Ghosts & Goblins & Ghouls, Oh My!

The history behind some of America’s most iconic costumes

Boo! Is that spooky figure a spirit raised from the dead? No, it’s just a classic ghost costume: two holes cut out of a sheet to create one of the most iconic Halloween costumes in American history. 

The popular holiday Halloween dates all the way back to the eighth century when November first was used to honor saints. Halloween, then known as All Hallows Eve, was held the night before to celebrate the end of summer harvest with costumes and bonfires. While it was originally a pagan celebration, the date is now heavily commercialized, with many stores selling anything the average person would need to join the festivities. Said festivities include parties, pranking, and trick or treating, with costumes being donned for all in the spirit. 

One of the most timeless costumes is a sheet ghost, with popular characters like Charlie Brown, Michael Myers, and Spongebob wearing the classic look. But this ghoulish figure has roots in entertainment far earlier than television. Stage performers adopted it as an easy and cheap way to differentiate between dead and living characters without the hassle of bulky costumes. The larger public then took it up, first to prank the masses, but then as a fun and easy way to show (and be a) Halloween spirit. 

Even today, modern teenagers have taken up the bedsheet in a nostalgic TikTok trend. By cutting eye holes in a white cloth or, more commonly, wearing a pair of sunglasses over it, anyone could participate in the autumnal activity, continuing the legacy of the costume.

Another popular costume is a witch, complete with her hat and broomstick. The spooky sorceress is so well known that, even in the modern day, it is recognized as the most popular Halloween costume for adults year after year. However, all ages don the pointed hat; both younger and older audiences wear the costume in different forms, even appearing on celebrities like Kate Middleton, Jennifer Garner, and Jamie Lee Curtis. 

Loggan, D. (2022). Mother Louse. Wikipedia. photograph, Wikipedia Foundation Inc. Retrieved from _%28trade%29#/media/File:Mother_ Louse,_Alewife_Wellcome_L0000658 .jpg.

Despite the costume’s widespread popularity, it has less than innocent origins. Other than the religious stereotypes present, alewives, women who were villainized for having jobs brewing beer, are the main influence, with their wide brimmed hats synonymous with the wicked creature. However, modern media has softened this history with movies like The Wizard of Oz creating a more palatable image of a witch for millions to replicate every Halloween season.

A witch’s companion, a black cat, has held its own as a wildly popular outfit for partiers and trick or treaters alike. For centuries, the creature has been seen as bad luck, with ties to both sorcery and pagan religions. This has led to them being adopted less from shelters, but has not stopped people from adopting their image for a classic Halloween costume.

The simplicity and versatility of the costume makes it a bestseller. The only thing needed to convey the classic look is a pair of cat ears, with any additions to the costume changing it to fun, flirty, or funny, making it appealing to a wide range of people. Whether it’s trick or treating, going to a party, or watching a Halloween special, this feline fashion is likely to be there.

With every year that passes, different characters will come and go with the trends, but some looks stick around and leave their marks. These iconic costumes have been around for years, and hopefully they’ll be around for years to come; the holiday wouldn’t be the same without them. So to those calling back to a classic, and to those scrambling to put something together, have a spooky season and a happy Halloween!