The sheet phantom is a ghost... that materializes as a sheet. I think it's based off the old "hey, it's just a guy with a sheet over him pretending to be a ghost" joke. But the idea of a haunted bedsheet just isn't cool at any speed.
Our Ghosts Are Different, and they look like refugees from the linens aisle.
If ghosts in Western media aren't dressed as the deceased did in life, then chances are they're dressed as the deceased did in death. Originally, this meant grave clothes and a long, white, flowing burial shroud. If the same reasoning were applied to modern burial customs, it would mean that most ghosts would dress in their Sunday best, but the trope is seen as too cheesy in the present day to be updated in such a logical manner.
Like many images common to modern culture, the Bed Sheet Ghost began as a theatrical convention that has long lost its context. In Shakespeare's day, it was common to portray ghosts in armor on stage (for example, Hamlet's father is often depicted in a full suit of armor in historical depictions.) In Elizabethan England, armor was no longer worn in combat, and the costuming convention at the time was to dress characters in contemporary (Renaissance) clothing. So, by dressing a character in armor, the character was given an out of date look, and recognized as a ghost. However, as special effects became more elaborate, it became common to lower the actor playing the ghost onto stage with a pulley. Of course, the heavy armor clanked loudly, and by the 19th century, the sight of an armored ghost on stage was more likely to bring laughter than fear.
Because of this, by the 1800s, theatres realized they had to create a new, recognizable look for ghost characters, one that would allow the actor to enter and leave silently. Perhaps inspired by traditional burial shrouds or depictions of ghosts as ethereal, misty creatures (both attributes predating the Bed Sheet Ghost), actors began to appear draped in white cloth to portray ghosts.
Over time, as the shroud became emblematic of the ghost, ghosts were depicted as less corporeal by showing the shroud without a body underneath it. Some stories even go one step further by showing the ghost as a wispy blob of ectoplasm, vaguely shroud-like in appearance, ŕ la Casper the Friendly Ghost.
As a result, the white sheet has become pop culture's visual shorthand for spirits of the dead, and a bedsheet with eye holes is the standard costume for fictional characters trying to dress like ghosts. This idea dates back at least to the Post-U.S. Civil War period—the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan were intended to look ghostly. (This Klan connection, in turn, is why the pointy-headed Bedsheet Ghost is no longer a popular design.)
The Klan aside, dressing up as a Bedsheet Ghost is usually indicative of an ill-conceived or apathetic scare attempt, because on their own, a person in a white sheet really isn't that scary to anyone over 6 years old. Like the armored ghost before it, the Bedsheet Ghost has long lost its fright appeal, and is mostly comical today. This in turn has led to a common subversion: The characters see what seems to be a person in a white sheet and laugh at the obvious costume. Then they lift the sheet and see there's no one underneath it. Cue running and screaming. However some have managed to make it somewhat less funny looking and more intimidating, such as putting red paint on the sheet to make it look bloody.
While the Bedsheet Ghost is rarely played straight as an attempt to scare the audience, he can still work as a mournful, sympathetic figure.
Definitely Truth in Television for anyone who's celebrated Halloween: If you haven't dressed as a bedsheet ghost at some point, you know someone who has. Unless you're from the Deep South.
Sub-trope of Stock Costume Traits. Compare Jacob Marley Apparel. The Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl is the rather violent Japanese parallel. Not to be confused with a scene wherein a ghost crawls up from underneath the bedsheet and gets you while you lie on the bed.
One episode in the "Advanced Generation" series, has Ash and the gang explore an abandoned mine where Ash gets the idea to have his Corphish go through a test of courage. May and Max wear a white cloth over themselves to scare Corphish which works. Corphish freaked out, hits the "ghost" causing the cloth to come off and have May and Max fall into a nearby mine cart. Upon seeing that it was them, Corphish becomes pissed and tackles the minecart as its sent flying off, while Corphish who is still angry, heads off in another direction.
One episode set during the early seasons has Ash and his friends explore a ghost ship. Two ghost pokemon, Haunter and Gastly appeared wearing sheets until they were taken off.
Another episode set in the early seasons features Ash and the others flying in a blimp that is supposly haunted. A Jigglypuff gets caught underneath a table cloth and starts to wander around with it on. When Team Rocket encounters it, they believe it is a real ghost and they run away from it.
