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Of Ghouls and Goblins

You've heard it a thousand times, maybe you've said it yourself. It's Halloween, a group of trick-or-treaters arrive at a home, knock on the door, say trick-or-treat, and are greeted by the lady or man of the house with, "My, my, look at all the scary ghouls and goblins."

Although this same scenario will play itself out thousands of times every Halloween, few have more than a passing idea of what a ghoul or a goblin really is. Let's take a look...


While the word "ghoul" is often bandied about to describe anyone who is generally distasteful or socially unacceptable this tells only a small part of the story.

Ghouls have their roots in the Arabic words ghul and ghula (ghulah). They refer to a number of creatures both male and female in Muslim folklore that have an insatiable hunger and feed on human flesh. Generally nocturnal, they often inhabit wastelands, graveyards, ruins, and desolate places. They prey particularly upon lone travelers, children, those who wander away from their group, and even the corpses stolen from graves.

The Muslim folklore's most extremely feared female variety can appear as a normal woman.  She assumes this form to find a husband and marry him. Upon marriage she slowly feeds on him. It's obvious that this variety has been very successful and has increased its numbers dramatically over the years.

In western culture, ghouls are generally thought of as living creatures who appear gaunt and perpetually hungry. They often have disproportionally long limbs, jaundiced eyes, and claw-like fingernails. Another form is an undead human who merely sleeps in an unmarked grave, often for years, waiting to awake and feast upon graveyard corpses and hapless passersby.

Beginning in the 19th Century, a new definition of the ghoul arose. The term ghoul was applied to body snatchers or "resurrectionist". With the rise of western medicine and formalized training there was a dramatic increase in the need for bodies for students to dissect.

The problem was few were willing to donate their bodies and the small number of executed convicts turned over for the purpose were inadequate for the demand. The laws of supply and demand being what they are, this new profession was quickly developed to meet the demand. These modern ghouls lurked around graveyards looking for fresh burials and when a suitable prospect was found they worked quickly under the cover of darkness to "resurrect" the corpse and deliver it to the medical schools.

The most famous of these ghouls was the team of William Burke and William Hare. They worked their trade in Edinburgh, Scotland but unlike so many other body snatchers who crawled the graveyard at night, they didn't like to dig so decided to just create their own corpses from guests at the Hare's inn. These corpses were sold to Professor Robert Knox at the Edinburgh Medical School. In all, they murdered at least 16 people and are remembered in a Scottish school child's rhyme:

"Up the close and down the stair
In the house with Burke and Hare
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief
Knox, the boy who buys the beef"


Referring to a group of trick-or-treaters as goblins may not be as far off the mark as calling them ghouls. Goblins are small, grotesque, evil or mischievous creatures or spirits that seek to harass and annoy. At least during Halloween celebrations from earlier centuries this may have been a very apt description when there was more emphasis placed on the "trick" portion of trick-or-treat.

Goblins often, when not trick-or-treating on Halloween night, wander the countryside looking for a good place to call home. This could be a grotto, a cave, or best of all, your home! In French folklore goblins were especially attracted to homes with beautiful children and plentiful wine. With the burgeoning affluence of the bourgeois here in the San Francisco Bay Area there are plenty of homes sure to make a goblin happy. Upon taking up residence, goblins seek to annoy its housemates with minor acts of mischief. Banging on walls, slamming doors, rearranging your furniture, removing your covers when you are asleep, and resetting your alarm are all signs of goblin activity.

Not all goblins are necessarily bad. In some cultures the prefix "hob" means good so that a hobgoblin referrers to a good goblin. In those cultures hobgoblins are sometimes thought to, when in a good mood, help the household residents by doing chores while they sleep or even going so far as to help with the parenting by disciplining bad children and delivering gifts or good fortune to the good. However, in the American tradition all goblins are evil regardless of the hob prefix.

You may be interested to know that goblins are part of a much larger but very interrelated group of creatures and spirits which, in addition to goblins and hobgoblins, include: bugbears, bugaboos, bogeys, bogys, bogies, boggarts, bogle, boggelmann, bock, bogey-beasts, bug, boo, puca, bogeyman, and boogieman and all refer to the same or very similar type of creature or spirit.

In the British Isles, the Welsh preferred the term bugbear or bug. Bug meaning ghost in Welsh. Scots call them bogles and the Celts referred to them as bugaboos or boos. In England they often went by bogey (or bogy, bogie). By the way, this is where the military picked up its bogie designation for unidentified objects. Bogeys travel alone or in groups causing mischief but while a generic goblin can have many forms bogeys are usually large and black, are active at night or in very dark places, and are very fond of scaring children. A very famous type of bogey is the bogeyman or boogieman. In Germany it is called the boggelmann. While they all refer to the same thing, a bogey, they are usually called a bogeyman when they are traveling solitary.  In generations past, parents pretended to be able to call bogeymen at will in an effort to scare their children into good behavior.

A particularly nasty type of bogey is a boggart. These usually inhabit a specific location like a home, graveyard, cave, or field but can take up residence in the body of an animal or even a person. Unlike their goblin and bogey relatives they do not have a physical form. Their activities are poltergeist in nature causing mischief by moving objects and scaring people with horrible noises and maniacal laughter. They've been known to hit, scratch, and pinch people and in some cases carry them away. Interestingly, they are thought to be scared of cars and therefore relatively rare today.


So now you know. It's now up to you to decide if referring to your trick-or-treaters as cannibalistic flesh eating monsters or small grotesque evil creatures is appropriate.

I've already made up my mind, it's Halloween, of course it is appropriate!


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