This was something I wrote up during the concept phase Fallout: Lonstar, but chose not to include as it made serious implications that would have affected the franchise as a whole. Banner image by Payton Quinn.
The Ghoul Question
Ghouls are a fascinating element in Fallout, both within the narrative and in the storied history of Fallout development. If you’re not an insane wiki-hopping Fallout researcher like some of us, you might not know the origin of Fallout’s immortal race of sentient zombies. Har har, that's a trick question, because there is no origin. I know, so clever. Try not to fall in love.
The interesting thing is that there are many ways to explain where the ghouls came from within the Fallout universe, but they were all discluded as the franchise jumped from developer to developer. Discussions were had, but no official answer was ever given. The Fallout wiki is as confused as everyone else:
“There is some controversy, even among the makers of Fallout games, about the origins of ghouls. While Tim Cain said explicitly that ghouls are only a result of radiation, consistent with an understanding of the science of radiation as it stood during the 1950s, Chris Taylor said that a mix of both radiation and FEV was involved. While Chris Avellone initially supported the latter view in his Fallout Bible, he was later convinced to support the radiation-only version.”
So, no help there. I’ll get into where I stand later, but for now, the only thing we’ve learned is what ghouls aren’t.
They’re not mutants
The most obvious answer, that no one could be blamed for assuming, is that Ghouls are mutants. Mutants, in Fallout, are organisms exposed to the Forced Evolutionary Virus (FEV). The FEV was a military-engineered virus that, ironically, was intended to protect Americans rather than attack our enemies. The virus would radically alter the structure of human DNA so dramatically that existing viruses wouldn’t have the capacity to interact with it. After the Great War, we learned that human exposure to FEV created what would be called “super mutants”. If the subject was irradiated before being exposed, a dumber 2nd generation super mutant was the best possible outcome. Other outcomes being the stuff of nightmares found out in the wasteland.
The one, confusing exception is Harold. A statistical outlier, Harold suffered a unique reaction that has not been duplicated in the Fallout canon. He may look like a ghoul in most respects, but he is, in fact, a mutant.
FEV is also responsible for mutation in general. The virus became airborne during the time between the Great War and the opening of the first vaults. With the exception of purposefully engineered creatures, every monster you’ve ever shot at in Fallout is the product of radiation and the FEV.
It wasn’t just radiation
The science of Fallout is purposefully pulp. It’s a living zeitgeist dedicated to the nuclear age of science fiction where the harnessed atom could do anything and, as I’m fond of saying, you could have ray guns that shot rings. The point being that we’re not working with hard science and any attempt to measure Fallout by that standard is missing the point of Fallout entirely.
However, Fallout does have a history of obeying its own canon. Aside from some fast and loose exceptions from Fallout 4, the logic of Fallout as a whole is reliable enough to form basic cause and effect statements using established facts. What I’m saying is it’s not Doctor Who. Fallout has a history and rules that it tries not to break. Now, with that in mind, it can’t be radiation.
Not to break ranks with other Chris’s who love Fallout, but I don’t hold with the radiation theory put forth by Taylor and Avellone. For one, it’s too easy. While Fallout science might work like magic in many ways, it’s still not magic. There should be a reason for why things happen, even if it’s not a legitimate scientific reason. A second, and more stubborn reason, is that people have been irradiated before the Great War and there’s no prewar account of ghouls.
Fallout 4 threw some odd wrenches into the ghoul history with characters like Eddie Winter and the experiments that supposedly guaranteed ghoulification before he went into the bunker. The background here is vague and doesn't really tell us anything new. So with all the established reasoning aside, let’s talk about what criteria a ghoul origin theory would have to include.
Assumptions & Restrictions
1. A Seemingly Random Trigger
Consistent exposure to concentrated levels of radiation for an extended period of time will occasionally result in ghoulification, but is not guaranteed by any known method. Chances for ghoulification appear random with no apparent characteristics changing the likelihood of transformation.
2. Pre-War Absence
The reason for ghoulification cannot exist before the Great War, but must persist after the Great War. Humans continue to be born and continue to produce ghouls.
3. A Non-Pathogenic Solution
Using a virus, bacterium, or other micro-organism would be narratively identical to the FEV solution.
The Lonestar Solution
This solution is, admittedly, convenient for me as it applies to Fallout: Lonestar, but If you were to pull the people, place names, and stories out of the solution, I think it still stands on its own merit. However, for the look of the thing, I’m going to leave them in to make it a more interesting read.
Before the Great War, Magnifico Agricola (a Monsanto analog) is contracted through Vault-tec to develop seed crop strains that can grow in the harsh environments predicted to occur after nuclear war. These seeds would then be added to the Garden of Eden Creation Kit currently under development as part of Project Safehouse.
Like Monsanto, Magnifico is an agriculture business, competing to create more bountiful crops that can grow in more environments and in the presence of harsh insecticides and herbicides. The secret nature of Project Safehouse gives Magnifico cause to create new strains without the oversight of the Food & Drug Administration. To achieve their goals, Magnifico, like Monsanto, begins altering the genetic structure of its most popular seed crops, namely corn. While these seeds are submitted to Vault-tec, they are also, secretly, put into use by Magnifico on its many subsidiary farms.
Unbeknownst to Magnifico, the manner of alteration (something akin to gene therapy) used to alter the corn begins to change the genetic structure of humans those who ingest it. It would be a subtle change that would have no indications or side-effects unless the altered subject were exposed to intense or prolonged radiation.
For this to function as a solution to the ghoul question, the altered corn would have to spread to every corner of the United States and affect, roughly, the entire population. It would also have to carry over to those born into the postwar world.
Reasonable precedence exists to resolve the following issues:
If a food crop was genetically contaminated by Magnifico, it’s percentage of total U.S. corn would be limited
Genetically modified food crops have been known to cross-pollinate. This allows for the corn to become a large percentage, if not the dominant strain in the U.S. by 2077.
Said food crop would have to then be ingested by a large enough percentage of Americans who would then be chosen for Project Safehouse and survive the Great War
This could be guaranteed to occur with up to 90-95% of Americans, as Everything we eat has corn or soy in its creation chain. This would make the genetic mutation systemic, allowing it to move into every food stuff available.
This would allow every person in the United States to be affected by this genetic mutation to varying degrees when they entered the vault system.
Found foods eaten after 2077, including those produced in vaults, would have been made before 2077 and contain the Magnifico mutagen.
Not every person becomes a ghoul when exposed to radiation after 2077. This could be explained by variances in diet and genetic predisposition.
And there you have it
As far as I can tell, this would cover every ghoul butt all the way up to and including Fallout 4. New ghouls, old world ghouls, everyone has to eat, and only the latest, most preservative-laden junk foods would make it past the Great War.
And what's junk food without corn?