Monster of the Week: The Scavenging Ghoul

Eater of the Dead. Art by Paul McLeod

Brave the midnight miasma of your nearest necropolis and you may well hear vile cackling and clawing and the sucking of bones. You may glimpse strange beings creep from one tomb to another, feasting on whatever foul morsels they can salvage.

Welcome to the kingdom of the ghouls.

Feast of Gluttoria

As explored in the works of such masters as H.P. Lovecraft and Brian McNaughton, the ghoul is a quasi-supernatural eater of the dead. Formally human, dark thoughts and deeds transform their bodies and minds into ghastly, nocturnal scavengers who feed exclusively on the remains of dead human beings.

Ghouls have little to do with the vast majority of living humans. Believe me, they'll make proper introductions once your cadaver has ripened in the grave. Yet we cannot help but obsess about the ghoul, for the morbidity of their souls sharply reflects our own evolutionary ascension.

Ghoulish Evolution

Yes, today the human food trough contains a plethora of fresh, farmed, cured and processed meats. But we've not always been the noble herdsman or even the noble hunter.

The ghoul.
Art by Dave Allsop

Travel back a little over 2.5 million years to the dawn of the Pleistocene epoch and you'd find our australopithecine ancestors scrambling to diversify their diets in a changing world. Some of these hominids turned to seeds and roots, while our own blood-soaked linage developed a taste for the meat of large vertebrate carcasses.

But they were not master hunters, at least not yet. Instead they practiced confrontational scavenging, a from of kleptoparasitism in which one creature drives off or distracts another predator from its kill.

It's not all ancient history, either. Cameroonian villagers continue to steal meat from lion kills to this day.

According to a 2014 study published in the journal BioScience, confrontational scavenging contributed to our earliest cultural advancements: tool use, collaborative cooperation and language development -- all well before we became club-wielding hunters ourselves.

So the ghoul's scavenging ways match up with our own evolutionary past, but what about the cannibalization of corpses?

Forbidden Morsels

As we developed a taste for the meat of fallen vertebrates, we also no-doubt discovered the taste of our own flesh. According to paleontologist Isabel Cáceres, our ancestors likely turned to cannibalism due to lack of resources and competition for territory at critical points in their ascension.

Art by Chet Zar

After all, the economy of cannibalism speaks for itself, which is why the practice is widespread throughout the animal kingdom -- including among human and non-human primates. Sure, killing and eating your own kind tends to interfere with the long-term genetic mission of propagation, but it works like a charm when it comes to short-term survival.

And as for regular consumption of our own community's dead? Such endocannibalism has occurred throughout history, often taking on supernatural and ritual dimensions.

Unlike the ghoul, we are so damn sentimental when it comes to the departed.

Sure, deadly prion disease raises its awful head amid such practices, but according to medical researcher Michael Alpers, the widespread presence of genes protecting against prion disease suggest that human endocannibalism was common for thousands of years.

The ghoul is but a slight distortion on our own human nature. They are the scavenger, the corpse eater, the midnight bone-sucker -- and so, dear reader, are we.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.