Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Faust, the Devil, & Welcome to Night Vale

Too fragile a portal into another dimension, a dimension which is probably Hell? IDK. I… I’m not a religious studies major, although if I were, I bet I would have graduated by now.

When I listened to this quote from Maureen in the Welcome to Night Vale episode “Things Fall Apart”, I took it as a little bit of a challenge. I am a religious studies major, and I started to look at some of the past episodes, trying to figure out what the latest plotline of Welcome to Night Vale was leading us to. It wasn’t until I listened to the episode “Who’s a Good Boy?” that I managed to finally figure it out.

Mephistopheles as a dogSpoilers for Episodes 85 to 89 of Welcome to Night Vale after the jump.

All Faust quotes in this post are taken from Goodreads, and all Night Vale quotes are taken from Cecil Speaks.

In these recent episodes, Welcome to Night Vale is retelling the story of Faust. Intern Chad is our unfortunate Dr. Faust, the beagle puppy Chad summoned is Mephistopheles, and Maureen (and possibly Michelle) is playing a subverted version of Gretchen. So what is the evidence for this? There is quite a bit, actually, but first, for those of you who don’t know, let me give a brief summary of Faust.

Our story starts with Faust, a scholar, despondent because despite being brilliant and having mastered many conventional modes of thought, he is unable to discover true purpose and meaning in life. He calls on the devil to help him in this endeavor and the devil sends his representative, Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles agrees to serve Faust for twenty-four years, but at the end of this time Faust will be damned and his soul collected by the devil. Faust uses Mephistopheles in numerous ways, notably to seduce Gretchen. Gretchen is eventually led to ruin because of Faust and dies, but is taken to Heaven. In some versions Gretchen represents the “eternal feminine,” which is basically a more religious archetype of the “woman as moral compass” trope. Women were viewed as essentially more pure, holy, and spiritual, and were often depicted as angelic and pleading for the souls of their more corrupt spouses or lovers. Gretchen in some versions pleads to God for Faust’s soul and he is ultimately saved, but in an earlier version of the tale, Faust becomes too corrupted and is inevitably sent to Hell.

art by snipperss

art by snipperss

So how does this fit with the latest plot of Night Vale? Firstly, I should mention that this is not a strict retelling of Faust, but a Night Vale twist on the Faust story. Let’s start with Chad as the fill-in for Faust. Faust is distraught because he wants to know more about an unknowable universe without the help of God’s revelation and so summons a demon. Chad’s story, however, is somewhat reversed. Chad is sent, by the ever careless Cecil, to a store that is actually a front for the World Government. When Chad gets out of the store, he is confronted with understanding how the universe works because of whatever happened in that store, but he doesn’t like it. We learn about this in “April Monologues” from Steve Carlsberg. In previous episodes Steve describes being able to see lines and arrows in the sky that explain how the world works. Chad approaches Steve because after leaving the store he can see them too, and wants Steve to help him.

The kid understood how the world worked. He could see the structure of it and, oh, bless him, he wanted to fix it! To make it right again. And he wanted me to tell him how.

“Not much we can do but understand,” I told him. “Not much to do but know.”

But he wouldn’t accept it. He wanted to follow those glowing arrows in the sky like they were a map to somewhere, and not a labyrinth in which a monster lives.

“Listen,” I said. “Listen, Chad,” I said. “I think, in time, you’ll feel better. Hey, maybe get a puppy!” I told him. “We had a puppy infestation a few years back, hell on the insulation and some load-bearing joists, but it was just the cutest thing!”

“Yes,” he said. “Summon a puppy!”

“Well,” I said, “Sure, or just get a puppy. Like, ‘adopt’ is probably the word you’re looking for,” I said. “Adopt a puppy, sure. They smile, and wag their tails, and roll around, very cute!” I said.

“This is how we will change things,” he said. “Summon a puppy. The World Government will never see it coming!”

And he thanked me and walked away.

