An evil spirit or revived corpse supposed to rob graves and
feed on human corpses. It is similar to the vampire, but differs
in that it not only drinks blood but also consumes flesh. The
term is from the Arabic ghul (feminine form, ghulah) meaning
‘‘to seize,’’ and the story of the ghoul has been widely disseminated
in Moslem countries, ranging from India to Africa. Some
people believe that the superstition stems from wild animals
that disturb graves at night, others that its origin is the terror
of death in the lonely desert. The idea of the ghoul entered into
the West in the nineteenth century through translations of the
Arabian Nights.
Among Hindus there are similar beliefs in ghoul-like figures,
such as the vetala, a demon that haunts cemeteries and animates
dead bodies, and the rakshasas, a whole order of evil demons
that disturb sacrifices, harass devout people, and devour
human beings. Even lower than the rakshasas are the pishachas,
the vilest and most malignant of fiends. In India the line between
ghoulish and vampire figures is often unclear. In Hinduism
the eating of human flesh is a forbidden and degrading act,
but certain tantric yoga groups (who find enlightenment by indulging
in what other groups avoid) in India and Tibet practice
a necrophilistic rite of lying upon a corpse, or eating a portion
of the flesh.
In modern times the concept of the ghoul has become commonplace
in Hollywood horror movies. Ghouls made probably
their best-known appearance in George Romero’s 1968 horror
classic Night of the Living Dead and its sequels.
Barber, Richard, and Anne Riches. A Dictionary of Fabulous
Beasts. New York Walker, 1971.