Ghost Rider, the Devil, and Bearer Paper

The 2007 Ghost Rider movie was neither a particularly good movie nor a particularly good source of legal themes, but there was one interesting observation we seized on.  Spoilers ahead, though I doubt many tears will be shed over spoiling Ghost Rider.

I. The Setup

In the movie, Mephisto (one of many devils in the Marvel universe) has a habit of making Faustian bargains.  When it comes time to collect he sends his henchman, the Ghost Rider, with whom he has also made a pact, albeit one he has to enforce himself, of course.  The precise terms of these contracts vary but the practical upshot is always the same: the devil gets your soul, from which he can derive power.  The movie is centered around the fate of a particularly valuable contract for the souls of an entire town, one thousand in all, which Ghost Rider’s predecessor had hidden rather than give up to Mephisto.

So far this is fairly standard stuff.  The twist comes from the fact that there are warring factions with Marvel’s demonic community, and Mephisto’s son Blackheart wants the contract for himself.  In fact, he manages not only to get the contract but to collect the souls bound by it.  And this brings us to the interesting part.  If the contract was with Mephisto, how could just any demon who got ahold of it cash in on the deal?  The inescapable conclusion is that demonic contracts must be redeemable by the bearer.

II. Bearer Paper

For an attorney, the idea that jumps readily to mind is “bearer paper.”  Bearer paper is a kind of negotiable instrument, which you are probably familiar with in the form of checks and money orders.  You’re probably also familiar with bearer paper: you create it any time you make a check out to “cash,” for example.  As the name suggests, bearer paper is payable to the person bearing (i.e. physically holding) the bill, note, check, etc.  This is convenient, but also dangerous, since it becomes much easier for a thief (or an upstart young demon) to cash it.

So could Mephisto’s contract have been bearer paper under US law?  The first thing to consider is whether the contract could have been a negotiable instrument at all.  As defined in the Uniform Commercial Code, Article 3 (which has been adopted by most states):

“negotiable instrument” means an unconditional promise or order to pay a fixed amount of money, with or without interest or other charges described in the promise or order, if it:
(1) is payable to bearer or to order at the time it is issued or first comes into possession of a holder;
(2) is payable on demand or at a definite time; and
(3) does not state any other undertaking or instruction by the person promising or ordering payment to do any act in addition to the payment of money, but the promise or order may contain (i) an undertaking or power to give, maintain, or protect collateral to secure payment, (ii) an authorization or power to the holder to confess judgment or realize on or dispose of collateral, or (iii) a waiver of the benefit of any law intended for the advantage or protection of an obligor.

That’s a lot of text, but the basic rule is that a negotiable instrument needs 1) a fixed amount of money, possibly with interest; 2) a payee (i.e. the person getting paid, which can be the bearer); 3) a payable date, which can be “on demand” (i.e. whenever the payee wants) or a specific date; and 4) it generally can’t have any other conditions attached to it (e.g. no fair saying “Pay to the order of Bob if he paints my house.”).

And there’s the rub.  Mephisto’s contract is for souls, not money, and it plainly has some additional conditions on it (e.g. whatever it was Mephisto did for the people of San Venganza in exchange for their souls).  Of course, this is according to modern US law.  The contract was drawn up in the 19th Century.  Can we do better under the law of the time?

III. The Uniform Negotiable Instruments Law of 1896

The Uniform Negotiable Instruments Law was the predecessor to the Uniform Commercial Code, and like the UCC it was broadly adopted.  The UNIL or something like it was probably the law of the land at the time the contract was formed.  As luck would have it, its definition of a negotiable instrument is a bit looser than the UCC’s:

An instrument to be negotiable must conform to the following requirements:
1. It must be in writing and signed by the maker or drawer.
2. Must contain an unconditional promise or order to pay a sum certain in money.
3. Must be payable on demand, or at a fixed or determinable future time.
4. Must be payable to order or to bearer.
5. Where the instrument is addressed to a drawee he must be named or otherwise indicated therein with reasonable certainty.