In a episode of Tenchi Universe, Sasami and her friend Mirei who is an actual ghost, do this to scare her friends as a prank.
Near the end of a episode of Suzy's Zoo Daisuki! Witzy, Suzy and her friends are shown playing around as Bedsheet Ghosts.
Makoto in Kanon tries this on Yuichi. It fails, and Yuichi chastises her for taking down a curtain to do so.
In Di Gi Charat Nyo!, one of Dejiko's friends is allergic to the sun and has to wear a protective suit to go outside. Said protective suit looks like a ghost costume
One episode of Little Lulu and Her Little Friends does this. In the episode Lulu babysits Tubby and he plays various tricks to get her to leave. One of these tricks is dressing up as a ghost and scaring her away. However Lulu does the same thing to him and succeeds in scaring him. Tubby becomes annoyed as she scared him using his own trick.
In Non Non Biyori, Koma is given one to wear as the scarer for a Test Of Courage. Only Natsumi forgot to cut the eyes out and just drew them on with marker.
Parodied in a comic strip (title unknown). In it, a girl tries scaring off her brother by using the old Bedsheet Ghost trick but fails as the brother replies, "What's so scary about a bedsheet on your head?" Then she walks out from the room. Next thing you know, she finally gets to scare her brother... by putting a pillow over her head.
Brazilian character Penadinho/Bug-a-booo and other ghosts from Monica's Gang (though they just look like white humanoids).
In the graphic novel Odd Is on Our Side (a tie-in to the Odd Thomas novels) a young girl killed by poisoned candy appears to Odd still wearing her bedsheet Halloween costume.
The Dark Horse character Ghost has a cape/hood ensemble for her costume that evokes shades of this.
German detective Nick Knatterton once disguised himself as one - but there are also real ones looking like this!
In Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin disguises himself and Snowy as these to scare off the villains. Unfortunately, he can't see where he's going after that and falls into a manhole.
In Destination Moon, Captain Haddock dresses as one in one of several unsuccessful attempts to frighten Calculus out of his amnesia.
This was Dave's halloween costume one year in Knights of the Dinner Table, continuing his run of putting almost no thought or effort into his costume.
In the first issue of Excalibur, Shadowcat dons a sheet to scare some thieves holding people hostage. They believe she is a real ghost beacause their bullets go through her due to her intangible powers.
This was lampshaded in the film version of Beetlejuice. The Maitlands actually are ghosts, and have the ability to manipulate their appearance into grotesque forms, and manipulate material objects as well. However, they're completely invisible to everyone except Lydia, so in an attempt to scare the Deetzes out of their old house, they put on bedsheets so they would be visible. This does not turn out to be as scary as they'd hoped. It doesn't help that they use floral-patterned designer sheets of the Deetzes.
Adam: Aren't you scared? Lydia: I'm not scared of sheets. Barbara: If I'd seen a ghost your age, I would have been scared out of my wits.
In the original Halloween (1978) and its remake, Michael Myers briefly dresses as a bedsheet ghost while toying with one of his victims. Over top of the sheet, he's wearing the glasses of the victim's boyfriend (whom he just knifed), causing her to think it's her boyfriend.
Played for drama in The Sixth Sense. When Cole is sitting in his bedsheet fort and the ghost of a vomiting girl suddenly appears and frightens him, he runs away, inadvertently covering her with the bedsheet. It's only when he gathers the courage to go back and pull the sheet off, that he realizes that the ghost is not scary at all, but just a poor, sick little girl who needs his help.
A surprisingly scary scene in Scream 3 features this. When the killer attacks Sidney in the set recreating her Mother's death, under a sheet covered in blood no less!
In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a child Willie Wonka goes dressed as a bedsheet ghost for Halloween. When his sheet is lifted, we find he probably picked this costume because his headgear wouldn't fit in any other costume.
In a rare completely traditional, completely straight example of this trope in modern film, Paranormal Activity 3 features an actual, honest to evil Bedsheet Ghost scene. Becomes legitimately creepy when the bedsheet just collapses on the ground without anyone under it.
