The Bizarre Trend of People in the 1800s Dressing Up Like Ghosts

Friday October 20, 2017 Written by Genevieve

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Remember that creepy clown craze that happened a few years ago? When people were dressing up like clowns and just walking around, being freaky, for the primary purpose of freaking people out? With copycat after copycat following (clown) suit, the situation became a global phenomenon that most people were relieved to see the end of.  

At the time, it might have seemed like an unprecedented occurrence in Australia. But it actually wasn’t. Rewind more than 100 years. Over a period of several decades during the late 1800s and early 1900s, a bizarre trend swept through Victoria: individuals would dress up like ghosts, just to freak peeps out. And although offenders had varying motives for ‘going ghost’ – cheap thrills, revenge, theft and a host of other reasons ranging from silly to sinister – each case shared pretty much the same gist: dress up as a spectre, appear suddenly to an unsuspecting member of the public, and terrify the zonks out of them.

As the Sunday Times reports above, a ghost hoaxer caused “considerable alarm” to the law-abiding folks of Connington in Western Australia. The apparition was “waylaid” by a number of residents who decided that instead of turning him over to the police, they would instead administer “a sound thrashing" with a paling.

For some strange reason, the bulk of reported incidents in Victoria occurred around Ballarat, and the offenders, once caught, were found to be from a much more diverse range of backgrounds than expected: there were primary school teachers, clerks, and influential public figures like elocutionist Herbert Patrick McLennan, who terrified the people of Ballarat by wielding a cat-o'-nine-tails while wearing a white suit.

The general consensus among historians is that this weird era of ghost hoaxing was induced by a combination of widespread boredom and Victoria’s diminutive police presence at the time. That does indeed seem like a potentially catastrophic set of variables. But perhaps it was all a big misunderstanding, with the ghostly get-up merely an attempt to problem-solve a bad hair day, or a nothing-to-wear day. Both these things are completely within the realm of possibility… Or maybe they were just actual ghosts.


Artwork by Antoinette Stokell. Sunday Times article 'Thrashing a Ghost' courtesy of Public Records Office of Victoria.