Since the late 1960s, zombies have become one of the most referenced monsters in popular culture, whether it be film, literature or art. It makes sense – creatures that are essentially ‘us’ as the greatest threat to our survival, killing and consuming us for no reason other than an inherent, primal desire are going to resonate with people whatever their background. There isn’t the sexual connotation of the modern vampire, nor are there regularly strong links to Vodou or other ceremonial rites, as a rule,* – they’re simply cadavers on autopilot with a hankering for human flesh. What would they do if there were no humans around? Sit down? Develop a taste for another creature or each other? Re-bury themselves? But zombies have a cousin who has far more well-formed habits and which is far more overlooked by modern audiences – the lesser-seen, ghoul.
*I know there are exceptions, but depictions of sorcerers raising the dead to do their bidding is unusual, post-‘Night of the Living Dead’.
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. The Cambridge Dictionary description is pretty startling – “an evil spirit that eats dead bodies“. Dead bodies? Not that I’d prefer they ate the living but there is something particularly repugnant about eating on human carrion. The bottom feeders of monsters. It is a phrase which has largely lost its power to shock – today it is used as a general phrase to describe someone (or something) who displays a macabre love of death or torture – only very occasionally will a try-hard tabloid attempt to stir up fervour by referring to anyone partaking of frowned-upon activities in graveyards as ‘ghouls’.
In folkloric terms, a ghoul is a monster or evil spirit seen to roam graveyards at night, digging up plots and consuming human flesh, though their beginnings stretch back as far as Ancient pre-Islamic Arabia. The word ‘ghoul’ is derived from the Arabic غول ghūl (or the female, ghūlah), 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. These age-old references to ghouls often saw them roaming the wilderness, particularly the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan and Iran, for food in the form of lost nomads, travellers and even animals. They were also thought to lure children to remote places before devouring them and were able to change their form, notably into hyenas – not the most appealing of animals at the best of times. They preyed at night, living in caves during daylight.
In Islamic Arabia, the hadith (broadly speaking, the teachings of Muhammad, as opposed to the words of God) tells of ghouls being demons burned by comets whilst attempting to enter heaven, falling to earth broken and deformed, doomed to roam the deserts for eternity. As tempters of men, ghouls were often female, but they could not only be repelled by the call to prayer but also converted to Islam if prayers were recited – a clear difference between ghouls and devils, which were beyond salvation. Attempting to use more primitive methods when faced with such a foe, the only way of escape was to kill the ghoul with one blow; a second or more would resurrect it from the dead.
It was many centuries later that ghouls started to appear in Western culture. The first known mention is in Antoine Galland‘s first European translation of the tale ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, published in several volumes between 1704 and 1717. Inspired by the Frenchman’s work, English polymath William Beckford published ‘Vathek’ in 1786, one of the earliest examples of gothic literature, and one which the author attempted to pass off as a translation of an original Arabic work. Here, Beckford’s ‘ghuls’ eat the bodies of dead people, an idea he took from Galland and hereafter has become canon.
Anglicised 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 usually depicted as naked, hunched, bestial humanoids, lurching around on two legs or sometimes sinking to all fours. Filthy and depraved, they have pale skin and are sometimes said to have slightly canine muzzles, allowing them to eat the whole of their chosen corpse, bones and all. Despite their dishevelled appearance, ghouls can dig through the earth and open coffins to get to the dead bodies they crave, and live in either abandoned tombs or in tunnels underneath the graveyard, only emerging at night. They are thought to assume disguises, to ride on dogs and hares, and to set fires at night to lure travellers away from the main roads. They can often be detected by hoof marks in the ground near graveyards.
The ghouls exist purely for food – any attacks on humans are only to feed on their dead bodies at a later date. Some stories see ghouls are solely supernatural beings, others as the dead who have taken this form due to wicked deeds committed during their lifetimes. They are not generally thought to have specific weaknesses and can be killed in the same manner a living person could be.
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’) of 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 innocents below. “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, not the dead.
In the short story ‘The Nameless Offspring’ (1932) by Clark Ashton Smith, the ghoul is a cannibalistic humanoid who, 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. ‘Pickman’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 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, and are even shown as eating their own children. 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 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. The context implies that in the ‘Harry Potter’ universe, ghouls are closer to animals than human beings.
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 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 a monster’s blood injected into their veins. The monster’s 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’s blood was injected and their complete lack of self-control.
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 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 ‘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.
Ghouls feature prominently in the video game, ‘Fallout’, where they are seen as victims of post-apocalyptic nuclear fallout, many left to exist as shambling dead humans wishing for eternal death, others rather more feral and ‘bitey’.