The Devil Went Down to (Championship Wrestling from) Florida

In the name of Abudadein
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Illustration by Robert Young

At 5-foot-9 inches tall and 250-plus pounds, Kevin Sullivan more closely resembles a fire hydrant than anybody's idea of a giant or even a “monster,” at least in the traditional sense. Unfortunately, in the Hulk Hogan-fueled DayGlo wince parade that was early-to-mid-90s WCW, Sullivan’s “Taskmaster” character was booked as precisely that, and given the world’s worst gimmick (in 1995 and every year since) -- the Dungeon of Doom -- to go along with it.

In an interview with Kayfabe Commentaries, Sullivan admitted that the Dungeon of Doom was “my way of making [the newly-acquired] Hogan relax,” and therefore the heel stable -- which wound up being an unintentional parody of the type of villains who constantly threatened the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers -- was explicitly designed to make the even-at-that-point-remarkably-stale Hogan character look like an untarnished white knight.

As such, Sullivan, already short and compactly-built, and now dressed in a cruel red-and-yellow mockery of Hogan’s immortal colors, became a cartoon bad guy in an age when professional wrestling was turning serious. And for many of my generation, this is the Kevin Sullivan we remember.

But just a decade before, Kevin Sullivan was the “Prince of Darkness”: a sadistic and Satanic figure who genuinely terrified the blue-haired snow birds who watched Championship Wrestling in Florida. He and his Army of Darkness worshiped the mysterious Asian mystic Abudadein and practiced rituals of torture and mental manipulation. Sullivan often came to the ring carrying an iron spike, which he was never afraid to use (just ask Wing Kanemura, who volunteered to be the victim in one of pro wrestling’s most disturbing run-ins).

This, along with Sullivan’s captivating mic work -- some of which was performed against the eerie backdrop of nighttime beaches --  painted him and his followers as eye-rolling sexual and religious deviants, raising the ire (and fears) of the conservative Florida fans, while doing what professional wrestling at its best can do: holding up a mirror to the culture at large.

In the same way that Putin’s Russia led to Rusev crushing (a lot!) and grunge led ECW to create a flannel-clad cult leader named Raven (who was in some respects Sullivan without the Satanism), the moral panic over supposed Satanic ritual abuses and crimes helped to bring Kevin Sullivan and his Army of Darkness into being. And Florida, where race riots and staggering crime rates made the hotter-than-hell sunshine feel even more cloying, proved the perfect host for Sullivan’s pitch-black story-lines.

Satanism had been playing at the local drive-in long before Sullivan’s run as a heel. Films such as Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and Race With the Devil (1975) reveled in scenes showing buxom and naked women as makeshift altars, euphoric rituals conducted after nightfall in the Texas desert or in London churchyards, and the ugly underside of the rock and roll generation. However, just like many fads, the interest in and popularity of these Satan-themed films eventually began to wane.

Then James Dallas Egbert III, a 16-year-old college student at Michigan State, went missing.

***

Nowadays, when people hear Dungeons & Dragons, they think acne, social awkwardness, and virginity. But in 1979, the game, an obsession of Egbert’s, was a few years away from becoming a cultural sensation. And in the anxiety-fueled ‘80s, a large part of the American population thought that the game dangerously blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. Worse, the more conspiratorially minded saw the game as a conduit for impregnating Satanic thoughts into impressionable brains.

Rumors on the Michigan State campus claimed that Egbert had been wrapped up in the game so much that he had wandered into the school’s underground steam tunnels. Some called him crazy, but few knew the real truth. Egbert did indeed go into the steam tunnels. His goal was suicide.

But rather than being the victim of some occult power culled forth from too much D&D, Egbert was suffering from depression, drug addiction, anxiety over his closeted homosexuality, and the stress of being a child prodigy. After failing to kill himself in the tunnels, he left for Louisiana where he was found by William Dear, a private detective who been hired by his family. He would ultimately kill himself in 1980.

The story could have ended there, but Dear and other greedy spotlight-chasers saw a way to make a mountain out of a molehill. Egbert’s story, along with the 1982 suicide of Virginia student Irving Lee Pulling and Rona Jaffe’s novel Mazes and Monsters, made D&D into Public Enemy Number One.

From there and with lightning speed, the Satanic Panic was in full swing.

Experts on the occult suddenly popped up on day-time talk shows and in mass market magazines. Televangelists got in on the act, too. Even real Satanists like Anton LeVay (the founder of the Church of Satan) and Michael A. Aquino (the Army officer who ran the Temple of Set) got in on the free publicity. For a while, Geraldo was ground zero for the latest shocking development in America’s protracted war against well-placed and thoroughly amoral Satanists.

Careers were destroyed beneath the sensationalism as reports surfaced about children suffering from repressed memories of blood sacrifices inside of nurseries. Quacks pandering to the evangelical wing of Protestant churches found themselves in demand and armed with lucrative publishing deals, while those accused of being in the service of Old Scratch were often finding themselves on the wrong end of lengthy prison sentences. The West Memphis Three might be the most egregious example of Satanic Panic hysteria, but by no means were they the only ones.

Satanists probably were not running day care centers, but self-professed adherents to dark lord were killing people, with each grisly news story reopening the scars of the real sociopolitical problems (the death of the American industrial sector and the decline of well-paying factory jobs), that had turned fear up to 11 in much of Reagan’s America.

