As a lifelong fan of the WWE, Hulk Hogan’s legendary body-slam of Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III in 1987 stands out as one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. The event at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit garnered the largest indoor crowd in North American history up to that point, only surpassed by Pope John Paul II’s audience at the TWA Dome in St. Louis in 1999.
When I was eleven years old, I attended my first live professional wrestling show at the Sun Dome in Tampa, Florida. The main event was a cage match between the Ultimate Warrior and Sgt. Slaughter. My friends and I were able to push our way down to the barricade near the ring and high-five the Warrior as he emerged victorious. It was a loud, crowded, sweaty mess. I loved it.
These days, when I stand at the sink and do dishes in the evening, I sometimes prop up my phone on the countertop, watch other classic World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) matches from the past, and think about the roar of those crowds when I was young. Like the people in the arenas, I know it’s all “fake” or a “work”—that is, physically demanding but pre-determined. It’s storytelling, and it succeeds because the performers feed off the energy of a live audience. The rest of us watching at home love it not only because of the in-ring theatrics and feats of strength, but because we can imagine what it’s like to be with the masses—to feel the air vibrate with pulses of noise, to lose our voices, to hold up signs, to press up against each other and share a wild human experience.
But in the weird year 2020, WrestleMania, which is still the WWE’s biggest annual event, was held for the first time without a live audience. The company innovated in various ways to put on a good show, including an instant-classic “Bone Yard” match between A.J. Stiles and the Undertaker. Filmed outdoors on an elaborate set, it was like watching a horror movie.
At this year’s Summer Slam show, however, the WWE tried something else. Constructing a virtual “Thunder Dome” at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, the wrestlers performed in front of a crowd of thousands of computer screens. From the isolated safety of their own homes, and with all the accompanying distractions, wrestling fans could beam into the event in the same way we’ve all sadly grown accustomed to working, going to school, and hanging out with friends this year. On Sunday, November 22, the next WWE pay-per-view event, Survivor Series, is going to take place in the Thunder Dome too. The WWE has announced that all live shows will be done in this virtual manner for the foreseeable future.
Many wrestling fans are content with things as they are, for now. After all, at least we still have an approximation of the thing that brings us some joy during these awful times. The in-ring performers have never been more impressive, and the storytelling has been pretty good. But without the crowds, without the people, it’s just not the same. I worry that even if there is some kind of “all clear” called soon, it may make perverse sense both for the organization and for the fans to keep things virtual. The next-best thing is certainly cheaper and easier. Maybe it’s good enough, but it might also be a kind of tragedy of expedience.
What might be the long-term effect of transitioning from real human contact to virtual reality in our lives and on our souls? When the spectacles of professional sports, or even ballet, concerts, and the theater are performed without a living, breathing audience offering real-time response, the result is a cold, siloed pastiche that feels like trying to warm one’s hands beside a virtual fire: it all looks familiar and inviting, but the energy is very different, and difficult to connect with. There is no warmth, no corresponding effect to either console or to burn. The two realities of living flame and received heat simply cannot meet, and life without even simple mystery and wonder is merely cold.
Like true love, being with people in crowds is inherently risky. When we’re allowed to do it again, we will probably be more aware of this fact than before. But it’s a risk we have to take, over and over again, for the flourishing of individuals and society. Almost 100,000 people packed in together to see Hulkamania run wild at WrestleMania III for a reason: we need to be together. It’s what it means to be alive and to live together within some sort of commonality, somewhere. That’s important in our increasingly divided world; if we cannot agree on many things, let there still be places, whether in sports or the arts, where our difference may be put aside for a shared experience of effervescent joy.
The Church has always been about being together. We are the “ecclesia,” or “assembly.” We read in Scripture,
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)
There can be no foreseeable future where Christians can be just privately or virtually religious. Computer screens cannot give us the Body of Christ, and they cannot really give us each other. As Luigi Giussani writes in The Religious Sense, “The community is the dimension and condition necessary for the human seed to bear fruit.”
As lockdowns have returned in France, for example, some of the faithful are protesting the forced privatization of their faith. Giussani notes, “The most ferocious persecution is the modern state’s attempt to block the expression of the communal dimension of the religious phenomenon.” Being able to go to a physically-distanced Mass is important; and this is all French Catholics are demanding right now. But living as Catholics is about much more. It is inherently human, with all the inconvenience and danger that life together entails. We are incarnational creatures. In Christ, God became human. He mixed it up down here on earth with a rowdy, annoying, and sick humanity. Beaming an avatar into the events of the world was not good enough for Jesus, and it will not be good enough for his followers.
WWE Hall-of-Fame wrestler Dusty Rhodes once declared in his famous “Hard times” promo, “I’mma reach out right now, I want you at home to know my hand is touchin’ your hand for this gathering of the biggest body of people in this country, in this universe, all over the world now.”
Whether you’re a wrestling fan like me or not, Dusty’s words should be our rallying cry: as soon as we can, let’s reach out, connect, and then hold on tight.