Undead Origins: From Ghast to Ghost

Undead have become a standard trope in the fantasy genre, but when Dungeons & Dragons was first created the shambling corpses we know and loathe today were actually drawn from a wide variety of sources, including television, movies, and -- in at least one case -- co-creator Gary Gygax's personal experiences. This installment takes a look at the three Gs: ghasts, ghouls, and ghosts.

[h=3]Ghoulish Origins[/h]The ghoul and ghast we know today are chiefly defined by their cannibalistic tendencies and, in the ghast's case, their stench. The two creatures morphed considerably from their source material.

H.P. Lovecraft's influence on Gygax's work is well-known, but some of the details have blurred over time as D&D in turn has become influential on other literature. Jon Peterson explains in Playing at the World:
The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments introduced the ghoul to the Western world, in the story of Sidi Nonman, as the narrator explains: “Goules of both sexes are wandering demons, which generally infest old buildings, from whence they rush out by surprise, on people that pass by, kill them, and eat their flesh, and, for want of prey, will sometime go in the night into burying-grounds, and feed upon dead bodies.” By mid-twentieth century, however, the ghoul would more likely be recognized as the titular fiend of a Boris Karloff film, The Ghoul (1933); that film came out a year before Howard wrote of ghouls in “Hour of the Dragon” as “eaters of human flesh, spawn of darkness.”
Ghouls are described in "Pickman's Model" as being more akin to D&D's gnolls, canine-like carrion eaters:
It was a colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes, and it held in bony claws a thing that had been a man, gnawing at the head as a child nibbles at a stick of candy. Its position was a kind of crouch, and as one looked one felt that at any moment it might drop its present prey and seek a juicier morsel. But damn it all, it wasn’t even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountain-head of all panic—not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn’t the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet—none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness.
The origins of ghouls in D&D reaches all the way back to Chainmail:
WIGHTS (and Ghouls): Although they are foot figures, Wights (and Ghouls) melee as Light Horse and defend as Heavy Horse. They cannot be harmed by normal missile fire. Wights (and Ghouls) can see in darkness, and must subtract 1 from any die roll they roll when in full light. If they touch a normal figure during melee, it becomes paralyzed and remains so for one complete turn. A paralyzed figure is considered to be able to strike a blow at the Wight just prior to paralysis taking effect, so melee can occur but only one round.
Ghoul paralysis actually seems to be something of a transitive property from wights that was never removed. Delta theorizes:
Hey, where did that paralysis come from, anyway? Well, Tolkien describes Barrow-Wights in Lord of the Rings as having an "icy touch" -- and here you see them with a freezing-effect described as "paralysis" against those who they touch. Ghouls just happen to be along for the ride in the same section, and so they (in something of a happy accident -- for them) also get paralysis. In later editions Wights switch to energy-drain, but Ghouls stick with the paralysis.
Monsters & Treasures in the original boxed references Chainmail's ghouls:
As stated in CHAINMAIL for Wights, Ghouls paralize any normal figure they touch, excluding Elves. They otherwise melee in the regular fashion and are subject to missile fire. Any man-type killed by a Ghoul becomes one.
Why are elves immune? One theory is that it's a holdover from Chainmail in an attempt to balance the more expensive elf unit against cheaper undead units. Gygax clarified the ghouls/ghast relationship on ENWorld, as well as a reference to their curious paralysis ability:
When I devised the ghoul for the D&D game it was most assuredly with non-living energization, that is undead status, that enabled these creatures to exist and hunger for the flesh of dead humans and their ilk. The principal motivation for classifying them as undead was to have a progressive level of such monsters--skeletons, zombies, ghouls, etc. IMO, merely eating human flesh is quite insufficient to alter one to become a ghoul. Otherwise, many a remote tribe of savage aboriginies would be ghouls, not humans. The negative energy of the ghoul is the rason for its paralyzing ability. Elves, having great positive energy, are thus immune to the effect.
Ghouls aren't the only curious critters who have strayed far from H.P. Lovecraft's original vision.
[h=3]I'm Aghast![/h]Although D&D groups them together, ghasts are considerably different in Lovecraft's "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath":
After a moment something about the size of a small horse hopped out into the grey twilight, and Carter turned sick at the aspect of that scabrous and unwholesome beast, whose face is so curiously human despite the absence of a nose, a forehead, and other important particulars.
And later:
...and they have legends of the toothsomeness of such dreamers even though banishment has restricted their diet to the ghasts, those repulsive beings which die in the light, and which live in the vaults of Zin and leap on long hind legs like kangaroos.
In Lovecraft's writing, just about everything has a stench -- at one point a ghast's corpse is mentioned as being "noxious" but there's no particular attribute in Lovecraft's description of ghasts that should make them have such a smell. Although ghouls and ghasts share the same ecosystem, they are not related -- a connection the Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons formalized by bestowing a bonus to ghouls so that they can more easily resist turning in the ghast's presence. It's also curious that gugs, four-armed giants with a mouth down the middle of their heads, weren't formally incorporated into D&D until Pathfinder.

