Friday, October 28, 2011

Apple #555: Ghosts, Goblins, and Ghouls

Halloween is coming soon, so I thought you'd all want to brush up on the specifics of a few entities you might encounter as you're doing your Halloween thing this weekend. Just a quick introduction for each.


Photo taken in 1936 supposedly of the ghost known as the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • Ghosts are the disembodied soul of a dead person, usually appearing as a pale or transparent form.
  • Originally the word simply meant soul or spirit. It wasn't necessarily good or evil.
  • Then the word came to be associated with various Germanic and Norse words that mean "to frighten" or "to be amazed." The phrase "to be aghast" means that you are shocked or frightened -- similar to being frightened by a ghost.
  • Generally, ghosts may simply be the spirit of a dead person and not necessarily malevolent. Or a ghost may be a spirit that has turned evil, or someone's evil spirit double.
  • Ghosts may not necessarily be the spirit of a person but could be spirits of dead animals, or more rarely, spirits of trees or other objects.
  • Candles and torches near graves or during funeral rites were initially intended to help guide the departing soul away and on into its next life. Candles etc. were also supposed to keep the evil spirits away from the dead body and from reanimating it.
  • A poltergeist, by the way, is a noisy ghost: poltern (make noise or rattle) + geist (ghost).
  • Some famous ghosts include the ghost of Hamlet's father, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and the ghost of Jacob Marley.

Hamlet sees his father's ghost.
(Image from USF clipart)

When Jacob Marley freaks out and starts yelling and shaking his boxes and chains at Scrooge, whoof, he's scary.
(Photo from Stuff from 311)

I loved this book when I was a kid. This is about a family of ghosts who move into a suburb to haunt it. The little children ghosts are thrilled to discover trick-or-treating, but they eat so much candy, they become tangible and turn into marshmallow.
(The Marshmallow Ghosts is out of print, but some people are selling used copies on Amazon)


Goblins in the woods
(Image from Seligor's Castle)

  • Some people say goblins came from France in the 12th century, others say England. Still others say goblins hail from Germany, from kobold, the demon of mines, or from the Greek kobalos, the mischievous spirit.
  • Regardless of where they first came from, they have no home now, so they haunt other people's homes and old trees and the clefts of mossy rocks.
  • They're ugly little malevolent things.
  • Sort of like poltergeists, they like to mess up stuff. Their laughter sours milk or turns the fruit rotten and makes it fall off the trees. They'll turn direction signs around or blow out candles or hide little objects, all to confuse people.
  • They generally run around outside and wreak minor havoc.
  • Very different from how they appear in Harry Potter, by the way, where the goblins are in charge of Gringotts Bank, and even moreso from the movie versions where they're depicted according to stereotypes so anti-Semitic they made me wince.

Hobgoblin Detour
  • One of my favorite sayings is "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance)
  • But hobgoblins are different than goblins. They're more elf-like where goblins are more gnome-like.
  • Hob means "elf." It's a variant on the name Rob, which is short for Robin Goodfellow, who was a miscreant elf in German folklore.
  • They can be annoying and harassing, or downright terrifying.
  • Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream is perhaps the most well-known hobgoblin. He's more mischievous than mean, though.

Puck, hobgoblin and trickster sprite.
(Image from Seismic Twitch)

  • The word comes from the Arabic ghul and it means an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses. The word comes from an Arabic verb meaning "to seize."
  • They're very similar to zombies, though not quite the same. Zombies are dead people reanimated to eat live people. Ghouls are spirits who eat dead people. Technically, ghouls would eat zombies. But I suspect the two would get along at a dance party.
  • Ghouls live in graveyards or deserts. They may take the form of a hyena.
  • Ghouls can also be people who are grave robbers, or it can be a more metaphorical insult for those who delight in the macabre so much, they are ghoulish.

Yikes. Ghouls are pretty scary.
(Image from Hypnogoria)

This is kind of funny and also historically accurate. This is Ghoul with a Pearl Earring. But see, in many of the cultures where the Arabic ghul originated, often the evil spirit was female. See?
(Image from Why not?)

  • My favorite line about ghouls comes from Hitchcock's Rear Window when they're looking out Jimmy Stewart's window and Grace Kelly says, "We're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known." But she says it in that Grace Kelly way which is so delicate, if she'd been talking to you, you'd almost delight in being so insulted.

Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly: two of the most frightening ghouls you've ever known?
(Screen shot from Rear Window from

I sneaked in some Shakespeare there, did you notice? This turned out to be secretly a Shakespeare entry! A Shakespeare entry in a costume! Hahaha!

Ah, Halloween. Too much fun.

Onelook, ghosts, ghoul
Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, Ghosts
Online Etymology Dictionary, ghost, goblin, ghoul
Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, goblin
Oxford World Dictionary, goblin
Long long time ago, Puck
bordeaux undiscovered wine shop, Of Goblins and Fairies for Halloween, October 29, 2009
Wisegeek, What is a hobgoblin?, ghoul

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