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Gaffer

The Ecology of Ghouls

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Gaffer

Ghouls are sustained by the flesh of dead humans. Apparently not the newly-dead, but those that have been dead several days and generally buried. Prior to the 19th century, at least in Europe and the Americas, in any relatively large community, there would be a steady enough supply of interred corpses to support a fair-sized ghoul colony. In times of famine, war, plague, provender would be more plentiful.

 

In the late 18th and early 20th century, this begins to change. The departed are embalmed, at first only the wealthy, but by the 1930s all but the poor. This is accomplished with arsenic preparations at first, then by pumping various solutions into the arteries.

 

How do ghouls then sustain themselves? Presumably the arsenic would be toxic to them, as to all living creatures, and it would seem likely that formaldehyde and the like would at least make their usual fare less appealing. Have they adopted herbs and spices and sauces to disguise the chemical taste? Do they still crave untainted meat? Do they subsist on dead animals instead? Do they kill to ensure a supply?

 

Do we know anything about this from the writings of HPL or others? Or what do you think?

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WinstonP

Christopher Smith Adair had a great article exploring the link between ghouls, witches, fairies, and Margaret Murray in Arkham Gazette #3. Diet, while not a main topic, is touched upon.

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JeffErwin

Ghouls are sustained by the flesh of dead humans. Apparently not the newly-dead, but those that have been dead several days and generally buried. Prior to the 19th century, at least in Europe and the Americas, in any relatively large community, there would be a steady enough supply of interred corpses to support a fair-sized ghoul colony. In times of famine, war, plague, provender would be more plentiful.

 

In the late 18th and early 20th century, this begins to change. The departed are embalmed, at first only the wealthy, but by the 1930s all but the poor. This is accomplished with arsenic preparations at first, then by pumping various solutions into the arteries.

 

How do ghouls then sustain themselves? Presumably the arsenic would be toxic to them, as to all living creatures, and it would seem likely that formaldehyde and the like would at least make their usual fare less appealing. Have they adopted herbs and spices and sauces to disguise the chemical taste? Do they still crave untainted meat? Do they subsist on dead animals instead? Do they kill to ensure a supply?

 

Do we know anything about this from the writings of HPL or others? Or what do you think?

 

One thing I'd point out is that ghuls - the Arabic variety - are well attested in Egyptian folklore haunting the tombs of the Pharaohs, so apparently bitumen and other mummification regimens aren't unpalatable (actually "mumia" was used as medicine by Europeans in the 16th century-18th century, so that's not too strange). So taste alone is probably not the problem. The poisons, however, are another issue. Arsenic causes night-blindness. Formaldyhyde causes exhaustion and confusion. This could end quite tragically for the ghoul.

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Gaffer

Found this on cryptidz, which could prove interesting in a scenario.

 

Ghouls who are well-fed on human flesh are indistinguishable from normal humans. The longer a ghoul goes without feeding, the less human it looks. A ghoul in the later stages of starvation will be extremely thin and pale, with veins clearly visible through the skin, and will have long, claw-like nails. Ghouls must eat human flesh on a regular basis in order to survive. A ghoul who denies his hunger for flesh for too long will begin to suffer the physical effects of starvation (even if he eats other food) and will suffer mental deterioration. As the condition grows worse, the ghoul loses all semblance of humanity.

 

Also, JeffErwin, could not find any reference for pre-Islamic ghuls in Egypt.

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B9DV8

I ran an adventure that was based on a published scenario (although I forget which) where a funeral home was supplying ghouls with corpses (primarily bodies that were supposed to have been cremated) in exchange for "buried treasure" dug up by the ghouls.  I think they had also developed a technique for keeping the bodies from decaying long enough for the funeral but not making them inedible for the ghouls.

 

I would speculate that the rising cremation rates are seriously affecting ghoul populations in some countries.  While most Asian countries have very high cremation rates (85 to 99%), the popularity of cremation in other countries is also increasing.