This gets us closer.  The UNIL allows a negotiable instrument to be made for a promise rather than only money.  But that promise has to be unconditional, which means it can’t be something like “I promise to give the bearer of this contract my soul if Mephisto grants me three wishes.”  That pretty well spells the end of the bearer paper idea.  Presumably the infernal legal system is more flexible in this regard, although one wonders why Mephisto would be so foolish as to draw up such a contract in the first place.  Somebody ought to get that guy a lawyer.  One presumes he has ready access to plenty of them.

IV. Sidenote: The 13th Amendment

The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude.  However, it’s questionable whether Mephisto’s contract could be voided on that basis, since the damned are dead and have no rights.  Further, US courts have been reluctant to exert jurisdiction over the Devil.  See United States ex rel. Gerald Mayo v. Satan and His Staff, 54 F.R.D. 282 (W.D.Pa. 1971).  Anyone considering entering into a pact with the Devil should definitely bear in mind that it may be difficult to obtain relief in court should the Devil prove less than trustworthy.

39 responses to “Ghost Rider, the Devil, and Bearer Paper

  1. Scratch Martin

    I’m not entirely sure I agree with your analysis. While it’s rare, there are occasions in which a third party can intercede on behalf of a contract for services. I see no particular reason why a contract exchanging a large quantity of souls in exchange for the devil’s services would be determined by the law of payment systems at all, instead of contract/business/agency law. In all likelihood, the Blackheart had putative authority as an agent of Mephisto, as they were both in the business of managing “Hell” (which may or may not be a corporation or LLC of some sort). This contract was for the business, as one function of the business is to “buy” souls and provide demonic services to living humans. A lesson on “bearer paper” is thus unnecessary, because this wasn’t a negotiable instrument, but rather a contract properly conforming to the Statute of Frauds.

    • In the movie, Blackheart does not invoke or suggest any sort of agency relationship between him and Mephisto. He simply states: “This is the contract of San Venganza. All of you come to me!” Further, I doubt it is common knowledge, even among the damned, that Blackheart is Mephisto’s child.

      But even if that’s correct, it still demonstrates that the contract was horribly drafted. Mephisto should not have allowed anyone but himself to claim the benefit of the contract.

      Nor could the contract be assigned to Blackheart. For one thing, services of a personal nature (which surely includes selling your soul) generally cannot be assigned. For another, assignment would require Mephisto’s assent, likely in writing.

      One of the purposes of a negotiable instrument payable to the bearer is that it avoids these problems. There’s no need for an agency relationship or a formal assignment; simply bearing the instrument is sufficient.

      • Scratch Martin

        No offense intended, just playing devil’s advocate. (Heh.)

        An alternative argument one could make (and what I actually think the writers might have been going for in a vague sort of way) was that Blackheart somehow “inherited” Mephisto’s rights to the contract. Which, almost works, in a weird kind of way, if at the time Blackheart attempted to execute his father’s rights to the contract his father was in Hell. I guess that leads into a debate about what constitutes legal death. Under all the definitions describing brain death or heart functions ceasing, Mephisto wouldn’t count as dead, so probably an inheritance argument wouldn’t work either. And once again, in order for Blackheart to inherit, I suppose Mephisto would have to devise his rights under the contract to Blackheart (which it’s possible he did, but I have no information one way or the other so shouldn’t speculate).

      • No offense taken at all. Reader feedback is one of the best things about writing this blog.

        I really wish there were a clear answer for how the contract worked in the movie. Not because I think the writers put any serious thought into the mechanics of the contract, but because it would be appropriate for a contract authored by the devil to turn out to be ironclad. The best thing I came up with was a two part document: the first part is a written contract (to satisfy the statute of frauds) wherein Mephisto promises to do his bit and the seller promises to pay him a soul. The second part is the bearer paper, which is an unconditional promise to surrender one’s soul to the bearer.

        That’s not very satisfying, though, since the movie speaks of a contract. And although we don’t see the San Venganza contract signed, we do see Ghost Rider’s, and he only signs one line (and his contract also appears to be a single piece).

