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TikTokers are being called out for a 'ghost photoshoot' trend that critics say reminds them of KKK robes
- A "ghost photoshoot" challenge went viral on TikTok, with people from around the world taking and posting photos of themselves dressed in a bedsheet ghost costume.
- The trend drew criticism online, most intensely on Twitter, with some saying the outfit reminded them of KKK robes, which are undeniable signifiers of racist terrorism is the United States.
- While the trend has ridden a wave of wholesomeness on TikTok and seems to be driven by genuine participation, criticisms have noted the power of unintended consequences of viral imagery.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories .
On TikTok, ghosts have taken over. Or rather, teens running around in bedsheet ghost costumes set to TikTok favorite Jack Stauber 's tune "Oh Klahoma" have taken over.
The trend, which is associated with the hashtag #ghostphotoshoot , sees people making their own ghost costumes, cutting out holes for eyes in bed sheets or wearing sunglasses, fishnets, Doc Martens, or other assorted clothing items to accessorize and take aesthetic photos.
@natenorell When Santa Monica goes to sleep, the ghosts come out to play 👻 ib: @jackjanson88 📸: @alecohlaker 2nd 👻: @katjohanab ♬ Oh Klahoma - Jack Stauber
The hashtag #ghostphotoshoot has amassed over 2.2 billion views on TikTok alone, and nearly 13,000 posts on Instagram . Although not every video associated with the hashtag is actually a ghost photoshoot (TikTokers frequently tag trending hashtags in their posts to try to boost their spread on the platform) the numbers are a testament to the challenge's popularity on the app.
However, as the trend has spread online, it's drawn criticism. Numerous people expressed shock at the trend, saying costumes reminded them of Ku Klux Klan robes. The Ku Klux Klan is an explicitly white supremacist organization that terrorized and killed Black people throughout the 1800s and 1900s. They say their costumes represent Confederate ghosts.
After New York Times technology reporter Taylor Lorenz tweeted a thread of ghost photoshoot TikToks, led by a group image that featured multiple people in white sheets, critics on Twitter said the images and the trend itself were tone deaf in the current political climate.
—「desp」 (@bigracks) September 22, 2020
Bedsheet ghosts are a familiar pop culture trope
This is far from the first time that bedsheet ghosts have emerged in pop culture, or internet culture at large. As Natalie Shure wrote for The Daily Beast in 2017 , the costume has made appearances in iconic media ranging from "Charlie Brown" to "SpongeBob SquarePants." While early depictions of ghosts in works like Shakespeare's "Hamlet" skewed more realistic — the ghost of Hamlet's father wears armor, for example — they presented challenges for artists to differentiate between ghosts and humans. Ghosts started appearing in burial shrouds , morphing into the billowing sheet imagery we associate with ghosts today.
Bedsheet ghosts, Shure wrote, became a popular costume during Halloween's earliest years in the United States. The costume fell more out of fashion after the Second World War due to a variety of factors including changing perceptions of ghosts in popular culture. After the Ku Klux Klan became a part of American consciousness and, Shure wrotes, the costume brought about "horrific new connotations for white bedsheets, which now evoked hatred rather than holiday fun."
The image of the bedsheet ghost continued to appear in pop culture through the 20th century and into the 21st, featured in media like "Scooby Doo," "E.T.," and Snapchat photo shoots .
KKK garb and sheet ghosts share visual and symbolic elements, and this isn't the first time it's been pointed out
While the bedsheet ghost became a pop culture symbol that persisted through the latter half of the 20th century, that doesn't fully divorce its connections the Klan outfit, according to David Cunningham, the chair of the Department of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of "Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan," .
"The KKK's use of white robes and hoods dates to the group's origins in the 1860s, and the now-familiar uniform of the Klan was formalized in the early 20th century," he told Insider via email.
"The 'ghostly' imagery of these robes was intentional, as the KKK's original aim was in part to portray spectral figures that would terrorize its targets. Today, the Klan's white sheets are perhaps the most widely-known and resonant symbol of organized racism, and as such they clearly echo in 'ghost' costumes such as the ones we're seeing on TikTok," he said.
