The Devil has always been storytellers’ favorite scapegoat, and no wonder; he (or she) has been around for a long time – forever, even. Call him Beelzebub, Satan, Apollyon or Belial, he has sold souls, bought souls, tricked people out of love, life and the hereafter and generally had a blast in the process.
Mankind has been obsessing with the devil ever since Biblical times, if not earlier. Deals with the devil have been the subject of stories, legends, books and movies. Some of the best actors have portrayed that fiery fork-tongued fiend and the Devil continues to be a major character in many horror movies. Sometimes, folks contribute someone’s extraordinary luck or success must to help from the impish trickster, and some of the oldest tales of that remain the best.
At The Crossroads
One of the most famous stories of a devilish pact portrays young Robert Johnson, an allegedly less than amazing blues guitarist of the 1930s. It seems that he met Satan at the crossroads to exchange his soul for a talent that made him an overnight success and a monumental blues guitarist. His songs “Cross Road Blues” and “Me and the Devil Blues” only perpetuated this legend, which is not unlike one of dozens of stories following the motif of musicians striking deals with the devil to get their skills. In fact, Johnson might have deliberately spread the rumor himself, in a retro version of image-making.
He wouldn’t have to go far to get inspiration: History is full of tales of the devil striking packs with musicians – their souls in exchange for talent. Nicolo Paganini, history’s most famous violinist was born in 1782 in Genoa and earned his fame by age 15. A visionary in many respects, he is believed to be one of the first violinists who chose to perform publically without looking at sheet music. His extraordinary skill, unusual appearance along with dubious reports from audience members saying that they saw the devil helping the violinist play led to the enduring tale of his pact with the Beast. The story that Paganini famously turned away a priest who came to perform the last rites on him short before his 1840 death didn’t help either.
The story of Robert Johnson lives on in a similar character portrayed in the 2000 Cohen Brothers movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? When the three main characters run into “Tommy” Johnson, he tells them he had to be up at that crossroads, to sell his soul to the devil. The conversation is nothing if not hilarious.
“What’d the devil give you for your soul, Tommy?”
“Well, he taught me to play this here guitar real good.”
“Oh son, for that you sold your everlasting soul? “
“Well, I wasn’t usin’ it. “
The Number of the Beast
“666” has always been known as the “Number of the Beast” or, more dramatically, of the Antichrist. In many movies, the number shows up on the shaved heads of those possessed or strangely enough, on floats in Chinese parades as a sign of luck. Leave it to the Chinese to be different. What many do not know is that 666 is also a significant number in the history of one of the world’s most popular casino games, roulette! It is the sum of all the numbers on the wheel (0-36). This may have led to the popular legend of the man who became known as The Magician of Monte Carlo being in league with the devil.
Francois Blanc, The Magician’s real name, is considered to have single handedly built Monte Carlo into the luxury gaming and entertainment destination it is today. In 1843, together with his brother, Louis, the man who would become known as The Magicial of Monte Carlo introduced a new type of roulette wheel, which had a single zero. The brothers moved to Monaco in the 1860s, and with them brought their invention of the single-zero roulette wheel to Monte Carlo, a wheel which had already gained popularity in Germany and France.
Blanc purchased and renovated the Casino of Monte Carlo after taking possession of the Societe des Bains de Mar and all the gaming rights that came with it. What he did with it was set the foundations of the gambling and tourist mecca that is Monaco today, where 15% of the country’s $5.748 billion annual GDP income comes from tourism. Francois Blanc’s financial success was suspected to be a gift from our favorite demon because the numbers on his roulette wheel totaled 666. Funnily enough, they still totaled 666 before they added the zero, so we’re not sure exactly what’s up with that.
Winning and losing on the triple six roulette wheel is a popular Hollywood theme as well. Most notably in 1993’s Indecent Proposal, where Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson throw their life savings down on the spin of the wheel and then have to make a deal with the devilishly handsome Robert Redford. Oh, my!
The Many Forms of Faust
While there have been many tales of deals with the devil throughout film and literature, the term Faustian has stuck. Faust was the German scholar in the 1500s who was dissatisfied with his life and sold his sold to the devil. The details of the original story have been convoluted in the many retellings and rewritings, Christopher Marlowe and Von Goethe’s being the most popular in their day.
Satan made many appearances in literature from novels made movies like Rosemary’s Baby or clever short stories like The Devil and Daniel Webster where a poor farmer trades his soul to the devil for seven years of prosperity. When the devil comes for him, his lawyer, Mr. Webster must put on a tremendous show for the jury of the damned to save the poor farmer. Somehow he overcomes and the devil is never seen again in New Hampshire.
Today, our devil comes in many packages and continues to appear in some of the most anticipated movies each year. We personally love him as Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, which brought in $152.9 at the box office in 1997. Even naïve young lawyer Keanu Reeves couldn’t help but make a deal with this devil for success and power in the courtroom and beyond.
Both Peter Fonda and Ciaran Hinds make their appearance as Mephistopheles/Roarke (aka the devil) to bargain for the soul of Nicholas Cage in Ghostrider 1 and 2. Happily, good overcomes evil in these Hollywood cash cows. Not so much in the darker Prince of Darkness, The Exorcist or The Omen.
It seems we can’t get enough of that scrappy evil fellow. New movies are slated everyday for 2016 and beyond where possessions, ghosts and demons abound. We can’t wait to see Amityville: The Awakening and Krampus: The Devil. Who knows? Maybe the devil will eventually win.
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