        One other note: since the contract appears to be redeemable by the bearer, it stands to reason that if any of the damned citizens of San Venganza had managed to get their hands on it then they could have regained control over their own soul. It’s unclear whether Mephisto’s contract with Ghost Rider has the same terms, but it opens up some possibilities. That may have been explored in the comics, I don’t know. I never followed the Ghost Rider books.

  2. Rather than rely on Ghost Rider, the foolish folk of San Venganza should have just filed bankruptcy and redeemed their souls.

    • That’s a potential solution but full of many pitfalls, as bankruptcy so often is. Is a soul an exempt asset for purposes of the state’s bankruptcy law? If not, then bankruptcy won’t help much. Did Mephisto have a security interest in the soul (it seems unlikely that he would file the necessary paperwork with the Secretary of State)? If he did then he’d likely get the souls, assuming they weren’t exempt. Even if he wasn’t a secured creditor then he could still buy the souls at auction.

      Now there’s a scene for you: Mephisto and Blackheart in a bidding war for the souls of San Venganza.

  3. Melanie Koleini

    I bowered money from a bank to buy my home. The bank sold my mortgage to another company. Now, if I miss a payment, the new company can take my house.

    I’m sure I’m missing something. But how is this different than transferring a contract for souls to a new devil?

    • There are two main differences. First, mortgage contracts typically specifically empower the originating bank to sell the mortgage. Second, the bank has to explicitly sell the mortgage.

      This differs from the situation in Ghost Rider because it would be very odd for Mephisto to write the contract in such a way that it could be assigned to anyone else (why would he do that?) and, more importantly, he definitely didn’t actually assign the contract to Blackheart.

      What happened in Ghost Rider would be as though anyone who managed to get ahold of that giant stack of paper you signed at closing could suddenly demand that you pay them instead of the bank.

  4. > Anyone considering entering into a pact with the Devil should definitely bear in mind that it may be difficult to obtain relief in court should the Devil prove less than trustworthy.

    I’ve always wondered who you can complain to about failures regarding a demonic pact. Do those contracts actually have a jurisdiction clause?

    Also, perhaps demonic contracts aren’t purely abstract symbols. They’re not like money, but more like keys to a safe-deposit box with valuable items (the souls). So getting into the safe-deposit box (for souls) requires having the physical object (contract), and anyone who has it would be able to use it. The text is basically “This key is authorized for use under the conditions of …” (which can’t be restricted to a person, or at least, can be used also by others).

  5. Is it really so that souls are movable property? What if they are real property? After all, some of the slave states considered chattel slaves to be real property, and in early Roman law, transactions involving cattle, slaves and land were treated using the same rules. In addition, in Christian mythology, the soul is more durable than land, as the land is destroyed in the apocalypse, but the soul and even the body endures. So, it would make sense that the Hellish law considers persons real property. (The whole concept of a person as property is hellish, indeed.) As the person is made up of his body and soul, the soul is part of the person, and as the owner of himself, the person may dispose of his soul.

    Now, a covenant could be used to dispose real property. In this case, the covenant would read something like: I, A and my successors, order that at the presentation of this covenant, I hand over my soul for the Hell to use for the purpose and duration that the Hell sees fit. The Ownership of Hell is proven, for the purposes of this covenant, by the presentation of this covenant. Sealed and Signed A.

    Now, this covenant would be a burden on the person, if the person is understood as real estate. A consideration is not needed, as this is a covenant. (Naturally, the covenantor would have received something at the time of signing, but that is not pertinent to the validity of the covenant.) In addition, this covenant does increase the value of Hell, which is a piece of real property, also. So, under common law, and considering a person as an object as befits the deviil, this should be a valid covenant.

    • If souls were regarded as real property under the theory of slavery-back-when-it-was-legal, does the 13th Amendment retroactively render that theory void? Or is there ever an occasion where a contract written before the ratification of the 13th Amendment could still be enforced by a court using the outdated law?

      • The 13th Amendment retroactively voided contracts for indentured servitude. But it isn’t clear that selling one’s soul is indentured servitude since the dead are not legal persons. And they likely couldn’t sue to void the contract because the dead have no rights. Any rights or causes of action the dead have are actually held by their heirs. That raises the question of whether an heir could sue on behalf of the damned to void the contract, but I think you’d still run into the problem of whether servitude of the soul is involuntary servitude within the meaning of the 13th Amendment.

