A ghoul is a monster from ancient Arabian folklore that dwells in burial grounds and other uninhabited places. The English word comes from the Arabic name for the creature: الغول ghūl, which literally means "demon". The ghul is a devilish type of jinn believed to be sired by Iblis.

The female form is given as "ghouleh" in Muhawi and Kanaana (see ref below). The plural is "ghilan".

The ghoul is a desert-dwelling, shapeshifting demon that can assume the guise of an animal, especially a hyena. It lures unwary travellers into the desert wastes to slay and devour them. The creature also preys on young children, robs graves, and eats the dead. Because of the latter habit, the word ghoul is sometimes used to refer to an ordinary human such as a grave robber, or to anyone who delights in the macabre.

The star Algol takes its name from this creature.

In Persia

Persian imagery and belief on ghouls comes from the Quran and its mention of the Jinns.

Fictional representations

Ghouls and ghoul-like creatures have been portrayed in many instances in fiction, including a series of dark fantasy, short stories by Brian McNaughton, a Michael Slade novel, "Ghoul", Larry Niven's "Ringworld" series, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, the works of Caitlín R. Kiernan, Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series, and Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files.


One Thousand and One Nights is almost certainly 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 (from Nights vol. 6), in which Gherib, an outcast prince, fights off a family of ravenous Ghouls and then enslaves them and converts them to Islam.

Edgar Allan Poe mentions ghouls in the despairing fourth section ("iron bells") in the 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."

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), 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 modern and contemporary fiction, ghouls are often confused with other types of undead, usually the mindless varieties of zombies. Although modern fiction (post-1954), particularly 1954's I Am Legend, suggests that the latter beings share cannibalistic habits with ghouls, it is nonetheless generally believed that vampires and zombies prefer live prey.

In fantasy literature settings such as the Forgotten Realms, ghouls are among the lesser undead, ranking above skeletons and zombies. They are distinguished from these types by their need to consume flesh for sustenance, and also have better motor skills and reflexes, but without the degree of free will that higher forms of undead possess. Ghouls are also commonly attributed with the ability to poison their foes, which upon death leads to transformation into 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 Throne of Bones, were a critical success and the book went on to receive a World Fantasy Award for Best Collection.

In Michael Slade's novel Ghoul is a heavy metal rock band with possible connections to a series of grisly murders.

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 The Chronicles of Narnia, ghouls are creatures that serve the White Witch. 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 are not 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 the subsequent novel "World War Z: an Oral History Of The Zombie War" the term returns, as well as the term "G", usually used by military personal to abbreviate the word when recounting the war.

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.

In Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, the main antagonist, known as the Dark One, uses an army of humanoids known as Trollocs to wreak havoc upon the world. Trollocs are divided into different tribes which bear names similar to mythological creatures, such as demons, devils, gremlins and other nightmarish entities. One such tribe is the Al'ghol, which is probably a reference to the mythological ghoul.

In Monster in My Pocket #37, a ghoul is shown carrying a shovel. When he appears in stage 2, the kitchen, in the video game, the shovel has become an axe. Ghilan is Monster in My Pocket #101, which appears to be a cluster of two of the shapeshifting sort of ghul.

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.

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 noncorporeal green mists that were humans at one time, and are able to steal bodies.

In Ghoul by Brian Keene, the titular beast is described as a member of a long-lived species commanded by God to only eat cold, long dead flesh - a prohibition the Ghoul eventually breaks. The creature is described as nearly hairless, pale white, with taloned hands. It is an excellent digger, and cannot tolerate sunlight. The story begins shortly after it was unwittingly freed by the graveyard caretaker, who broke the pow-wow (folk magic) seal that had kept the creature in a state of stasis.

In the webcomic Sluggy Freelance by Pete Abrams, the main protagonist Torg and his alien friend end up discovering a dimension of ghouls while escaping from the military. See the strip from March 28, 2007.

In the novel "Anubis" (2005) by the German author Wolfgang Hohlbein, Ghouls are jackal-headed, humanoid scavengers that steal human corpses from graveyards. They reproduce by abducting and raping human women and are actually the servants of much more powerful beings from the planets orbiting the star Canicula. The Ghouls live in large underground cities where time and space is somewhat beyond human perception. In one of the cities, which is situated in the vicinity of San Francisco, there is a gateway to Canicula in a huge black pyramid, which opens twice every human lifetime. The Ghouls living in the city fall into some kind of paralyzing stasis as long as the gate is open. In the book, one of the protagonists manages to blow up the gateway, resulting in an explosion that not only destroys the city of the Ghouls, but also causes the earthquake that hit SF at the beginning of the 20th century. The culture of the beings from Canicula predates any advanced civilization and inspired the architecture and the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt. The gods of Egypt where modeled after the jackal-headed Ghouls and other monstrous inhabitants of these underground cities. The whole book draws heavily upon the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

In Frank Herbert's Dune series, a Ghola is a clone of a deceased person, brought to life via secretive Tleilaxu biotechnology. Gholas typically have no memories of their past lives, and are usually taught useful skills before awakened, and then sold to nobles by the Tleilaxu as servants and retainers. Sometimes, the Ghola are secretly programmed with hidden instructions to obey only Tleilaxu commands. Later in the series, it is shown that gholas are able to recover their past memories, albeit by an unpredictable technique to induce extreme stress in the ghola. The Tleilaxu elite have been using this technique to attain a form of serial immortality. It has been suggested that the term ghola originates in Arabic, as do other terms in the Dune series.

