World Wrestling Entertainment had planned for a solemn, three-hour memorial service Monday. Although one was still held, a real-life tragedy had radically changed the game plan of one of television's most tightly scripted live shows.
The mock service intended for head honcho Vince McMahon (in the story line, he was last seen inside an exploding limo) quickly became a real one after top wrestler Chris Benoit and his family were found dead in Atlanta. McMahon broke character in an empty arena to announce the news to viewers.
With the assassination plotline, WWE was trying to create a buzz while carrying on professional wrestling's long tradition of blurring reality and fantasy. But reality - in the form of a double murder-suicide - ripped WWE's script to shreds.
Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, said WWE has "upped the voltage" on staged drama that mixes elements of reality and fiction.
"When WWE depends on this certain kind of wild and woolly universe and then something happens in real life like this," the incident throws a cloud over the show, Thompson said. "When blatant reality kicks in, it's difficult to absorb" what's real and what's scripted.
After the deaths were discovered - but before the grisly details were known - the story of the mob-inspired hit on McMahon was scrapped, and the company aired a tribute to Benoit's career.
Police would later say that the 40-year-old Benoit - who had failed to appear for weekend shows - strangled his 43-year-old wife, Nancy, and smothered his 7-year-old son, Daniel, before hanging himself with weight lifting equipment. No suicide note was found, but steroids were, fueling speculation that " 'roid rage" could have been a factor in the deaths.
Much to WWE's dismay, it is now the subject of water-cooler talk because of the Benoit killings and its response to them, not for the over-the-top story line of McMahon's "death."
Montana Miller, an associate professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said she believes WWE erred in its haste to get the word out about Benoit.
"This was a news story," she said, "and I think it was an unwise thing to broadcast it before the whole story was checked up on."
On a WWE program on the SciFi Network on Tuesday, McMahon - out of character - addressed the decision to air the tribute show.
"Some 26 hours later, the facts of this horrific tragedy are now apparent," McMahon said. "Therefore, other than my comments, there will be no mention of Mr. Benoit's name tonight. Tonight's show will be dedicated to everyone who has been affected by this terrible incident. This evening marks the first step of the healing process."
Pro wrestling's appeal - and what makes it a unique form of entertainment - is that while it features athleticism, it's not a sport. And it has elements of a soap opera, yet frequently the wrestlers perform under their real names and episodes of their real life often become part of the wrestling story line.
For the Benoits, life imitated art. While working for the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling in 1996, Chris Benoit was scripted to have an on-air affair with Nancy, then married to wrestler Kevin Sullivan, Benoit's in-ring nemesis. Later, she left Sullivan for Benoit in real life, and the couple married in 2000.
That same year, Benoit signed with WWE. Because the Montreal native wasn't overly flashy, charismatic or physically imposing, Benoit often played the underdog.
The highlight of his career was wrestling in the main event of WrestleMania XX in Madison Square Garden in 2004 and winning the world heavyweight championship. After the match, members of Benoit's family, including a teary-eyed Nancy and Daniel, celebrated with him in the ring amid a shower of confetti.
However, unlike a WWE script in which the good guy usually prevails, there was not a happy ending for the Benoit family.
"You always rooted for him, because he was a good guy and he overcame the odds," said Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "It's like you watched Rocky, and in the end it comes out that Rocky killed his wife and son."
It remains to be seen whether the negative publicity about the deaths and the renewed focus on steroid use will affect the wrestling conglomerate. WWE's Raw is consistently among the highest-rated shows on cable, and the Stamford, Conn.-based company recently began an initiative to entice year-round sponsors for its television shows, pay-per-view events and online offerings, according to an article in the Boston Herald this month.
WWE issued a statement saying it was "concerned with the sensationalistic reporting and speculation being undertaken by some members of the media."
"I don't think that the fans will back off from the WWE," said pro wrestling journalist Bill Apter of 1wrestling.com. "It seems like no matter how much they get bashed in the press, they still have the most resilient fans in the world."
Sun reporter Joe Burris and the Associated Press contributed to this article.
When reality intrudes
The WWE has delighted in mixing reality and fantasy in its soap-operalike plotlines for years. Sometimes real-life events have had an impact on the shows:
Dealing with death
-- After wrestling veteran Eddie Guerrero died in 2005, one of his real-life best friends, Oscar Gutierrez, a wrestler known as Rey Mysterio, began a quest to win the world title in his memory. During the buildup, a villain told Mysterio that Guerrero was "in hell."
A tragic accident
-- Wrestler Owen Hart was killed after a stunt went awry during a WWE pay-per-view event in 1999. Hart, known then as the Blue Blazer, was being lowered into the ring when he was released prematurely from his harness. The accident occurred off-camera. WWE's decision to go on with the show drew heavy criticism from the media and fans.
--Brian Pillman's wrestling nickname, the Loose Cannon, stemmed from his odd behavior in and out of the ring - he even tried to fool fellow wrestlers with his psycho persona. In 1997, he was found dead in his hotel room before a match. Pillman's widow, Melanie, appearing on Monday Night Raw the next night, said prescription drugs may have played a role in his death. Her interview, heavily hyped by WWE, was criticized in the media for being a tasteless ratings ploy.