What’s the Difference Between Ghouls, Goblins, and Ghosts?

Come Halloween, miniature ghosts, ghouls, and goblins ring your doorbell. But each of the three freaky frights has a different history and personality.

One of the only features these staples of the supernatural share is their ghastliness. Ghosts are considered to be the souls of the dead. They are imagined as disembodied spirits, and are often visualized as vague or evanescent forms; hence, the white sheet routine. The Old English gast means “soul, spirit, life, breath.” A red blood cell having no hemoglobin is also called a ghost. (And the word dord, one of the strangest in the whole dictionary, is known as a “ghost word.”  Learn why here.)

The details behind ghoul are far more malevolent and may have inspired a horror film or two. In Arabic legend, a ghoul is a creature that eats both stolen corpses and children. The word comes from the Arabic ghul, which comes from ghala, meaning “he seized.”

Like ghouls, goblins are malicious, though perhaps not as nightmarish as the flesh eaters above. A goblin is a “grotesque sprite or elf.” Goblins can be mischievous. They can also assume human and animal form and assail people. Goblin comes from the German kobold. In German folklore, a kobold was a mischievous household spirit. Sometimes the kobold is helpful and sings to children. But too often, he hides valuable household items, kicks people, and erupts in rage when he doesn’t get enough food.

That Jack O’ Lantern on a friendly neighbor’s porch may not seem as scary as a ghoul, but the story of who the “Jack” in “Jack O’ Lantern” is named after may give you the chills. Try not to be scared when you learn the answer here.