How Ghouls Work

"They were usually feeding -- I won’t say on what."
A pack of ghouls ravage their repulsive repast.
Photo courtesy Sam Inabinet

You know better than to wander the cemetery at night, yet here you are, strolling a landscape of weathered granite and dying flowers.

The light of a waning crescent moon conjures up strange shadows, twisting obelisks and statues into grotesque forms. By some lunar trick, they seem to creep along beside you, herding you toward some central point in the necropolis. You find yourself at the foot of a defiled tomb.


Something pale scuttles past a tombstone. A cackle echoes amid the monuments. When you tear your gaze from the gnawed bones and ghastly scraps spread around your feet, you find yourself in the loathsome company of ghouls.

While we often use the word as a catchall for Halloween horrors and morbid souls, the ghoul is a very specific creature of myth and legend. It's neither a vampire nor a zombie, but a creature somewhat in-between. From their ancient origins in Middle Eastern folklore to modern retellings in horror fiction, ghouls have haunted the shadows of human death for millennia. They've feasted in the catacombs. They've fattened themselves in the wake of conquering armies. They've shifted forms with arcane magic and honeycombed the hills with their vile tunnels and lairs.

In this article, we'll study the anatomy, history and culture of the ghoul. As science remains largely mute on the topic, we'll attempt to weave our understanding from legends and fiction.

By the end, you'll have a better grasp of these creatures of the night.

Ghoul Biology 101

"Hunger is the fire in which they burn..."
Some experts on monstrous and magical anatomy attribute the ghoul with a powerful, paralyzing touch.
Image courtesy M. S. Corley

As of this writing, modern science has yet to study the anatomy of the ghoul -- or even acknowledge its existence. Horror stories and folktales provide varied descriptions, but it's difficult to say where one source accurately describes a ghoul subspecies and another errs entirely. For the most part, however, this is what we know:

Appearance: While some souls define ghouls as evil spirits rather than undead creatures, most accounts give them physical bodies. They're generally slumped, bipedal humanoids, although they often scramble and crawl on all fours due to their stealthy nature and tendency to occupy cramped tunnels and tombs. Their bodies may appear emaciated and doglike, but particularly gluttonous or powerful ghouls may grow quite fat on indecent delicacies. Their skin may be gray or pale, and the flesh itself may appear hairless, rubbery or even scaly -- though many Middle Eastern tales depict them as hairy ogres. Exact facial features seem to differ as well, from nearly human to bestial and canine.


Diet: Like many monsters of legend, ghouls crave human flesh. What sets them apart from other mythical man-eaters, however, is their preference for scavenged carrion. Although these ghastly creatures won't turn down a living meal if it presents itself, their bodies are largely adapted for a diet of corpses. Sizable claws enable them to dig through earth, and their enhanced strength allows them to rip through most caskets. Powerful jaws and often-bestial teeth make short work of cadavers, which they gobble up bones and all.

Habitat: Ghouls frequent places of human death and misery, especially if the location affords them steady access to fresh graves. Nocturnal by nature, they typically avoid all sunlight and maintain a network of tunnels to creep about below ground.

Intelligence: Intelligence varies greatly among the creatures, depending on the account. In some tales, they're no more than primitive beasts ruled by their hunger, while others afford them language, reason and grisly senses of humor.

Self-defensive adaptations: Their stench is enough to overpower most humans, and some boast a paralyzing touch. Occasionally, ghouls use simple weapons such as spears, but mostly they depend on their powerful, filth-tipped claws to fend off adversaries. Factor in a deadly bite, and the ghoul makes for a fearsome opponent.

Magical powers: Some stories describe an even more devious power of the fiends: the ability to shape-shift. Ghouls used this nifty trick to deceive humans and lure them to their deaths. More modern reports, such as those of fantasy fiction and horror author Brian McNaughton, endow ghouls with the power to absorb the memories of the dead through the ingestion of sense organs. When such a ghoul consumes the heart and brain of a person, it temporarily assumes both the appearance and memory of the departed. In describing the more spiritlike ghouls, some Arabic tales attribute them the power to demonically possess humans as well.

