It is as classic an image of Halloween and trick or treat as any Jack O' Lantern, hobo, gypsy or kid bleeding from the mouth after biting into an apple full of razor blade...the bedsheet ghost!
Iconography such as cats, bats and pumpkins are common for Halloween and are culturally part of the American Halloween tradition. Ghosts are a part of the Halloween tradition due to their connections with the spooky in general and the fact that Halloween has its origins in a festival wherein the return of the dead is a major part of the lore.
"Ghosts I get", you say, "but what gives with the bedsheets?"
Aha, I've got you covered on that one. Despite being a complex, intelligent and linguistic species, humans do a fair amount of their communications through non-verbal means, including body language and visual imagery. Images (pictures, signs, diagrams) act as a visual shorthand for complex concepts that might be too large to effectively convey quickly and succinctly. The bedsheet with two black holes where the eyes should be is the visual shorthand for ghost. Is this sensible? Possibly, if we do a little research, which I have done for us.Belief in ghosts is, apparently, ancient and varied. Culturally we can call them shades, spirits, phantoms, wraiths, or any number of foreign words I won't reprint here. In Appalachia the term haint is popular (a corruption of haunt). Anyone who grew up playing RPGs on tabletop or video may be familiar with many of these terms but may also be laboring under the impression that each describes a unique creature.
|The one on the left is a shade and the one on the right is unfortunate.|
I digress. Various cultures have held various beliefs in the afterlife at various times, subject to their religious views, scientific knowledge, and superstitions. A common belief that can be found in multiple cultures at various times is the notion that ghosts are composed of insubstantial vapors, mists, ectoplasm, or energy. In some times or cultures ghosts appear in the clothing they wore when they died (complete with death wounds) and in others ghosts appear in their grave clothes. In this case the burial shroud, a cloth that was wrapped around the body in lieu of clothing, would be represented as the grave clothes on the returned spirit. This would, one reasons, be not unlike a sheet.
|Truuuust meeeeee...I'm spooooooooooky.|
The Wikipedia says, in its article "Ghost", that in the 19th century theater the "sheet ghost" rose to prominence as the archaic "armored ghost" was no longer capable of providing the requisite "spookiness" it once commanded.Read the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost#Depiction_in_the_arts
If we combine multiple ancient notions of shades being insubstantial, garbed in burial shrouds and unhappy, we can see how a sheeted ghost becomes a good visual shorthand for ghostly phenomena. The total number and make-up of features changes, but a pair of eyes (or at least shadowy impressions where eyes should be) is de rigueur. In order of personally observed frequency from greatest to least common the features are:
Eyes (most commonly a simple set of black holes, but can be made expressive or glowing)
Mouth (most commonly a black hole resembling a stylized O, but can be jagged, wavering or even smiling)
Nose (either an impression in the sheet suggesting something underneath or another hole, very rarely is it something else)
Hair (humorous facial hair or more rarely head hair, which is often used to denote a "female" ghost)
Another reason, albeit a meta-fictional reason for ghosts in sheets is to make them visible to mortals. In Beetlejuice the ghosts of the Maitlands don sheets with holes cut out for eyes as they cannot be seen by the adult mortals in the house, who they desire to scare away. Not only do the sheets provide a form, draping over their spirit bodies, but act as a visual shorthand for "ghost". That it does not work is part of the humor of the scene. In Disney's Haunted Mansion dark ride the ghosts are invisible to the mortal riders' eyes until Madame Leota's seance brings their wispy forms into focus. As the doombuggies take the riders into the graveyard dozens of "sheet ghosts" can be seen flying about the sky as a backdrop to the ghost "personalities" (such as the opera singer and the headless knight). None of these were visible to the naked mortal eye prior to Madame Leota's establishing contact. In this meta-fictional sense the spirit, invisible to the mortal, needs the "sheet" to be seen (but can presumably be "seen" by other spirits with no artificial aid required).
As ghosts go, the little guy to the left is atypical. He has expressive eyes, an elongated ovoid mouth in a surprised pose and eyebrows (a rare quality indeed). Clearly he's surprised, perhaps even spooked by you mortals looking at him. The fingers are not uncommon either. He's a cute little guy and I get the impression that this is his normal look. The visual imagery we have is most definitely a ghost, we have no questions about that. Is he friendly? He certainly seems to be. Why so vague a form? We don't want to have to identify him with a single personage, which is the great thing about the bedsheet ghost; it can be anybody or nobody at all. Yes, spooky pun!
In Beetlejuice and the Haunted Mansion rides the ghosts, when visible, look like normal people (bearing their death scars in the Burton film, although the Maitlands are not eternally soggy even though they died by drowning, which if the pattern of death scars held true they would be, or at least blue) or like stylized monsters. For example, in the Haunted Mansion the fully visible ghosts are blue and glowing and look like humans, if somewhat caricatured and Betelgeuse looks like a disgusting clown-man, pale of skin, patches of mold on his dead skin, and disgusting hair and nails, while the Maitlands look normal. Betelgeuse is able to alter his form, change his clothes and alter his appearance drastically, while the Maitlands seem to wear only the clothes in which they died, save for when Otho summons them into their bridal clothes. The ghosts in the Haunted Mansion all wear appropriate costumes and never change ever.
The bedsheet ghost is a contrast to this. Rather than attempting to scare us with garish death wounds or date itself by wearing the appropriate period clothes, it is a formless blank, with only the bare minimum of features required to let us know it is was a person at all. This is part of the great visual shorthand that immediately sums up all the notions of "ghost" without having to use the words.
This fellow to the right is a "scary bedsheet ghost" type 5, Wavering Moaner (all of these are classifications I just made up on the spot...cool, non?). His features are simplistic and evoke both skull and Jack O'Lantern imagery, stronger with the skull. The jagged mouth, gaping open as it does, tells us that he moans with a regularly oscillating vibrato. Probably.
Some sheet ghosts work by going light on the details and allowing shadows and the mind to fill in the horror, others work by adding the blank staring holes-for-eyes that tell us much by their absence. After all, if the eyes are the windows to the soul, what do the empty eye-holes of a ghost's sheet show us?
|This is a ghost costume with some unfortunate implications|
So that's the bedsheet ghost in all his glory. Possibly the single easiest Halloween costume any kid can ever make, yet immediately detailed in its simplicity and charming in its ancient evocations of memories we don't know we have. Here in this modern age we have long since stopped using burial shrouds, yet year after year new children are conditioned into recognizing the bedsheet ghost, which makes it a classic piece of the lore, right up there with the Jack O'Lantern and superfluous bathroom amenity yard redecorating. Whether it is cute and spooky or disturbing and ooky, the bedsheet ghost is a perennial favorite at Halloween and long may it remain so.Until next time keep your pumpkins lit.
|Taken from the classic brochure from the Gatlinburg, TN attraction that scarred me for life...|