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. 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.
It is thought that ghoul’s have their roots in Mesopotamian religion and mythology because they have similar traits to gallu demons. It is thought that the connection comes from the nomads of Arabia interacting with the Mesopotamian civilization and trading stories. The gallu demons were known to be part of the underworld and were thought to carry their victims off to the land of the dead to devour them. Ghouls of Arabic mythology have very similar characteristics.
One of the most important facts that is covered by early ghoul mythology is that these creatures appear to be born of Iblis (the Islamic equivalent of Satan), which technically makes them jinn. Iblis was thought to be part of a race of creatures called jinn – creations of Allah who lived in a world that was set apart from ours. However, even though they were part of a different world, they were still capable of interacting with ours. It is thought that when Allah created man, Iblis became jealous that man was favored more than his kind and refused to bow before him. He would have been killed for his crime, but his life was spared by Allah until Judgement Day. They were thought to be bipedal – though with a hunched form – and were known to crawl (and sometimes run) on all four limbs like an animal. They were most fond of feeding on young children.
European descriptions of ghouls are interesting in that they are still similar to the ghouls of Arabic folklore in some senses, while in others they have changed entirely.
The new ghouls still maintained their canine features and their hooves, but instead of presenting a hairy exterior, they transformed into pale creatures that had a skin that looked rubbery in appearance. These creatures are reported to be sensitive to light. Even though the light can cause them pain, it cannot kill them.
New York Times Dec. 20, 1878
In the Dec. 20, 1878, issue of The New York Times, wedged between letters to the editor and an item on a New Jersey railroad company’s foreclosure proceedings, was news of a haunting in Brooklyn. The residents of 136 Clinton Avenue, unable to explain weeks of strange sounds that visited their home at night, became convinced it was the work of mischievous spirits. Eventually they called the police, who were “determined to capture the ghost, and treat it to a night’s lodging in a Police cell,” The Times reported. But even the officers were left mystified. Apparitions hardly ever make the news these days, and the only ghosts one is likely to encounter in Brooklyn are the sheeted kind on Halloween. But during the 19th and early 20th centuries, ghost stories were a common feature in newspapers across the country.
Ghouls tend to live in isolated areas that are apart from the majority of society. They can frequently be found in desert wastelands, abandoned buildings, and cemeteries. However, contrary to common beliefs, a ghoul does not necessarily prefer to reside in a cemetery because they seek to eat corpses
Some do believe that ghouls are created by some sort of genetic abnormality – something that could possibly occur through an infectious disease. This process is usually transmitted when a person is bitten by a ghoul or comes into contact with biological fluids that seep into the skin. This causes the afflicted person to gradually turn into a ghoul, or die and then return from the dead as a ghoul. And some theorize that ghouls are former humans who have transformed into ghouls because of their evil nature.