Next up: the life cycle of the ghoul.

How to Become a Ghoul

"Every face seemed so distorted with epileptic and reverberant laughter that I almost thought I heard the fiendish echoes."
Never inquire what a ghoul is grinning about. Their humor is often grim, and the joke will likely be on you.
Image courtesy Sam Inabinet

Where do ghouls come from? Rest assured the answer is grim. Scholars propose four schools of thought on the matter of this creature's unnatural genesis.

Born ghouls: To be sure, both male and female ghouls exist and may even exhibit carnal desires, but their sexual encounters seem to rarely result in offspring. Brian McNaughton writes that such progeny are "typically formless things" and generally consumed immediately by their mothers. While the author's book of short stories "The Throne of Bones" deals in part with the birth of a rare ghoul-human hybrid, the creature barely survives the envious wrath of its fellow ghouls.


Creationist ghouls: In the older cycles of myth and folklore, ghouls are just one form of evil spirit in a cosmology already teeming with them. Islamic tradition, for instance, classifies ghouls as yet another form of djinn (or jinn), supernatural and malevolent beings that rebelled against their creator Allah.

Causal ghouls: In other version of the myth, all ghouls are former humans who transformed into their current state due to wickedness or morbidity. In some accounts, the person rises as a ghoul after death. In others, he or she becomes a ghoul after dining on human flesh -- a cultural taboo often linked to monstrous transformations. In either case, the transformation is permanent and linked directly to the state of the soul or psyche. That change may occur as a divine punishment for particularly debased people.

Pathogenic ghouls: This school of thought spins ghouldom as a supernatural infectious disease -- not unlike vampirism or various zombie viruses. The disease is known as ghoul fever in Dungeons and Dragons and Porfat's distemper in Brian McNaughton's "The Throne of Bones." Whatever its human name, the condition debilitates the victim until he or she turns into a ghoul or dies and rises again as one. In most cases, the infection is transmitted through a ghoul's bite, but some legends speak of vaguer origins. In Robert Barbour Johnson's creepy short story "Far Below," subway workers beneath New York City begin to transform into ghouls, perhaps due to their proximity to unwholesome, supernatural forces in the Earth.

If these theories solve the questions of where ghouls come from, they also raise the question of their demise. Like other undead and supernatural creatures, ghouls live long, unnatural lives but are ultimately susceptible to death. Various human weapons prove effective in modern tales, but some Arabic texts stress that only a single blow from a mighty sword will do the trick. If the ghoul traps its would-be slayer into landing a second blow, then "he will not die, but will live and destroy us" [source: Al-Rawi]. Sunlight and readings from the Quran are also harmful to ghouls.

What kind of society could possible emerge among such vile creatures? On the next page, we'll look at ghoul culture.

Ghoul Culture: Ghastly Kings, Dark Gods and Civic Works

"And people whispered of fouler things than necrophagism, of blasphemous rites that were solemnized in the ghoul-ridden vaults..."
Who says ghouls don't love politics? They love to pick the brains of famous politicians.
Drawing by James Basom Seaman

You don't hear much about ghoul politics and with good reason. In some tales, ghouls may exist as lone scavengers in death-haunted places or as members of crude, doglike packs. Largely ruled by their vile appetites, their social structure is generally limited to squabbling over grave spoils.

Particularly powerful ghouls sometimes rise to positions of power over their own kind. The world of Dungeons and Dragons describes several varieties of smarter and stronger ghouls, such as the ghast and the gravetouched ghoul. Other tales mention ghoul kings, like the ferocious and debased Vomikron Noxis in the work of Brian McNaughton and Vorag Bloodytooth in the world of Warhammer.


As you might imagine, these brutal regimes tend to get along quite poorly with humans. As related in the Arabic text "The Thousand and One Nights," the adventurer Sinbad encountered the ghoul king of the Magians on his fourth voyage. The flesh-eating sovereign attempted to fatten up Sinbad's stupefied crew with a steady diet of coconut oil.

But don't count out the possibility of a refined ghoul civilization just yet. Other tales describe far more organized communities, often united through religious devotion. In the D&D world, ghouls build subterranean shrines and temples to honor their demigod Doresain, whose doctrine is one of ravenous, insatiable hunger.

