A quick Google search on ghouls will reveal a well of interesting and conflicting information. Some believe the ghoul to be a graveyard-dwelling monster that feeds on dead flesh, like some sort of demonic carrion bird. Modern (often Westernized) depictions characterize ghouls as zombie-like creatures. Ghouls are vampires. They're cleptomaniacs out for your gold coins. They're shapeshifting demons out to expose our deepest secrets and turn us inside-out with fear.
The latter depiction comes in the form of Ghoul, Netflix's latest foray into internationally-made sci-fi and horror. Made and based in India and featuring all Indian actors, Ghoul focuses on a military base run by a fascist government. An infamous terrorist (Mahesh Balraj) is being held for interrogation and, as he is tortured, he slowly drives his interrogators mad using their deepest secrets and fears.
Written and directed by Patrick Graham and produced by Blumhouse Productions, Phantom Films, and Ivanhoe Pictures as part of a three-film deal between the three production houses, Ghoul tells the story of military officer Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) — the only officer in the bunker who practices Islam, as the rest are all Hindu — and her first foray into interrogation. Writer/director Graham told The Hindu newspaper that he came across the ghoul while reading up on Arabic folklore and said the ghoul "just fit perfectly because of its characteristics,” though he didn't go into further detail.
To get to the bottom of just what those characteristics are, SYFY WIRE spoke with Dr. Dwight Reynolds, a religious studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Dr. Hasan El-Shamy, a professor of folklore at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. According to both, ghouls originate in pre-Islamic Arab folklore but are still associated in some ways with Islam due to cultural overlap. While there's no mention of ghouls in the Quran, as ghouls did not originate with Islam, Dr. Reynolds calls ghouls "a pretty Islamic idea,” saying that there are two versions of ghoul stories (one old, one new) that are commonly accepted.
Neither of these original Arabic myths is very much like the creature we see in Ghoul.
Dr. Reynolds says that ghouls (Arabic ghūl) are feminine in nature, shapeshifters who lure unsuspecting people — usually men and sometimes boys — away from relative safety so they can eat them.
If this sounds familiar, it's probably due to overlap with Western fairy tales. Dr. El-Shamy, compares stories of ghouls and their victims to the ill-fated Hansel and Gretel. Ghouls, in this case, are comparable to the witch who lures Hansel and Gretel to her candy house so she can fatten them up and eat them. He says the word "ghoul” is translatable to "ogre” in some of the oldest Arabic folklore, and that the creatures are often associated with revenge.
But, Dr. El-Shamy emphasizes that fairy tales about ghouls are just that, "tales that are not to be taken seriously.”
Like more Western fairy tales, though, Dr. Reynolds says there are still inherent warnings. The oldest ghoul stories, he says, usually involve a man riding alone across the desert on camelback until he is approached by a woman — sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and in need of help. The woman convinces the traveler to get down from the camel and lures him somewhere, after which she reveals her true form and eats him.
Then there are the more modern stories.
"The interesting thing in modern stories, right, is that this is the type of story that is usually told by older women to young girls and children,” Dr. Reynolds says. He says he loves teaching these stories to his students at UC Santa Barbara because, in them, "the women are always the smart characters and their husbands or fathers are dumb as doornails.”
In these stories, a family man who's down on his luck is approached by, for example, an older woman who claims to be his long-lost aunt so-and-so. The man has never met or heard of this woman before, but he trusts her when she reveals that she has something he wants (usually money or food) and offers it up to him, his wife, and his daughters. All he has to do fetch his family and follow her.
The man runs back home and tells his family about this long-lost aunt and her offer. The wife is always skeptical, calling her husband out, but he insists this woman is his aunt. Upon reaching the disguised ghoul's house, the ghoul (and sometimes her sons) starts fattening the family up.
"And it is, of course, the woman who sees through this,” Dr. Reynolds says. "One way or another, the mother or the daughter figures out that it's a ghoul… the mother figures out a way to escape, but the man is too driven by his lust or his hunger, his animal desires, if you will, for money or for food. And he refuses to believe this. So the mother eventually escapes with the daughters and the ghoul eats the husband.”
Eventually, the mother figures out how to defeat the ghoul, and she takes the money or the food and distributes it among the people in their village.
These stories, while dark, amusing, and containing enough nuance and potential fodder for debate to fill a college course, are hard to connect to Ghoul. Mythology is intrinsically tied to its origins no matter how it evolves from culture to culture, commonly via word of mouth, and Graham's titular ghoul doesn't seem to follow many ghoul characteristics. It's much more like the jinn, an Islamic creature that is, unlike the ghoul, actually found in the Quran.
In fact, Graham told Gadgets 360 that he was heavily inspired by Arabic "Jinn mythology and how one can summon it but that it 'may or may not be on your side,' and the supernatural powers such as being able to see people's guilt and using that against them.” It's a much better description for the demonic creature that terrorizes Nida in Ghoul and deals in betrayal. The jinn's more direct connection to Islam would also more appropriately connect the creature to Nida and her family than a ghoul might.
With all that in mind, it seems Ghoul might have been misnamed. Then again, "Ghoul” sounds far more menacing than "Jinn,” so who can really blame the filmmakers?