Why Ghosts Wear Clothes: A Matter Of Residual Self-Image?

While finishing up my post about the ghost of Stow Lake, I got to thinking about just how many ghosts are named after the clothes they allegedly wear.

The White Lady of Stow Lake. The Grey Lady of Willard Library. The Pink Lady of Greencastle. The most well-known of these colorful spirits is probably the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. Each one gets its name from either its attire or the aura that surrounds it, or both.

Even the Hat Man, that sinister shadow that many have seen lurking just at the edge of their sight, or in mirrors, is often described as wearing a dark cloak and a hat. His name is the Hat Man, after all.

This led me to a question I’ve asked myself many times throughout the years, when reading ghost stories and other paranormal fare: Just why do ghosts often appear wearing clothing? I’m certainly not the first to wonder this.

The Nature of Ghosts With Clothes

Do ghosts exist? And, if so, what exactly are they? We don’t have solid answers to even those questions, but allowing for some possibilities, we can at least wonder.

One explanation for ghosts that has always fascinated me is the concept of residual hauntings and environmental recordings, in which past events seem to repeat, as if part of some ghostly film, over and over again in the location where they occurred. In this case, ghost clothes are reasonably explained as part of said recordings.

Residual hauntings are known as unintelligent hauntings, the “ghosts” being projected images and not intelligent ghosts as we’d commonly think of them. It makes sense that attire would be part of those recordings.

If we consider ghost photographs, cameras often capture ghosts as strange mists, orbs or lights, and not in the more humanoid forms witnesses often claim to see at the time of hauntings (though this is not always the case).

Perhaps the camera captures a spirit’s “true” form, but our minds fill in the blanks, making it appear in a human form as some kind of mental phenomenon. We, as the still-living, see what we expect to see, clothes and all. Then again, there’s the possibility that spirits, being once-living humans themselves, are able to project their appearances outwardly, into the minds of witnesses. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Apparitional Clothing and Out-Of-Body Experiences

The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) has a fairly in-depth page on the issue of ghosts wearing clothes, which focuses strongly on out-of-body experiences and what we may call OBE apparitions. These are the apparitions of people who manifest to others during out-of-body experiences.

For example, in one 1957 case, a woman living in Illinois named Martha Johnson (pseudonym) dreamed that she had visited her mother in Minnesota. She, as an OBE apparition, walked into her mother’s small house and “leaned up against the dish cupboard with folded arms.” Her mother looked at her, then Martha stood and walked out.

A couple days later, Martha received a letter from her mother, in which she described seeing Martha for just “a few seconds” before she vanished. Martha, curious, wrote back to ask her mother if she remembered what she was wearing.

She did, in fact, writing that she’d seen Martha with her hair in a ponytail, wearing an “almost white blouse.” Martha had also appeared perfectly solid, as if she were really there.

What’s interesting about this case of apparitional clothing, however, is that Martha was wearing no such thing while she slept. Instead, her mother saw Martha as Martha saw herself during her dream/out-of-body experience.

“The clothing and hairstyle of the apparitional figure were not those of the sleeping Martha,” write SPR, “They corresponded, instead, to the way Martha experienced herself during her OBE.”

“Presumably,” SPR continue, “Martha’s hairstyle and clothing during her OBE are mental constructs, just as they would be if her experience were merely a dream.” Martha projected her appearance, her self-image during the dream, into the mind of the witness.

However, SPR also provide a possible example of this not being the case, in which a man named Clarence Godfrey experienced an OBE just before sleep (not dreaming) and appeared to the witness wearing business attire, and not night clothes. In this instance, the OBE apparition appeared as the witness would have expected to see Godfrey, and not as he actually was at that time.

These stories may provide some clues as to why ghosts are often seen wearing clothing, even though the accounts focus primarily on out-of-body experiences.

After all, dying and becoming a ghost is the ultimate out-of-body experience, wouldn’t you say?


All this talk of projections and self-image lead me to a place I seem to go time and time again: The 1999 science fiction film The Matrix.

When Neo is first introduced to the Matrix within the Construct, Morpheus explains its origins and what it’s all about. While he listens, a confused and formerly hairless Neo finds himself seemingly back to normal, wearing ordinary clothes and with a full head of hair. Morpheus stands before him, wearing a fancy suit and those iconic glasses.

“Right now,” Neo asks, “We’re inside a computer program?”

“Is it really so hard to believe?” Morpheus replies, “Your clothes are different. The plugs in your arms and head are gone. Your hair has changed. Your appearance now is what we call residual self-image. It is the mental projection of your digital self.”

Residual self-image. The way a person imagines him or herself to physically appear. In the case of this particular science fiction movie, while inside the Matrix.

Could the same be said of ghosts, when people move on to whatever the “other side” may be? Does self-image follow us beyond the grave? Like Neo in the Matrix, perhaps spirits appear as they see their true selves, or as they remember themselves when they were alive.

Perhaps ghosts do not exist in any particular form — like the orbs and mists captured by cameras, mentioned above — but are given form by their own residual self-image.


Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.