In The Innkeepers, Claire dresses like this in Luke's "re-enactment" of her discovery of the ghost in the lobby. Since she can't see where she's going, she trips over the furniture. But then, an actual ghost appears with a bedsheet. And then we see what's under the bedsheet...
Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost originally popularized this trope.
It's Older Than Feudalism: Julius Caesar: "The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets."
Bear in mind that coffins hadn't caught on yet; Bedsheet Ghosts were in their burial shrouds.
The M.R. James story "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" has... something that manifests itself in the sheets of the unused bed in the hero's hotel room. It's implied that the thing has next to no physical form of its own.
There's something darkly comical about it all. The hero, Parkins, is a po-faced academic who has very definite views on ghosts, so it's deliciously ironic that the thing that terrorizes him chooses to manifest itself in a bedsheet. Not that it makes the story any less terrifying.
Gus the Ghost in the Thayer Gus series is a basic bedsheet ghost. Most people barely notice him, nor get scared if they do.
Clive Barker's "Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud" uses this as an intentionally ridiculous core premise for what can either be read as a fairly serious horror story or a black comedy. The main character manages to come back as a ghost by transferring his spirit from his body to the shroud used to cover him at the morgue.
In Clifford D. Simak's The Goblin Reservation, the character of Ghost (yes, that's how he's called) is depicted this way.
One of the solve-it-yourself mysteries of the Clue books features Mr. Boddy's six guests all dressing up as ghosts to try to scare each other, which makes them all feel a little silly— until they notice there are seven ghosts in the room, and one of them doesn't have feet.
This is Johnny's costume for the Halloween party in Johnny and the Dead. Unfortunately, the only sheet his mum would let him cut eyeholes in is a pink floral one, leading to inevitable comments like "What are you, a gay ghost?"
In the Father Ted series 3 episode "The Mainland", Father Noel Furlong wears a bedsheet when he confronts Father Ted and Dougal in the caves.
Father Noel (in bed sheet): Ooooo! Oooooo! Ted and Dougal: *scream* Father Noel (throws off bed sheet): Ted! Ted and Dougal: *scream louder*
In the British kids' show The Ghosts Of Motley Hall, the ghosts want to scare off some people who've been hanging around their house, but the problem is they're invisible to most humans. Solution: One of the ghosts covers himself with an old bedsheet. In other words, a ghost dressing up as a ghost.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow was originally going to go out on Halloween in a sexy outfit that she and Buffy made. She chickened out and, mostly to cover up, went as a Bedsheet Ghost instead. Then all of their costumes were enchanted to turn them into the things they were dressed as. Cue scantily clad ghost Willow.
Willow: I'm a ghost! Giles: Yes. Um... the ghost of what, exactly?
In Big Bad Beetleborgs, the girl turned invisible in one episode, she tried convincing someone she was a ghost by donning one of these and watching them laugh at her... till it was pulled off and there was no one underneath.
Subverted in Pushing Daisies where in a flashback, young Ned is shown on Halloween in a sheet with fire engines on it.
However, Chuck shows up in a white sheet later that episode.
The Janitor on Scrubs dresses up as one of these to haunt pediatrics.
As the Ghost who hates spills! Woooooohooooooo!
Also, in-line skates.
Carla: You're a monster.
Janitor: Hey! Do you know how messy kids can be? This place has been spotless since the ghost showed up.
Subverted in Malcolm in the Middle: Dewey appears to be dressed up as a bedsheet ghost, but he claims to actually be a marshmallow.
Ace Lightning plays this trope absolutely straight in one episode - and the bad guys are terrified by a kid stuck under a bedsheet.
Low-budget sci-fi serial Rocky Jones, Space Ranger brings us one of the stupidest examples. A Fat, Sweaty Southerner in a White SuitIN SPACE! is trying to steal the land rights to some sort of space gold-mine, and is thwarted not by the Space Rangers, but by a couple of kids throwing a sheet over their remote-control airplane so he thinks it's a ghost. Keep in mind, this is hundreds of years in the future, in a civilization on par with Star Trek...