    • Ryan Davidson

      It’s true that slaves were once considered something akin to real property, but that’s more because they were considered fixtures of actual plots of land–like buildings or other improvements–rather than any specific theory that they weren’t chattels. We’re talking about massive agricultural estates here, to a significant degree, and the linkage of slaves to land continued for centuries under medieval serfdom.

      But this was quite clearly not the case with early modern slavery. First, by 1800 the connection between serfs and land had all but disappeared from the Europe and really only still existed in Russia. It had essentially disappeared as a personal status in England by 1500. Second, the law applied to slaves from the sixteenth century on pretty clearly treated slaves as a species of chattel property. Certainly all of the literature in the nineteenth century treats them that way.

  6. I have to disagree with your interpretation of Clause 2 of the UNIL, which you give as:

    2. Must contain an unconditional promise or order to pay a sum certain in money.

    You seem to be reading it this way:

    2. Must contain an unconditional promise [to perform or refrain from some act,] or order to pay a sum certain in money.

    I read it this way:

    2. Must contain an unconditional promise or order to pay a sum certain in money.

    In other words, it doesn’t matter if it’s phrased as a promise or an order – it could be “will” or “shall,” avoiding the games that contract lawyers like to play with the difference between those two words – but it must be to pay a sum certain and not merely to perform or refrain from performing some act. It would seem to defeat the whole purpose of treating negotiable instruments specially to allow them to contain the power to compel specific performance of actions less certain than “pay me X dollars.”

    As to why the contract works the way it does, I like the “key” idea advanced above, but I would have proposed the theory that contracts involving one’s soul are strictly interpreted and not subject to temporal theories of law. The deal Mephisto makes with Johnny to save his father from cancer wouldn’t stand up for two minutes in a modern court given the outright fraud he perpetrated on him, never mind the obligation of good faith and fair dealing which might be imposed by such modern court. It might not meet the requirements of the UNIL or the UCC, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is whether Mephisto can make it stick in the Courts Beyond. We don’t really get into enforcement mechanisms in the movie, but presumably Mephisto and other devils have various limitations placed upon them to keep them from just taking over the mortal realm, so the contract has to convince SOMEBODY. Or, to really get metaphysical, the contract works because the signers believe it does. It’s also a common trope in sell-your-soul stories that if you really repent the deal and renounce the devil, he has no power over you. (Of course, the repenting is the hard part.)

    As to how the Contract of San Venganza was drafted, Mephisto might have drafted the contract as a bearer document because he wanted the ability to trade it away, or he might just not be very bright. Many of his actions indicate that in the best tradition of devils and demons, he is extremely *cunning* but he is not very *logical.*

    • Incidentally, as a contract lawyer, I have to say my favorite line in the movie was this:

      [Mephisto brings out Pactum Pactorum]
      Mephisto: All you have to do is sign.
      [Johnny looks at it and his thumb gets cut on top of scroll, his blood drips on the signature line]
      Mephisto: Oh, that’ll do just fine.

      • I liked that bit as well. One wonders: given modern DNA analysis techniques, it’s arguable that a drop of one’s blood would suffice as a signature. On its face it seems at least as good as making an X, and it’s more resistant to forgery.

      • Heinlein has a scene in “Time Enough for Love” where Lazarus Long tries to sign a will by making a fingerprint on it with a drop of his blood. In context it appears that this is a reasonable and accepted technique.

        Obviously one could obtain blood under many circumstances and use it to forge a signature, but the same is true of pretty much any signature, and as you say DNA sampling does provide a high degree of positive association. With a wet-ink signature you have two questions – is that your signature, and did you intentionally sign this document with it? The DNA thing at least removes the first question.

    • This is a fair point, and reviewing some older cases interpreting the UNIL shows that you are correct. And so the law at the time the contract was written was as unfriendly to construing the contract as a negotiable instrument as UCC Article 3 is.

      But if Mephisto wanted the ability to trade away the document surely he would simply have made the contract assignable (to the extent a contract for one’s soul can be freely assigned). That would give him some control over its disposition. I’ll have to go with “not very bright.”

