Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Who Watches Pro Wrestling and Why? What Prize Do They Win?

Did depth psychologists explain how wrestling entertainment captivates fans?

"Who thought up professional wrestling? I mean if there was no professional wrestling, do you think you could come up with this idea? 'I have a tremendous idea. Why don't we have huge guys in bathing suits pretend to fight?' Millions of people will come out to see this." –Standup comic Jerry Seinfeld

 Wikimedia Commons, HHH Pedigree, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Professional wrestler Travis Banks.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, HHH Pedigree, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Though professional wrestling (the staged spectacle, not the Olympic sport) may have peaked in its heyday sometime between the late 1980s and early 2000s in terms of both sport and entertainment, it remains popular among millions nonetheless. But why?

When I asked this question on Twitter and in different places on Facebook, more than a hundred comments quickly arrived in response. Those responses fell into three main groups:

  1. Most addressed the question by offering reasons such as "drama," "the spectacular and the storytelling," "the athleticism, the soap opera aspect," "the violence and the pageantry," "a superhero soap opera stage play set in combat sports," the idea that "you can just fully immerse yourself in its over-the-topness," and more. "It gives people a chance to cheer on the heroes (Faces) as they take on the villains (Heels)."
  2. Without belittling wrestling or its fans, some simply indicated they did not understand its appeal, whether indicating that they have wondered about that or that they have "absolutely no clue."
  3. A few expressed more negative views, calling the fans "dim," "dumb," or "hillbillies." At least two arguments ensued between opposing respondents over such remarks.

Writer "Doc" Chris Mueller has previously summed up many of the points in favor of watching pro wrestling: "It contains all aspects of almost every other entertainment medium. Action, drama, humor, infidelity, love stories, betrayal, overcoming adversity, facing tough obstacles, pain, both mental and physical, joy, happiness, and family issues are just some of the aspects of pro wrestling that make it entertaining."

Any activity we engage in, including any media consumption, arguably serves a psychological purpose. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, may have argued that a wrestler, boxer, or other combatant, even when staged, might be engaging in such activities as a form of defense mechanism to manage life's stresses and unconscious drives (Freud, 1930). Through the mature defense mechanism sublimation, for example, they might redirect aggressive or even erotic impulses into activities deemed more socially acceptable. What about the fans, though? Most of them are not acting out aggressively, certainly not to the same degree. For them, another Freudian concept comes into play, that of catharsis (literally "cleansing" or "purification," from Aristotle), relieving strong or pent-up emotions by means such as vicariously viewing activities that engage one's emotional resources. For him, this explained why people watched events such as tragic plays or boxing matches.

Dr. Billy San Juan is a therapist, an author, and an expert on wrestling entertainment. When I asked him what people get out of watching this kind of wrestling, he offered a number of reasons: love of storytelling, the need to see see heroes rise, appreciation of athleticism, theatricality, peeks into the balance between storylines and real life events, continuation of long-standing customs, sense of community, attraction to brutality, and the moments of reality that were not meant to come into play during scripted portions but do.

When I asked members of the Geek Therapy Community about this, many of its members offered thoughts. Moderator Boontarika "Boonie" Sripom, whose "Organized Messes" vlog explores issues related to mental health including "the differences in coaching and therapy," weighed in with thoughts progressing from lighter to more serious, noting that the "safe melodrama...gives permission for people to express this primal urge to fight."

Some of these reasons may hearken back to basic Freudian concepts of catharsis and sublimation. A search of PsycINFO yields only 17 articles that use the term professional wrestling. Only one article and one response to it appear to have been written by psychologists, and neither was discussing a report of an empirical study. Polizzi (1989) called professional wrestling "a modern day archetypal drama," which sounds on the face of it like a Jungian argument for motivation derived from deep in the collective unconscious, "This secret opening, this holy portal back to the gods, is no less accessible for modern man and is lived out everyday in sports auditoriums throughout America; and no where is this manifested more vividly than in the world of Professional Wrestling," wrote Polizzi. Not altogether Jungian despite suggesting the kind of inherited scheme Jung called archetype, he suggested, "This embracing of what Adler called the 'as if,' allows for the audience to play out all their most deeply felt passions within the context of a socially sanctioned morality play." In response, Newman (1993) agreed in part, writing, "Within it we see the characters of the medieval morality play, and indeed a reflection of the most basic and cherished values of humanity," but added, "To look at it as only an archetypal drama is to ignore its darker side, however."

Why has a multi-billion dollar industry that impacts millions of people received so little attention or even mention by psychologists for over a century? Were those early depth psychologists, looking into unconscious drives and motivations as they did, onto something, or is it simply not a topic psychologists wish to examine? Beyond the question of why people pay wrestling so much attention, we find the question of why authors in psychology pay it so little.

Then again, perhaps some things should be enjoyed without examination if examination might impede entertainment. As artist Ty Templeton put it, "Obviously, because it's fun. Don't complicate it."

References

Freud. S. (1930/1961). Civilization and its discontents. In Strachey (trans.) The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud – The future of an illusion, civilization and its discontents, and other works (vol. XXI, 79–80). London, UK: Hogarth.

Newman, B. (1993). Professional wrestling—Stereotypes, not only archetypes: A reply to Polizzi. The Humanistic Psychologist, 21(1), 121–126.

Polizzi, D. (1989). Professional wrestling: A modern day archetypal drama. The Humanistic Psychologist, 17(3), 322–325.

advertisement