I'm interested in this because it should have an answer. Perhaps Disney were the first to use it?

A particularly silly specimen.

  • I blame low budget movies on this one... – thedaian Jan 9 '12 at 23:08
  • I am tempted to think some Japanese theatre. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jan 10 '12 at 1:17

No, ghosts wearing sheets are definitely older than cinema. They appear in older stories. In fact, sheet-wearing ghosts probably emerged from theatrical traditions.

For a long time, ghosts were not depicted in any particular way; it was up to the dialogue or plot to establish that a character was deceased, and therefore a ghost. Then it became common to set ghosts apart by making them wear outdated costumes, often suits of armor when those had become obsolete; this was an established usage by Shakespeare's time. But armor make ghosts look clumsy and noisy, ridiculous rather than fearsome. In the 18th century, a new tradition emerged: sheeted ghosts looked mysterious, looked somewhat fuzzy or shapeless. The on-stage depiction was a lot closer to what a picture of a ghost might look like.

Now the sheeted ghost looks somewhat dated, in part because the cinema offers new possibilities such as disappearing or partly transparent characters, and in part (in the US) because the Ku Klux Klan appropriated the costume. It's still going strong in children's cartoons.

The sheeted ghost is also discussed at length on TV Tropes.

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  • Great answer! Thanks. – Eivind Dahl Jan 9 '12 at 23:37
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    Interesting. This is how the modern image of a Ninja came to be too (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninja#Outerwear). The black-clad ninja is a purely theatrical invention meant to make them invisible in front of the black stage background. The real ninjas were apparently dressed like everybody else and acted under disguise! – HNL Jan 10 '12 at 5:00

I think it's also based on the fact that dead people used to be wrapped in sheets/shrouds.

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When someone died, they were covered in a white sheet. The ghost in a white sheet could be the idea of the body getting up and walking around. Once again as mentioned, for theatrical purposes it would be easy to take that form as opposed to just implying it is a ghost. The white sheet covering indicates that they were dead.

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Burial shrouds that would cover the dead.

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    Very intriguing possibility! Could you expand the answer with some research to back it up, tho? – Shisa Aug 31 '14 at 4:14
  • The burial shroud theory is one of the most common theories on how the white sheets on ghosts in fiction originated. To me it seems very obvios! There are no other explenations that makes any sense to me. Why put a piese of white fabric over a ghost if not to represent the white fabric that was used to cover the dead? tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BedsheetGhost – Thomas Celius Pettersen Aug 31 '14 at 14:21
  • I think it's likely too! But given the nature of this site, a more fleshed out and sourced answer would be more fitting the usual style of the site. – Shisa Aug 31 '14 at 15:19

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