There Was No Way to Tell This Man Was a Monster
Scott Keith's Dungeon of Death is a confused, unfocused, meandering account of the most gruesome death yet in an industry known for killing off its performers at startlingly young ages.
Dungeon of DeathPublisher: Kensington
Subtitle: Chris Benoit and the Hart Family Curse
Author: Scott Keith
US publication date: 2008-11
"I’m just so sick of these books and these guys that are so-called experts or pseudo experts. They have no credentials… They’ve never been in the dressing room. They don’t know what transpired."
-- Bret Hart
"Objective journalism is for pussies."
-- Scott Keith
Think, for a moment, about the nicest person at your place of work. The person anyone can come to for a supportive word or a sympathetic ear. The kind of colleague and friend who never taxes you with his concerns and issues, because he would much rather help you grapple with yours.
Now imagine that this colleague sends you a text message, letting you know that he won’t be coming to work today because his wife and son are sick. Further, pretend that a few short hours after you receive this somewhat cryptic and unsettling text message, authorities inform you that your friend has died. Finally, imagine discovering, ultimately, that the friendliest and most selfless and giving of all your colleagues choked his wife and his seven-year-old son to death, placed a bible near his son’s body, and then took his own life.
Now envision the entire world finding out what your friend did; the media hounding you for interviews, demanding your account for what drove your friend and coworker to do such a senseless and monstrous thing.
Welcome to the life of a World Wrestling Entertainment employee in June 2007, after police found the bodies of intense fan-favorite Chris Benoit and his wife and son in their home in Fayetteville, Georgia.
Spin-control was the order of the day for WWE CEO Vince McMahon, who faced accusations that he’d turned a blind eye to years of rampant steroid abuse on the part of his employees, the implication being that “roid rage” drove Benoit to commit murder and suicide. While the accusations of steroid abuse were not without merit (have you seen a professional wrestler lately? Or Vince McMahon himself, for that matter?), the consensus, 17 months later, is that the blame for Benoit’s heinous act more likely lies on his stubborn policy of refusing to protect his own body when performing his admittedly preplanned and choreographed but nonetheless destructive professional wrestling maneuvers every night.
Neurological tests performed on Benoit’s corpse revealed that years of taking steel chair blows to the head had rendered Benoit’s brain indistinguishable from that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient. Still, many want to blame steroids, while others prefer to believe that Benoit was simply a sick man; how many 85-year-old Alzheimer's patients commit murder or suicide?
Some suggest that unprotected chair shots to the head are to blame for
Benoit's madness. Watch some chair shots and decide for yourself.
While the mainstream media has long-since moved on from the Benoit tragedy, the wrestling press continues to grapple with the terrible events of June 2007, and what they imply about the professional wrestling industry at large. Enter wrestling journalist Scott Keith, a popular but divisive fan whose “rants” (reviews of wrestling shows) have alternately entertained and angered his readership over the years.
I've said before that Keith is exactly the journalist that the professional wrestling industry deserves. To determine the extent to which you agree with that sentiment, look no further than the title of Keith's latest exposé: Dungeon of Death: Chris Benoit and the Hart Family Curse.
Now consider this quote, from the opening chapter:
Personally, I think it was slightly easier to cope with the end because Benoit was obviously coming to the end of his run in the WWE by 2007, and we as fans were mentally prepping for him not to be around any longer.
Clearly, Keith's intention here is not to minimize the tragedy of three people meeting a grisly end, but when one chooses to write a book about such a sensationalized topic, and when one further opts to title such a book Dungeon of Death, then clearly the burden of dignity falls on the author, not the reader.
Moving on, here is arguably the defining passage from Keith's Dungeon of Death:
I think that although erasing Benoit from the WWE 24/7 library in the short term is a good move to distance the company from the murderer, in the long run it will be healthier for fans to remember the entertainer rather than the horrible person he became… If you have moral high ground enough to judge the entire body of work of a man because of his deeds in real life, then bully for you. It must be nice to be so righteous… If nothing else positive can come out of this whole sick situation, it's that I can still enjoy his matches.