The Halloween Episode of Duck Dynasty features Uncle Si dressing up as one (complete with his hunting cap and blue Tupperware tea cup) and acting like he's a ghost when the Duck Commander crew is busy turning the warehouse into a "haunted house" attraction for the kids. However, he ends up breaking character (and the sheet gets pulled off) once Jep, who earlier in the episode considered Ghost to be the scariest film of all time, brings up that film again.
Jason does this in FoxTrot and gets an appropriately horrified reaction from his mother, but only because he has cut holes in her new Ralph Lauren sheets.
Recorded And Stand-Up Comedy
In his stand-up days, Woody Allen told a story about how he attempted to go to a costume party dressed as a bedsheet ghost... in the Deep South. Four guys in "ghost costumes" drive up to him and tell him to get in. Hilarity Ensues.
"Holy Ghost, this is not an episode of Scooby Doo!" "I'd have got away with it if it wasn't for those God and Jesus fellas."
As mentioned in the Head Injury Theater quote above, Dungeons & Dragons has the Sheet Phantom, which is an actual Bedsheet Ghost. As with some of the other actual Bedsheet Ghosts, the explanation given is that the being's spirit is imbued into his bedclothes as he dies.
Undead cloakers from the Ravenloft setting somewhat resemble this trope, although they were never human, but ghosts of creatures that resemble flying manta rays.
The second and third cutscenes in the original Pac-Man game demonstrate this: in the second, Blinky chases Pac only to catch his ghost suit on a nail, and in the third, he chases Pac again, but his crappy repair job didn't stay. In both instances, we see part of the creature under the costume.
The boy who controls Spectre in Twisted Metal: Small Brawl appears dressed as this.
In Geist, this strategy actually works on someone, scaring her enough to allow you to possess her. Not that there aren't considerably more effective methods used throughout the game...
To be honest, it's a bit scarier than usual, although the accountant literally sees the sheet rise up off the bed. Raimi-as-a-bedsheet-ghost has an empty dark hood and dives after her, after all.
You actually get to play as one of these in the Self ExplanatoryAdventure GameGhost In The Sheet. Justified in that his "boss" tells him that if the sheet's taken off, what's left of him will scatter away and be lost forever (He died under an incoming bus, which was "very messy"). Actually, the "boss" put the sheet on his definitely-not-fragmented body in order to prevent him from phasing through objects and getting too much information. It doesn't work, of course, as he still manages to get said info...
Many games feature an approximately spherical version, such as the Boos from Super Mario Bros..
One thing that's never made clear about Boos is whether they're actual ghosts who are the remaining spirits of people who are dead, or just a species of ghostlike spirit-beings. Which may or may not be relevant to this trope, but it's worth thinking about; does it count as a bedsheet ghost if it's not actually a ghost?
Special mention to the Duplighosts in Paper Mario, who are literal bedsheet ghosts who can transform into dopplegangers of your partners. In the sequel Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, there's a unique one known as Doopliss, who transforms the citizens of Twilight Town into pigs. He is more humorous than scary, but he's a lot more dangerous than he seems. Partway through the fight with him, he copies Mario and turns into a shadow of the hero. Upon defeat, Mario and company leave, and you then discover you're the shadow now. You encounter the "real" Mario on your way back to Twilight Town, and he reveals that he is the creature you fought and has stolen your name and body. Only upon discovering his real name and defeating him once more is the curse broken.
One of the puzzles from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis had Indy dressing up as a bedsheet ghost to try to scare another character. It didn't work very well until the bed sheet was supplemented with some other items.
In Sonic and Knuckles, Sandopolis Zone Act II featured bedsheet ghosts that appeared as the torches burned down. To start with would be one small one, floating at the top of the screen in a less-than-threatening manner. Then a second one appears and they grow in size and their eyes gain an angry look. When the torches go out completely a third one appears, and all three get bigger and grow horns. If the torches are left off for too long they start swooping down and menacing Sonic. Since the level contains a section where it's very easy to get stuck in a loop and remain stuck well after you've realized you're IN a loop (or even if you were prepared for the loop), these guys can get a little distressing.
The Sega Genesis version of Ghostbusters uses this in the form of white tablecloth ghosts. As in: the tablecloth floats off the table, comes toward you, and "ties you up" if you don't eliminate it.
