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Unveiling the Origin of Ghost Costumes

For as long as I can remember, my family has maintained an annual Halloween tradition of watching the 1966 TV special It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown at least once every October. In it, many of the characters dress up as ghosts to go trick-or-treating on Halloween night by throwing bed sheets over their bodies and cutting two eye holes—or a dozen of them, in Charlie Brown’s case.

While cuddled up on my childhood couch during one of the rewatches, I asked my mom why the ghost costumes are white sheets. After thinking about it for a grand total of one second, she dismissed the question with, “I don’t know—I guess it’s meant to be scary.”

When you’re twelve, that answer holds up, so you shrug and immediately forget about it, attention easily shifting back to the screen. Now, though, you’re twenty-two with unfettered Internet access, and God help us all but you will make it everyone’s problem.

Anyway, you’re twenty-two, and you hear certain lyrics to a Better Oblivion Community Center song (“They say you’ve gotta fake it / At least until you make it / That ghost is just a kid in a sheet”) that awaken the long-dormant part of your brain that has wondered about ghost costumes for over a decade. You take a deep dive to find the answer, and you come out of the water with a newfound appreciation for the religious context from which your favorite holiday was born.

Let’s get into it.

The story of ghost costumes originates from ancient folklore relating to the Gaelic festival Sanheim, which celebrates the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter. While Sanheim now typically occurs in early November, it used to fall on October 31st, overlapping with Halloween. During Sanheim, it was believed that the boundaries between the living and the dead became blurred, allowing spirits (ghosts) to pass through to the mortal world. To protect themselves from the spirits, civilians would disguise themselves as fellow paranormal figures by donning costumes and masks.

White bed sheets became a popular vehicle for blending in during this time due to its simplicity and accessibility; the color white was also heavily associated with death and the afterlife in many cultures, adding another layer of symbolism to the costume. In addition to its practical uses, a white sheet contributes to the overall eerie look associated with ghost costumes, especially when lit up by candles or fire in otherwise total darkness.

The uncomplicated and easily DIYed white sheet has persisted as a representation of a ghost throughout the cultural attitude and commercialization of the entwined traditions of Sanheim and Halloween shifted from a religious context to a secular one. The costume has even made its way into popular culture, including indie-rock banger Dylan Thomas and classic TV special It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

The ubiquitous ghost costume is beloved by adults and kids alike and is now seen as more of a playful costume than a spooky one; nonetheless, its rich history has been left behind in favor of a simplistic one: it’s (meant to be) scary for kids, and it’s silly for adults.

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