Although the idea of a contract in real life is ostensibly meant to protect both parties’ interests and hold both parties accountable, this is almost never the case in fiction. When a contract shows up, you know it’s bad news, and if it’s a magical contract, just, like, don’t even read it. Instead of reading it, run.
In day to day life, dealing with the fine print of agreements ranges from irrelevant to frustrating—maybe the paid membership you signed up for auto-renews and you didn’t realize it, or you agreed to an EULA that said you promised not to use that software to create nuclear weapons. Generally a bummer, but nothing life-altering. This mild sort of badness isn’t always the worst case, and plenty of historical examples of people passing off misleading or unfair contract terms exist. History is full of corporations and other people (#zing) who use their power to manipulate. That’s why we have laws about things like monopolies, and Native Americans are still fighting to make the U.S. honor its agreements regarding tribal lands.
Stories based on contract-signings or otherwise magically binding agreements are often reflective of power differences and discrimination in real life. In fiction, people who write contracts are evil, and want you to sign off on that shitty contract they wrote without ever reading the fine print. Then later, when you protest that you didn’t sign up for this, they can pull it out and say yes, you literally signed up for exactly this. The contract’s author is usually a wealthy villain—whether that wealth is financial or some other sort (magical ability, political power) is irrelevant. The point is, they have ultimate control over an ability or commodity, and they can dictate the terms by which that commodity is distributed. And since these contracts have magic behind them, breaking them isn’t as easy as just going back on your word.
The Little Mermaid’s Ursula gives us a good sample of the sort of people who hand out magical contracts. Ursula offers the people who come to her exactly what they want, and she’s the only one who can give them that thing—but there’s always a price. Ariel can become human to be with Prince Eric, but she must surrender her voice—the sole feature Prince Eric has to identify her. And on top of that, she only has three days in which to win his love if she wants to remain human; if she fails, she’ll return to the sea and her soul will be forfeit to Ursula. Terrible stacked odds, no? And to top it all off, Ursula’s also a dirty dirty cheater and, when it looks like things might turn out for the best for Ariel, she shapeshifts and uses the voice she took from Ariel to interfere in Ariel and Eric’s budding relationship.
This happens to Chihiro in Spirited Away as well. All she wants to do is save her parents, but to do so, she’s forced to sign away her name and become a servant to Yubaba. And when she finally dismantles Yubaba’s power, Yubaba still enforces the original contract and adds extra terms to it right at the end.
Sleepy Hollow gave us yet another example of this in Season 2. While Frank Irving is stuck in a mental hospital, Henry visits him under the pretense of helping him get out of the asylum and tricks him into signing a contract with his own blood. Frank’s stuck with him as a lawyer because he doesn’t have any other chance at getting legal representation, but he’s also stuck with him way more than he bargained for—the blood signature forces him to do Henry’s bidding.
And then, of course, there’s the most notorious of contract-bearers: Kyubey. Kyubey spends several episodes of Puella Magi Madoka Magica apparently fulfilling the archetypal magical girl anime role of the adorable mascot character. It gives the girls their magical powers and, in exchange for becoming a hella cute superhero, grants them a wish. Now, the hook of Madoka is that, even though this win-win situation should seem hella suspicious, when you start watching it you’re like “wow, what could possibly go wrong?” (Everything. The answer is literally everything.) As repayment for your granted wish, you become a magical girl and have to fight witches for Kyubey and its alien race. And as the story progresses, you discover that if your resolve ever falters and you fall into despair, you will turn into a witch and your former mahou shoujo bffs will be forced to put you down like a rabid animal. Kyubey is using its incredible amount of power to trick teenage girls into sacrificing themselves to its perpetual energy machine.
All of these situations display a character with proportionally greater power unfairly exerting it over someone who is in some way disenfranchised or significantly less powerful. The only time this is played for laughs is when two equally villainous and powerful characters try to get one up on each other. In Season 7 of Supernatural, Crowley and Dick Roman try to enter into an agreement with each other, which leads to a comical scene where they go through the super-long document with red pens, crossing out and adding in new terms.
In the end, these fictional contracts tend to exist as a warning to the story’s consumer, and a commentary on the way bad people exploit power imbalances. They send the message that we should always be a hundred percent certain of what we’re agreeing to when we agree to something, and that nothing is free—if we’re getting something we want, we’re going to have to pay for it, and the more precious that thing is to us, the steeper the price is going to be. What’s most telling about the badness of entering into any sort of binding magical agreement is that I can’t think of a single example in fiction where signing a magical contract worked out for the best in the end.
If you can, let me know in the comments!