Why do we wear bedsheets as a ghost costume? A closer look at its creepy, yet practical origins

The ghosts-as-sheets image is now a common yet fun portrayal of dead spirits. But it wasn't always that way

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published October 28, 2022 4:30PM (EDT)

Domestic dogs dressed in ghost costumes for Halloween (Getty Images/Sergeeva)
Domestic dogs dressed in ghost costumes for Halloween (Getty Images/Sergeeva)

For centuries, the cliched "bedsheet ghost" — consisting of a plain white sheet with two cutout holes for eyes — has been a classic representation of dead spirits, especially in entertainment and pop culture.

Take for example the third episode of "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!," in which a transparent white sheet ghost terrorizes the Mystery Incorporated gang while they investigate the legend of a pirate's buried treasure on a haunted island (also seen in the intro). Or that scene in Tim Burton's "Beetlejuice," in which the deceased couple, played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis, don sheets in an attempt to scare off one of the new tenants of their idyllic country home. More recently in David Lowery's more highbrow "A Ghost Story," Casey Affleck plays a dead musician husband who returns to the house he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara), dressed in the same white sheet he was covered in following a fatal car accident.

Perhaps the best known example of the bedsheet ghost onscreen is in the 1966 Halloween special "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." In the film, Charlie Brown and his crew (minus Linus, who skips the annual festivities to wait for the Great Pumpkin) go trick-or-treating and most of them dress as ghosts in simple white sheets. Charlie Brown, however, has "trouble with the scissors" and botches his ghost costume, leaving it with wide holes all over. That's a sad omen for his night, where instead of raking in candy, he ends up with rocks.

But how did we get to this point where ghosts-as-sheets were accepted as the classic way we both picture ghosts and dress as them? Here's a closer look at the history behind the bedsheet ghost, including its early depictions, rise to popularity and significance today.  

Early depictions of ghosts

Artwork, illustrations and novels from the early 1300s often portrayed ghosts as skeletons draped in their shrouds, or white burial sheets. The most notable example is in "The Three Living and the Three Dead" — an illustrated story from the courtly book "De Lisle Psalter" — where three skeletal corpses, who are also artfully covered in maggots, warn three young noblemen about the inevitability of death.  

Such macabre depictions evolved in the 15th century, when alleged supernatural encounters and spooky criminals motivated society to change its understanding of ghosts. During the Early Modern Period (1450-1750), many of the dead in England were wrapped in their death shrouds, which encouraged commoners to report sightings of apparitions wrapped in white cloth. This depiction became so widely accepted that thieves even began impersonating ghosts by covering themselves in white sheets to scare their victims and remain anonymous.

Soon enough, ghost-impersonating became a common activity for criminals in England. As Reginald Scott, an English witchcraft scholar, wrote in his 1584 exposé novel, "The Discoverie of Witchcraft":

"But certainly, one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [i.e. "deceived"] and abused many thousands that way; specially when Robin Goodfellow kept such a coil in the country. But you shall understand, that these bugs specially are spied and feared by sick folk, children, women, and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body, are shaken with vain dreams and continual fear."

Despite being a common depiction, the ghosts-as-sheets image was "far from the most iconic one." In the 15th and 16th centuries, ghosts that were featured in plays ditched their shrouds for armor instead. A well-known example is in the original production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," in which the ghost of Hamlet's father is decked out in armor.

It wasn't until the 19th century when the bedsheet ghost finally became an established and well-recognized depiction of specters. By then, ghosts were no longer wrapped in burial shrouds but placed in coffins. Poorer families, however, buried the deceased in the sheet from their deathbed, first by wrapping them inside and then securing the sheet with knots on both ends.

How the bedsheet ghost rose to popularity

At one point, the bedsheet ghost attained notoriety, thanks to the infamous case of the "Hammersmith ghost." In 1804, an English bricklayer named Thomas Millwood was mistaken for a ghost and thus, shot and killed by a man named Francis Smith in the village of Hammersmith. Prior to the crime, local townspeople reported seeing a violent ghost that assaulted both men and women and remained uncaptured. Per a report from "Kirby's Wonderful and Scientific Museum," the ghost was "so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced."

"It was then reported, that a mad woman was in the habit of disturbing the neighbours, by perambulating the church-yard and other walks, in strange and uncouth dresses," the magazine article added.

At Smith's murder trial, it was learned that Millwood had previously scared a carriage-riding couple by wearing a white jacket, white trousers and a white apron while out in public. A family member of Millwood's later said that she had told him to start wearing an overcoat, but her request was ultimately rejected by Millwood. Smith, who had gone out that night to hunt ghosts, was convicted of murder and initially sentenced to hang the following week. However, he ultimately lucked out after King George III granted Smith a full pardon.

Despite the tragedy, Millwood's case did not change people's negative perceptions of bedsheet ghosts. They continued to believe that such ghosts were dangerous and deserved to be killed regardless. Per an 1889 poll conducted by a Missouri newspaper that asked its readers if they believed in spirits, one participant wrote that ghosts "are nearly always white, although some of the authorities admit there are dark ones. I should say, however, that the genuine ghost is always white and always makes its first appearance at the haunted spot at precisely 12 o'clock midnight."

Such myths and ideas were fueled by theater productions, which now portrayed onstage ghosts with a full-length white bed sheet. According to theater scholars, ghosts in white sheets were deemed scarier than ghosts sans the sheets, which were deemed more likable.

What finally shifted people's thoughts on bedsheet ghosts was children's cartoons, which portrayed the ghosts as more fun than menacing. Disney's 1937 animated cartoon "Lonesome Ghosts" features Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy as members of a ghost extermination team tasked with driving out four ghosts from an abandoned, haunted house. In addition to their transparent bodies and little hats, the ghosts have large eyes, wide smiles and bulbous noses, making them both silly and friendly in nature. This portrayal was further solidified in 1939, when Casper the Friendly Ghost made his debut.  

The bedsheet ghost today

In addition to the aforementioned shows and movies, bedsheet ghosts have also made appearances in John Carpenter's 1978 film "Halloween," Steven Spielberg's 1982 film "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," Noah Baumbach's 2019 film "Marriage Story" along with Michael Ahern and Enda Loughman's 2019 film "Extra Ordinary." 

Today, the bedsheet ghost is an easy and economical Halloween costume made scarier with old sheets that are either frayed or running thin from frequent washes. The perk of the costume is that it can be reused and repurposed, both for your kiddos or your pets. It truly is a costume that never runs out of style!

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon, covering Culture and Food. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.