Don’t Try This at Home: guest post by Luke Stadel
For fans of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the leading producer of professional wrestling on television, the disclaimer video exhorting viewers to “not try this at home” has become a standard part of nearly every broadcast. Contemporary performers are featured describing injuries they have sustained in the ring, while black and white footage of writhing faces provides an ominous counterpoint to their grisly stories of fractured necks and shredded knee ligaments. For the average adult, the videos seem like a curiosity; the thought of attempting a jackknife powerbomb or diving crossbody splash on one’s family or coworkers, while amusing, is quickly vetoed by the body’s self-preservation instinct. However, a different audience is meant to take these videos very seriously: the child consumer.
These videos began to surface in the late 1990s, as the WWE’s increased public visibility began to draw scrutiny from censorious entities concerned with the ill effects of television on children, a discourse that was particularly hot during the Clinton presidency. However, these videos speak to more than just the climate of their times. They manifest long-standing sentiments about the need to shelter children from the deleterious effects of moving-image-based representations of dangerous activities, a discourse that goes back to some of the earliest films of professional wrestling.
On 4 September 1911, world champion wrestler Frank Gotch of Iowa would face off against George Hackenschmidt of Russia in a rematch of their controversial 1909 contest. The match was perhaps the biggest combat sports spectacle in American history up to that point, as 30,000 spectators poured into Chicago’s newly-constructed Comiskey Park to watch Gotch win in straight falls. While the live crowd represented a sizeable enough audience, the motion picture cameras present promised to make the event accessible to millions of eyes from coast to coast, including those of America’s impressionable youth. Films of the contest would not be advertised until 16 September.
However, tragedy struck much sooner, as a two young men in Philadelphia would suffer injuries, one of them fatal, while attempting to reenact the bout with his friends. According to the New York Times, fifteen-year-old George Corkle and his brother James ‘attempted to test the value of what is known as the “toe hold” in wrestling, when George was seized with a hemorrhage and fell to the floor.’ He sustained injuries that were believed to have kept him hospitalized for weeks. In an even more severe case of reenactment gone wrong, Joseph Wycoski died ‘following a discussion of the Gotch-Hackenschmidt match,’ when Alexander Relza ‘threw Wycoski to the floor three times, causing internal injuries which caused his death.’
While no further injuries were noted following the release of prints of Gotch-Hackenschmidt, the cases of Corkle and Wycoski were no doubt fuel for the fire of reformists of the 1910s who damned the unhealthy powers of persuasion inherent to the cinematic apparatus. As demonstrated by the constant reminders that we “not try this at home,” this is a battle that still rages on today.
– Luke Stadel