The Night of the Demon: A Problem of Contract Law

The Night of the Demon is all too easily forgotten in the story of English horror. Its presence is palpable.

It is cited almost as a legal authority in the gaudy, bloody-lipped welcoming to Rocky Horror, the song whose title revels in its own self-referential gaucheness – “Science Fiction/Double Feature” – and quoted directly through the iconic intro to Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love. It is there, in both examples, at the starting point of a work. It lurks still, in the mise-en-scene, in the interplay between the rational, the psychological, and the sylvan, the sylphlike and the satanic: “It’s in the trees. It’s coming.”

I could elaborate on these stylistic qualities, but what actually interests me – as both a law graduate and a sick bastard – are the parallels which the film seems to draw between demonic law and English contract law.

The passing of the runes is where the real, purely intellectual beauty comes in. The mechanical simplicity of it appeals to me, as a lawyer. Think of this: the chief antagonist Dr Karswell’s cult has a rather unsociable tendency of cursing its enemies by passing them a series of runes, which will spell out their demise. Karswell, throughout the entire film, only passes the script of ancient runes onto victims who know its fatal, doom-like promise. Only fellow occultists, difficult investigators and traitors get the curse passed onto them. This is crucial: the victim always knows the nature of the runic symbols. Further, you can only receive the curse if you take them yourself. Karswell couldn’t just slip them into a suitcase while the victim wasn’t looking: Karswell needs, somehow, to make the victim take the damned things off of him.

Then consider this. No man would take the runes willingly, delivered hand to hand, seeing in a physical exchange the scrap of paper which will lead to his gruesome end. You would run for the hills. And as we’ve established, the runes must be accepted willingly. They cannot just be stuffed into the fist, or mouth, heedless of the victim’s protestations.

Consider the folklore. Consider how the devil almost invariably has to be welcomed in. Consider how vampires must be invited into the dwelling-place. Then, consider the underlying sin of this acceptance. A deal with the devil, perhaps a real contract, is made. We know this as the way of things from a very early age. It’s free will. It’s the option of sin. It’s freedom of contract.

One could extend this to everyday choice of course, where most of our sins aggregate. One decides to eat a second desert. One hesitates to place money in the collection tin. We all know how we contract with the knowledge of sin every day, by act or by omission.

Now consider such a contract. Its terms vary. They can be misinterpreted or overlooked, breached and then reinforced. But without genuine agreement of the parties, there is no enforceable contract. Whether you adopt the objective, English approach (with its dusty usage of “consideration” and doctrine of certainty) or a more continental approach (prone, as we English fear, to subjectivism and fluidity), the fundamental thing we’re getting at is welcoming in the devil.

These are the rules. Now consider again the mechanism, this time in an example from the film.

The psychologist and protagonist, Dr Holden, leafs through the demonological and runic texts in the British Library. He is investigating the mysterious, violent murders around Dr Karswell’s cult. Beyond the reaches of the low lamplight, we see Karswell approaching. They cordially exchange quiet threats, like gentlemen. They are both professional men. It is clear that neither is willing to concede. Holden will continue to hound Karswell, and Karswell will continue to defend his occult practices rigorously. Karswell nevertheless helps Holden to tidy his books as they prepare to separate, handing him one of the ancient texts which has fallen on the floor. He offers his business card before departing.

The fateful runes are not concealed in the business card, of course: they have been written on a thin scrap of parchment, deftly left hidden in and among the pages of the fallen book, offered into Holden’s willing hand by an all-too obliging Karswell.

This is no deception. Holden already knows that Karswell uses such diabolic methods. The terms are known by both parties. Holden accepted the written terms, conveyed in the larger text handed to him. What is this but contract? Holden knows Karswell’s evil ways, he accepts an offering, and the contract is made. Fairness doesn’t come into it: ask any lawyer.

Is that not wonderful? Isn’t that an elegant device? What a keen, finely-balanced tool it is, to be wielded by an obscure little British horror film. And such an old film it is. It’s black and white. It’s notably dialogue-heavy. The actual demon on-screen is much less impressive than the raw plot – the director and scriptwriter were both furious at the inclusion of such a gimmick as a physical, fire-breathing demon.

But however wanting the production value, it’s the script which sends shivers – it’s always about the message passed in the script.

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One thought on “The Night of the Demon: A Problem of Contract Law

  1. I’m glad you found something special to enjoy in this superb little gem. It’s a well-known film to horror movie fans. Jacques Tourneur, the director, was an expert at creating stylish, atmospheric films on a moderate budget, sometimes about occult subjects. He never intended to show the demon onscreen, but over his, the screenwriter’s and star Dana Andrews’ objections, the producer shot and inserted the cheesy “devil puppet” footage. Columbia also cut the film from 96 to 81 minutes, to make it part of a triple feature package for export to U.S. theaters

    When I was a sound editor, I worked on the restoration of the US/UK versions for the 2002 DVD release.

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