This isn't the first time that the shared symbolism between bedsheet ghosts and KKK robes have been pointed out, or even satirized. In the seventh episode of "South Park," titled "Pinkeye," Cartman, initially dressed as Hitler, inadvertently ends up dressed as a member of the KKK after the school principal makes him an impromptu "scary ghost costume."
Local news station KCRA 3 also reported on a 2016 incident in which three Florida high school students were suspended after wearing what appeared to be KKK costumes to school. KCRA 3 reports that the students claimed that they were dressed as ghosts.
This particular iteration of the TikTok trend appears to have begun in September
The TikTok trend that's currently circulating — bedsheet ghosts, photoshoots, and in particular, the Jack Stauber "Oh Klahoma" soundtrack — appears to have originated with TikTok user @jackjanson88, who posted a ghost photoshoot video on September 9.
@jackjanson88 boo ##foryou ##foryoupage ##photography ##spookyseason ##MorningCheer ##YouHaveTo ♬ Oh Klahoma - Jack Stauber
Jack, 15, told Insider that a few days before doing the photoshoot, he was listening to Phoebe Bridger's "Motion Sickness." The cover for that particular album, 2017's "Stranger in the Alps" features a depiction of a ghost with human arms.
Jack said that he was "craving that Halloween vibe," and that after picking up a sheet at Hobby Lobby, he had a clear vision for the photoshoot that included his Doc Martens, white socks that went up to his shins, and the sheet itself. He told Insider that he never expected his video to blow up on TikTok.
@rebeccarod32 I recommend everyone doing this trend bc it’s so much fun!! @belem_a_21 ❤️ ##greenscreen ##ghostphotoshoot ##wigs ##HelloFall ##spookyseason ♬ Oh Klahoma - Jack Stauber
There are now countless ghost photoshoot videos on TikTok, featuring myriad styles and takes on the trend. People around the world are taking ghost photos and putting their own spin on it. Some even bring their pets into the picture as well .
@mrkhaii IB: @jackjanson88 ##greenscreen ##ghostboy ##ghostphotographs ##halloween ##spookyseason ##fyp ##WhatsPoppin ##ThrowbackSongs ♬ Oh Klahoma - Jack Stauber
@ryanhaze_samson Here's my entry for this trend ##ghostphotoshoot but Filipino version😅 Watch till the end ##film ##indie pls don't let this flop🥺👉🏻👈🏻 ♬ Oh Klahoma - Jack Stauber
@ameiliyaputrr 👻👻 ##ghostphotoshoo ##ghostphotoshop ##ghostphotoshoot ##fypシ ##fouryoupagee ##fyp ##friendz ##friendshipgols ♬ Oh Klahoma - Jack Stauber
On Twitter, the trend received criticism for the ghost costume's similarity to KKK robes
New York Times technology reporter Taylor Lorenz tweeted a thread of ghost photoshoot TikTok videos on Tuesday, September 22. The thread began with two photos of a group of people together in bedsheet ghost costumes, several of them wearing sunglasses over the sheets.
The thread sparked a wave of criticism of the trend, with people pointing out that the costume was reminiscent of KKK garb and that the photos had the potential to evoke much different reactions other than the front-facing whimsy that's pervasive on TikTok.
—jason delrulo (@sgfgdel) September 22, 2020
2020 has seen massive upheaval against racial injustice following the killings of Black Americans including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police . And, as NBC News' Janell Ross wrote in June , "black Americans are exhausted. They are grieving. They are angry."
On Twitter, some said that a social media trend like this felt wrong for 2020, or that ghosts weren't the first things they thought of when they saw people in white sheets. Others defended the trend .
—Imaeyen Ibanga (@iiwrites) September 23, 2020
Jada, 16, commented under a viral quote retweet of Lorenz's original tweet, remarking on the discussion itself and what she saw as white people telling Black people in the comments to "shut up" when they "clearly [felt] uncomfortable."
Jada told Insider over text that when she first saw the trend, she initially thought she was seeing KKK imagery. "It made me uncomfortable bc of the history behind the kkk and seeing a bunch of white kids in white sheets just doesn't sit right with me at all," she said.
