Before there was D-Generation X, the nWo, and even The Four Horsemen, Kevin Sullivan and His Army of Darkness shook professional wrestling from its comfort zone forever.
“Kevin Sullivan attacked the psyche, leaving you uncomfortable and bewildered.”
When fans are asked to name factions in wrestling, they usually include The Fabulous Freebirds, D-Generation X, The New World Order, The Four Horsemen (WOOOO!), and Gama Singh’s Karachi Vice from Stampede Wrestling, among many others. But let’s not forget who truly terrorized the fans and made all the headlines for all the wrong reasons in the ‘80s!
Kevin Sullivan was a territory journeyman and NWA mainstay for several years before he hit his stride as "The Prince of Darkness" in 1982 while competing for (CWF) Championship Wrestling from Florida. Here he could tap into society’s fear of satanism, witchcraft, and the occult.
The sport and spectacle that is pro wrestling, never to be left behind in trying to cash in on a current trend, whether in good taste or not, found its perfect dark sayer and emissary. This was brought to a boil in the south’s bible belt region, where his "Army of Darkness" would try and darken any light that the babyfaces of the time might try to shine on this new tenebrosity before them. "The children of the light would battle the men of darkness in this final hour!"
What factors led to the "Satanic Panic" that almost guaranteed Kevin Sullivan and his dark gimmick to go over?
Witchcraft is the practicing of magic, especially black magic and spells, where there is also an affinity with nature and is usually based on pagan traditions.
An estimated 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft, and 20 innocent people were executed due to "The Salem Witch Trials" in the late 1600s.
In his article "How Satanic Panic Worked," Robert Lamb offers, "Witchcraft theorists and interrogators of the 15th century obtained their testimony through intimidation and torture — and as such the confessions of their victims matched and even exceeded their expectations for supernatural evil and debauchery."
Fast forward to the 1930s and ’40s pulp magazines, where we begin to see lurid half-naked women in distress on the covers along with "forbidden" satanic rituals, torture, witchcraft, and even murder as themes used to sell these cheap publications.
In 1966, Anton LaVey created quite a media buzz when he founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco, California. This fascination with the occult became prevalent in films in the ‘60s, like Rosemary’s Baby and The Devil Rides Out. This further perpetuated the fear of murderous satanic cults and the devil. The decade ended with the shocking "Manson Family Murders" and the "Zodiac Killer."
The early ’70s had heavy metal bands that started adopting cryptic messages and symbolism into their music that many detractors claim alluded to satanism and the occult. On-screen, we got The Wicker Man and Damien in The Omen. Serial killers from the decade include David Berkowitz, "Son of Sam," Ted Bundy, and "The Killer Clown" John Wayne Gacy. In 1978 Jim Jones founded the "Peoples Temple" religious movement, where 900 followers in Guyana died after ingesting cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, becoming the biggest mass murder-suicide in history.
All the above, along with many fake or exaggerated accounts that were later proven false, spawned the term "Satanic Panic" later in the ‘80s.
Even the popular role-playing game "Dungeons and Dragons" came under fire after several teen suicides were blamed on the game. The organization called BADD (Bothered About D&D) claimed D&D used demonology, satanic-type rituals, witchcraft, voodoo, sex perversion, demon summoning, and murder, among many other unsavory elements.
The 1980 book entitled "Michelle Remembers," co-written by psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder with his patient (and eventual wife Michelle Smith), centered around SRA (satanic ritual abuse) and the term "recovered memory."
It was billed as a true story then but was later discredited by several investigations. Under hypnosis, Michelle recovered repressed memories of horrifying sexual abuse from her childhood in Victoria, British Columbia, in the 1950s.
She recalled strange rituals, many occurring in a basement room and a cemetery, involving knives, masochism, rape, and murder. She also claimed that she was bundled into a car with the corpse of a dead victim of the Satanists, and later it was purposely crashed. To finish it all off, Michelle endured 81 straight days of abuse in a marathon mega-ritual in which the cultists summoned Satan himself.
Other than Richard Ramirez, known as the "Night Stalker" and a proud Satanist who would serve thirteen death sentences, maybe the catalyst of panic and fear in this decade occurred in 1984 when there were allegations of sexual abuse at California’s McMartin pre-school. This and the lengthy trial that ensued further embedded in the U.S. the idea of SRA.
Prosecutors charged that a ring of teachers had participated in the abuse of hundreds of children in rituals involving masks, robes, pentagrams, and altars. The trial ended six years later in acquittal and dismissal, but after already having caused mass hysteria in the populace.