 

In 2016, cremation surpassed traditional burial rates in the US and the cremation rate in the UK was at 75.44% in 2015.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_cremation_rate

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Gaffer

I ran an adventure that was based on a published scenario (although I forget which) where a funeral home was supplying ghouls with corpses (primarily bodies that were supposed to have been cremated) in exchange for "buried treasure" dug up by the ghouls.  I think they had also developed a technique for keeping the bodies from decaying long enough for the funeral but not making them inedible for the ghouls.

 

I would speculate that the rising cremation rates are seriously effecting ghoul populations in some countries.  While most Asian countries have very high cremation rates (85 to 99%), the popularity of cremation in other countries is also increasing.

 

In 2016, cremation surpassed traditional burial rates in the US and the cremation rate in the UK was at 75.44% in 2015.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_cremation_rate

 

If indeed the corpses actually ARE cremated! Nice idea, B9. Maybe after almost a century of short rations due to embalming, ghouls have emerged into a period of plenty.

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Oncorhyncus

Found this on cryptidz, which could prove interesting in a scenario.

 

Ghouls who are well-fed on human flesh are indistinguishable from normal humans. The longer a ghoul goes without feeding, the less human it looks. A ghoul in the later stages of starvation will be extremely thin and pale, with veins clearly visible through the skin, and will have long, claw-like nails. Ghouls must eat human flesh on a regular basis in order to survive. A ghoul who denies his hunger for flesh for too long will begin to suffer the physical effects of starvation (even if he eats other food) and will suffer mental deterioration. As the condition grows worse, the ghoul loses all semblance of humanity.

 

Also, JeffErwin, could not find any reference for pre-Islamic ghuls in Egypt.

I recall that when I was in school we took aptitude tests every few years to see what professions we were well-fitted for.  I was always surprised to se that not only myself but everyone else I talked to about seemed to score well for the profession of mortician/undertaker.  The mystery was solved a few years later when a minor scandal revealed that the testing company had been taking payments from professional associations (including the undertakers) to make those professions more likely to appear on results.  Apparently some professions, including the funereal ones, had problems maintaining their numbers.  With exposure of this technique perhaps a crisis was averted by recruiting, unusual, ethnicities to the field?  If well fed ghouls can easily pass for human, would it not behoove ghouls to infiltrate the funereal trades.  Other speculations regarding the popularity of cremation, concern about overcrowded cemeteries, et al. can easily be folded into this solution.  Old Six Feet Under would take on quite a new, um, character in such circumstances.

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yronimoswhateley

In "real life" it's apparently not an unheard of situation for morticians to get in over their heads, getting more bodies than they could ever keep up with, perhaps while suffering depression or other illness that prevents them from working in a business where the supply of skilled morticians is already short, or perhaps simply due to incompetence, laziness, or criminal negligence.  In extreme cases, empty coffins or coffins containing the wrong bodies are buried/burned, while bodies are stacked up in overfilled freezers, left laying in the open outside of freezers, or dragged outside and hidden in the bushes and woodlots of funeral home grounds.  See, for example, the Tri-State Crematory scandal, though there are many other such stories.

 

Of course, arrangements made between these desperate morticians and a coven of Ghouls might solve a number of problems.

 

I kind of take a ghoulish enjoyment in reading more than a little Ghoulish involvement in the Lovecraft story "The Rats in the Walls", with the implication that Ghoul cults shepherd nightmare livestock descended from humans in vast, underground farms in shadowy vaults deep under the earth....

 

City streets, especially near tunnels, old abandoned buildings, and bridges, are rarely without their populations of street people and hobos, many of whom might easily disappear onto the dinner tables of Ghouls without ever being noticed.

