Folklorist wrestles with masses

December 10, 1999

MONTREAL. Gerald Pocius has not performed a pile driver nor had to hit any opponents across the head with a metal chair to prove that the study of professional wrestling can hold currency in academic circles.

A professor of folklore at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, he not only writes papers on a sport known more for its screaming threats of annihilation, the throwing of fake punches, and high-decibel fans booing and cheering the well-paid 300-pound participants, he also finds himself on the defensive.

He has been arguing with other academics that a scripted act such as wrestling can still hold a place in the study of a peoples' authentic expression.

Professor Pocius presented a paper to the American Folklore Society in Memphis in October and took a jump off the turnbuckle to slam academics who, he says, think that any cultural activity corrupted by mass culture and so clearly fake must be impure.

Few fans think the blows are real, he agrees. But that does not detract from the enjoyment the audience experiences.

"We should not worry about the blurring between the authentic or the not authentic; in fact the total disregard for these categories within many cultural events is the common fact of 1999 life," he argues in his paper.

The interplay of the fans yelling, holding up written posters with confrontational messages and the shooting of the fingers at the wrestlers, and the same yelling and shooting of the finger from the wrestlers back at the audience is a wonderful part of the event for fans, he says.

"It's one of the few forms of entertainment where the audience participates," said Professor Pocius.

One of his graduate students was happy to report to him that he actually got spat on by a wrestler.

Now with internet chat group members knowing their comments are read by promoters, the experience has become even more participatory, says the professor, who tries to attend the events when they come to St John's, the capital of Newfoundland.

Professor Pocius's paper will be published in the spring issue of Keystone Folklore Quarterly, where he will write on the character of the undertaker and how the bad guy's gothic death images turned him from heel to hero for audiences.

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