Stories like Ricky Kasso’s murder of Gary Lauwers in Long Island’s Aztakea Woods found their way into the zeitgeist. The more sensational parts of the story -- Kasso, Lauwers, and their friends Jimmy Troiano and Albert Quinones were all fans of heavy metal, role-playing games, and drugs. They subsequently created a “cult” called the Knights of the Black Circle as a way to formalize said fandom of drugs -- became tentpoles under which barkers for personally lucrative morality plied their wares.

Satanism and the threats posed by teenage occultists were of course highlighted, but so was the fact that Kasso murdered Lauwers while wearing an AC/DC t-shirt. In that same year, on the other side of the country, another AC/DC fan was committing similarly unspeakable acts.

Between 1984 and 1985, Richard Ramirez, a Texas-born transient who had grown up around a violent older cousin who had thrilled him with his gruesome stories from Vietnam, terrorized California with a wave of early morning break-ins that often resulted in rape and murder. Later dubbed “The Night Stalker” because of his affinity for the AC/DC song “Night Prowler,” Ramirez had ties to Satanism and heavy metal. At a crime scene in Rosemead on March 17, 1985, Ramirez left behind an AC/DC hat. He scrawled lyrics taken from the Judas Priest song “The Ripper” in lipstick at the scene of an attempted double homicide in Lake Merced, California. Even after his arrest, Ramirez shocked the courtroom and, more importantly, the media by posing as an unrepentant Luciferian.

It was into this world that Kevin Sullivan’s unrepentant Satanist character emerged. Imagine, if you will, being a resident of South Florida in 1985. After coming home from work, you settle down to watch the news and hear about the as-of-yet uncaught “Night Stalker” killing another sleeping couple in California. In more local matters, the anchor highlights that dismembered body parts have recently washed ashore near Miami. Authorities suspect foul play. Growing sick of doom-and-gloom, you switch to MTV, where you catch the most recent Ozzy Osbourne video. Completely exasperated, you turn on wrestling in the hopes of seeing the good guys pummel some black-hated foes. What you get instead is a charismatic Bostonian with a painted face and coterie of fellow oddballs. Although he says he takes his cues from Abudadein, all you hear is “Satan.”

Sullivan became notorious for generating white hot heat (which is usually silent) by beating the living snot out of his female followers and adversaries, even in a time where physical attacks on women were not entirely out of the ordinary. And in the photo spreads he took for the many wrestling magazines of the day, Sullivan never fails to look nightmarish, with some looking more like small horror films than audio-free promos.

Unlike peers and the heels who came before him, Sullivan was a fully-realized villain, with motivations that transcended either a thirst for title belts or a desire to be a wildman. As Taz, Sullivan’s tag team partner in ECW, told Steve Austin on his podcast, Sullivan was, “ahead of his time in regards to character development.” While other bad guys were breaking noses or breaking hearts simply because they could, Sullivan was spinning a spider’s web as a Charles Manson-like cult leader who successfully helped to introduce controversial story-lines, years before Paul Heyman’s ECW or WWF’s Attitude Era brought those to the masses.

In the ring, Sullivan worked snug (some would say stiff) and frequently refused to wake up an opponent after he or “The Purple Haze” Mark Lewin choked them unconscious. And since spilling blood was still kosher in the ‘80s, Sullivan and his black magicians were only too eager to slice and dice opponents like “Superstar” Billy Graham, Blackjack Mulligan, and Barry Windham. Even without weapons, which Sullivan tended to throw with wild abandon, Sullivan’s move set emphasized blunt force trauma, such as two heavy boots jumping on top of a sternum. He is, without a doubt, one of the earliest practitioners of the hardcore style. Add to the mixture cryptic promos, which Sullivan accentuated with facial expressions that were meant to denote orgasms, then you have the perfect heel for the devil-obsessed ‘80s.

During those days, when wrestling fans in Portland  had no clue that there was wrestling in Houston, the whispers about an ungodly heel in Florida could only be heard by those involved in tape trading or who read the ‘zines of the era. With a gimmick like Sullivan’s, it was better to be talked and written about than actually seen.

It is a cruel irony then that Sullivan’s power as a heel was so deeply tied in with the sinking territory system. Once he gained national exposure, the (black) magic was diminished, if not vanished entirely. The Varsity Club gimmick he fronted in NWA-WCW only made sense without him, while the Dungeon of Doom presented a fuzzy outline of the diabolical figure he had once been.

A large part of this decline had to do with the sorry conclusion to the Satanic Panic. After so many years of pearl-clutching and fear mongering, it faded to black in the early ‘90s after the snake oil salesmen who ran the show were unmasked. Parts of the rural South and Midwest continued to believe the conspiracies for a few more years, but that era soon passed as well.

For Kevin Sullivan, the only people left to frighten were children. This despite the various internet rumors claiming that Sullivan, who in this case would be an actual Satanist, played an integral part in the deaths of Chris and Nancy Benoit, the former “Prince of Darkness” no longer feels like a threat to the established order. Blame it on age or blame it on too many shoot interviews, but the devil, or rather Abudadein, is on a permanent vacation in 1980s Florida.


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