A ghoul is a folkloric monster or evil spirit associated with graveyards and consuming human flesh, often classified as undead. The oldest surviving literature that mention ghouls is likely One Thousand and One Nights. The term was first used in English literature in 1786, in William Beckford’s Orientalist novel Vathek, which describes the ghūl of Arabian folklore.
A being which is largely misrepresented or used as a ‘catch-all’ to describe anything from vampires, zombies or other mythical creatures, a ghoul has habits and behaviour which can make it far more distinct. Despite this, even today it is used as a general phrase to describe someone (or something) who displays a macabre love of death or torture, especially any frowned-upon activities taking place in graveyards.
The word ‘ghoul’ is derived from the Arabic غول ghūl, from ghala, “to seize”. The term is etymologically related to Gallu, a Mesopotamian demon who dragged mortals into the Underworld and was widely understood to be appeased by the sacrificial slaughter of a lamb. Once the tale One Thousand and One Nights was translated into French by Antoine Galland, the concept of the ghoul entered Western lore.
In ancient Arabian folklore, the ghūl (Arabic: literally demon) dwells in burial grounds and other uninhabited places. The ghul is a fiendish type of jinni believed to be sired by Iblis, the Muslim God of darkness. Ancient accounts refer to ghūls as generally being female, distracting male travellers before killing and consuming them. When faced with such a foe, the only way of escape was to kill the ghul with one blow; a second or more would resurrect it from the dead.
A ghoul is also a desert-dwelling, shapeshifting, demon that can assume the guise of an animal, especially a hyena. It lures unwary people into the desert wastes or abandoned places to slay and devour them. The creature also preys on young children, drinks blood, steals coins, and eats the dead, then taking the form of the person most recently eaten.
In the Arabic language, the female form is given as ghoulah and the plural is ghilan. In colloquial Arabic, the term is sometimes used to describe a greedy or gluttonous individual. Anglicized as “ghoul,” the word entered English tradition and was further identified as a grave-robbing creature that feeds on dead bodies and on children, the former offering a clear difference between ghouls and zombies. In the West, ghouls have no specific image and have been described (by Edgar Allan Poe) as “neither man nor woman . . . neither brute nor human.” They are thought to assume disguises, to ride on dogs and hares, and to set fires at night to lure travelers away from the main roads. They can often be detected by hoof marks in the ground near graveyards.
There are many cultural references to ghouls throughout the ages:
One Thousand and One Nights is the earliest surviving literature that mentions ghouls, and many of the stories in that collection involve or reference ghouls. A prime example is the story “The History of Gherib and His Brother Agib”, in which Gherib, an outcast prince, fights off a family of ravenous ghouls and then enslaves them and converts them to Islam.
Lord Byron made a reference to the ghouls in his epic poem “The Giaour” (1813): “Thy gnashing tooth and haggard lip; / Then stalking to thy sullen grave, / Go – and with Gouls and Afrits rave; / Till these in horror shrink away/ From spectre more accursed than they!”
In Hans Christian Andersen’s literary fairy tale, “The Wild Swans” (1838), the heroine Eliza has to pass a group of ghouls feasting on a corpse.
Edgar Allan Poe mentions ghouls in the despairing fourth section (“Iron Bells”) in his 1848 poem “The Bells”, describing them and their king as “the people, they that dwell up in the steeple” tolling the bells and glorying in the depressive effect on the hearers. “They are neither man nor woman— / They are neither brute nor human— / They are Ghouls.” His 1847 poem “Ulalume” also features ghouls.
Harry Shannon’s 2006 horror novel Daemon features a portrayal of a ghoul as an undead creature.
The Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine may have been inspired by the idea of a ghoul. Though subterranean, they feed on the living Eloi, not the dead.
In the short story “The Nameless Offspring” (1932) by Clark Ashton Smith, the ghoul is a cannibalistic humanoid which, besides eating the flesh of human corpses, procreates with those buried while still alive.