This is very Night Vale. Faust wants to understand the universe, but Night Vale’s storytelling thrives on confronting the unknown that humans can’t handle and then making it somewhat or completely mundane. Chad isn’t seeking knowledge, he has it. He can see how the universe works, but unlike Steve who treats this as just another mundane thing that he knows and is a part of his life, Chad wants to fix it. Chad wants to fix the universe. Steve implies that something went wrong, that how the universe works now is not how it used to work. Steve specifically says that Chad wants to make the universe right again, implying that somehow the World Government that Chad wants to destroy are the ones who screwed things up. Chad has knowledge and in some ways it broke him. He becomes obsessed with fixing things and destroying the World Government, so he decides to summon a puppy. Though he approaches it differently, Chad still, like Faust, feels alienated in this world and turns to dark forces to help him.

Mephistopheles&Faust

Then we have the beagle puppy as Mephistopheles. It seems ridiculous that a dog would be the devil, but it’s not as farfetched as you think. In the story, Faust is out with a friend of his, despairing about his situation, when a black dog appears before them. The dog follows Faust home and then transforms into the grotesque figure of Mephistopheles, who offers him a deal. So Night Vale isn’t too out there in their portrayal of Mephistopheles as a beagle puppy, because the devil does first appear as a dog.

Throughout the story we also learn through Mephistopheles about his true nature and the nature of Hell. Christopher Marlowe’s version of Mephistopheles describes Hell to Faust by saying that you are always stuck in Hell and that Hell is everywhere that is not Heaven.

Mephistopheles: Within the bowels of these elements,
Where we are tortured and remain forever.
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be.
And, to conclude, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that is not heaven.

This certainly fits what is happening in Night Vale with the creation of the Strangers and their experience of being trapped. In “Who’s a Good Boy?”, Cecil learns about what’s happening to those in Night Vale who become strangers and it is probably one of the most terrifying depictions of Hell I have ever heard.

“Francis? What happened to you?”

At the sound of her name, her eyes focused in for a moment, and flicked down toward me, before drifting back up to the ceiling.

“I was made…strange,” the lamp said. “So…strange that I became a…stranger. There is a cavern.”

I merely looked at the lamp, confused.

“There…is…a…cavern……Cecil. I was…taken…there. The ground…is covered…in mud. You walk…through…the mud…in…the darkness…because you think…there must be…something else…but there is…never…anything…else…for years. You walk…through…the mud.”

My shoe chimed in.

“Sometimes you feel…as though there might be…other…lost people…also…searching…through the mud. Maybe…you can even hear…the soft…swish…of them…in the black…but your hands…never meet…and you cannot…speak…out. You…are…alone. Sometimes…the mud…goes…over your head…and sometimes…it is just…a slight…damp…beneath your feet.”

The lamp spoke again.

“Years…go by. You feel yourself…hollowed…out…by time. Everything…that was you…slips…away. There…is…a…great…power…that replaces…you…with…his…desires. He…is…your…leader…and…you…want…what…he…wants…and…he…wants…nothing!”

“When did you leave the mud and come back to Night Vale?”

“Leave?

This time Francis herself spoke. Her vocal cords cracked with lack of use. Her eyes focused on me again. Her parched lips clung to each other as she spoke.

“Cecil! I’m……still……in……the……mud! I’m……still…in…the mud! Cecil! I’m…still…in…the…mud! I’m…still…in…the mud!!”

She said this over and over, quickly losing control of volume and articulation. Tears rolled down her face from her unblinking eyes.

Mephistopheles tells us that in Hell you are tortured and remain there forever, and that Hell has no place and that wherever they are is Hell. Add to this that Hell is separation from God and that Christianity at its core is communal in nature, having Hell be someplace separated from God and others is the most awful experience possible—which is exactly what Francis describes to Cecil. She is trapped in the mud, losing all hope, thinking there has to be an end or at least others there with her, but there never is. She is trapped, and no matter where she is located, she is still in Hell. Which explains how she is walking around as a Stranger but claims to still be in the mud, because Hell is wherever she is.

Mephistopheles also ultimately wants there to be nothing. Mephistopheles reveals that the devil and demons want the destruction of all things because everything is created by God so everything needs to be destroyed.

I am the spirit that negates.
And rightly so, for all that comes to be
Deserves to perish wretchedly;
‘Twere better nothing would begin.
Thus everything that that your terms, sin,
Destruction, evil represent—
That is my proper element.

