Ghosts and white sheets

So here’s a seasonal question for you:

From whence does the traditional representation of a ghost as a kind of blank-faced, dome-headed hovering white blanket come? Is it meant to be some kind of representation of a funeral shroud, or what?

You’ve gotta admit, there are any number of more logical (to say nothing of poetic) ways to depict the tortured spirit of a dead human confined to the mortal world, many of which we’ve seen-- usually glowing or transparent-looking people or whatever. But the floating sheet thing persists. How far back does this idea go? Presumably it predates Casper and the various ghosts in early Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons, but where and why did it get started?


I thought that when people saw ghosts, they were often just glowing people, and sometimes were simple person-sized ghostly regions, often moving, glowing, and white. The latter could be easily represented by a Hallowe’en costume of a white sheet.

Which doesn’t answer your question, since ghost-sightings could very well be influenced by Hallowe’en costumes and such.

Could be it’s just the quickest way for a trick-or-treater to make himself incognito and physically nondescript (a presumed generic prescription for a ghost) – to grab a sheet off a clothesline – and that this practice started quite some time ago.


Stolen clothesline sheet ghosts frequently complete their costume with women’s panties obtained in the same raid.

I’m just hypothesizing, but it’s an interesting question.

My hypothesis would be the combination of skeletons (white) and the idea that the soul is in the breath. There was superstition that the soul left the body with the last breath, and it’s a pretty easy move from a frosty breath on a cold day (white) to a partly translucent but white soul, to a sheet with eyeholes.

A related intersting question would be WHEN this idea arose. Charles Dickens’ description of the Christmas ghosts are certainly not white-sheets. On the other hand, by the early 1930s, cartoons are showing ghosts as white-sheets floating. Is the white-sheet a modern interpretation?

I think a black sheet would be more appropo.

White sheets with eyeholes … could we be pondering the birth of the Klan? Heck, it worked for Cartman! :wink:

–Da Cap’n

Actually, good point, Cap’n… the Klan’s use of white sheets was supposed to scare folks, so presumably the idea of a ghost being a white sheet dates back to at least late-1800s?

The idea of a ghost being formless goes back very far indeed.
If we look at Hamlet, we see that the Ghost is never said to be the revenant of Hamlet’s father (Hamlet senior, actually). It looks like it, it talks like, Hamlet wants it to be, and, as the play unfolds, it proves to be telling the truth about other things, so that we may reasonably assume that it’s telling the truth to Hamlet when it says that it’s his father’s spirit returned – but Shakespeare never claims that it is. Indeed, the guardsmen (Bernando and Francisco, IIRC) and Horatio are never willing to commit themselves further than to tell Hamlet that they’ve seen something that looks like his father’s ghost – it coiuld be any evil (or, perhaps, not-so-evil) spirit that takes that form for its own purposes. When the Ghost finally appears to Hamlet, Bernando says of it, “Looks 'a not like the King?”, not, “'Strweth, 'tis the King!”, and Horatio spends several lines trying to dissuade Hamlet from talking to it, lest it suddenly take some other horrible shape that drives him to madness, suicide, or both.
Other “ghosts”, like Dickens’ Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, are of course not the ghosts of any particular person – “ghost” should be understood in its older meaning of “spirit” – like the Holy Ghost (in fact, I believe that I’ve seen adaptations of A Christmas Carol that call them “spirits”, not “ghosts”).
A white sheet is probably a good material representation of what a spirit was imagined to be – someone that has no inherent form of its own, but takes the appearance of whatever it deems most effective.

“Kings die, and leave their crowns to their sons. Shmuel HaKatan took all the treasures in the world, and went away.”

And remember the very good ghost story, “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” from the collection GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY (1904)by the very great ghost story writer, Montague Rhodes James.

The revenant appears as an impression in the bedsheets.