 

At various times throughout history, especially ruthless criminal gangs and serial killers have operated hotels, apartments, boarding houses, taverns, saloons, brothels, opium dens, and such in out-of-the-way locations, preying on would-be customers when they are vulnerable, killing and robbing them or sometimes selling the typically easily-forgotten victims into slavery or other horrible ends, especially in times when large populations of disposable human life are on the move, such as in the Depression, or when large numbers of Americans traveled West to make their fortunes, or when masses of refugees flee from war; serial killer H.H. Holmes is just one of many infamous examples of such a thing; perhaps there is more than just a little bit of Ghoul in H.H. Holmes and his like?  How many Ghouls might be fed on all the run-aways, drug addicts, fortune-hunters, fugitives from justice, and lonely and unloved travelers and wanderers and transients who have had the misfortune of walking into the wrong Roach Motel ("Roaches check in, but they don't check out"), never to be seen or heard from again?

 

Whatever the case, i rather like the idea that well-fed Ghouls might look nearly human, while starving ones might look hideously monstrous.  I think it parallels versions of  the related Vampire, Werewolf, and Wendigo legends nicely:  resisting one's monstrous nature will drain away humanity as surely as surrendering to it, while the most horrible monsters, those who happily indulge their monstrous nature, can look indistinguishable from any ordinary human beings, walking among us undetected....

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JeffErwin

Also, JeffErwin, could not find any reference for pre-Islamic ghuls in Egypt.

 

Ah, the ghoul legends of Islamic Egypt situate them in Pharaonic tombs. They are conflated with the Jinn (the invisible ones) or Ifrits and associated with tombs, cannibalism, and hyenas. https://books.google.com/books?id=FJv0T8bBuSIC&pg=PA375&dq=tombs+egypt+jinni&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjk_Z3yxPbVAhXIxlQKHYNfAv8Q6AEIOjAD#v=snippet&q=ghoul&f=false

 

The term Ifrit, as far as I am aware, is the most common term for tomb-dwelling monsters in Egypt, but ghul is used interchangeably; there is also a doppelgänger quality to these creatures. https://books.google.com/books?id=ypbI7LHzv3MC&pg=PA163&dq=tombs+egypt+jinni+invisible&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiJvOChxfbVAhXLrFQKHSFPDPsQ6AEINTAC#v=onepage&q=tombs%20egypt%20jinni%20invisible&f=false

 

The fullest description I've found is in this book, which I own, and recommend. It's not academic, however: https://books.google.com/books?id=qKL3AgAAQBAJ&pg=PT147&dq=ifrit+egypt&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi2jPvoxfbVAhWnsVQKHbtoC4MQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=ifrit%20egypt&f=false

 

PS. The thing about Islamic Egyptian folklore is that Pharaonic Egypt is folded into the overall pan-Arabic folk cosmology. Hence the early Egyptian dynasties are literally antediluvian and closely connected to the Jinn; in fact, their king, "Gann ibn Gann" (J- is pronounced with a harder G in Egyptian Arabic) is sometimes said to have built the great pyramids and other surviving ruins of the Nile. Conflicting folklore situates the empire of 'Ad and Item in Egypt, though the 'Adites were also said to traffic with the jinn and be partly descended from them.

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DrMonster

Burton's 1001 Nights recounts the tale of a newlywed prince whose beautiful young bride will only eat tiny bowls of rice one grain at a time. One evening he fails to drink the bedtime cup she always brings him and discovers that wifey sneaks out of the palace in the middle of the night. He follows her to a graveyard and is horrified to discover why her appetite at home is so small. It has been a while so I forget how the prince resolves the dilemma.

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Gaffer

Thanks, Jeff, for the links.

 

What I have found on ghouls links them to the early Mesopotamian legends which the Arabic progenitors of the Muslims absorbed/influenced. There seems to have been much less contact between the Arabs and ancient Egypt, so I have to conclude that, post-Islamic conquest, these legends were retrofitted to Pharaonic Egypt. So I'm going to conclude that ghouls would have been as put off by resinous compounds involved in mummification as by modern embalming fluids. At any rate, in Pharaonic times, mummification seems to have been limited to the upper classes, so plenty of plebian corpses would have existed for ghoul nourishment.