Clark Ashton Smith's short story "The Charnel God" describes a community of ghouls who actually co-exist with humans in the city of Zul-Bha-Sair. Here, they serve as the city's corpse collectors in service to the benign god Mordiggian. In doing so, they provide a vital public service while also satisfying their own dark nature -- not unlike the niche dominated by vultures and other scavengers.

According to the 1950s horror comic "Tales From the Crypt," a similar ghoul/human cultural symbiosis survived well into the 20th century. In the tale "Mournin' Mess," members of the nonprofit Grateful Homeless Outcasts and Unwanted Layaway Society (GHOUL) disguise themselves as humans and provide free burials for the impoverished. You can probably guess what they do with the corpses.

In Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book," the ghouls even have their own capital, a dark necropolis they call Ghûlheim, though Gaiman reveals that its stone towers are "something they found, long ago, but did not make."

How did ghouls rise from desert scavengers to nonprofit organizers? On the next page, we'll explore their grisly history.

Ancient History of the Ghouls

Tales of the ghoul circulated throughout the Middle East long before the seventh-century spread of Islam through the region. In fact, the Arabic ghul may stem from gallu, the name of an Akkadian demon in ancient Mesopotamian mythology [source: Al-Rawi]. Arabic scholars of the eighth, ninth and 10th centuries compiled various Bedouin folktales involving ghouls, many of which found their way into the collection "The Thousand and One Nights." Translations of this book traveled to Europe in the 18th century -- as did the notion of the ghoul.

In the original Arabic texts, the ghouls of "The Thousand and One Nights" were vile tricksters and ravenous flesh eaters. They kidnapped victims and lured lustful men to their doom by taking the guise of beautiful women. Sometimes they even snuck into storerooms and munched on dates.


Although ghouls were sometimes associated with scavenging hyenas, Arabic texts did not identify them as grave robbers who dined on the dead. This detail, according to scholar Ahmed Al-Rawi, seems to emerge with Antoine Galland's French translation of "The Thousand and One Nights" in the early 18th century. Not only did Galland take liberties in his translation, he even introduced (and allegedly created) the female character Amina, who prefers the company of graveyard ghouls to that of her new husband. This inaccurate translation, however, was hugely influential on the Western world and its understanding of the Middle East, inspiring the work of William Beckford, the 18th century author of the Arabian-themed novel "Vathek," and the folkloric studies of Sabine Baring-Gould.

Still, even if Arabic ghouls refused to dine on corpses, their peers in Asian folktales weren't so picky. In the Tamil mythology of India, a shaggy-haired creature known as the pey sought out human battles so as to lap blood from the open wounds of the dying. Still other ghouls emerge in the eighth-century Tibetan Book of the Dead, which details the Buddhist journey through death. Here, in the dreamlike state known as bardo, the departed soul encounters the Pishachi ghouls, fierce female beings with bestial heads and an appetite for bones and viscera.

Where are the ghouls today? Let's find out on the next page.

Ghouls of the Modern World

In the land of never-dawn...
Do ghouls roam the subway systems?
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 2011, two Pakistanis were charged with allegedly digging up a 24-year-old woman's corpse and eating her flesh in a curry [source: Shah]. For the most part, however, ghoulish behavior doesn't make the news. So where are the ghouls of the modern world?

Well, varying experts would argue that they never existed or that they perished long ago. In his article "The Mythical Ghoul in Arabic Culture," scholar Ahmed Al-Rawi argues that ghouls may have emerged from superstitions regarding birth defects such as cleft palate, which distorts the shape of the mouth. Victorian adventurer and Middle Eastern scholar Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton explained the Arabic ghoul as a mythical creature that embodies human fears and taboos concerning graveyards, desert wastes and cannibalism.


Certainly, that makes logical sense, but the subject of ghouls defies logic.

