Selling your soul in exchange for something is a plot trope older than the story of Johann Faust. In pop culture it’s primarily conceived of in Christian terms—sell your soul to the devil, and you’ll never get to heaven but you’ll have something you want on earth, whether that’s fame, talent, love, money, or some other fifth option.
People’s motivations in selling their souls are tremendously varied. Although we usually conceive of the sellers in these transactions as selfish and impatient (why wait for a potential eternal reward when you can get what you want now), but in reality a lot of the stories about these demonic bargains have their roots in tales as varied as revenge, romance, filial love, and desperation.
So let’s look at some of these situations, starting with Supernatural. Although I know we consistently beat this poor show to death nearly weekly in OMPCJ, it’s really the show’s own fault for being such a wealth of religious themes. Anyway, in Supernatural souls are hot currency. These exchanges are usually made at a crossroads, but any demon can make a deal, and the Winchesters are really, really bad at avoiding them. Over the course of the show John’s sold his soul to bring back Dean, Dean’s sold his soul to bring back Sam, Sam tried and failed to get a refund for that, Bobby ‘pawned’ his soul to find Death and get his legs back, Mary unknowingly sold off Sam to bring back John… A big antagonist/sometime ally in the show is Crowley, a demon who is King of the Crossroads, and a masterful dealer when it comes to getting what he wants in the fine print. Supernatural soul-selling is a value-neutral transaction—people from all walks of life can and do sell their souls for any and all reasons, but when the main characters knowingly do so, it tends to be last-act-of-a-desperate-man stuff, seized upon when there are no other viable options left. And collecting on these deals is unpleasant: once whatever terms you and your demon financier agreed upon have been fulfilled, if your soul’s in the balance, you’re dragged to hell for eternity by hellhounds. Fun.
Next let’s diverge from our usual pop-culture fare and look at a musical. A soul-based transaction is at the heart of the conflict in the show Once on this Island. A peasant girl named Ti Moune discovers a wounded nobleman who has crashed his car in a storm. She falls in love with him, and bargains her life against his to keep Papa Ge, the god of death, from claiming his soul. Ti Moune also dies at the end, but the force of her love so impresses Papa Ge and the other gods that they treat her kindly in death and let her legacy of love live on. This is an interesting take on the demon-deal trope, as it’s not set in a primarily Judeo-Christian mythos.
Finally, let’s look at the manga that inspired me to choose this topic: Black Butler. This story focuses on Earl Ciel Phantomhive, a sharp and proud young boy who was sold into slavery after his parents were mysteriously murdered. He makes a deal with the demon Sebastian Michaelis to gain the power to seek revenge on his parents’ murderer: Sebastian will serve him as a butler and help him achieve his vengeance, and then Sebastian gets to consume Ciel’s soul. This story is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, the way the story is told, we as an audience support Ciel’s decision to make the deal and root for him to fulfill his mission (which of course will end in his death and damnation). Secondly, the terms of the deal are interesting as well; in this story, the demon is totally willing to be subservient to Ciel for as long as it takes, and he is faultlessly loyal to his master, staying by his side for the duration of their agreement. There is no fine print or loopholes in their deal from out of which Sebastian tries to sneak.
What other soul-selling storylines exist in pop culture? A fiddle of gold against your soul you’ll tell me in the comments 😉
That’s all for this week’s Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus! Tune in next time and get some religion!