Ghouls are one of the most misunderstood and underutilized creatures in modern fantasy, in my opinion.
Whenever I describe a ghoul to someone, they immediately jump to the conclusion “oh, like a zombie.” To be fair, zombies and ghouls do share several similarities but also have many distinct differences between them:
- Ghouls are cannibals, but unlike zombies, tend to prefer the rotting flesh of victims already deceased – which is why they frequent graveyards in literature and folklore. Rarely would a ghoul attack a living being.
- While zombies are often portrayed as mindless, ghouls usually possess animal-like or child-like intelligence.
- They are attracted to shiny objects like keys and coins, while zombies are attracted to nearly any movement, noise, or scent.
- Thanks to recent fascination in the media, zombies have countless origin myths. However, ghouls are typically considered creatures of black magic.
The origin of ghouls can be traced back to ancient Middle Eastern folklore. Sumerian and Akkadian mythology speak of an undead creature called a ghul – a fiendish creature that thrived around burial grounds.
The concept of a ghoul was introduced to Western culture when Arabian Nights, which featured ghoul-like creatures, was translated into French in 1717.
Image depicting Arabic ghoul and necromancer.
Ghouls are a creature of the night and are frequently depicted as being physically stronger and faster than the average (living) human. As a member of the undead, ghouls can sustain heavy damage before becoming incapacitated. Some claim that cutting off their head is an effective deterrent. A few legends even claim that only killing the original necromancer or dark wizard that summoned the ghoul can cast the beast from the world.
In some versions of folklore, ghouls also possess shape-shifting abilities. Some portray ghouls as shifting into animals, other undead creatures, or even the human likeness of their last victim.
While not nearly as popular in modern media as their zombie counterpart, ghouls can be found in anime (Tokyo Ghoul), television (Supernatural), and video games (The Fallout series).
Holly Jennings loves creating vivid sci-fi and fantasy worlds that have a foot (sometimes both feet) in reality. Her debut series from Ace Books won ALA’s Alex Award for having special interest to reluctant teen readers. Her short fiction has been published in Daily Science Fiction, AE Sci-Fi Canada, and more.
Lonely and unwanted creatures, like ghouls, tug at her heart strings and one day she hopes to create a fantasy world where the forsaken are no longer forgotten.
2 thoughts on “Ghouls”
Interesting! I knew ghouls are different from zombies (because I play video games, just not the Fallout series 😆) but not to this detail, so thanks for sharing this. 😀
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Ghouls are an interesting addition to the magical repertoire. Where zombies have been thoroughly adopted and formalized by modern media, ghouls remain largely unclaimed, leaving authors free to do with them as they wish. I think the distinction of eating dead flesh certainly opens up possibilities. They don’t have to pursue living humans, which means they can avoid living humans, or even coexist with them, as Tokyo Ghoul explores.
If they only eat the dead, and don’t kill to get it, the issue of whether they are a threat becomes much more debatable, making for a richer story.
I’ve even seen some stories where they have creatures like ghouls, which feed on the dead, but because of their nature, they lack the strength or aggression to attack a living human. Instead they are furtive creatures, wandering from place to place looking for carrion, but always hiding, always timid. It was an interesting story (Mistborn, if anyone’s curious).
Thank you for sharing.
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