Written by Kameron McBride
If you were asked to picture a ghost it would more than likely be a white creation that looks like a bedsheet with eyes cut out. When Charlie Brown needed some dorky costume in his Halloween special, he tossed a sheet over his head and cut out 17 eyeholes too many. The idea of a white bed sheet being a ghost is rooted in our cultural consciousness as the most simple portrayal of something spectral.
So where does this trope come from? Well there are several things that may have contributed to the development of the “sheet ghost.” Early depictions of ghosts weren’t very consistent and in the theater they were often depicted by wearing older styles of clothes and even suits of armor (Jones). Shockingly, audiences did not find a slow, loud suit of armor particularly scary, so shows began using actors draped in sheets to portray ghosts instead.
The irony, of course, is that now the “white sheet ghost” has become as unfrightening and awkward as the suit of armor before it. The bed sheet is now actually used to portray someone who is failing at being frightening to a futile level, like good ‘ol Charlie Brown, the newly dead couple in Beetlejuice, or even a young Willy Wonka, unable to enjoy Halloween candy. The sheet ghost has been completely reappropriated from being functional to being used to portray someone who is entirely unscary or even apathetic. We laugh at Charlie because his costume is so shabby; the couple in Beetlejuice are meant to be seen as inept at being scary; Willy is seen as not enjoying Halloween to its fullest. In each case the trope is meant to point out the ridiculous, comedic, and apathetic nature of the sheet ghost.
Given the way the sheet ghost has changed to become a joke in popular culture, soon we will probably develop another means of portraying ghosts in a simple way. Until that time, we also have a reliable way for dads to scare their children under the age of 7 with a simple bed sheet.
Jones, Ann Rosalind., and Peter Stallybrass. Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.