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Pro Wrestling

Daffney Revealed The Heart Of Wrestling’s Unquiet Storm

Daffney in a match also featuring Miss Elizabeth somehow.
Screengrab via YouTube

The first time I saw Daffney Unger, she was screaming. Unger, whose real name was Shannon Spruill and who died last week at 46, was playing the wrestling role of manager alongside her onscreen boyfriend, Ric Flair’s eldest son David, and a deeply underrated wrestler named Crowbar. She didn’t scream a little in this role. She screamed a lot, over and over until it became one long scream. Scream. Deep breath. Scream. It was annoying and not a little hokey, a play on the most stereotypical and unreal and wrestling-specific vision of mental illness, one which holds that a person turns into a gibbering lunatic upon succumbing to depression or anxiety or delusion. The reality, which is that those things slowly and quietly eat away at the self, is less of a fit for wrestling’s all or nothing storytelling style.

Spruill’s monochromatic role as The Screaming Lady didn’t obscure what was immediately apparent about her, which was that she had it and was destined to be a pro wrestling star. The camera loved her and lingered on her, not in the overtly sexual way that so many female wrestlers are seen—that was there, too, of course, because this is the way women are seen through lenses like this—but because she was simply magnetic. Spruill played (and really was) a black-clad goth and something of a punk, with equally black hair framing the sort of just-shy-of-too-expressive face you need to make it in the pantomime world of pro wrestling. Her interviews, even at that early stage of her career, had a spark some veteran stars never manage, and real chemistry with her two male charges.

When it was time to transition from manager to pro wrestler, and from screaming and cutting promos to doing all that plus zipping around the ring, Spruill turned out to be equally as natural. These were especially dark days for big time women’s wrestling. In 1999, WWE was on the cusp of total victory over WCW, the promotion in which Spruill plied her trade, and a not insignificant amount of WWE’s victory was built on demeaning women at every opportunity, including and especially those women who were wrestlers first and foremost. WCW was better, if only in the sense that they didn’t make women bark like dogs while the owner shouted at them, but not by much. WCW’s women’s division was small but talented when it started, leaning on the talents of an in-her-prime Madusa and imported Japanese wrestling talent like Bull Nakano. (Japan was then, and remains today, a hub of great women’s wrestling.)

By 1999, when Daffney debuted, WWE was in inexorable ascendency in the ratings war with WCW. The pressure that WWE put on WCW via its barely restrained sleaze led WCW go the same route in hope of finding some of the same success; evening gown matches, strip teases, and lewd comments from commentators became more common occurrences. On her website, Madusa cited the shift in emphasis as the impetus for her retirement in 2001. It’s always a delicate thing to bring up women’s wrestling of that era, as the line between what performers could do and what they were allowed to do is so fuzzy, and because the pervasive sexism of the moment so obscures the question. There were brilliant performers at work in both promotions, but their work was, everywhere, caked in the moment’s toxic cultural gunk. Given that American women’s wrestling is now in a decade-long golden age, it’s painful to think about all the great work we lost while the big promotions were still working out their various issues. Suffice to say that Spruill’s transition to in-ring work fell into the quixotic category of eye-catching and rather raw.

Rawness was always sort of the point with Spruill, and a big part of her charm. Her appeal in the first place was that she hadn’t had the numbers filed off yet; the athleticism that she displayed with a scant year’s worth of training and TV time was every bit as compelling as the screaming and laughing. Even after WCW folded and it became clear that she would have to get quite a bit less raw to keep doing what was clearly her calling—she trained at Dusty Rhodes’ wrestling school after the shutdown before working the indies and eventually landing in TNA, where she did some of her best work—Spruill somehow never lost those rough edges.

This might read like damning her work with faint praise, so to be clear: Spruill was awesome. She was a natural. She took big bumps and was fearless and charismatic in equal measure. And she was a draw—one of the only things worth watching in the final days of WCW, and then one of the only things worth watching when she moved to TNA. She always stood out, because she was always different from the performers around her. She knew just how to keep her edge, an edge based on being game for just about anything asked of her in the ring, even as she honed her craft to become a formidable worker.