On Twitter, Lorenz said that she was sorry for any offense her thread may have caused. She told Insider that she felt that she should not have led with the group photos because she thought that it misrepresented the photo challenge, and said that the photos and videos read differently on Twitter than on TikTok given that reposting them strips them of their original context.
"I just think that context matters for all of this stuff so much, and to strip context and strip agency from the people who have participated in this and try to reframe it is kind of disingenuous," Lorenz told Insider.
"On a whole, I just think there's a lot more background to this challenge and I think the way it's presented on Twitter is so radically different. The majority of people are consuming this content in context, with captions, on TikTok, or in context, with captions, on Instagram," she said.
On TikTok, people pointed out similarities between the ghost costumes and KKK robes as well
Criticism of the trend isn't limited to Twitter. While comments remarking on the ghost photos or tagging friends to participate are dominant in comment sections on TikTok, several videos also had comments that pointed out the visual similarities between the sheets and KKK garb.
One video from @frankiesfun features people in both white and red sheets ( some members of the KKK wore red sheets as well to distinguish rank) and garnered a significant number of comments regarding the sheet color choice. One comment reads, "Y'all lowkey look like klan members hahahha." Another reads, "soooo here's the thing. Red and white.... maybe not the best combo."
@frankiesfun This was so much fun... w/@livelaughliam @tashatalk @jcasx ##ghostphotoshoot ♬ Oh Klahoma - Jack Stauber
@frankiesfun addressed the criticism in the comments, writing, "We genuinely did not know that red was a bad color for this trend. I'm sorry if anyone was offended. Our intention was to make it different."
Many creators had pure intentions participating in the trend, but that doesn't mitigate its effect
David Cunningham, the sociology professor, said that a "lack of a broad public conversation that acknowledges and addresses the nation's history of racist violence" can lead to a blind spot among white creators when it comes to the impact of their actions, however well-intentioned, on communities of color.
"Working to understand the experiences of others builds an awareness of how this sort of ostensibly-harmless social media trend can and does tap into a history of injustice," he told Insider.
Context, and the nature of the photoshoots themselves, is important. Jack, the 15-year-old who has largely been credited with starting this particular iteration of the trend on TikTok, said that he hadn't gotten any comments related to the KKK until people in larger groups began to do it. He also said that he had seen other videos in which a group of people were holding an American flag or were near a bonfire.
"In my head, obviously I would never have that intent with a photoshoot I have," he told Insider. "But definitely there are some people that are getting angry, and I totally understand that."
Jack said, however, that he thought that the trend had resonated on TikTok because it was a way to get good photos without having to show your face. The anonymity of the trend was also an appeal, as is the trend's ability to help people get into the Halloween spirit.
Lorenz said that she thought that the trend was a means of "disengaging from reality, and building this other spooky world."
While those participating in the trend may have pure intentions, comments on TikTok and further criticism on Twitter show that its impact doesn't always align.
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This viral TikTok ghost photoshoot trend is dividing people
Critics are calling it tone-deaf..
Posted on Sep 23, 2020 Updated on Sep 24, 2020, 10:45 am CDT
Amid a pandemic and the start of autumn , ghost photoshoots have become a viral trend on TikTok . And now a Twitter thread about the phenomenon is facing sharp criticism for the connotations of groups of people donned in white sheets.
The thread , by New York Times internet culture reporter Taylor Lorenz, highlights several of these ghost photoshoot videos on TikTok. While the idea might seem innocent enough, Lorenz was quickly called out for, critics say, celebrating something that harkens back to photos of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members in white robes and masks.
Simultaneously, Twitter users accused Lorenz of whitewashing the trend. The internet is infamous for “bad tweets” suddenly becoming viral dustups—but this seemingly innocuous celebration of Halloween sparked surprising passion even by Twitter standards.
What is the ghost photoshoot trend?
