Hungry Ghost
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Basic Information

Although the concept of the hungry ghost appears in a variety of forms in various Asian cultures, this page deals mainly with those ghosts that are hungry because they have not received proper burial rites or because some other feature of their death prevents them from passing on… including the possibility that they might be on the run from the local psychopomps.

Such ghosts include those who died without family to tend their graves, or those whose bodies have not been found. These are comparatively easy to deal with, as once found and buried and suitable grave-rites performed they can then pass on. Those who died in accidents and from similar things are sometimes said to be more dangerous and to haunt the site of their death, looking for someone to take their place so that they can pass on - a detail not often found in Western ghosts - sometimes even stealing babies for this purpose. This makes scenes of accidents and other untimely deaths particularly dangerous and best avoided - and such places may also be marked either with shrines containing appeasement offerings or with the red paper and mirrors said to ward off ghosts. Hungry ghosts may also flock to funerals and other such functions hoping to steal the offerings made on behalf of the deceased.

Fugitive souls might fall somewhere in between - hungry, and desperate to escape the pursuit of Ox-head and Horse-face (or their local equivalents), but perhaps keeping a lower profile to avoid the boundary-gods who often have a significant role in dispatching the dead to the afterlife.

Buddhism also includes the concept of hungry ghosts unable to pass on because of their addiction to some mortal indulgence - in a religion1 which is all about casting off attachments to the mortal coil, such strong cravings were thought to prevent a proper transition of the soul, leaving a ghost still desperate to partake of its old weakness. These ghosts - sometimes called gaki - could also have their cravings substituted by some other addiction, ranging from mortal bodily fluids (including blood, tears, spinal fluid…) or emotions to general filth.


2. comics: The Laughing Target by Rumiko Takahashi — Manga story featuring a creepy girl who makes friends with the Hungry Ghosts and uses them to get back at the people she doesn't like.

See also

Farang ghosts haunt local Thais in Phuket, Phi-Phi, Khao-lak

Game and Story Use

  • The lack of any particular justice in the fate of these ghosts may be dissonant to Western players, but is quite in line with rather more fatalistic memes in many Asian cultures.
  • The US Forces in the Vietnam war used the fear of becoming a hungry ghost as a psychological weapon against the VC.
    • Which, in a wainscot fantasy campaign, could easily become a lot less funny given an already unpleasant jungle infested with angry, hungry spirits as well as mortal combatants.
  • Translated into a fantasy setting, these ghosts make an excellent source of dangerous undead and could potentially make the world a very alarming place.
  • It may also give scope for various acts of piety including burying the unclaimed dead and making offerings for the use of wandering souls.
  • Less pious individuals might well hire hungry ghosts for various malign tasks with some form of necromancy.
    • They would seem an excellent source of recruits for any tradition in which you need to find a spirit to drive your zombie or other home-made undead about: not only are they fully signed off to operate a human body they are reasonably well motivated to enlist and can probably be bound relatively easily with the offer of a way out of - or at least a change to - their current predicament. This could explain flesh-eating zombies in some settings.
    • Benefits to enlisting as a zombie driver might include being invisible to psychopomps for the duration: "human soul, in human body … nothing to see here", especially if the psychopomp, being a being entirely of spirit, isn't capable of recognising the body as dead.
  • For a short game, PCs might be wandering souls - there's a good horror short story out there somewhere about an American GI, killed in Vietnam, trying to adjust to (after)life as a hungry ghost.
    • It's called Ma Qui by Alan Brennert
  • Ritual purification in a setting where these are common might well include a buffet of offerings (traditionally sticky rice) left out to distract the ghosts from meddling in whatever business is taking place.
  • Presumably drug addicts would be a significant source of gaki … making squats and similar places in which they traditionally use (and then die) even worse than they might otherwise be.
    • Such things could even be self perpetuating with the gaki's influence making drug use … and overdoses … more likely.
  • The Japanese monster the Gashadokuro is apparently a composite formed from a horde of hungry ghosts.
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