the machine with your brothers and sisters by your side, and you lose, because the machine really is that insurmountable and the odds against you really are stacked that high.
Wyatt expressed all this explicitly in a backstage SmackDown promo following his loss to Cena at Payback 2014, ending with the words, “Brothers and sisters, I am reborn.” Rebirth was his counter to being slapped back down by reality – his appearance didn’t change much at first, but his stories gradually became less about revolution and more about his personal relationships. Wyatt never won the WWE Championship back when he was prophesying WWE’s demise, but he did win it, almost incidentally, during his 2016-2017 storyline with Randy Orton, which was about Bray placing his trust in the wrong person and losing everything because of it. This narrative would repeat itself in Wyatt’s final WWE match at WrestleMania 37 (appropriately against Orton) when he was betrayed by Alexa Bliss—one of the most oddly endearing things about Bray was always the fact that, despite his monstrousness, he was a vulnerable character who deeply loved those who followed him, and often suffered for it.
Wyatt also came to represent creative innovation in the increasingly stale world of WWE. The ideas for the character weren’t always good, and when they were good, they were often poorly executed—that same Randy Orton story included the laughable bug projections at WrestleMania 33 and the infamous House of Horrors match—but the attempts always centered itself around Bray Wyatt. Prior to the House of Horrors, there had been the New Day’s invasion of the Wyatt Compound, a visually offensive mess of a vignette that coincidentally came immediately on the heels of Matt Hardy’s ridiculous masterpiece, “The Final Deletion.” Later, when Hardy’s “Broken” character proved so popular that he brought it back with him to WWE, Wyatt was his opponent in “The Ultimate Deletion,” WWE’s sole attempt at re-creating Hardy’s bizarre world, and later his tag team partner. It was a collaboration that could have yielded much more, but that couldn’t get off the ground within the company’s creative rigidity—according to Hardy, he and Wyatt were taken off TV because “they were tired of us suggesting ideas.”
Rotunda was in desperate need of another rebirth. This time, though, he transformed more completely than ever before, reimagining Wyatt as the host of a creepy kids’ show, Firefly Fun House, who also happened to be the Fiend, a nightmare wrestler with a mask made by Tom Savini and a lantern made out of the old Bray Wyatt’s head. The new twist on the gimmick rocketed Wyatt back to relevance and led him to the longest period of sustained success he’d ever had, but the most interesting thing was Firefly Fun House, which again provided Rotunda with a platform to grapple with his frustrations. It’s some of the most fascinating creative output of his career, and it’s a puppet show—Wyatt finally interacts directly with the long-invoked Sister Abigail, uses “Huskus the Pig-Boy” to acknowledge the existence of Husky Harris and comment on WWE’s obsession with certain body types, and audaciously trots out a devil-horned puppet of Vince McMahon himself. It all culminated at WrestleMania 36, in the midst of a pandemic, with the Firefly Fun House match.
It involved John Cena, of course. Bray Wyatt was, in many ways, Cena’s opposite, and always had been. Their differences were more than physical, though Cena’s bodybuilder physique represented everything Wyatt wasn’t. Cena earnestly believed in WWE as an institution; Wyatt earnestly believed it was all a lie. Cena was the superhero, inspiring children everywhere; Wyatt sang chilling versions of children’s songs and had once defeated Cena with a demonic children’s choir. And of course, Cena had beaten Wyatt all those years ago, throwing him into the cycle of death and rebirth that would eventually lead to the Fiend. Their final “match” was entirely cinematic, a dark mirror deconstruction of Cena’s career that left him broken and destroyed. Previous attempts at cinematic segments involving Wyatt had fallen short in part because they inevitably devolved into standard wrestling physicality – this one thrived on abstraction, with metaphors and historical references standing in for forearms and clotheslines, and in that environment, Bray Wyatt could finally stand triumphant. It was his first and last win at Wrestlemania, and John Cena wasn’t seen again for over a year.
There’s a bittersweet poetry to the fact that Rotunda was released from WWE immediately after Cena returned. Bray Wyatt could no longer exist in a world that he couldn’t permanently change, no matter how many times he changed himself. According to Fightful, one factor in Rotunda’s release was that he had been “getting protective of his character,” an idea that certainly tracks. Wyatt died and came back to life as many times as he needed to, but in the end, the only way to change the game was to stop playing. We don’t know if there will be yet another evolution of the strange, sad, evil character that means so much to the man behind it, but his fans can take inspiration from the final edition of Firefly Fun House, which aired the night after WrestleMania 37. “I think this could be a brand new start for all of us here,” Wyatt said. “A new season, new friends, and a brand new me! I feel reborn!”
His WWE career, for now, is over. His future is unknown. But nobody in wrestling is better at being reborn. And good things come to those who believe in Windham Rotunda.