Hell in the (Brain) Cell: Anxiety and Pro-Wrestling, What Could be More Fun?


Twenty years ago this very month I sat and watched The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels in the first ever Hell in a Cell match. It was unlike anything I had experienced in my four short years of embryonic wrestling fandom and the spectacular nature of that epic performance virtually guaranteed I would be a wrestling fan for the rest of my life. By the age of 11 years-old I was already hooked on the rush that came along with watching pro-wrestling. After all, where else could an impressionable child get the chance to run the gamut of emotions in a relatively safe environment if not for our wonderfully immersive world of simulated combat? Excitement, elation, despair, disappointment, apprehension, amazement; I’d gone through them all since I first stumbled across WWF Superstars on television four years prior. The closest anything else ever came to matching the thrill of pro-wrestling for me were “real” sporting events, however even these failed to stimulate my preadolescent mind in quite the same manner as the king of sports. Two decades later Kevin Owens and Shane McMahon stepped into – or rather on top of – the Hell in a Cell and unearthed a long since buried emotional state of anxiety, one which I had not associated with professional wrestling in seventeen years.

The sight of The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels battling on top of the Cell gave me the taste of a sensation unlike anything else I had encountered up to that point. My chest tightened, my stomach was in knots, however this strange new sensibility wasn’t localised to merely the torso region, as my entire being was overwhelmed by an unwavering sense of foreboding. I was blissfully unaware at the time that the symptoms I had experienced were in fact not too dissimilar to those of an acute anxiety attack – something I would go on to battle many times as an adult. When Michaels took the historic first bump off the Cell, the unfamiliar feelings dissipated and as the match built to its climax I returned to my usual state of pro-wres viewing exuberance. Such was the greatness of the match, by the time it was over I had completely forgotten about the distress I felt during the fight atop of the Cell and – being far too young to contextualise these alien feelings – didn’t give it another moment’s thought.

A mere eight-months later, Mick Foley and the Undertaker delivered their seminal Hell in a Cell performance. Once again the uncharted anxiety crept in as the two three-hundred-pounders started the match on top of the cage and within a few minutes all of the apprehension coursing through my body was essentially vindicated when Foley went flying off the cage. I can only remember being scared for the well-being of wrestlers a few times as a young fan; most of which were in fact storyline injuries: Owen Hart’s Enzuigiri to Shawn Michaels, or the time they ended Raw by teasing that Billy Gunn might have been paralysed. Steve Austin getting dropped on his head at SummerSlam 1997 led to a terrifying couple of moments, but the fact he managed to get back to his feet was enough for my still developing brain to believe he would be alright. Yet, Foley’s two Cell-bumps were different somehow. While it was undeniably alarming seeing him go soaring off (and through) the cage, the astonishment and exhilaration I felt as the match actually continued far outweighed the initial brief moments of distress. In fact, somewhere along the way – perhaps through countless re-watching of the match – the subsequent elation became a natural progression of the preceding anxiety. By virtue of my preexisting fears, Foley’s mythical Cell-bumps manifested into an emotional pay-off that unwittingly tricked my mind into believing they were the incredible consequence of the heightened sense of anxiety. In other words, I was conditioned to expect something spectacular whenever the tension in a match exceeded the general conventions of the time.

Fast-forward twenty months to February 2000 and the sense of dread returned during the Triple H/Mick Foley Hell in a Cell match. Due to the conditioning from the previous cell matches, this time my emotional response was based far less on panic riddled anxiety and took the form of a nervous, jittery, energy. Something big was going to happen; I just had to ride out the turbulence until that moment came. Unlike the Taker/Foley match, my memory has not been clouded by innumerable re-watches and I can still picture the moment where time appeared to stand still after Foley took the backdrop through the Cell and before he hit the gimmicked canvas below. Once again my sense of distress, subdued though it was comparatively speaking this time around, was vindicated by yet another iconic moment that deflected the attention away from any negative ruminations. I went to bed that night on February 27th, 2000, so wired from what I had just witnessed that getting to sleep was an impossible task, as all I could think about was the climatic bump that replayed in my head over and over again. As it turned out, this would be the last time I felt anything resembling anxiety while watching pro-wrestling until Kevin Owens and Shane McMahon entered the Cell on October 8th 2017.

