Visiting the Boo-tique: A History in Ghosts, Sheets, and Halloween

By Kallie Hunchman

It’s Halloween night. The sky is slowly darkening, and children are rushing around, putting last minute touches on their Halloween costumes. As they rush the streets, clutching empty jack o’lantern buckets, it’s not hard to see patterns in their attire. Princesses in sparkling dresses, pirates with little plastic swords, and ghosts under billowing white sheets. Princesses and pirates are pretty easy to understand, but how did a sheet with eye holes become associated with ghosts? And how did it become associated with harmless children rather than terrifying specters? Changing cultural experiences have drastically changed our perception of death and ghosts, changing a simple sheet costume from terrifying and spooky to harmless and childish. New burial practices and perceptions of Halloween are the two most important factors in this change.

Ghost Costume

image via Google Images

Prior to the twentieth century, it was very common for people to be buried wrapped in burial shrouds, thin pieces of fabric that could be anything from plain and undecorated to carefully made and elaborately decorated by the family of the deceased. During the early twentieth century, American society began to focus more on individualism—how a person lived and was during their life—than on family ties and societal expectations, and burying a loved one in clothes they would have worn during life became the more common practice (Barratt). People disguising themselves as ghosts by donning a white sheet descended from the burial shroud would have been a terrifying sight for anyone from that time period (Fick 81-82). So terrifying, in fact, that it is a prominent theme in a variety of texts—including the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), in which a woman puts on a sheet to scare men away, and the television show Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (1969-1970), in which villains frequently dress up as ghosts and ghouls to scare people off and make some kind of profit. To a lesser extent, the frightening potential of a figure concealed in a white sheet continues to be a theme in popular culture today, but much of the frightening effect is lost, since the burial shroud is not as widely used today.

The Halloween we know today is descended from a conglomeration of many different holidays and rituals with much darker connotations. Samhain, All Saint’s Day, All Soul’s Day, Celtic New Year’s, and a variety of pagan rituals contributed ideas and activities of the holiday. Because of these different holidays and rituals, Halloween was originally associated with ideas of trickery, death, decay, and darkness (Clark 182). An article from 1951 describes a Halloween not far from our own, but still visibly different. It describes Halloween as a “degenerate” holiday, filled with witches, demons, and trickery (Linton 62-63).

Halloween’s placement in the year is part of what makes it such a scary time. Set at a period when summer is drawing to a close, it is strongly associated with the beginning of winter and the hardships that come with it. Trees are losing their leaves. Plants are dying. There is more darkness as the days grow shorter and shorter. The arrival of winter means the end of prosperity: less food, colder weather, illness, and death (Akin). Halloween, and more broadly the end of October and beginning of November, are at the intersection of life and death, in the uncanny valley between the prosperous summer and the painful winter, making it an uncomfortable and off-putting period where all bets are off. The changing connotation of Halloween is an important factor in the ghost costume’s change from spooky to childish. Winter quickly became a less terrifying and potentially fatal time, and Halloween became less terrifying, as a result.

Another aspect of Halloween that has changed immensely is the meaning of the costumes. Dressing up for the holiday used to be much darker. Costume wearing contributed to the trickery of Halloween-time rituals, as people dressed as dark creatures and demons to commit acts of vandalism and terror (Linton 66). In dressing up, children are also allowed to embrace the taboo topics of society. Death, demons, spirits, witches, and other culturally inappropriate topics are free rein for children (Clark 186). Now, however, typically scary costumes and creatures intermingle with Disney princesses and tiny doctors, creating a much less terrifying environment.       The dark connotations of Halloween and Halloween costumes have not fully translated into today’s Halloween activities. Trick-or-treating, parties, carving pumpkins, parades, dressing up, etc. are all things that are seen as childish in our society. Since the Halloween of today has so many childish connotations, and since the ghost costume has lost so much of its original cultural significance, donning a sheet and running out into the world at night is no longer the terrifying adventure it once was. As Halloween has become a milder holiday associated with children, treats, and fun, children wrapped in sheets seem more fun than frightening. In reality, the costume has a much more macabre and scary background than it appears.

References:

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