Ghul, Ghulah, Ghul of the waste, Grave-creature, coffin-fiend. Etymologically “Ghul” is a calamity, a panic fear; and the monster is evidently the embodied horror of the grave and the graveyard. It is sometimes confused with the Indian Vetala. The star Algol is also named after this creature from Arabian legend.
Ghouls have their origin in the Arabic/Persian/Indian tales of Alf Laylah wa Laylah – the Thousand Nights and a Night and in their root stories. The Arabian ghoul lures travelers into the desert wastes to slay and devour them, and also robs graves and feeds on the flesh of the dead, or on young children. As a result of this latter habit, the word ghoul is also used to refer to an ordinary human grave robber, or any individual who delights in the gruesome or morbid.
Some occultists believe that the Ghoul superstition comes from wild animals that disturb graves at night. It is also seen as an embodiment of the natural fear and horror which a man feels when he faces a really dangerous desert.
Ghouls are considered to belong to a true monster race. Allegations that ghouls are created by contamination or when a mortal drinks the blood of a vampire are totally false.
Sir Richard F. Burton, nineteenth century translator of the Nights, wrote some interesting foot notes on the subject:
Arab. “Ghul,” here an ogre, a cannibal. I cannot but regard the “Ghul of the waste” as an embodiment of the natural fear and horror which a man feels when he fases a really dangerous desert. As regards cannibalism, Al-Islam’s religion of common sense freely allows it when necessary to save life, and unlike our mawkish modern sensibility never blames those who
Alimentis talibus usi
Produxere animos. (“Employing such food extend lives.”)
The Ghulah (Fem. of Ghul) is the Heb. Lilith or Lilis: the classical Lamia; the Hindu Yogni and Dakini; the Chaldean Utug and Gigim (desert-demons) as opposed to the Mas (Hill-demon) and Telal (who steal into towns); the Ogress of out tales and the Bala yaga (Granny-witch) of Russian folk-lore.
Forms and functions
Ghouls are true cannibals but do not seem to prey on humanity only through necessity. Their appetite is nearly insatiable. In modern fiction, ghouls are often confused with other types of undead, usually the mindless varieties of vampires and zombies. Although modern fiction (post-1968) suggests that the latter beings share cannibalistic habits with ghouls, it is nonetheless generally believed that vampires and zombies prefer live prey and focus on blood or brains.
The Arabian ghoul is known as a desert-dwelling, skin walker demon that can transform itself into the guise of an animal, especially a hyena but in the modern fantasy lore, ghouls do not shift are often described as having the following strengths and weaknesses.
Ghouls are gaunt in the face with bulging yellowish eyes, and large mouths lined with rows of tiny razor-sharp teeth. They have long and lanky arms with clawed hands, and they walk on short, sinewy legs. Their skin is a thick and fibrous hide, usually of a light blue-gray color large. Ghouls often appear naked, or wearing the last vestiges of clothing they wore before they became a ghoul. They crave on mammalian flesh (preferably human) taken from the living or recently-dead. They can normally be found prowling cemeteries at night for the newly buried corpses.
Ghouls have relatively low intelligence and are incapable of articulated speech. They have a only a basic understanding of simple tools, and are fundamentally driven by their instincts and lust for food. They are primarily nocturnal, preferring the cover of night to satisfy their vast appetite for human flesh.
When discovered, ghouls will usually hiss and growl to ward off intruders and, if that fails, they will attempt a quick escape. Ghouls will only fight if they are cornered, or if they outnumber the living by at least three to one odds. Single ghouls have been known to attack infants, children, and in rare cases – wounded or sickly adults.¨
The ghoul is impervious to pain, does not age, needs no air to breathe, and is immune to drugs, poisons, and gases. Guns and knives can wound these creatures, but they will not destroy them, as the ghoul possesses remarkable regenerative powers, enabling them to withstand large caliber weapons and even small explosives.
The ghoul’s strength level is at normal human-levels, but they are extremely agile and fast. They use their large claws for digging and cutting through flesh.
The ghoul possess keen night vision similar to a vampire’s, and can smell human flesh (alive or dead) from up to a mile away.
Despite their cowardly demeanor, the ghoul can be dangerous. Attacking unmercifully to bring their victims down, especially when they hunt in packs. With their razor-sharp claws and teeth, a pack of four ghouls can bring a full-sized adult human down and devour in under 5 minutes, leaving only the bones for remains.
The ghoul is a nocturnal creature, and is repelled by sunlight and artificial light. Although neither cause them any real harm, their speed and strength can be drastically reduced when subjecting them to daylight, making them easier to destroy.
