It's in the nature of pro wrestling to overexaggerate everything. From the moves to the promos to the facial expressions, everything is over the top. But there seems to be a line of sorts that when crossed, is hard to return from. This is particularly true when it comes to injury angles. From Matt Hardy and Edge knocking each other clear off the stage, to Kurt Angle "breaking his leg" and being in a wheelchair for a while, to Shawn Michaels collapsing in the ring, the business thrives on working over the fans emotionally by playing up these injury angles all the time.
But then something like Bret Hart breaking his sternum in a match happens. I still remember in Wrestling With Shadows I think it was, where Bret said that the fans in the front row were yelling at him to get up while he was injured on the floor. Or Mick Foley's story about the guy in ECW who busted his head open on the ground only to be greeted with "You F***ed Up" chants." The fans have been groomed to expect these things to be fixed, to look at a guy writhing in pain and say "hey, he's really good at selling that move/making it look real." So it's only natural then that when Owen died, the jaded fans still thought it was a work.
I will say here that, being caught between a rock and a hard place, I believe the WWE made the right decision to continue with the show. However, as many have already said, the mistake was with not letting the fans in the audience know that Owen had died due to his accident earlier that night. JR's infamous line that "this was as real as real could be," however, made me remember all of the fixed injury angles I've seen, and I've seen quite a few. It's no wonder that there were fans who refused to believe what they had seen. This line between distinguishing when a real injury happens and when it's fixed has become so blurred, that when a legitimate injury does come up in a match, it's hard for WWE to share that with the fans. Not because they can't, but because it's so hard to believe when you know that they like pulling one over you all the time.
In particular, this was sadly more evident in 2005 when Eddie Guerrero died. Believe it or not, there were fans who thought his death was a fix. Yes, there were fans who thought that the emotional tribute show to him a day after he passed (he was found dead in his hotel room the day he was scheduled to win the WWE Championship) was all a work. Now, I know that pro wrestlers are performers and essentially athletic actors, bringing about the overexaggeration that I was talking about earlier. But to say that a man like Chris Benoit breaking down in tears on television in front of millions was an act on his part was and still is an absurd statement to me. Pro wrestlers aren't that good of actors to fake that intense emotion, and I'd like to think they're not that malicious to do it in the first place over someone's death. There was actually a website, and I'm sad that I don't have the link anymore, but there was actually a site that went into details of why Eddie Guerrero was still alive, and how they were going to "bring him back" for a huge return.
As sad and perhaps as malicious as that might sound, the really sad part is that the WWE gave him legitimate reason to think that Eddie Guerrero really hadn't passed. Now, I wasn't watching wrestling when Owen passed, but I was watching in November of 2005 when Eddie died. I was never more sickened to be a wrestling fan than I was in the next few months, when the WWE blatantly exploited a man's death. After a heartfelt tribute along the same vein as Owen's, and some wrestlers sporting "EG" bands on their arms, I thought they'd let his name and memory rest in the minds of the fans who remembered and loved him. Instead, they bring in Eddie's wife to partake in a storyline, they have Rey Misterio dedicating every other match "to Eddie" instead of letting it lie, and then they actually had Randy Orton say that Eddie was in hell. Is it any wonder that there were fans who thought Eddie might've been alive and well and just waiting to exact his revenge on Randy by helping Rey defeat him and Kurt Angle at Wrestlemania 22 in April?
I think in a wrestling business with the landscape of the WWE, the tribute shows are fitting. Yes, it's strange and ironic that they have up their stage names while the men behind the wrestler images are talking about a friend who's tragically passed. But Owen's show was the first, and I do think that Eddie's tribute show might've been a little classier, not because the emotion was anymore real, but after having gone through a show like that before, the WWE knew what to do the second time around. What's not fitting is the aftermath. I don't disagree with including Eddie in the Hall of Fame, but I did stop watching SmackDown when every show seemed to revolve around Eddie. It passed from keeping his memory alive to flat-out exploitation, leading to idiotic sites like the one I read where fans are lead to think that maybe he's still alive.
In the end, I know that they won't ever stop using serious injury storylines. But I would like to see them scale back on using them, just so the next time something "very real" happens to someone in the ring (hopefully a long, long, long time from now), the fans won't be so jaded and can respond accordingly, instead of just thinking some guys are good actors...