Movies and television

Although many screenplays have featured ghouls, the first major motion picture of this theme was the 1933 British film entitled The Ghoul. The actor 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). The term "ghoul" was the one actually used in the film. The term zombies came later, after the film was released. Romero had never thought of them that way; he said he thought of the Caribbean creatures, when he heard the term zombies.

The 1976 Turkish film 'Milk Brothers' (original story by H. Rahmi Gurpinar's 'Ghoul') is a Turkish comedy. Here, a ghoul is a monster with extra power. Ghoul is a monster that was used to frighten little children in the old times, so here the ghoul is used to frighten not only little children, but as well big people.

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 traveling 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 1975 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.

"The Ghoul" is the stage name of Cleveland-area horror television host Ron Sweed.

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". Also, in the series "Batman Beyond", appears a villan called Ghoul, who is part of the new Jokers gang.

"Zarlin" is a monster that resembles a ghoul or vampire. First used in Tyler P Sweeneys' Zarlin.


In the tabletop wargame Warhammer, ghouls are not undead creatures, but simply mutated, cannibalistic humans driven mad by famine and war.

The tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons depicts ghouls as a type of undead creature that craves human flesh, preferably from the living. It is the corpses of those who savored flesh in life that arise as undead ghouls. They have the ability to paralyze their victims, though elves are immune. A ghast is a more powerful type of ghoul that is created when someone dies during an act of cannibalism. Even elves aren't immune to a ghast's paralyzing touch.

In the computer RPG Planescape: Torment, ghouls make up a third of the undead population (collectively known as the Dead Nations) in the catacombs under the city of Sigil. Here, the ghouls are depicted as feral creatures, and only grudgingly allying themselves with the other undead factions, the skeletons and zombies, out of fear of the skeletons' Silent King, and their mortal enemies, the hive mind population of cranium rats.

In White Wolf's World of Darkness Ghouls are regular mortals fed with vampiric Vitae (blood) which develop a few minor supernatural powers (basically enhanced physical attributes). Usually they develop a strong loyalty and devotion to the first vampire to feed them blood regularly. Depending on what bloodline the ghoul feeds from they gain psychological traits related to them, for example a ghoul who fed from a Malkavian vampire becomes slightly insane.

In the Myth series, the Ghouls (spelt Ghol) are a race of savage desert dwelling humanoids who specialise in creation and farming of the undead and ancient foes of the Dwarves.

In the game Warcraft 3 and its expansion, the ghoul is the main light infantry and lumber harvesting unit of the Undead Scourge faction. In World of Warcraft they are a stage of undeath. They serve the Undead Scourge or independent necromancers as reanimated corpses of victims of the Scourge plague. They first become zombies, and over time the magic used to reanimate them corrupts the body, elongating the fingers and pronouncing the eye sockets, jaw and joints. They are captured and exorcised by the Forsaken to return the personality and free will to the ghoul.

In Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, the ghouls are reanimated bodies. Unlike zombies they don't have signs of rot, and are agile and swift attackers.

In many other MMORPG games, such as Tibia, Final Fantasy XI, RuneScape, City of Heroes and Ragnarok Online ghouls are one of the NPC enemies in the game.

In most of the newer titles in the Castlevania series, ghouls are nearly identical to zombies, differing only by having more strength, resistance and being blue rather than green.

Ghouls also appear in Blizzard North's Diablo II, where they are a form of zombie. They can be found in the Catacombs (levels 1 through 4) in Act 1.

In Microprose's Master of Magic Ghouls are the basic mid-tier Death creatures (on par with the Nagas of Sorcery or the Giant Spiders of Nature). Their attack is venomous and live beings killed mostly by Ghouls will return to life as mindless undead in service of the ghouls and their master. They also share the same immunities of undead beings (such as immunity to mind spells and poison).

Ghouls are featured in a multitude of varieties in the online game Kingdom of Loathing. They are deliberately misspelled , as they live in the (also deliberately misspelled) Misspelled , and are an obvious parody of traditional ideas of ghouls.

Other games have painted a more sympathetic portrait. In Shadowrun ghouls are victims of a mutating virus that transforms them into cannibals. Originally portrayed as monsters, subsequent supplements have featured ghoul activists arguing for their rights as a people. The Delta Green supplement for Call of Cthulhu presents a ghoul character whose unique abilities are exploited for forensic purposes.

In the game Fallout, ghouls are people who have been affected by the radiation of the third World War, and as such, their skin is changed a moss green color and is very badly burnt. They refer to "normal" people as Smoothskins. They have very long lives, sometimes exceeding the age of 120. They are sterile, though, and the normal people in the surrounding settlements think them bloodthirsty, feral beasts. This is not so, as ghouls are essentially just normal people, appearances aside. They are ordinary in most respects, albeit usually extremely old, some of them going senile from their extended lifespans.

Ghouls 'n Ghosts is a 1989 platforming video game where the protagonist battles several kinds of undead creatures.

In the series Final Fantasy, a ghoul is a recurring enemy.


The band Ghoul claims to be ghouls, and they often sing about their cannibalistic habits.

Ghoultown is a band based out of Dallas, Texas, whose songs incorporate themes of ghoulishness and vampirism.

The Ghouls, a Philadelphia punk rock band, take this as their name.

See also

Footnotes and references

  • Muhawi, Ibrahim, and Sharif Kanaana. Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1988

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