Dealing with the Devil: Professor Explores Contracts with the Prince of Darkness in Popular Culture

Faust

In the story of Faust — which has been reinterpreted numerous times in plays, movies, books and music — the protagonist sells his soul to the devil, often in exchange for knowledge or power.

July 26, 2012

In a classic "Simpsons" Halloween episode, Homer Simpson happily signs away his immortal soul to the devil in exchange for a pink-frosted doughnut.

The SimpsonsHomer eats all but the final bite, realizing that finishing it would seal the pact. Later that night, however, he inadvertently eats the last piece as a midnight snack. When the devil reappears to claim his due, Homer's wife, Marge, eventually stops Satan by pointing out that Homer pledged his soul to her years ago on their wedding day, thereby rendering the contract with the devil invalid.

"Marge says 'I own Homer's soul. He can't give it away.' And so the devil concedes," said University of Virginia law professor John Setear. "The devil is [Homer's evangelical neighbor] Ned Flanders, by the way."

Over the summer, Setear has been researching deals with the devil in books, music, comics, theater, movies and TV shows — including the "Simpsons" short — for a forthcoming article. Setear said the research will also provide fodder for the Contracts classes he teaches at the Law School, as the popular depictions of such deals reveal new ways to explore the theory and meaning of contracts.

"A whole host of authors seem to think it's important or useful to use the contract as a metaphor for the interaction between humans and the devil," Setear said. "There's a dovetailing of law and theology in the sense that if individuals are going to have free will, then they can choose to love God or turn away from God. They have to be free to choose."

Contracts law, likewise, spends a lot of time ensuring that the parties to the contract can make, and have made, a free choice, he added. "It makes a lot of sense, in a way, to say, 'Look, this person used a contract to sell his soul to the devil. It's all laid out very clearly," he said. "And he wasn't coerced or intoxicated.' It's a way to demonstrate free will."

Fictional contracts with the devil, he said, raise a host of interesting legal and metaphysical questions. For one, who actually owns the soul? Some religions propose that the soul belongs only to God. If that's the case, can humans legally bargain with their souls?

"The Uniform Commercial Code, as it deals with the sale of goods, says that you implicitly promise that you own what you're selling," Setear said. "That means that if you don't [actually own the goods], then you're in breach of the contract."

Deals with the devil, he said, could also serve as a metaphor for entering into a contract with an evil person in the commercial world or for bargaining away something that seems extremely valuable.

"If the person on the other side of the table is so wicked and evil, can it ever be fair to enter into a deal with them?" he said. "If you promise to give away your kidney or your life, could it ever be a truly voluntary decision?"

Deals with the devil can illustrate basic contract law principles, Setear said.

"One party wants something right away," Setear said. "The other party has to wait a long time to get what they want. That, in a sense, is what contracts are for. Some people call this 'presentiation.' You take the future and you effectively make it the present by making a contract."

When it comes to making a pact with Lucifer, "These contracts only seem to take one form — a mortal wants some temporal good for his or her selfish gain," he added. "In exchange, they give up their soul for eternity."

Depictions of deals with the devil can similarly raise doctrinal questions about contracts, Setear said. For example, in many instances, such as in the 1967 British film "Bedazzled," the contract is signed in blood — though, in that case, the mortal asks: "Shouldn't I sign it in blood?" The devil replies, "Blimey, you are a traditionalist."

"Generally, contracts can be oral or written," Setear said. "A contract can be one of those giant cardboard checks from Publisher's Clearinghouse. A contract can be written on the back of a napkin. A contract could be written in blood, but, in many of the stories about contracts with the devil, it doesn't have to be. So it could be used as an example to illustrate that there aren't normally formal requirements for a contract. But if a party specifies formal requirements for a contract, then you do have to meet those requirements."

In examining how these deals appear in popular culture — Setear and his research assistant found more than 50 in all — a number of common threads emerge that raise even more perplexing questions, Setear said. For example, why is the devil so interested in bargaining for souls?

"It tells us some things about the devil and it tells us some things about mortals. The contracts are always a soul in exchange for some current selfish goal. Faust wants — though it depends [on which version] — knowledge. Homer Simpson wants a doughnut."

Another common trope is that the devil rarely engages in trickery when it comes to entering into contracts for souls.

"Everybody's pretty up front about what's at stake," he said. "The devil doesn't lie about the terms."

Occasionally, Setear found, the devil will honor the letter, but not the spirit of the contract. A 1959 episode of "The Twilight Zone," for example, tells the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for immortality, figuring that the devil will never get to collect. They sign the contract, and the man becomes immortal but soon finds himself sentenced to life in prison and facing a tedious lifetime of eternity behind bars. The man begs for death, and the devil grants his wish.

BedazzledThe devil rarely reneges on the contract, Setear said. In fact, the mortal in the story is much more likely to violate the deal. In some versions of Faust, for example, Faust renounces the devil and escapes the contract at the end of the story.

"The devil keeps his word," Setear said. "The focus is really on the choices made by the human being."

Rising second-year law student Ian Duffy helped Setear research the project during the first half of the summer.

Duffy, who is working at the Spotsylvania County Commonwealth's Attorney's office for the second half of the summer, said his favorite example of a contract with the devil is a 1999 "Saturday Night Live" skit in which Garth Brooks, playing an average songwriter, laments out loud that he would sell his soul to the devil for a hit tune. Will Ferrell, as a guitar-wielding devil, appears in a puff of smoke and they strike a deal.

"But when the devil tries to teach him the song," Duffy said, "it turns out the devil is terrible at music and can't really play the guitar."

Will Ferrell
Will Ferrell played a musically challenged Lucifer in a 1999 "SNL" skit.

Duffy found that some of the more contemporary deals are more altruistic in nature rather than selfish, citing the TV show "Supernatural" as one example.

"It's the story of two brothers who are monster hunters," he said. "At various points in the series, several of the characters make contracts, not with the devil himself, but with demons, in order to save the lives of their family members. And it all ends up going badly, as these contracts often do. But they always get off on technicalities."

While the research project is a little off-beat, Duffy said, it raises interesting questions about law, religion and greed.

"What can these contracts with the devil tell us about human psychology?" he said. "How do we value our immortal soul? And are oral contracts with the devil subject to the statute of frauds?"

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