In this turmoil, Kevin Sullivan and his Army of Darkness found fertile soil, and ultimately the "tree of woe" he repeats in his promos seems to have proliferated. They made their presence felt almost immediately and shook professional wrestling from its comfort zone FOREVER. Fans had seen nothing like it before, much like what punk and heavy metal did for rock and roll.
Benjamin Welton of metalinjection.net adds, "During their heyday, Sullivan’s cult came to the ring with either Jeff Beck’s ‘Gets Us All In The End’ or Deep Purple’s ‘Nobody’s Home’ blaring behind them and a series of black-cloaked and corpse-painted minions who usually brought with them boa constrictors of varying colors and sizes. Add in a half-naked Fallen Angel, and then you’ve got a good idea of how much of a spectacle Sullivan’s Army of Darkness was.”
He continues, "If you watch any of Sullivan’s matches from 1982 until 1988, you can see them in the audience booing or threatening to beat the spirit of the Lord into Sullivan’s ungodly Yankee body. For the Army of Darkness, this was proof positive that the gimmick was working; for the audience, the Army of Darkness was proof positive that the world, or at least Florida, was going straight to hell."
“If you were a child in the ‘80s, it was something you didn’t want your parents to catch you watching!”
Kevin Sullivan became the mouthpiece of his wicked henchman that included "Maniac" Mark Lewin as The Purple Haze, The Chairman of the Board King Curtis Iaukea, The Fallen Angel (Nancy Benoit and former wife of Sullivan), Maya Singh (Bob Roop), Luna Vachon, The Lock (Winona Littleheart), Reverend Mr. Black, The Dream (Mike Davis), “The Snakemaster” Abudadein, and Sir Oliver Humperdink.
Eventually, "Superstar" Graham, Jake Roberts, Abdullah The Butcher, The Zambaui Express, and many others joined this faction over the years. His promos attacked the psyche and would leave you uncomfortable and bewildered. If you were a child in the ‘80s, it was something you didn’t want your parents to catch you watching!
Sullivan’s mythical foreign object spike opened up many a forehead. At the same time, fans tuned in to see who would finally stop the brutality administered by him and his Army of Darkness.
Instead of maybe family time in front of the television to watch Championship Wrestling from Florida, you got Superstar Billy Graham hanged, an often bloodied Blackjack Mulligan, Sullivan slapping (the Golden Palm), a supposed female journalist (later Luna Vachon), or him in his promos talking about eating cosmic cookies (often two), betel nuts, taking no prisoners while accompanied by slave girls and heads floating in rivers with OG by his side. No, and I don’t mean the original gangster.
The motives in his promos went beyond just winning a belt or being crazy because he could. He seemed to have larger motives and threatened to suck you into the darkness with his words and through the television screen. His subliminal messages were foreboding and indicated that danger was on the horizon.
Rituals of torture, blood-letting in the ring, and some of the first hardcore-style matches became commonplace as commentators Buddy Colt and Gordon Solie in CWF looked on. Violence against women, mental manipulation, and the hanging of opponents made headlines across the country. Let’s not start on King Curtis Iaukea, The Chairman of the Board’s scarred head, that The Fallen Angel sensually massages (yikes!), which can be viewed later in this story.
WATCH: "The Prince of Darkness" Kevin Sullivan does not accept desertion from his group, as he teaches The Lock and "Superstar" Graham a lesson
His messages often alluded to the occult, witchcraft, hallucinogens, and even Satanism, but Sullivan mentions that he never used the word "Satan" and never brought religion into the interviews.
Of course, people knew what he represented, even if they didn’t always understand the cryptic and eerie messages he became known for. He further stated that the wrestling magazines did run with it by using headlines like "Satan Is My Manager" to sell their product.
He credits the gimmick’s success on having selfless babyfaces to work with that put their egos aside. The band of heroes enlisted to repel this evil included Dusty Rhodes, "Blackjack" Mulligan, Barry Windham, Kendall Windham, Mike Graham, and Mike Rotundo. In turn, they were referred to as "Faces of Darkness and Faces of Fear" by Sullivan.
WATCH: Kevin Sullivan, accompanied by The Fallen Angel and his Army of Darkness, faces Blackjack Mulligan
According to Sullivan from a Kayfabe Memories shoot interview, further reasons for the gimmick’s success include the fans wanting to believe it was real. Also, Sullivan felt that if he could convince the boys in the back that he was a devil worshipper by living the gimmick, he’d get over with the people at the shows.