In the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, a ghoul is a member of a nocturnal subterranean race. Some ghouls were once human, but a diet of human corpses, and perhaps the tutelage of proper ghouls, mutated them into horrific bestial humanoids. In the short story “Pickman’s Model” (1926), they are unutterably terrible monsters; however, in his later novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926), the ghouls are somewhat less disturbing, even comical at times, and both helpful and loyal to the protagonist. Richard Upton Pickman, a noteworthy Boston painter who disappeared mysteriously in “Pickman’s Model”, appears as a ghoul himself in Dream-Quest. Similar themes appear in “The Lurking Fear” (1922) and “The Rats in the Walls” (1924), both of which posit the existence of subterranean clans of degenerate, retrogressive cannibals or carrion-eating humans. This theme is elaborated on in Anders Fager’s “Grandmother’s Journey” in which a large family have degenerated (or changed) into a brood of sub-human beast men. Pickaman’s Model is also featured as a tale in Rod Serling’s TV series, The Night Gallery.
The November 1973 issue of Skywald Publications’ Psycho comic-magazine was an “all ghoul” edition.
In Neil Gaiman’s novel The Graveyard Book, ghouls are small, ape-like creatures who make their home in an extra-dimensional realm called Ghûlheim. They travel to our world through ghoul-gates, and name themselves after the first person they eat on becoming a ghoul.
In 1987, Brian McNaughton wrote a series of dark fantasy short stories in which these Lovecraftian ghouls are the protagonists. The stories, collectively published as The Throne of Bones, were a critical success and the book went on to receive a World Fantasy Award for Best Collection.
In P.B. Kerr’s Children of the Lamp, ghouls (spelled as “Ghuls”) are one of the six tribes of djinn, and one of the three evil tribes.
In Larry Niven’s Ringworld series, the ghouls are a race that eats the dead of the other races that live on the ringworld. They have a fairly sophisticated (for a post-apocalyptic people) culture, and are the only race with a communication system that traverses the entire ringworld: heliographs.
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, ghouls are harmless creatures that live in the homes of wizards, making loud noises and occasionally groaning; a ghoul resides in the attic of the Weasley family’s home as the family’s pet. Context implies that in the Harry Potter universe, ghouls are closer to animals than human beings. They are translated in some versions as vampire, although they have nothing to do with the creatures.
In Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, graveyards became infested with ghouls when the blessing of the graveyard was used up; this was usually caused when too many zombies were raised or voodoo rituals of evil nature were performed in the graveyard. That, or numerous animators (or people who possess magic related to the dead) are buried in the graveyard. Though they were once human, they are like lone wolves, and they are not very smart. The only reason Zach’s ghouls stayed and worked together was because Zach was controlling them. They will only attack if a person is vulnerable. A ghoul will run from a healthy, strong human being, and is afraid of fire. Like zombies, ghouls have human strength, but seem stronger because the sensations of pain and the ‘governors’ that keep people from ripping their bodies apart died with them. So while a human would stop trying to punch a hole in a steel door because of the pain a zombie or ghoul would keep trying until stopped or the door broke even if it would mean completely destroying their arm in the process.
In Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, ghouls are much like they are in the classic mythologies: humanoid monsters that feed on human flesh, and seem to be able to disguise themselves as ordinary humans. These ghouls are intelligent, as opposed to being mindless and feral monsters.
In Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s St. Germain series, the ghoul is an undead being created through an ancient Egyptian ritual to act as a servant to a vampire. St. Germain comes across a dying slave and resurrects him as his faithful servant, Roger, who accompanies him through his adventures for the next 2,000 years. Roger is indistinguishable from humans except for his immortality and that his diet consists of raw meat. In her book Cautionary Tales, there is a short story about a teenage ghoul, working the graveyard shift in a morgue, eating parts of unclaimed dead people.
Caitlín R. Kiernan has written a number of short stories and novels featuring ghouls (referred to as the ghul), including “The Dead and the Moonstruck” and “So Runs the World Away” (both from To Charles Fort, With Love, 2005), Low Red Moon, Murder of Angels, and Daughter of Hounds. Kiernan’s ghouls exhibit a blend of human and canine traits, are highly intelligent, live in subterranean cities, possess magical powers, and feed on the flesh of human corpses. According to Daughter of Hounds, they seem to have an extraterrestrial origin. They are often referred to as “The Hounds of Cain.”
