Ghouls are creatures of folklore and horror fiction that feed on the flesh of the dead. They are often depicted as undead, cannibalistic, and grotesque, with sharp teeth and claws. But where did the concept of ghouls come from, and how did they evolve over time in different cultures and media?
The word ghoul comes from the Arabic term al-ghul, meaning “the demon”. In Islamic mythology, al-ghul was a type of jinn, or supernatural being, that dwelled in cemeteries and deserts, and lured unwary travellers to their doom. Al-ghul could also shapeshift into various forms, such as animals or humans, to deceive their victims. Some sources say that al-ghul was a female demon that seduced men and devoured them, while others say that al-ghul was a male demon that preyed on women and children.
The earliest mention of al-ghul in literature is in the Arabian Nights, a collection of stories from the medieval Islamic world. One of the most famous stories involving al-ghul is that of Sinbad the Sailor, who encounters a ghoul disguised as a beautiful woman on an island. Sinbad manages to escape by throwing hot coals at her face, revealing her true monstrous form.
The concept of ghouls was introduced to the Western world by European travellers and orientalists, who translated and adapted the Arabian Nights and other Arabic texts. The term ghoul became synonymous with any creature that fed on corpses, regardless of its origin or appearance. For example, in the 18th century, French writer Antoine Galland used the word ghoul to describe the Wendigo, a Native American spirit that possessed people and made them cannibalistic.
In the 19th century, ghouls became a popular theme in Gothic literature, especially in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial” features a man who fears being buried alive and becoming a ghoul. Lovecraft’s stories “Pickman’s Model” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” feature ghouls as a race of subterranean creatures that resemble humans but have canine features and habits. Lovecraft’s ghouls are not evil, but rather indifferent to human morality and values.
In the 20th century, ghouls became associated with zombies, another type of undead flesh-eater. The term zombie originally referred to a person who was revived by voodoo magic and enslaved by a sorcerer. However, in 1968, George A. Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead popularized the idea of zombies as reanimated corpses that hunger for human flesh and spread their infection by biting. Romero never used the word zombie in his film, but rather called his creatures ghouls. However, later films and media adopted the term zombie instead, while ghoul became a more generic term for any horror monster.
Today, ghouls are still a common feature in horror fiction and games, often with varying characteristics and origins. Some examples are:
– The Fallout series of video games features ghouls as humans who have been mutated by radiation and have long lifespans but decaying bodies. Some ghouls retain their sanity and intelligence, while others become feral and hostile.
– The Tokyo Ghoul manga and anime series features ghouls as a hidden species of human-like beings that can only survive by eating human flesh. Ghouls have enhanced physical abilities and can manifest weapon-like appendages called kagune. They also have to hide their identities from humans and a special police force called the CCG.
– The Harry Potter series of books and films features ghouls as harmless creatures that live in the attics of wizarding families. They make loud noises and occasionally bang on pipes, but are otherwise harmless. Ron Weasley has a ghoul in his attic that he disguises as himself when he goes on the run with Harry and Hermione.
As you can see, ghouls are a fascinating and diverse topic that has inspired many writers and artists over the centuries. They reflect our fears and fantasies about death, decay, and cannibalism, but also our curiosity and imagination about the unknown and the supernatural.
© Colin Lawson Books