Clothes And Ghosts - Picturehouse Spotlight

Clothes And Ghosts

Taking a look at the significance of Casey Affleck's sheet in A Ghost Story

Director David Lowery has described the white sheet worn by Casey Affleck during the production of ‘A Ghost Story’ as ‘the biggest challenge of the entire movie’.

‘If the sheet billowed in the wrong way, it ruined the illusion,’ he reported, adding, ‘it’s an inherently goofy image’.  Just below the camera-line the production costumer Annell Brodeur had to crouch, holding the bottom of the sheet to ensure Affleck (and his stand-in) didn’t come over like Casper the Friendly Ghost.

It’s an image we all know. The ghost shifted with a sheet. Two eye-holes punched through like a kid out Trick or Treating.

But you may be surprised to learn that the question of why ghosts wear clothes or shrouds has been a hot-button issue for centuries. Think about it for a moment. Ghosts shouldn’t wear clothes at all, if they are indeed spirits of the dead.   You are born and you die naked. Ghosts should be naked, because fabric shouldn’t have any purchase on the afterlife.

Affleck wears a mortuary sheet, sitting up on the slab, and never again showing his face. He is shrouded both literally and metaphorically. Even in the 17th century woodcuts depict ghosts wearing their grave-clothes and carrying a taper or candle before them. By the late 18th century ghosts were appearing to wear their everyday clothes. But by Victorian times investigators of the newly-formed paranormal groups such as the SPR found that spook-bespoke posed an insuperable problem. Charles Dickens illustrator Charles Cruikshank in 1863 published an essay on the subject in which he attacked the philosophical headache of ghosts wearing clothes as a ‘GROSS ABSURDITY’ (his caps). Writer Ambrose Bierce pondered this ‘riddle of significance’. Shakespeare scholars wondered into the witching hour why Hamlet’s father should be wearing armour.

The great folklorist Andrew Lang only found ‘three or four’ instances of naked ghosts -they’re very rare. Some spiritualists believe that the mind of the observer dresses the ghost in a way that makes it easier to communicate; the raw form of a spirit would be too abstract. So the living mind clothes the dead. In fact no living person observes Affleck while a spirit, except another spirit, played, in case you didn’t know, by the pop star Kesha, and you could say that if Rooney Mara did manage to see her dead boyfriend he wouldn’t be dressed in a sheet but in his everyday clothes. After all, she wouldn’t want to see him as MR James would put it a ‘face of crumpled linen’.

‘I’m waiting for someone’


‘I don’t remember’

Raised in a haunted house, Roger Clarke is best known as a film-writer for Sight & Sound and as the author of A Natural History of Ghosts. He was the youngest person ever to join the Society for Psychical Research in the 1980s.
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