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  • Writer's pictureIvy Boyd

Sheet Ghosts...True Story, or Bull-Sheet?

Every year around Halloween, parents cut eyeholes into an old white sheet for their child to wear while trick or treating. More recently, trends like the Sheet Ghost Photoshoot Challenge spread on TikTok and Instagram as Halloween lovers set out to take their own sheet ghost photos. But have you ever stopped to wonder where we got this idea of a stark white ghost, or sheet ghost?

My own sheet ghost photo, October 2022.

This imagery can be traced back to the use of burial shrouds: a common practice across cultures before the availability of the wooden or stone coffin or casket. Here, the dead were simply wrapped in (often white) fabric because it was cheaper having been un-dyed, or sometimes because the color white had its own symbolism of purity. If someone had died in bed, which was common for the sick or elderly, the very bed sheet from their death bed was wrapped and tied around them for burial. When it comes to undead beings of folklore, such as revenants, barrow whites, or similar undead and sometimes vampiric beings, they are often depicted with their old tattered burial shrouds still eerily draped around them.

Bas-de-page scene of the Three Dead from "Taymouth Hours" by Yates Thompson, 14th century. From The British Library

When we think of the ghost, i.e. another variation of the dead returning, it makes sense that they, too, might be shrouded, sometimes with the sheet from their death bed. In artwork from the 1300s, ghosts can be seen as skeletons draped in shrouds, an image that is nearly identical to previous artwork of the undead. When the 1400s arrived, many ghostly apparition sightings were also being described as having donned their burial shrouds.

Illustration of three ghosts from "The Three Living and the Three Dead" from The Psalter of Robert de Lisle.

These descriptions became a staple image of the ghost, to the point that thieves would drape themselves in a sheet to not only hide their identity, but to also scare their victims into thinking they were a horrifying ghost. This left a lasting (and occasionally deadly) impact on society. The year was 1804, and a London bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, was in his usual all-white uniform when he was shot and killed after another man, Francis Smith, saw his stark white appearance and believed him to be a ghost. In the case of the "ghost" that was investigated by Sands Hopkins in Kansas City in the late 1800's, he set out to stop a local entity terrorizing people once and for all. In his confusion, he mistook a large white dog for the ghost and shot the innocent animal, killing them.

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, the sight of a white sheet-like ghost would also appear in theatrical performances. On stage, many of these actors donned white sheets. Various effects, like a Pepper's Ghost, played into how scary of a sight it was for viewers. This effect is created by using a series of reflections to project the image of a shrouded actor underneath the stage onto the stage above, giving them a transparent look compared to the other on-stage actor.

Illustration of how to achieve a Pepper's Ghost.

If you look at fake ghost photographs using double-exposure during the Victorian period, many of the supposed ghosts are also figures donning white fabric. 

A Victorian-era stereograph showing a "ghost" scaring two men. From The Library of Congress.

Some Victorian ghost photos pay homage to the medieval imagery of the skeleton in their shrouds. These cleverly made photographs, although clearly fabricated to our modern eyes, did cause quite the stir to some members of the public.

"Henri Robin and a Specter" by Eugene Thibault, 1863

The iconic white sheet ghost would also have its moment on our TV screens. In 1937, Disney released Lonesome Ghosts, an 8 minute cartoon where Goofy, Donal Duck, and Mickey Mouse set out to rid a house of spirits. These ghosts were transparent and wore capes which looked to be fashioned out of bed sheets. Here, we get the full circle of the historical aspect of the literal death bed sheet being used to wrap the dead for burial. (Fun fact: this cartoon first used the phrase "I ain't scared of no ghost", possibly inspiring the usage of the same phrase in Ghostbusters.)

Re-release poster for Lonesome Ghosts.

Two years later in 1939, Casper the Friendly Ghost would appear on screen. In 1957, an episode of Popeye featured a haunted ship where Olive Oyl would sew the ghosts shrouds together to make a new sail. The debut of Scooby Doo in 1969 would further cement this popular ghostly image by featuring a sheet ghost in the shows opening credits. This was also a perfect historical tie-in, considering that past criminals and thieves would disguise themselves as ghosts in sheets, and of course in Scooby Doo, the reoccurring theme is that these monsters are just bad people in disguise. 

A sheet ghost as seen in Scooby Doo.

Modern examples of the sheet ghost have clear inspiration in the depictions of undead beings of the past in their burial shrouds. Today, these specters have come with an air of silliness and fun, which has clearly remained as people continue to don white sheets every October for their own ghostly Halloween fun.

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