We see this same want from the beagle puppy that we now know to be a demon. When Cecil comes across the puppy it transforms into something more terrifying, just like Mephistopheles, and gives Cecil a similar pronouncement claiming that he wants nothing. More accurately, he just wants destruction, which is why, as Francis describes, the Strangers are destroying everything, so that there is one less thing. Mephistopheles, the beagle puppy, wants there to be nothing.

I am the good boy, Cecil! the beagle said. You…wanted…to…witness. So…witness! I…am the good…boy, and I rule…over the dark…wet caverns…of…Hellllllllllllllll!

[Huffing sounds]

He cocked his…little beagle head. He stood…so much taller than I thought…a dog..could…stand. His..breath..was..thick..and..wet..and..labored.

[Huffing/growling sounds continue throughout]

I…want…nothing…Cecil! Nothing….at..all! And…I….will….have it!

So we see a very clear parallel between the beagle puppy and Mephistopheles, who also appears as a dog, and who describes Hell the same way as Francis. Even in the beginning of the story, he controls spirits to prove his power to Faust, much like the puppy controls the Strangers. Unlike Chad, and even Maureen (who we’ll get to in a second), this character is much more clearly copied after their original counterpart.

Maureen, and to some extent Michelle, are meant to fulfill the role of Gretchen, but in a much more subversive way. Maureen, like Gretchen, is tempted by Chad and the beagle puppy, but not into a romantic relationship. Cecil first assumes the two to be dating but Maureen quickly sets the record straight by revealing she likes women. Rather, what Chad has tempted her with is a job, and possibly college credit, which Maureen had previously been fighting with Cecil to get for her internship at the radio station. When Cecil refuses, Chad sets in. Maureen tells us in “Things Fall Apart” that she is finally doing something important and making something of herself.

And that would be helpful, because sympathy is critical to good teamwork, and if you don’t care about your job, you’re not gonna make anything of yourself.

I am! I am making something of myself! Just sculpting away! Here’s a clump of Maureen, let’s work it with it with these hands. Yeah, this is looking great! This is a really nice Maureen here, all ready to be put in a fire, cooled, painted, and set upon an alabaster pedestal in the foyer.

Maureen wants to make something of herself and Chad and the beagle puppy have offered her a way to do that that Cecil has been denying her. However, we learn in “Who’s a Good Boy” that she left her job, and that seems largely due to Michelle. Michelle and Maureen start a relationship, though they don’t want to put a label on it, and the two mutually save each other, just like Gretchen saves Faust. Maureen uses her power over the Strangers to make sure that Michelle and Dark Owl Records is not harmed. And Michelle, through her relationship with Maureen, helps pull Maureen out of the depression she seems to have spiraled into, which eventually causes Maureen to leave her job. The two later tell Cecil in “Who’s a Good Boy” that they have a plan to save Night Vale. I would guess if things follow the Faust storyline that Maureen and Michelle will ultimately save Night Vale somehow, but their love is ultimately what will save everyone.

In this way we have a really neat and exciting subversion of the original story. Instead of a heteronormative relationship with extremely dubious consent, where Gretchen exists as an ideal woman to plead for Faust’s soul, we will instead get a lesbian couple who will actively use their own resources to defeat the beagle puppy destroying everything.

So while Night Vale is following the Faust storyline fairly closely, the writers are still giving us classic Night Vale elements that change things to some extent. Chad has knowledge, but doesn’t like the knowledge he has and so is trying to destroy everything and take down the government. In our current information age and in a time of a lot of political unrest, particularly in America right now, despite never seeing anything through Chad’s perspective, I think we can all see where he is coming from and relate to him. Maureen and Michelle act as saviors like Gretchen, but rather than relying on sexist and heteronormative tropes, we are instead presented with queer heroes. The beagle puppy is then made all the more terrifying in how similar he is to Mephistopheles. He is from a different world, he is from Hell, from another story, he doesn’t belong in Night Vale—but yet he is there and is intent on destroying everything.

We won’t truly know how closely the end will follow Faust until we get to listen to the season finale, but I’m fairly confident that Maureen and Michelle will be heroes. However, I’m concerned as to what will happen to Chad. As I stated, in some versions Faust is saved, and in others Faust is damned. I guess I’ll just have to wait to see what version of Faust’s story Chad could potentially be playing out.


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