      • The beauty part is that if we just agree he’s not very bright (or, at least, thinks very directly) it doesn’t exclude the other (that he wanted it to be easily transferable.) Making the agreement a bearer document is probably the SIMPLEST way to do that. It just turns out, as any competent human lawyer could tell you, the simplest way isn’t always the best. 🙂

  7. United States ex rel. Gerald Mayo v. Satan and His Staff, 54 F.R.D. 282 (W.D.Pa. 1971) is one of my favorite cases but the jurisdictional issue over the devil is merely dicta, in that the court notes in passing, without actually holding, Satan was sued as a foreign prince or potentate. it is direct authority, however, for the proposition that failure to provide instructions for proper service of process is grounds for dismissal for failure to prosecute.

  8. From my own primitive layman’s understanding of contract issues (from an Australian perspective, mind you), I have some questions about the legality of Mephisto’s contract with Johnny. I have not seen the movie, so I’m relying on reviews and synopses to understand the plot. I am also unfamiliar with the comic continuity, and have made some assumptions based on the Mephistophelic literary conventions . I am sure somebody will correct me on any misapprehensions or misunderstandings regarding the details of the continuity.

    Traditionally, Mephistopheles has relied on people delivering their soul to him of their own free will, rather than taking it by force or physical coercion, or through direct mind control. Often a “contract” or “agreement” is cited. Frequently only after collecting his due does he gain power over the individual’s will, and often even at this point they are still able to repudiate the terms of the agreement (such as in Goethe’s Faust). On other occasions they are “doomed” from the moment they freely assent. Often he makes the effort to appear scrupulously “fair”, upholding his side of the bargain to the word. His deceitfulness arises from his omissions rather than his actions, which also maintains the tradition that an individual can only damn themselves rather than be damned.

    One of the synopses of The Ghost Rider I read intimated that the original Ghost Rider was “condemned” to “obey the Devil’s orders”, suggesting that by freely entering into an agreement with the Mephisto he had relinquished his free will. Despite this, he seemed able to overcome this compulsion when it came to the Contract of San Venganza. However, it appears that at least in Johnny’s case the contract is fraudulent. Not only is it void in line with any Earthly contract law I know of, I would also suggest that Johnny did not knowingly enter into any agreement, and thus should be bound to it neither by temporal law nor by the more metaphysical literary convention.

    I’m not clear on whether Johnny explicitly assented to the terms of the contract. I believe it is fairly universal across jurisdictions that signing a contract alone is not sufficient to bind an individual to it. A signature symbolises that the individual is consciously and of their own volition accepting the terms of the agreement. If they can convince a court that it was forged, coerced, or otherwise deceptively obtained, then it is a fairly clear demonstration that they did not willingly or knowingly enter into the contract. Deception aside, signing a document is a physical act showing intention. You are far more likely to unintentionally leave a drop of blood on something without it representing any frame of mind. However, it seems to me that Mephisto hurried the conclusion of the deal after this point, perhaps to forestall any legitimate objections Johnny may have voiced.

    Thus, at best Johnny could claim he never actually assented to the contract at that time. From what I understand of contract law, if you don’t intentionally agree to a contract you cannot be bound by its conditions. The fact that Mephisto fulfilled his promise is irrelevant – Johnny is off free, as far as any earthly jurisdiction is concerned.

    Even if he did agree to the terms, the transfer of a soul seems like a fairly major undertaking, especially in the emotional context of his learning of his father’s cancer. To pressure somebody into signing such a weighty contract on the spot, with such far-reaching consequences and no cooling-off period, seems unethical at the very least. I believe there are protections against this sort undue pressure in Australia; I’d assume the US would also hold similar protections. This is not typical of Mephistophelian stories, where the individual’s own greed or compassion tends to be the driving force for entering into the contract, rather than the “hard sell”.

    I’m also not clear as to whether Mephisto was aware that Johnny’s father would die shortly after being cured. If he did know this and didn’t inform Johnny, could this not be seen as misleadingly withholding information about the true value of a service? “Caveat emptor” aside, to a layman this appears to be a demonstration of bad faith. This maintains the tradition of passive deception, but I suspect a consumer protection authority would still frown on it.