In R.L. Stine’s Attack of the Graveyard Ghouls, ghouls are depicted as non-corporeal green mists that were humans at one point of time, and are able to steal bodies.
In the manga Rosario + Vampire, ghouls are a type of mindless, cannibalistic monster that are created in two manners. Ordinary ghouls are created when an evil spirit possesses a corpse. Rarely, ghouls are created when a human repeatedly has monster blood injected into their veins. The monster blood grants the ghoul supernatural power but at the same time destroys the psyche, leaving them a mindless killing machine. They resemble vampires but are easily identified by the web-like marking surrounding the bite mark where the monster blood was injected and their complete lack of self-control. The lead male character, Tsukune Aono, eventually becomes one such ghoul due to the continuous intake of vampiric blood from Moka Akashiya. Although thanks to some intervention he was able to regain almost all of his humanity and senses by having the vampire blood sealed through a Holy Lock. Although, for a time, there’s still a danger he’ll revert to a ghoul again. Eventually, Tsukune overcomes the vampire blood and becomes a full fledged vampire himself.
Although many screenplays have featured ghouls, the first major motion picture of this theme was the 1933 British film entitled The Ghoul. Boris Karloff plays a dying Egyptologist who possesses an occult gem, known as The Eternal Light, which he believes will grant immortality if he is buried with it, and thereby able to present it to Anubis in the afterlife. Of course, his bickering covetous heirs and associates would rather keep the jewel for themselves. Karloff vows to rise from his grave and avenge himself against anyone who meddles with his plan, and he keeps this promise when one of his colleagues steals the gem after his death.
In 1968, George A. Romero’s groundbreaking film Night of the Living Dead combined reanimated corpses (zombies) with cannibalistic monsters (ghouls), creating new film monsters more terrifying than either of their predecessors. The term “ghoul” was the one actually used in the film, though as we now know, the beings in Romero’s film exhibit the habits of zombies, in that they crave live human flesh, not that of corpses.
The 1976 Turkish movie Milk Brothers (based on H. Rahmi Gurpinar’s story, “Ghoul”) is a comedy in which ghouls feature prominently.
The 1975 British film The Ghoul (unrelated to the Karloff vehicle) stars Peter Cushing as a defrocked missionary whose son has developed a taste for human flesh while travelling in India. As the son’s mind and body degenerate, Cushing has several young people dispatched and prepared as food for his offspring, whom he keeps locked up in the attic.
The 1980 anthology film The Monster Club featured a segment about a village of ghouls stumbled upon by an unwary traveller (Stuart Whitman), who temporarily escapes the creatures with the help of one half-human girl, but he is recaptured when it turns out that the ghouls have representatives inhabiting our normal human world.
In the anime and manga series Hellsing, ghouls are zombie-like creatures that are created when a “chipped” (technological) vampire drains a victim to death, or, in the Manga, where a vampire drains the blood of someone who is not a virgin. If fatally wounded, they instantly crumble to dust. They are under the control of the vampire who bites them, eat human flesh, and are intelligent enough to use firearms. It is not rare to see a vampire amass a small army of ghouls for offence and defence
In Cannibal Flesh Riot, the 2006 film directorial debut of Children’s Book Author and illustrator Gris Grimly, two ancient ghouls, Stash and Hub, prowl cemeteries by night digging up the decaying bodies of the deceased to feed on their rotting flesh.
In I Sell the Dead, the 2008 film directorial debut of Glenn McQuaid, a comedy horror film about two grave robbers and their escapades, once they discover the prospects of the grave robbing of supernatural entities, their title goes from grave-robbers to ghouls .
The Batman comics-based franchise, including the 2005 movie, Batman Begins, has an antagonist named Rā’s al-Ghūl, whose name derives from the original Arabic name for the star Algol in the constellation Perseus meaning “the monster’s (i.e. Medusa’s) head”.