 

The doppelganger aspect -- taking on (or being able to manifest) the appearance of the last corpse consumed) -- is certainly interesting and I'm surprised CoC doesn't make more use of it. I'm certainly figuring how to insert it into my future stories. It would seem to suggest, though, that a ghoul claims an entire corpses for itself, rather than feeding communally. Or perhaps the likeness-stealing is dependent on consuming a particular organ in its entirety, such as the brain. And does it confer only physical likeness or is identity also acquired (memories in particular). Food (you'll pardon the expression) for thought.


Burton's 1001 Nights recounts the tale of a newlywed prince whose beautiful young bride will only eat tiny bowls of rice one grain at a time. One evening he fails to drink the bedtime cup she always brings him and discovers that wifey sneaks out of the palace in the middle of the night. He follows her to a graveyard and is horrified to discover why her appetite at home is so small. It has been a while so I forget how the prince resolves the dilemma.

 

A single sword stroke (never more) seems to have been the traditional Arabic remedy.

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TMS

H. H. Holmes being a ghoul is an interesting idea. Erik Larson's excellent book The Devil in the White City talks about how after his arrest Holmes imagined that his physiology was changing into something diabolical.

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GRWelsh

I've always considered ghouls supernatural, due to their ties to the Dreamlands, and thought that they cannot die from such mundane reasons as starvation or being poisoned by embalming fluid.  They are more like the things in the pits in "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" -- they want to eat, but they don't need to eat.

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wcburns

I don't have it immediately in front of me, but one of the 6th ed Keeper Companions had some articles discussing some of the prominent non-diety races, including ghouls. It gives a little bit of a description of how they act and some of their overall motivations.

They do mention embalming specifically, showing a difference between "New World" and "Old World" ghouls. Embalming in the USA circa 1930's, not yet as common elsewhere in the world, was toxic to ghouls, thus they become more resentful and potentially more hostile toward living humanity than their old world counterparts might be. In a more modern setting this would of course even affect Old World ghouls as well.

To echo GRWelsh above, it also mentions that the eating of bodies wasn't, at least entirely, for sustenance. The article even suggests it might have a ceremonial or spiritual nature, albeit in their own crude and horrifying fashion. Perhaps the act of consuming dead bodies helps ghouls retain some level of humanity, literally through ingestion. And not doing so makes them more violent towards the living, what we would describe as feral, and proactively attacking a community?

 

When I'm able to I'll re-read it and give a proper synopsis.

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GRWelsh

I was thinking something similar -- perhaps the regular eating of corpses provides ghouls with some attribute they would not otherwise have.  There does seem to be some precedence in HPL stories for this, such as with "The Picture in the House":

 

“Killin’ sheep was kinder more fun—but d’ye know, ’twan’t quite satisfyin’. Queer haow a cravin’gits a holt on ye— As ye love the Almighty, young man, don’t tell nobody, but I swar ter Gawd thet picter begun ta make me hungry fer victuals I couldn’t raise nor buy—here, set still, what’s ailin’ ye?—I didn’t do nothin’, only I wondered haow ’twud be ef I did— They say meat makes blood an’ flesh, an’ gives ye new life, so I wondered ef ’twudn’t make a man live longer an’ longer ef ’twas more the same—â€

 

And I wondered if the old man in that house was well on his way to becoming a ghoul!

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Nescio

Do we know anything about this from the writings of HPL or others? Or what do you think?

 

"Pickman's Model" implies the ghouls eat the high and mighty, which I guess implies they're not bothered by embalming.

 

Ghouls taking matters in their own hands in response to a rise in cremation does sound like a good scenario hook.

 

I wonder what ghouls think of the custom in parts of Asia of putting out corpses for carrion birds to pick clean, whereupon only the bones are buried.

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JeffErwin

"Pickman's Model" implies the ghouls eat the high and mighty, which I guess implies they're not bothered by embalming.

 

Ghouls taking matters in their own hands in response to a rise in cremation does sound like a good scenario hook.