While I'm not sure if any of the other ghosts in the series used this kind of design, the Axe Ghosts in Wario Land 4 are pretty much this... with the pointy hood style that's gone out of fashion for most other media.
RuneScape does this twice. Once with a green bedsheet (to fit in with green ghosts) and once with regular bedsheets for a Christmas Carol parody.
The Pokémon Gastly and Haunter actually both resemble this type of ghost.
Uninvited specifically invokes this, with a ghost who, according to the narration, "looks like the classic spectre" that comes out of the sky and kills you.
A sort of one-time deal so far: Kirby can get a "Ghost" ability in Kirby Squeak Squad (it has to be unlocked though). He basically takes on this kind of appearance and can possess enemies. It looks silly on him but also cute.
In Jumper Three, a ghost bedsheet is one of the buyable clothes for Ogmo in stage 2-5.
One of the minigames in Rhythm Tengoku has you shooting at bedsheet ghosts with a bow and arrow. The DS sequel has them playing in a rock band.
Zepheniah Mann of Team Fortress 2 haunts the map Harvest in this form, with a jaunty little Gibus on his incorporeal head. As part of a Running Gag (Valve's attempts at injecting horror into TF2 are all Stylistic Suck), the player characters are absolutely terrified of him, dropping their weapons for five seconds if he gets too close.
One Italian cartoonist noticed a potential problem with this.
Scorched by Glenn Jones is about the ghost bedsheet maintenance issues.
Mort from Gunnerkrigg Court. Well, he is a ghost, though it's not clear whether a dead guy or a spirit that always was like this. He takes the form of whatever he thinks is likely to scare his latest victim, and uses the default translucent "bedsheet phantasm" appearance as a sort of indication that he's in "friendly ghost" mode ever since Antimony pointed out that no one's been scared of the linen apparition since they went from burial shrouds to bedsheets.
In Squid Row, Randie did several portraits of herself as a bedsheet ghost with a blond wig.
Peanuts: This is Charlie Brown's favorite Halloween costume in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Of course, being Charlie Brown, he naturally botches said costume with too many eye holes, as Linus did in the actual comic strip.
Oddly enough, these holes are all rendered as black dots of ghostly nothingness rather than simply showing whatever part of him or his regular clothes that's underneath.
Maybe it's just filthy...
Or maybe he's a mutant's ghost, which would be at least a little creepy.
Most of the other kids' costumes are also bedsheet ghosts, with the exception of a few who wear masks on top of bedsheet-ghost outfits.
One of Vlad's bad clones of Danny Phantom looks like a Bedsheet Ghost... because the sheet covers up its horrifying mutations (like the fact that it has no legs, or skin).
Also, Danny tried pulling off the Bedsheet Ghost look during Fright Night. The same episode gave us this nice exchange:
Tucker: Nice costume, dude! Are those flaming bedsheets?
Fright Knight: Flaming bedsheets of death!
American Dragon Jake Long has the episode "Halloween Bash", a For Halloween, I Am Going as Myself episode with a Muggle/Magical Being party. Two Normals show up, dressed as Bedsheet Ghosts, and are annoyed to see how many of the other "costumes" are so much better than theirs. Even after the Dragon Council removed Jake's "costume", they were still regarded as the lamest ones.
In the South Park episode "Here Comes the Neighborhood", the townsfolk wish to drive the rich people (who just happen to all be black) out of town, so they figure what scares rich people? Ghosts. They then dress up as bedsheet ghosts and wind up looking like The Klan. There was some kind of message in that but I really don't know what it was.
Same thing happened in "Pink Eye" from the first season, when Principal Victoria sees Cartman dressed as Hitler and thinks a Bedsheet Ghost would be a less controversial costume. Er, not so much.
Cartman: Wow, Chef must be really scared of ghosts!
In the episode "Scaredy Pants", SpongeBob SquarePants tries to go as the Flying Dutchman and scare everybody, but his costume consists of a sheet and wooden clogs. Because of his square shape, everyone called him a "haunted mattress", so he asks Patrick to shave his head down to a round shape. He goes to the Halloween party and almost gets away with scaring all his friends, but he is found out eventually. Just then the real Flying Dutchman arrives and, insulted by such a pathetic impersonation, unmasks him. He takes one look at him and runs screaming into the night, followed by everyone else, and eventually Patrick. Seems SpongeBob has been sheared down until there was nothing left but his brain.