He only sensed that they went overboard when Dusty hung him on television. The gimmick was partly based on musicians like Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, and Billy Idol. Some say that he really did get into Satanism and the black arts along with The Fallen Angel (later Nancy Benoit), but this is unproven, and he has always denied his involvement.
The vignette of The Purple Haze walking out of the almost pitch-black ocean, with King Curtis narrating, is possibly wrestling’s first video.
In a shoot interview conducted by Title Match Wrestling, Sullivan readily admits that Nancy was an often-overlooked talent who took to the business really quickly and was fortunate to be around some of the smartest workers of the time.
Many were either in the Army of Darkness or the opponents they’d have to face. Also, he doesn’t think he could’ve gone as far as he did without her. They got mainstream coverage on a news station in south Florida after wrestling in the Orange Bowl because Nancy caught the eye of the sports broadcaster, who didn’t understand wrestling but enjoyed what he saw.
He also believes that she revitalized Ric Flair’s career and helped Chris Benoit, The Sandman, plus the team of Doom (Butch Reed and Ron Simmons) get over with their characters and in the latter by breaking the "color barrier" due to Sullivan believing in her.
The Prince of Darkness tells a story, "I was taken by Abudadein to the closet of anxiety where I took the cosmic cookie and went to the Amazon river of my mind, where I met OG the keeper of the key. And he told me now the final stages are set for the war with the family because now they know that I’m gonna do something horrible. Now there’s no stopping me, Mulligan, because you’re the one that pushed me over this line this time!
“You see, Abudadein, when he strapped me to the tree of woe and people plucked at my skin, it was all to make me stronger because the horrible thing now, Mulligan, is this, I’m not taking any prisoners now, like in Ipoh, Malaysia at an Indian picnic when there was feasting and rejoicing, and the Haze put an Indian to sleep and didn’t arise again. No prisoners (Solie and Colt)! No Prisoners!"
Sullivan’s white-hot heat-generating gimmick of a crazed yet disturbingly wise cult leader leading minions of darkness to opaque the light of the world seems to have influenced current stars like The Undertaker with his Ministry of Darkness, Mick Foley as Mankind, and to some extent, Bray Wyatt’s previous gimmick as leader of The Wyatt Family and "Eater of Worlds."
Blackjack Mulligan, who battled Sullivan and his army during the ’80s, is Bray Wyatt’s grandfather. Barry and Kendall Windham are his uncles. Mike Rotunda is his father.
Soon the territories fell, and "Satanic Panic" across the country diminished to only a whisper of what it once was as the people behind the fear-mongering were exposed. It ushered an era of more sanitized sports entertainment with less blood, outright violence, and less contentious angles.
As the ‘90s arrived and the Army of Darkness dissolved, its members went their separate ways or retired from wrestling altogether. I hear the Prince of Darkness, the Purple Haze, and Maya Singh can sometimes be seen lurking in the shadows of wrestling conventions across the country.
Might they be looking for new recruits? Or are they still searching for "Superstar" Billy Graham, who got away? Hopefully, The Lock finally found peace away from Sullivan’s clutches and lives happily as Winona Barkley.
Sullivan resurfaced as "The Taskmaster" brought back similar but more like parodies of The Army of Darkness in WCW in the form of "The Three Faces of Fear" and "The Dungeon of Doom," mainly to rid Hulkamania from the company.
No longer edgy and fresh, these heel factions were tailored to a more fan-friendly audience and eventually disappeared. They were the watery light beer to the thick Oatmeal Stout we first saw in CWF.
Nonetheless, this does not diminish what Kevin Sullivan and his faction accomplished in the last days of the territories. A testament to that is people still remember this dark faction 35+ years later.
"It would be pointless to wonder if Sullivan and the Army of Darkness would work again today. Every fan is in on the game now, plus a Satanist who knows a collar-and-elbow tie-up is just not terribly shocking anymore," comments Benjamin Welton of metalinjection.net
Another taste of The Army of Darkness’ controversial angles as Luna Vachon takes a real hard shot at the hands of Sullivan here:
Even if it was a work, Sullivan’s laugh is chilling and cruel afterward. Sullivan has stated that Luna insisted she be struck hard for the angle to work.
“Well, I don’t know what to say about this man. As I’ve said before, he’s gone over the edge.” – Gordon Solie after a Kevin Sullivan and Purple Haze promo.
These stories may also interest you:
- Kevin Sullivan – A Conversation With The Devil
- Luna Vachon | A Caterpillar in a World Full of Butterflies
- Omni Coliseum | 11 Unforgettable Wrestling Moments at The Omni
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