White Sheet == Ghost?
October 27, 2007 9:21 PM   Subscribe

When and where did we associate dressing up in a white sheet and yelling 'boo!' with ghosts?

I understand the connection of the white sheet to the arechetype of a ghost as a gauzy apparation -- but where did that come from and who first decided that a white sheet was the perfect costume for kid or even klansmen?
posted by nathan_teske to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would imagine it dates back to when corpses were still wrapped in a shroud or winding-sheet. It is likely that people believed that someone's ghost would appear as though he had just left the grave, still wearing whatever he had been dressed in before burial.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:33 PM on October 27, 2007

I'm not sure about when it became a kid's costume, or the origins of "boo!" however.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:35 PM on October 27, 2007

Closest I came when googling was a tenuous link to "Boo!" from the Irish (or Scottish or Gaelic, depending on the source) word for victory - Buadh (pronounced Boo-ah). Other sites I found, however, defined/translated buadh to "virtue" or "good quality", which doesn't jibe. (Ever shouted 'Virtue!" and scared someone?) A lot of sites traced it back to the bogeyman, and I'd bet that mefi's own languagehat might have some idea, after also finding this - SAFIRE'S BOGEYMAN.

Another possibly helpful link from my new favourite site -
"to startle," c.1430, probably because it can be pronounced as a loud, booming sound; as an expression of disapproval, 1816, perhaps imitative of oxen; hence, the verb meaning "shower someone with boos" (1893). Boo-hoo first recorded 1525, originally of laughter or weeping. To say boo "open one's mouth, speak," originally was to say boo to a goose.

As for the white sheet - no idea.
posted by routergirl at 12:46 AM on October 28, 2007

All I know about ghosts and white sheets and the klan is from Birth of a Nation (1915), which I watched because it was part of the AFI's 100 years...100 movies list.
posted by strangeguitars at 6:15 AM on October 28, 2007

Birth of a Nation, 100 movies. I don't know what happened to the URLs above.
posted by strangeguitars at 6:18 AM on October 28, 2007

Best answer: It's in Uncle Tom's Cabin; Stowe attributes knowledge of it to Shakespeare, although other interpretations are possible.

...there were abundance of full-length portraits [ed.: descriptions] of the ghost, abundantly sworn and testified to, which, as is oftne the case with portraits, agreed with each other in no particular, except the common family peculiarity of the ghost tribe -- the wearing of a white sheet. The poor souls were not versed in ancient history, and did not know that Shakespeare had authenticated this costume, by telling how
"...the sheeted dead
did squeak and gibber in the streets of Rome
... Be it as it may, we have private reasons for knowing that a tall figure in a white sheet did walk, at the most approved ghostly hours, around the Legree premises ....

This may well have influenced the choice of costume for the KKK. Uncle Tom's Cabin was quite simply a blockbuster known to everyone.

There are indications that contemporary productions of Macbeth had Banquo's ghost in a white sheet. The Puritan, or the Widow of Watling Street contains the line, "Instead of a jester we'll have a ghost in a white sheet sit at the upper end of the table."
posted by dhartung at 5:50 PM on October 28, 2007

« Older Installed Leopard. Help. :(   |   dansk: Help Me Learn Danish! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.