Something of a multifaceted sort of creature the ghoul seems to have its origins in the arabic (or possibly Persian) myths, where it is traditionally called a ghul. What is actually is is open to debate:
- Sometimes it's a type of jinn … which doesn't actually help much since these are sometimes equated to fairies, demons or ghosts, but should generally imply that it's a powerful and probably deceitful supernatural creature which may well never have been human to begin with.
- Sometimes it's a bestial, subhuman thing, often with doglike characteristics - a living thing, but monstrous. It may or may not have shapechanging powers with which to infiltrate human society. This is the form most associated with the Cthulhu Mythos although the shapechanging ones are probably closer to the middle eastern source.
- Sometimes it's actually undead - a corpse, risen from the dead and driven by hunger, much like some kinds of zombie.
- Sometimes it exists in a sort of twilight between life and undeath.
The one thing all ghouls have in common is the desire to eat human flesh - some prefer (or at least accept) fresh meat, others show more of an interest in a 'well aged' corpse1. In some examples they can be quite personable if approached correctly (Lovecraft's ghouls are often as civilised as they are hideous), in others they are sub-sapient appetites on legs.
Wierdly, Lovecraft's ghouls can (in some treatments) also display a marked sweet tooth and crave sweets and chocolate as much as human flesh - they have also been known to be (fairly indiscriminate) drunkards, downing ethanol based drinks, other less conventional forms of alcohol or even embalming fluid to much the same effect2.
If they don't reproduce biologically then they will either be spawned from victims of other ghouls or will arise from the bodies of those who ate human flesh in life. Alternatively, prolonged cannibalism may bring ghouldom on the living more or less creating the fourth type of ghoul shown above. Often, ghouls take up the slot of "hungry, infectious undead thing" occupied in popular culture by some species of zombie and so have a "ghoul plague" with which to propagate themselves. This can allow the GM to reprise tropes like the zombie infectee.
Traditionally ghouls are found wherever corpses are - graveyards, battlefields, "Towers of Silence" and in places like sewers where criminals might fly-tip their victims. More pro-active ghouls may also stalk dimly lit allyways and remote roads late at night.
The term "ghoul" is also used sometimes to describe humans in thrall to a charismatic undead such as a vampire - Renfield in Bram Stoker's Dracula being probably the Ur-example - usually characterised by a "ghoulish" interest in death and the dead.
The Philippine monster known as the busaw seems to be a form of ghoul, with the tendency to steal recently buried bodies, exchanging them for a log cut from a banana tree. The busaw is also said to have some elementary powers of illusion, being able to pass as a human by day and to disguise a stolen corpse as a pig carcass … sometimes with the intent of sharing it with human neighbours to trick them into cannibalism so that they too might transform into busaw. The busaw was said to be repelled by salt and unable (or unwilling) to eat a corpse washed with vinegar and certain strong herbs. The Philippines are also home to the bal-bal … which strongly resembles the busaw and may be another name for the same monster … and the berbalang, which also robs graves, all of which would seem to make cremation an unusually attractive option in that part of the world.
Game and Story Use
- In a suitably dark campaign, one or more cultures may use ghouls as part of their conventional method for disposal of human corpses - Clark Ashton Smith created several such cultures in his stories, most of which also worshipped a "ghoul God" called Mordiggian.
- In some ways, it provides a sort of bizarre version of sky burial.
- Alternatively, ghouls may be an accepted side effect for a culture that regularly eats its own dead (or other peoples).
- A particularly horrifying trap in fRPGs: an undead ghoul which is continually hungry and cannot starve to death locked up somewhere until it is beserk with hunger and will attack anyone who releases it in a frenzy.
- Also makes quite a good terror weapon if released in a heavily populated area, particularly if it can spawn by inflicting non-lethal wounds.
- In general ghouls, particularly D&D ghouls, fit the trope of carnivorous, spawn generating zombie better than the zombies do.
- The Lovecraftian sweet tooth adds interesting colour to ghouls, but better yet, subvert it - it's not the sugar they crave but some soylent soy additive derived from corpses and added to mass market confectionary (or the junk food of your choice) by a sinister corporation for unspecified ends:
- It may a psychoactive added to make the food more addictive or the population more compliant.
- A suitably sinister sinster corporation may be deliberately introducing spiritual contamination, either to make the consumers more vulnerable to hostile magic or to make them more likely to transform into ghouls/wendigo/tamanous or similar creatures.