Contrast that with a post on Keith's blog from October 24:
"Unfortunately my enthusiasm for going back and watching a good chunk of the WWE’s product from 2000-2007 has been destroyed by Benoit, as I still can’t go back and watch his stuff, and I fear that might be permanent since it’s been more than a year and there’s no signs imminent of me suddenly wanting to watch him again."
(I managed to contact Keith just before submitting this column, and his justification was simple: "The book was written more than a year ago, when I thought I would be able to view his matches objectively later on. That proved not to be the case.")
In a January 2005 blog entry, I wrote that Keith was the Hunter S. Thompson of pro wrestling journalism, but while I still enjoy his writing, it would now be more accurate to say that Keith is the Kevin Smith of pro wrestling journalism; his work can be fun and somehow endearing at times, but at the start of his career, there was something of an unspoken assumption on the part of his fanbase that he would improve and evolve, that he would continue to challenge himself until he eventually became a truly intelligent, even relevant voice.
Instead, like Smith, Keith seems to have not learned or grown at all as a writer. While Smith’s movies become increasingly concerned with scatological humor, Scott Keith’s Dungeon of Death boasts the same issues found in his previous books, namely that he cannot decide from one paragraph to the next whether his audience is comprised of wrestling novices or hardcore fans; he often takes the time to explain basic information such as the mechanics of a wrestling move, only to follow such an explanation with a vague, passing reference (by nickname, often as not) to a hopelessly obscure figure or storyline from wrestling’s past.
Even so, Dungeon’s condemnations of the wrestling industry and its fans are rather stirring. Keith is correct to note that something is clearly amiss when the WWE has a template for a tribute show to air anytime a wrestler dies too young. And in spite of the many mechanics errors one finds in a given piece of Keith writing (my copy of Dungeon of Death is an uncorrected proof, but his blog posts and his "Rants" at Inside Pulse are seldom better), his writing remains compulsively readable at its best, provided the reader is a professional wrestling enthusiast.
For my part, I read Dungeon of Death in one sitting, which would seem on the surface to be quite a ringing endorsement. But really, I also read WrestleCrap: The Very Worst of Pro Wrestling, The Death of WCW, Eric Bischoff: Controversy Creates Cash and Heartbreak and Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story in single sittings too, and those tomes were hardly known for their literary or artistic ambition. Further, What Would Tyler Durden Do is compulsively readable; how much does that really count for?
Perhaps the death of so many of his wrestling heroes has left Keith defeated and uninspired. At times, reading Dungeon of Death leaves a reader feeling that it's perhaps worse than that; Keith seems almost unhinged. His tendency to want to understate or minimize is at times deeply unsettling. On the book's first page, he likens Benoit's murder-suicide to the "ultimate heel turn." His conclusion begins with the suggestion that, "Time and perspective have left Chris Benoit more of a sympathetic figure than he was when he first committed the atrocities of June 2007."
One can assume that much of this uncomfortable apologist approach stems from Keith having written the book a year ago, as he noted in his response to my e-mail. But I would suggest that one should not write a book about a murder-suicide so soon after it occurs that one is reduced to projecting a rough estimate of how one might ultimately feel about it.
Dungeon of Death is a confused, unfocused, meandering account of the most gruesome death yet in an industry known for killing off its performers at startlingly young ages. But for all the book’s structural and stylistic issues, simply seeing the names of all the too-young dead is so morbidly compelling that Dungeon of Death almost can’t help but keep the reader engrossed.
If you seek insight or closure into the Benoit murder-suicide yet you are turned off by an inconsistent writing style and a requisite handful of factual errors and a cloudy sense of audience, you need only combine the first and final sentences from Dungeon of Death to understand its thesis:
There's kind of a running joke on my blog, although it's less funny as time goes on. A wrestler died from heart attack caused by steroid and painkiller abuse at a young age, and no one learned anything from it.
Vince McMahon During WWE's Tribute to Benoit