    Another tradition is that he often allows another body (such as a jury or court) rule on any disputes, and adheres to their ruling.

    If Johnny had refused to relinquish his soul when requested, I wonder in which jurisdiction Mephistopheles (or Mephisto) would seek redress. To my understanding, arranging the sale of organs is illegal in the US, even if the actual organ removal is to be performed in another jurisdiction. I wonder whether the soul could be considered an organ for the purposes of the National Organ Transplant Act. Mephisto wouldn’t be able to seek enforcement or restitution in a US court. The terms of the contract aren’t legal, and a court would immediately rule the contract void.

    Furthermore, the act of arranging the sale doesn’t just render the contract void. It is a Federal crime. I’m not really familiar with the diplomatic arrangements between Hell and the US. Mephisto, as the head of a sizeable state, might be accorded sovereign immunity from prosecution. However the fact that in the past he has relied on covert deals, subterfuge and deceit to gain ownership of souls suggests he’s concerned about drawing the authorities’ attention to his activities. I’d imagine this be more the case when they include soliciting ILLEGAL agreements from US citizens on US soil. Maybe he remembers what happened to Noriega. Maybe he’s just concerned about bad publicity.

    Or he might insist that the proper jurisdiction for the matter is Hell, where he’d presumably get a more sympathetic hearing. Of course, the Infernal Legal System would have its own considerations in determining the validity of the contract, and it is quite possible that they would find Johnny was bound by their laws, and order him to make good on his part of the contract. Which raises one more question:

    The case might possibly be heard in Johnny’s absence. How would they possibly enforce this when Johnny is not in their jurisdiction? I doubt the US and Hell have any treaties regarding this matter. If Mephisto is similar to the Mephistopheles of my acquaintance, it doesn’t seem likely that he’d resort to anything so crass as abduction or unlawful physical coercion.

    Of course, he could wait for Johnny to die and descend to Hell, after which Johnny falls under the Diabolical Jurisdiction. However, at this point, whether Johnny entered into a contract with Mephisto for his soul becomes a moot point, as Mephisto already has his soul.

    Conversely, (and I’m not really familiar with the theology of the comicverse, except that the Christian heaven, Asgard, Valhalla and the Gods’ home on Olympus all seem to coexist as physical regions) were he to repent and go to (a) Heaven after his death, he would be (legitimately) transferring ownership of his soul to somedeity else. Unless they have some sort of interplanar dispute resolution process for just this sort of situation, Mephisto would be no closer to collecting on his contract with Johnny.

    For example, both the Islamic and Christian Contracts explicitly state that Heaven is a higher jurisdiction than Hell. In return for a soul, God undertakes to pardon any previous transgressions or commute the sentence in the case of purgatory, although this isn’t mentioned in the standard contract (with the exception of certain blasphemies). Furthermore, this takes precedence over and invalidates any previous spiritual agreements. I’m unsure where he gains the power to make these claims, although some traditions of Islam assert he has the power to raise souls from Hell.

    As far as I (a layman, mind you, not a solicitor by any means) can tell, therefore, this contract is void in the US. Although Mephistopheles has often tricked people about the consequences of giving up their soul (and thus their free will) he doesn’t trick people into entering, unwillingly, into a contract. Ethically, I feel his actions amount to doing just that with Johnny, and since according to tradition Mephistopheles cannot take an individual’s soul without their consent, I believe he had no compulsion over Johnny.

    Should Johnny have simply chosen not to honour the supposed agreement, it then becomes either unenforceable or simply redundant. Seems like a potential waste of Mephistophele’s time (and money in legal fees), really. At least except for Johnny’s ignorance of his rights, which lead him to waive them. Which is why it always pays to consult a solicitor about major contracts.

    (If, hypothetically, Mephisto could apply to a US court for restitution, how would a court determine the damages? Would it be based on the value of the service provided – curing Johnny’s father of cancer – or on the value of the defaulted payment? What is the fair market value of a used soul?)