Ghouls are highly susceptible to fire, and this is the best way to destroy these fiends. A ghoul can be burned and subsequently destroyed by concentrated acid or electrocution as well. Decapitation is also another effective way to destroy a ghoul.
Ghouls in fiction
- Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula features a ghoulish character named Renfield. Under the vampire’s influence, Renfield becomes his willing slave and develops a craving to eat living creatures in the hope of obtaining their life-force for himself. After being confined to an asylum, he considers eating a human hospital orderly, but finds he can only capture and consume flies, spiders, and the occasional bird.
- 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” (1927), the first of Lovecraft’s ghoul stories, they are unutterably terrible monsters; however, in his earlier 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.
- 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 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.
- In The Chronicles of Narnia, ghouls are creatures that serve the White Witch. They resemble corroded, old humans. In the 2005 movie and videogame, they resemble pale orcs carrying spears.
- 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. Though they were once human, they are like pack animals, and they aren’t very smart. They will only attack if a person is vulnerable. A ghoul will run from a healthy, strong human being.
- In Max Brooks’ “The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Undead” , zombies are frequently referred to as ghouls.
- In Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, ghouls are much like they are in the classic mythologies. They are 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.
- 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 Eternal Light 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.
- 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.
- In the horror/comedy cartoon sires The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, a sailor boy turned to chocolate claimed that chocolate loving ghouls ate his arm.
Because of the popularity of the aforementioned creatures, many other games use the term “ghoul” to describe undead beings or other kinds of cannibalistic and degenerate humanoids. Some notable examples follow.
- Dungeons and Dragons. In the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, ghouls are monstrous, undead humans who reek of carrion. A ghoul is said to be created on the death of a man or woman who savored the taste of flesh: this myth was probably derived from the popular connection of the word ‘ghoul’ with persons who delight in the unsavory. They not only eat the dead, but also prey on the unwary living. They can paralyze their victims with a touch, though elves are immune. The aquatic form of the ghoul is called the lacedon and is otherwise identical to the ghoul, although it also can swim. The ghast is similar to the ghoul, but is distinguished by its monstrously foul and supernaturally nauseating stench. It is also more powerful than a ghoul – even elves can fall victim to a ghast’s paralytic touch.
- Shadowrun . In the role-playing game Shadowrun, ghouls are a mutation caused by a virus known as HMHVV, specifically the Krieger strain. While they are not undead, they do exhibit the same vampiric behavior. Ghouls must consume about one percent of their body weight in raw human flesh each week. They also have a mild allergy to sunlight that inhibits them slightly but does not harm them. Though they are physically blind, they are endowed with an enhanced sense of smell and hearing, and have an astral and physical dual-nature that allows them to perceive the astral plane. Ghouls are especially sensitive to the presence of foreign substances within their bodies, which makes it difficult to use cybernetic implants on them. Their strength and body are greater than that of a normal human, but their intelligence and charisma scores suffer greatly. Finally, they are also completely immune to the VITAS plague.
- Some ghouls regress to a feral state after the change, while others retain their sanity. Those who remain sane often undergo extreme plastic surgery to pass for human and usually replace their blind eyes with cybernetic implants to allow them to see.
- Vampire: The Masquerade. In the role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade, a ghoul is a human that drinks the blood of a vampire and consequently gains an extended lifespan and supernatural powers as a result. Vampires often take ghouls as servants, since humans quickly become addicted to vampiric blood. Additionally, a ghoul loses its mental resistance against the donater’s commands, creating a bond of loyalty and affection towards its new master.
- In the computer role-playing game series Fallout, a ghoul is a human mutated by exposure to massive amounts of radiation and the fictive FEV virus.
- In the real-time strategy game Warcraft III, Ghouls are standard footsoldiers and lumber gatherers for the Undead armies.
- In the tabletop wargame Warhammer, Ghouls serve as skirmishers in the armies of the Vampire Counts.
- In the hybrid role playing/adventure computer game Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, ghouls are presented as supernatural creatures of the undead which only come out at night and prey upon the living. The touch of a ghoul’s claws has a chilling effect upon the victim similar to frostbite. If the ghoul is successfully defeated, its claws can be removed and sold to the local apothecary for use in the making of a poison cure pill.
- King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow has ghouls on the Realm of the Dead surface, who were the result of having their trauma unhealed for a long time (not being avenged, loved ones not cared for, etc.), and over time became what they became. Brushing up against them is instant death–their touch eats at Alexander (the playable character) like acid.