It’s a sad irony that Spruill died so shortly after “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton’s passing. They are pretty much the only two wrestlers in an often mean, petty business that nobody ever speaks a bad word about. Even after largely retiring due to accumulated injuries in 2012—Spruill sued TNA for worker’s compensation over the company’s shameful handling of her injuries; the suit was eventually settled out of court—she stuck around wrestling. She was, by seemingly every account of fans that met her, delightful and always appreciative. A quick posthumous perusal of social media shows stories, photos, and videos of her with fans, smiling with them, with wrestlers, training and mentoring them, with press, giving interviews, with musicians, merch booth workers, referees, and whoever you care to imagine.

That Spruill’s passing comes so soon after the triumphant return of CM Punk to pro wrestling is also perfectly, bleakly fitting. Each is both a member of and legible to a microgeneration of the late Gen Xers born just before the dawn of Reaganism. There wasn’t a moment when I watched either one that I didn’t think “I know that person,” because I so clearly did—they were my friends and family, the people I grew up with. CM Punk, the surly straight-edge punker with a mouth that never stopped and Daffney, the effervescent goth girl who was both sadder and happier than you expected and in ways you’d never anticipate—these were my people, but they were also to so many wrestling fans at that moment identifiably types of people that they knew, working in a milieu that then dealt almost exclusively in steroidal macho fantasy. They were the punkers and the rivetheads, the grebos and the goths. And both were legible in a way that other members of their cohort, like buff android John Cena or spoiled second generation star Randy Orton, could never be.

Pro wrestling broke both their hearts, as it so reliably does. Daffney and Punk disappeared from wider public view at roughly the same time, each with the optimism they’d invested in their strange and vital sport seemingly foreclosed through injuries and the inexorable wearing down of their mental reserves. Only one of them made it out alive, though, and that fact sears all the more given Punk’s rebirth and the fact that Spruill was already a rather obscure figure to that wider public. Wrestling fans know, but for those who saw her work and mourn her loss that seems like not nearly enough; to see her depression peek through on her social media over the years tragically revealed that maybe she felt it wasn’t quite enough, either. 

That was a depression that didn’t make her scream or babble, like her character during her 1999 debut, but the real depression, the one that arrives as a physical force that simultaneously enervates and threatens to burst out of your body. In this moment, it is chilling to see; amidst all the normal social media content, the silly stuff with video filters and old photos of the glory days, there would be something that wouldn’t quite fit about her loneliness, her struggles, her pain. If you know depression, its apparent disappearance in the posts which followed those honest interstitials was instantly recognizable as cosmetic.

Spruill’s last words on her Instagram video before she died by suicide, an act which was mercifully not recorded, were that she wants her brain sent to Boston. She meant the Boston University CTE Center, founded by former WWE wrestler Chris Nowinski in the wake of the Chris Benoit murders so that we can figure out just what the hell activities like pro wrestling and football do to the human brain. Again, it sears: another dead wrestler who knew, and she knew, what the demands of the form did to them, what it broke in them and how, and finally and crushingly how fleeting its gifts really were.

When I wrote about wrestling more, I used to write these obituaries more often. It just became too much. I’m writing this one, for the first time in a long while, for the same reason: It’s too much. I am so tired of wrestlers dying young, especially after the industry had supposedly become kinder and belatedly started to look after its own. After a death like this, there is grief and mystery in equal measure; no one can know who could’ve done more for her, or who could’ve done less to her, or what the thing to which she gave so much of herself ultimately has to do with her taking her own life. It is, ultimately, irrelevant: Pro wrestling did not take care of Shannon Spruill, even if some pro wrestlers probably did.

What is left falls to the people who, in some greater or lesser capacity, actually are pro wrestling. That work is clear—remember her, and honor her through that remembrance. Don’t let her death become a punchline, or some cold data point. I want to say that we should demand better, even though I won’t pretend to know exactly what that looks like, or how those demands might be honored. If there is anything to do, that thing would seem to be remembering and honoring the fact that these characters are also people, before remembering and honoring them is the only thing left to do.

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