In the meantime, I came across hundreds of more dangerous, violent, and quiet honestly, stupid spots than anything the early Hell in a Cell matches had to offer. For example, despite the fact he was in fact irrefutably still alive, I was certain that Jack Evans had died right in front of my eyes while watching him take an idiotic bump off the Cage of Death. Zandig and Mondo off the roof was pretty high on the stupidity meter also. Chances are any CZW, IWA-MS, or BJW show picked at random from the mid 2000’s will feature at least one moment way more perilous than anything Mick Foley ever dreamed of. Regardless, nothing I saw from the ultra-violent deathmatch groups engendered the same kind of anxious consternation as watching the first few Cell matches live. The sight of Nick Gage severing an artery and nearly bleeding out at the Tournament of Death was certainly a harrowing one, however since I saw the event months after it occurred there was no imminent sense of danger as I knew Gage ended up being okay. Also, without trying to sound like a heartless monster, my natural emotional response to witnessing a serious injury live differs significantly from the anxiety I experienced as a younger fan. A couple of scary instances I can recall watching as they occurred were Daniel Bryan’s stinger during the match on Raw in 2013 with Randy Orton, and BUSHI slipping off the top rope to almost paralyse himself in 2014. While in both instances I was terrified for the health of the performers, my emotional response was based more on concern for what had already occurred rather than anxiously worrying about something that could potentially happen. After all, anxiety is a disorder based on an irrational fear of what might occur, not the fear of something that has already happened.

It’s worth noting that I wasn’t particularly enjoying the Kevin Owens/Shane McMahon Hell in a Cell offering, nor was I especially invested in the storyline going into the match. However when they began the long segment on top of the cage, the anxiety slowly began to creep back in like winter’s invasive first frost until I was eventually frozen to the edge of my seat with a familiar sense terror. For seven minutes, Owens and Shane fought, did spots and took bumps on top of the Cell and the match became increasingly uncomfortable with every minute that ticked by. They performed eight moves/spots on top of the cage which required one, or both, performers to take a bump on the Cell roof: Russian Leg Sweep, Body Slam, Suplex, Superkick, Backdrop, and Shane also took a bump off a forearm. Although, the scariest spots had to be Owens doing his big boy Senton and hitting the Pop-up Powerbomb. Each one of these spots got a big reaction from the live crowd, but they were also followed by an eerie hush and an audible murmurer as the audience were likely expressing the sentiment of every single person watching at home: “Please, PLEASE, let the roof hold up.”

Presumably the Cell was reinforced to ensure maximum safety and was tested multiple times before the live performance, but that was of zero consolation at the time. It’s safe to say I’ve not been as uncomfortable and genuinely frightened watching pro-wrestling – to the point where it actually started to have a physical effect on my body – as I was during the seven minutes Owens and Shane spent on top of the cage. By the time the two big spots in the match came I was so emotionally drained and thankful that neither man plummeted to their doom through the roof that the bumps off the Cell had virtually no impact on me whatsoever. Afterwards, when my anti-anxiety medication had leveled-off, I couldn’t help wonder – if I had seen the match as the same thirteen year-old who almost had an out of body experience watching HHH/Foley, would the anxiety have gripped me to such an extent? Would I have been too panic-stricken to enjoy the spectacle? Would the knowledge of an imminent bump off the cage have been enough to relieve some of the tension during those unnerving seven minutes? Eventually I came to the conclusion that the match would have probably been a lot more enjoyable, specifically the portion on top of the Cell, had I seen it through my youthful eyes. I wasn’t even aware that anxiety disorder was even a thing back then and was far too emotionally immature to understand the complex balance of nervousness, fear, irrational panic, and anxiety that overwhelmed my being.

In case I’ve not been clear enough throughout this article, I’ve struggled with serious anxiety and panic disorder for virtually all of my adult life. Without getting too deep into all of that, pro-wrestling has been one of the few things that has helped me greatly in trying to live a normal existence while suffering from this contemptibly irrational disorder. The sentiment may differ slightly from my younger self, but pro-wrestling still manages to elicit a great deal of emotions from me as an adult. Perhaps none more important than the intrinsic sense of nostalgia that dates back to the first time I fell in love with the incomparable world of professional wrestling. In essence, Kevin Owens and Shane McMahon took me back to a place I had not been to in seventeen years: at least not in terms of being a pro-wrestling fan. Unfortunately, it was an unwanted journey back to an emotional state that I had long disassociated with pro-wrestling and one I never want to experience ever again.

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