"It grows back!"
The Garfield and Friends Halloween special featured the "laugh at the bedsheet ghost, oh no there's nothing under the sheet!" scenario, as well as a few variations where other monsters dressed up as bedsheet ghosts.
Bulkhead from Transformers Animated had this as a Halloween costume, but, being a giant robot, the only "bedsheet" that fit turned out to be a fumigation tent.
In Chuck Jones' Looney Tunes short "Claws for Alarm", Sylvester is frightened by a bunch of mice disguised as one of these.
In the made-for-TV movie Yogi's Great Escape, Yogi dresses up as a Bedsheet Ghost to scare away the trapper who's after him. The trapper even lampshades this: "Here comes some uninvited laundry!" Later on, a real bedsheet-like ghost shows up, and of course gets Mistaken for an Imposter. The trapper pulls off the "bedsheet" to see who's underneath... and there is nothing there, except for a small point of light which vanishes, at which point the trapper is attacked by the now-invisible ghost which then proceeds to re-materialize another bedsheet around itself.
An episode of Jimmy Two-Shoes had Beezy being haunted by one. Its sheet is eventually removed, revealing a body of pizza crusts.
High-Five Ghost and his family in Regular Show. Then it gets...odd when Mordecai and Rigby are turned into ghosts, and they just look like themselves, with a ghostly squiggle instead of legs.
In the ThunderCats (2011) episode "The Forest of Magi Oar", the Thunderkittens tease Cheetara when she reports feeling the presence of spirits, by playing at being ghosts under a tent canvas. While stumbling under it, they knock their heads together.
In one episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks has the chipmunks do this to a person claiming to be their uncle but was really using them to make money and pay off a debt.
Then in an episode of The Alvin Show, J.P. Lester is an actual bedsheet ghost haunting Chesley Estate.
In the Season 4 finale of The Venture Bros., Dean Venture attempts to dress as one of these as a "spooky" costume, because he's unable to find Goth clothing to impress Triana. The following events actually cause him to be confused for a Klan member.
The New Adventures of Madeline featured an episode where Madeline and her sisters entered a haunted castle where some of the girls dress up as ghosts.
In The Archie Show episode "Groovy Ghosts", Archie and his friends want to use an old abandoned house as a clubhouse, but Reggie tries to scare them away by making them think the house is haunted. Instead of wearing a sheet, Reggie attaches strings to a sheet to make it move around like a puppet. Archie plays it straight when he scares Reggie.
The titular characters of The Spooks of Bottle Bay.
In one episode of Dexter's Laboratory, Dexter's goldfish dies and comes back as a ghost to haunt him. When trying to hunt the ghost using ghost equipment, Dee Dee appears wearing a sheet, causing Dexter to mistake her for a ghost and attack her. When he asks her what she is doing, Dee Dee says she wanted to scare the ghost by dressing up as a ghost.
Adventure Time: In "Too Young", Finn and Princess Bubblegum stage a 'prank' on Earl Lemongrab by dressing up as bedsheet ghosts, running up to Lemongrab and punching him in the stomach.
What About Mimi: In "Our Little Einstein", Mimi, along with her older brother Jason, does this to scare her little brother Bradley into going to a private school for gifted kids. This fails, however, due to the fact that Jason can't see where he is going while carrying Mimi, causing him to trip and make the sheet that they were wearing to fall off.
The Looney Tunes Show: Bugs disguises himself as a bedsheet ghost in an attempt to scare Sam out of his house in "Fish and Visitors".
Popples: In "Backyard Adventure", it is one of the popples trying to scare the others.
In "Poppin' Pillow Talk", Bonnie wears a ghost costume to scare her brother for scaring her earlier.
The Wuzzles: In "What's Up, Stox?" when they fail to raise enough money to buy real costumes, they settle for this.
In "Ghostrustlers", Croc's Mooks disguise themselves as a ghost to scare the wuzzles away. It didn't fool Bumblelion. Later on when real ghosts start to appear, Hoppopotamus covers herself in a sheet to lure a ghost into a trap. However she gets caught in the trap herself.