Fictional texts suggest that many modern ghouls have fled deep into the underground, perhaps due in part to territory loss. In the short story "Pickman's Model," H.P. Lovecraft describes ghoul tunnels that connect ancient human ruins with deeper underworlds. He also hints at their emergence in subway tunnels to dine on the bodies of train wreck victims, a scenario also explored in the work of weird fiction writer Robert Barbour Johnson.

Does this mean the ghoul is an endangered species? Probably not. With an ever-growing human population, our planet boasts an inexhaustible food supply for these ghastly eaters of the dead. Wars still rage, diseases wash across whole continents and for all our scientific wonders, humans still haven't found a way to cheat the grave.

If ghouldom transmits like a virus, then new cases will continue to pop up wherever corpses accumulate and the two species cross paths. And if ghouldom arises in us out of morbid interests and perverse fancies? Well, you're the one who just read a six-page article titled "How Ghouls Work."

You know better than to wander the cemetery at night, yet here you are.

How Ghouls Work: Author's Note

Robert Lamb
Robert Lamb, Staff Writer
HowStuffWorks 2009

The fall of 1996 was a magical time. I was a junior in high school, the Tool album "Ænima" had just hit the stores and I was halfway through my first volume of H.P. Lovecraft short stories. Amid those pages, I first encountered the ghouls of "Pickman's Model" and "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," and I knew I'd found my people.

Ghouls spoke to the outsider in me. I didn't fit in with the werewolves and the jocks, nor the vampire prom queens -- to say nothing of the zombie masses in the hallway. I read 70-year-old horror stories, laughed at the more morbid Monty Python sketches and considered a "Dante's Inferno" T-shirt an excellent fashion choice.


A lot has changed since then, but I still have a special place in my heart for the ghouls. I reread portions of Brian McNaughton's "The Throne of Bones" every year and am quick to correct anyone on improper usage of the word "ghoul." So it was a real thrill to write How Ghouls Work and, in some small way, redeem the thoroughly uncredited hours I spent reading about them in college.

There was no room to mention all of the excellent ghouls from the world of fiction, nor all the ghoulish creatures of myth and legend, so I hope any like-minded ghoul aficionados will forgive any heartbreaking exclusions.


  • Al-Rawi, Ahmed. "The Mythical Ghoul in Arabic Culture." Cultural Analysis, Volume 8. 2009. (Oct. 4, 2011)
  • Baring-Gould, Sabine. "The Book of Werewolves." Cosimo Classics. 1865.
  • Collins, Andy and Bruce R. Cordell. "Libris Mortis: The Book of the Undead." Wizards of the Coast. Oct. 1, 2004.
  • El-Zein, Amira. "Doctrinal Islam and Folk Islam." Cultural Analysis, Volume 8. 2009. (Oct. 4, 2011)
  • Gaiman, Neil. "The Graveyard Book." HarperCollins. Sept. 30, 2008.
  • Lovecraft, H.P. "The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft." Amazon Digital Services.
  • McNaughton, Brian. "The Throne of Bones." Wildside Press. 2000.
  • PBS. "Timeline of Islam." "Frontline. 2001. (Oct. 4, 2011)
  • Rose, Carol. "Giants, Monsters & Dragons." W. W. Norton & Company. 2000.
  • Shah, Saeed. "Pakistani brothers 'dug up corpse and made it into curry.'" The Guardian. April 4, 2011. (Oct. 4, 2011)
  • Smith, Clark Ashton. "The Emperor of Dreams." Gollancz. 2002.
  • Smithers, Leonard Charles. "The book of the thousand nights and a night, Volume 4." H.S. Nichols & co. 1894.
  • Thurman, Robert A.F. "The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between." Bantam Books. 1994.

Ghouls: Cheat Sheet

Stuff You Need to Know:

  • Ghouls are mythical creatures thought to rob graves and dine on corpses.
  • The concept of the ghoul originates in the pre-Islamic traditions of the Middle East.
  • Ghouls are often depicted as shape-shifters.
  • Humans may become ghouls after being bitten by one of the creatures. Others believe turning into a ghoul is the fate of morbid or wicked people.
  • If you have to kill a ghoul, remember that the ancient Arabic method calls for no more than a single stroke of the sword. Subsequent blows will only ensure that the creature lives to defeat you.

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