Today's topic is in a roundabout way related to Halloween, in that it involves the darker angels of our nature, as it were. I'm talking about one of the great plot devices in the pro wrestling universe, The Heel Turn. In the world of pretend fighting a character will suddenly decide he doesn't like one of his friends, or the fans, or the world, and go bad. This generally reframes his whole persona and sets off a major feud or angle of some kind.
The best heel turns usually happen suddenly, so there's a feeling of shock and betrayal from the fans, but it's also important that the turn doesn't feel like a cheat or a contrivance. It has to make sense within the context of the story being told. There has to have been some kind of foreshadowing or tension between the betrayer and his victim(s), thus when the turn happens it's appalling but also satisfying. You've invested in this ongoing story and here's a major inciting incident. Also the subsequent heel run generally needs to last a while and have some kind of long-term impact on the overall product. So often these days a wrestler will turn heel just so he can be repositioned to feud with whomever the writers want him to feud with. And then three months later he's back to being a babyface (Big Show, I'm looking in your general direction). When this kinda thing happens too often, not only does each character turn lose meaning, but the fans cease to invest in said wrestler because he changes his stripes constantly. Sadly in recent years the effective heel turn has become something of a lost art, as today's wrestling bookers don't seem to have the discipline to properly execute it.
The other kind of heel turn that can be effective is the gradual variety, where a wrestler will start to show a mean streak but it's amplified over several months, and eventually before you know it, the guy's fighting babyfaces (see Punk, CM; Jericho, Chris; *surname omitted*, Edge). I find those don't work as well, although gradual turns have produced some great heel characters (such as the aforementioned three). That's not to say I don't like the gradual ones, I just find it more fun when a guy turns heel sort of all at once but it still makes perfect sense in context.
Here now are my ten favorite heel turns in wrestling history...
10. The Road Warriors (1988)
1988 was a year of multiple heel and babyface turns in the NWA, and one of the last ones to take place was when the almighty Road Warriors betrayed Sting during a six-man tag match. Sting was a last-minute substitute for the Roadies' longtime partner Dusty Rhodes, and Hawk & Animal were none too pleased that a) Dusty wasn't present as scheduled, and b) the Johnny-come-lately Stinger was selected as a replacement. This kicked off an uber-mean streak from the Legion of Doom that included a gruesome incident where they tried to poke Dusty's eye out with a shoulderpad spike. As a 13-year-old fan I felt horribly wronged by my favorite badass team, and initially found them pretty scary as bad guys (Another hallmark of a great heel turn), but after a couple weeks I came back around and actually liked them even more with their newfound lust for brutality. Sadly the Road Warriors' heel run was short-lived, since the fans never really wanted to boo them. But this was a quite effective angle at the time.
9. Lex Luger (1989)
Another NWA mainstay who always seemed more comfortable wearing the black hat was Lex Luger. Luger had made a name for himself as the "young lion" of the 1987 Four Horsemen lineup before tiring of their antics and turning babyface. In mid 1989 though some tension began to build between Luger and the returning Ricky Steamboat, over the new Top Ten ratings system. Being the former NWA World Champ, Steamboat was named the #1 Contender, even though traditionally the US Championship (which Luger held at the time) guaranteed its wearer the top spot. At Clash of the Champions VII Steamboat defeated Terry Funk by DQ but was attacked by Funk's cohorts after the match. Luger came to the rescue, chasing off Team Funk, and helped Steamboat to his feet, only to level the former Champ with a ferocious clothesline. Luger vs. Steamboat was a brief feud due to Steamboat's departure from the promotion, but he spent the remainder of 1989 as a dominant heel US Champion, turning in some of his best in-ring work and seemingly poised to challenge the babyface Ric Flair for the Big Gold Belt. Flair's heel turn and a sudden injury to Sting in early '90 left a top babyface void, and Luger was inexplicably made a good guy once again. Early 1990 always struck me as a reset period in the NWA, but I did truly enjoy Luger's late-89 heel run.