    • While your comment is clear and thought out, I must say that it bugs the living daylights out of me that you “Mephistopheles” as though he is interchangeable with Mephisto/Satan. You referenced Faust, so I’m guessing you have read it. But the demon Mephistopheles is clearly a tempter, but not so clearly the *actual* Satan. I was an English major and Marlowe’s works were some of my favorites, so this minor point strikes me as the most important clarification– I think the tale of Dr. Faustus is *more* compelling if you view his personal tragedy in light of being accompanied by just a minor demon. Claiming that Mephistopheles was the Big Winner Sinner imparts too much importance to the silly human man and I think injects some needless pathos to the story.

      • “Mephisto” in the Marvel Universe is *not* the Great Adversary, although he’s a being of unimaginable power. He’s posed as the Adversary at least once (the Adversary is usually referred to as Satan in the MU, and I don’t think we’ve ever had a *confirmed* sighting) but Mephisto is not Him. He’s clearly patterned after Mephistopheles from “Faust,” and may be the same entity with a shorter, more comic-y handle and a power upgrade. (Mephisto may not be the Adversary but he’s no minor demon.)

        The movie doesn’t specifically say, but my own theory is that Mephisto doesn’t have the power to interfere with innocents to harm *or* to help – he cures Johnny’s father, but not only does he know Mr. Blaze is fated to die in the motorcycle accident, *he could not have cured him* had that not been the case. Mr. Blaze’s fate is not Mephisto’s to change – basically, he just died a little more comfortable. Again, Mephisto delivered what he literally promised, but also again, it was utterly fraudulent in inducement.

        Furthermore, Johnny’s contract is in Latin. Johnny doesn’t read Latin. Aside from the “caveat lictor” I alluded to above when dealing with devils, one can’t agree to a contract one doesn’t understand. Johnny’s supernatural powers might form the basis of some kind of quantum meruit claim by Mephisto, but given their limitations it’s quite reasonable to say that the claimed consideration – Johnny’s eternal servitude and then his immortal soul – is not merited by Mephisto’s grant.

      • Oh, and incidentally in the movie he is referred to as “Mephistopheles,” rather than as “Mephisto,” but that’s probably because it’s less work to have an actor say it than to ink it out in comic dialogue, and in a live-action movie it might have sounded too… comic-y.

  9. *say
    “bugs the living daylights out of me that you say…”

  10. What about the possibility that Mephistopheles was writing the contract in his official capacity as ruler of Hell? (And possibly that he might not even be *able* to contract for souls outside of a recognized government authority, in the same way that the President can only sign treaties in his official capacity as the President, not as a private citizen). Mephistopheles would have no personal claim on anyone’s soul, only Hell would; it would be analogous to prisons.claiming the right to lock up a prisoner.

    • That’s right back to “can you make it stick?” US citizens can’t sign treaties with foreign powers either, so it would be a contract between Hell and Johnny, not a treaty the USG was obliged to take notice of Now, US citizens can sign *contracts* with foreign powers, but by and large such contracts wouldn’t be treated any differently than those between a US citizen and a foreign national. The US certainly wouldn’t extradite one of its citizens for breach of contract – whether the other party is Hell or Mephistopheles, it’s still a question of what power they have over Johnny.

      (Note that this answer assumes that Mephistopheles is the ruler of Hell. The simpler answer in the MU is that he’s not, though he does rule his own “pocket dimension,” wherein he is the next thing to omnipotent.)

  11. Martin Phipps

    Okay, so suppose I sign a blank check and somebody writes “my soul” and we have a good laugh. Could Mephistopheles or Blackheart come along, grab it and claim “my soul”? Presumably that is what we are talking about. But then wouldn’t he have to go redeem “my soul” from the account the check is written on? Unless I’m keeping “my soul” in my bank account the check is going to bounce. 🙂

    • If you’re just talking about negotiable instrument law, “my soul” is not a sum certain of money, so the contract isn’t a negotiable instrument. And of course, you’re right, it would bounce absent some VERY strange depository regulations.