 

I wonder what ghouls think of the custom in parts of Asia of putting out corpses for carrion birds to pick clean, whereupon only the bones are buried.

 

Well, the South Asian Pishacha sounds awfully like a ghoul. See here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pishacha/. As is common among the Buddhist cultural sphere, they have entered Chinese and Tibetan religion; in the latter area they are called Sha za'i skad. But Tibet itself was considered to be a cannibalistic society in European legend, perhaps because of certain left-handed Tantric practices.

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wcburns

As promised, a small excerpt from the Keeper Companion regarding New World Ghouls and embalming.

 

The ghouls of the New World seem particularly primitive when compared with the Old World counterparts. Few, if any, New World ghouls can be approached or contacted except by the magical means known to witches. They are usually hostile toward humans, a condition further exasperated by the last century's widespread practice of embalming corpses before burial.

 

The fluids used in the embalming process are, of course, toxic to ghouls and the practice is view by the ghouls as simply another hostile act on the part of the humans living above them.
 

Many New World ghouls have abandoned the ritual altogether, reserving this honor only for their own kind. This further distances them from the human race, resulting in behavior more aggressive and agitated found in many Old World ghouls.

 

I've been thinking of some story angles for ghouls, and this description certainly provides some interesting ideas for scenarios where violent ghouls might attack a hapless individual who gets too close, raids a funeral home for fresh bodies, attack an isolated home, or any number of other things.

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Necrothesp

In the late 18th and early 20th century, this begins to change. The departed are embalmed, at first only the wealthy, but by the 1930s all but the poor. This is accomplished with arsenic preparations at first, then by pumping various solutions into the arteries.

 

In America, yes. In Europe, much less so. In the UK, for instance, the vast majority of corpses are still not embalmed because open-casket funerals are very rare here (and pushy undertakers who try to persuade customers shell out for it unnecessarily have been criticised by watchdogs). It's virtually unheard of outside large towns, as it's mostly practised only by large commercial funeral firms, not by the independent family businesses which still dominate elsewhere here. So maybe all the ghouls will move to Europe as soon as possible!

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Gaffer

Very interesting, Necrothesp, thanks for the information.

 

So what do ghouls eat when they aren't eating human corpses?

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malkavian

So what do ghouls eat when they aren't eating human corpses?

 

I think they would be carnivorous, subsisting on animals.

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JeffErwin

I think they would be carnivorous, subsisting on animals.

 

 Mushrooms used to be grown in the Catacombs of Paris on an industrial scale... I'm with MrHandy on this.

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yronimoswhateley

I like the mushroom idea.

 

I'm also imagining them gnawing contemplatively on the flesh of some vast, dead-but-dreaming, ever-decaying-yet-ever-regenerating, unspeakable Dream-Thing, a planet-sized living corpse in whose teeth and horns and bones the Ghouls have carved charnal cafeteria-cities and reeking shrines and temples where strange spices and herbs are grown to season the dream-beast's flesh with....  From time to time, the Dream-Thing stirs in its fitful slumber as it dreams that it is a lifeless planet in the waking world upon whose skin teaming swarms of humans build immense metropolises and reshape its flesh in massive earthworks and detonate atomic bombs, while Ghouls dig vast caverns of lightless horror deep below; the Dream-Thing in its sleep-paralytic nightmare lay unable to move, unable to scream, unable to awaken.....

 

I also suppose that Ghouls eat dead flesh not because they have to - after all, they are no longer human, and no longer have to obey the mild, safe, and narrow-minded physical laws that force humans to sustain themselves with food; Ghouls, perhaps, can live forever without food, sustained by inhuman biology and physics and magic, the way that Mi-Go or Elder-Things or the Spawn of Cthulhu do.  Rather, Ghouls eat dead flesh simply because it entertains them to do so, and entertains them to see the shock and revulsion on the faces of those humans who watch Ghouls as they feast; eating isn't essential to Ghoul survival, it's just a game they play on special occasions for their own Ghoulish amusement....

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