Both the ghoul and ghast in Lovecraft's work shares the unholy appetite for corpses. The ghoul actually has more in common with the modern depiction of the zombie, who was likely influenced by its film counterpart. We'll discuss zombies in the next installment.
[h=3]Ghost in the System[/h]Ghosts were the first undead monsters introduced to Dungeons & Dragons in The Strategic Review #3. Their ability to age and possess victims were present in their debut. However, Gygax didn't consider them undead:
These creatures are not true Undead, although they are the spirits of humans who were totally evil. They are powerful supernatural things which hate all life.
Why the discrepancy? It may well be that Gygax had his own ideas on the true nature of ghosts...based on personal experience. Michael Witwer's book, Empire of Imagination, retells Gygax's encounter with the supernatural:
As Gary lay in bed without the distraction of his sleepover guest, his mind finally began to settle and his eyelids became heavy with sleep. Boom! The loud crash had shaken the whole house. Gary’s heart stopped cold; his hair stood on end. The noise had come from overhead— from the attic. Are we under attack? Gary thought as he sat up in his bed. No, the war’s over . . . Maybe an earthquake? Or . . . my imagination? No way! Gary was imaginative, to be sure, but he certainly knew the difference between the real and the imaginary. Before Gary could come up with more theories, he heard, Thump . . . thump . . . thump . . . Thump, thump, thump, thump! Gary had gone from being simply startled and alarmed to outright terrified. All he could think to do was to retreat the safety of his sheets and count the sounds— a total of “seven such pounding sounds,” was the tally. To Gary, the sound in the attic had been distinct, “as if some very tall and heavy person was striding from the south front of the place, where the initial crash came from, to the north rear of the attic.”
It wasn't the last brush with the supernatural for Gygax:
...Gary had experienced a second ghostly encounter in his Dodge Street home, this time while he was home alone reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” in the parlor. Just as “the strange sounds were issuing from the burial vault below the House of Usher,” Gary’s beloved cat Queball, who lay in his lap, drew his attention to a door that led to the unlit sewing room off the parlor. The door was already ajar, and Gary and his cat witnessed the door open further into the darkness, “a full foot and a half,” and heard the distinct sound of disembodied footsteps entering and approaching before stopping abruptly next to his armchair. “I was sitting in fear-frozen terror as Queball hissed and spat savagely,” he wrote about the occurrence.
These formative experiences, combined with his exploration of Oakwood Sanitarium, likely influenced the appearance (or reappearance?) of the ghost in D&D.
[h=3]Understanding the Undead[/h]It's perhaps no surprise that undead are peppered throughout Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax certainly had enough personal experiences to imagine monsters lurking behind dungeon corners, as per Witwer:
Whether real, imagined, or misunderstood, one thing is clear: These encounters were formative for Gary and no doubt added fuel to an already overactive imagination. For him, adventure— whether self-created or of external origins— seemed to follow him wherever he went. And for those familiar with Gary’s early adventure modules, from Tomb of Horrors to The Temple of Elemental Evil, it may come as no surprise that Gary Gygax grew up in a haunted house.
Gary wasn't the only contributor to undead canon -- Dave Arneson's group added its own iconic contribution. We'll look at the rest of the undead in the next installment.
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Yeah thanks. I thought (had read somewhere) that paralysis was from fear of the spirits of men, and elves where not afraid of those, thus immune to paralysis. But Gary says it was paralysis due to cold , and that a hang over from wights! Interesting how things morph over time.


I thought (had read somewhere) that paralysis was from fear of the spirits of men, and elves where not afraid of those, thus immune to paralysis.
That's in Tolkien--IIRC, Legolas makes a comment to that effect when they're being followed by the Army of the Dead in The Return of the King.

Related Articles

Visit Our Sponsor

An Advertisement