      In terms of temporal contract law, the check couldn’t form the basis of a valid contract because the party to be charged did not have a clear understanding of the obligation at the time they agreed to be bound. (Though an argument could be made that by signing a blank check they agreed to ANYTHING, that is just not a position which our law is friendly to for multiple reasons, including the law student’s darling, public policy.)

      In terms of infernal obligation, one might very well argue that signing a blank check and handing it over to a devil gets you what you earn, so in a universe with supernatural entities, leaving blank checks lying around is a Really Bad Idea. (ISTR a short story with this very premise, though no details come to mind.)

      • Interestingly, Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” series (which predates Harry Potter thankyouverymuch) has a type of magic known as a “blank check” spell. The basic premise is that a wizard must “pay” in some fashion for the power of the magic they use – it could come from their own strength, a ritual working, some reasonable source of power like a big fire or even a star (for BIG spells,) etc. Using magic increases the net entropy of the Universe and fighting entropy is pretty much what wizards are for, so they don’t just randomly do large spell-workings and when they do they try to minimize the amount of power they use. In extremis, however, they can use “blank check” spells – a colloquialism, their spell-books don’t call them that. Essentially the power is drawn on a Universal slush fund, and the Universe decides where, when and how to call the marker. In the end the books have got to balance: when you use a “blank check,” the Universe decides how much the face value was, and later, requires it to be paid back. It’s quite reasonable for the wizard to expect it to cost them their lives, spent in a fashion the Universe finds suitable and proper.

  12. sez MarcW | July 22, 2011 at 9:43 am :
    “Heinlein has a scene in “Time Enough for Love” where Lazarus Long tries to sign a will by making a fingerprint on it with a drop of his blood. In context it appears that this is a reasonable and accepted technique.”

    Bujold in the Vorkosigan series establishes that the Vor ruling class made a legal custom of thumbprinting, in their own blood, the seals of their letters — and that the aristocrats had letter opener /daggers / embossed seal hilt tools to make such a thing easy.

    With regard to demonic contracts, since the famous case of _ Scratch v. Stone” in New Hampshire, I believe legal precedent has been established that there can be no valid contract between princes of Hell and American citizens. Thank you Daniel Webster That finding of course relies on acceptance of the doctrine of Jury Nullification, and if one is disposed to, er, dispose of such power for Juries, one then one does, I suggest, admit into the American legal system all the powers of Hell.

  13. As it happens, I saw Easy Rider and Ghost Rider, in that order, a few months ago (scanning my Tivo movie listings). The thing that I found interesting, though unrelated to this post and comments, was that Peter Fonda was a drug-dealing biker in the first (and is killed) and Mephisto in the second. So apparently he got a promotion over the 25 or so intervening years.

  14. You might be able to re-run this column next February: a sequel has been announced. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is filming in Europe and Nicholas Cage will return in the title role. Apparently it is not formally a reboot.

  15. The UCC allows negotiable documents of title under which goods are deliverable to the bearer (§ 7-104(a)). Could a document of title cover a collection of souls?

    • Now that’s a good idea! “Goods” are defined as “all things which are treated as movable for the purposes of a contract of storage or transportation.” § 7-102(1)(f). Arguably the contract for the soul is a contract of storage: the person keeps their soul (stores it) until they die, at which point the bearer can collect on it. I’ve never really looked at this part of the UCC before, but I think this may be the most workable idea so far.

  16. All this speculation is very interesting (and informative), but “contracts with the devil” go back at least to medieval times. I doubt they were ever conceived of as being subject to human law at all (The Devil and Daniel Webster notwithstanding). More likely they would be based on what the Narnia books termed “deep magic”, i.e., rules set down by God possibly as far back as creation.

  17. Pingback: Reaper and Deals with the Devil | Law and the Multiverse

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  19. Ok, keeping in mind that we are talking about a universe where the Afterlife and the existence of souls is an actual, documentable FACT, not a theological question, how can anyone argue “dead is dead” and therefore “the dead have no rights”? The BODY stops breathing, the heart pumping, etc, HOWEVER the sentient existence that is “you” continues, intact and apparently fully aware.

    That would argue strongly to me that one would STILL have rights. However, the tricky bit may be to find a legal venue to press your claim in.

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