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.
ghoul / goōl/ • n. an evil spirit or phantom, esp. one supposed to rob graves and feed on dead bodies. ∎ a person morbidly interested in death or disaster. DERIVATIVES: ghoul·ish adj. ghoul·ish·ly adv. ghoul·ish·ness n.