Ghoul was absolutely terrifying.
I put off watching this one because I’m a chicken, to be honest. When it first dropped in 2018, I clicked on it right away, only to turn it off when the first five minutes proved too scary. I’ve been avoiding it ever since.
A three-part web-series that draws from Arabic folklore, Ghoul takes place in a futuristic India. There, a fascist, nationalistic government has taken control of the country, and they dictate what each person is allowed to do through special exclusion zones and book burnings.
Two of the ways that people are targeted is through religion and education. Our main character, Nida Rahim, is the daughter of a scholar who finds himself on the wrong side of the law.
Nida loves her father dearly, but she bought into this fascist ideology hook, line, and sinker. She’s currently training to become an enhanced interrogator, and when she graduates she will be sent to a prison as a guard. There, she will torture dissidents on behalf of the State.
Nida’s father disagrees with her profession, but Nida mistakes his disagreement as rebellion. She turns him in to the police, fearing he is part of a terrorist plot.
When another so-called terrorist, Ali Saeed, is brought in for questioning, Nida is taken to a secretive location where she is tasked with breaking him. However, it soon becomes clear that Saeed is not who they think he is. Something supernatural is lurking in the prison, and Nida fears her father was involved.
Despite my lingering fear, once I sat down, I devoured Ghoul all in one night. It was that good.
This series was great on multiple levels, and one of the easiest things to praise is the subtle creature design and the incorporation of ancient mythology into a futuristic dystopia.
The monster, as revealed in the title, is a ghoul or “ghul”: a type of jinn stemming from pre-Islamic mythology. There’s only one other film I’ve seen that has utilized a jinn as an antagonist—Under the Shadow—but each time I’ve seen them on screen I’ve been scared out of my mind.
In his interview with Scroll.in, Ghoul director Patrick Graham said that “zombies, vampires, and werewolves have been done to death, so I wanted to bring a new, old legend to the forefront of modern horror culture.” After watching Ghoul, it’s clear he succeeded.
Ghoul also used the monster to make a scathing social critique on state-sanctioned brutality, both in India and abroad. The series managed to add another interesting dynamic to this critique by following the perspective of the interrogators, rather than the perspective of their victims.
With the exception of Nida, none of the interrogators are remotely sympathetic. They are terrible people who torture others for a living, and their inability to confront their guilt is what makes them perfect victims for this supernatural monster, which eats the flesh of those who have sinned.
By following these torturers, you get to see them as more than cardboard cutouts. You get to see how they buy into this state-sanctioned violence to try to justify their own actions, the lies they tell themselves so they can sleep at night, and how they deny their own guilt even when the Ghul is literally gnawing at them. It adds a moral depth to an otherwise standard slasher that I wasn’t expecting.
While I absolutely adored this series, I feel like the overall message got muddied towards the end. Theme spoilers incoming:
Throughout each episode, we are shown that religious persecution is bad—that by harming people who are innocent, you will summon evil things upon yourself.
“The daughter of a terrorist is also a terrorist”, the interrogators tell Nida. At first this seems like a critique on the guilt-by-association excuse that people use against whole religious groups in order to scapegoat them. Unfortunately, almost immediately afterwards, Nida becomes a villain herself.
While it can be argued that Nida is pushed towards this alleged-terrorism by the State, a case could easily be made that the film framed this decision as an inherent choice. That the desire to do violence is something that lingers in the blood, which is something I’m uncomfortable with.
I don’t think this is the message the series was going for, given how it spends the rest of its time utterly eviscerating government overreach, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the mixup in thematic messages.
I don’t have much more to add other than to say that I highly enjoyed this show and recommend it. The length is perfect, being a three-part miniseries. If you like stories about jinn, watch Under the Shadow, too.