The idea behind the trend is exactly what you might think: Teens and young adults (and even dogs ) dressed up in sheets. On TikTok, the “ ghostphotoshoot ” hashtag has received more than 2 billion views as of Wednesday. TikTok encourages users to participate in the trend with this note on the tag: “Grab a camera, throw on a sheet and show us your #GhostPhotoshoot.” On Instagram, the same hashtag has at least 11,000 posts. People are also sharing images of the trend on Twitter.
While some people are doing the photoshoots alone, it’s popular to do the photoshoot with friends or family. Many of the images show people wearing black sunglasses over the sheets.
Lorenz, who often tweets long threads about new TikTok trends, is being criticized for featuring mostly white people participating in ghost photoshoots. Given the tumultuous state of the U.S.—with Black Lives Matter protests erupting nationwide and a hugely important presidential election upcoming—many Black Twitter users were stunned by what appeared to be a tone-deaf thread.
Multiple users noted that the featured ghosts recalled the infamous white outfits of the KKK, a white supremacist hate organization that still boasts members in 2020.
In response to the criticism her thread received, Lorenz buckled down on the idea that the trend was entirely innocent. She called out her critics for “trying to cancel literal children.”
Speaking to the Daily Dot on the phone, Lorenz also noted that “this is not a new thing, this discourse around it is a new thing.” In response to the people her thread offended, she said it “is a totally valid gut reaction” for people of color to be startled by the images. “I think it is different to see something in the context of Twitter versus real life,” she continued. The photo she chose to begin the thread with, which features several white-clad figures in a row, was a misstep, according to Lorenz.
If you’re one of the many people trying to cancel literal children for dressing themselves and their pets up as ghosts while trying to celebrate yet another holiday they’re largely being robbed of b/c of COVID please unfollow me and go away pic.twitter.com/7CDLGmJE44 — Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) September 22, 2020
Lorenz went on to apologize for any offense her thread may have caused but continued to lean into the non-racist history of white sheets as costumes. Some Twitter users were not convinced, however.
Bedsheet ghosts have been around for hundreds of years (since Shakespeare days) and are frequently portrayed in pop culture. I didn’t anticipate how angry ppl would be that this is still a popular kids Halloween costume! but I appreciate everyone who shared their thoughts. pic.twitter.com/7GVkqu2aKM — Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) September 23, 2020
One user noted that the trend, and Lorenz’s adamant defense of it, reminded her of “the hand symbol game that had white supremacist ties and the kids were allowed to keep doing it cuz it was just ‘harmless fun.'”
*whispers* cuz she knows it’s right at the cusp of… nvm. She doesn’t want to see it. This reminds me of the hand symbol game that had white supremacist ties and the kids were allowed to keep going cuz it was just “harmless fun” despite being called out for it. — A Memphis Junt. (@easy_mfpeasy) September 22, 2020
Lorenz continued to defend the trend through the criticism. User @yumcoconutmilk called Lorenz out for “belittling the trauma and the impact this could have on actual Black folk like me, whose families have actually been terrorized by the Klan.”
In her interview with the Dot, Lorenz noted that people of color have a right to dictate the narrative on what makes them uncomfortable. “Things are lost in communication… but if people want to say ‘these are problematic costumes, and we don’t want them anymore’ that is fine,” she said. “I just think people need to have that conversation as a society, and recognize that this costume is hugely popular, not just for Halloween. This is a thing that people do, so if it’s not acceptable anymore, I just think that needs to be a broader conversation.”
I think people are more interested in cancelling you for belittling the trauma and the impact this could have on actual Black folk like me, whose families have actually been terrorized by the Klan https://t.co/xK1X0QU5xZ — nylah burton (@yumcoconutmilk) September 22, 2020
The negative responses soon reached far past the KKK ties, and into the allegedly whitewashed nature of the original thread.
Whitewashing on TikTok
While Lorenz was fielding KKK-related criticism from one half of Twitter, the other half was unable to ignore the skin color of nearly every participant in her thread. The first participant of color finally showed up several tweets into the thread. When speaking with the Daily Dot, Lorenz disagreed with critics stating that people of color showed up too late into her thread. “Give me a break, I literally just shared the ones that I liked on my phone,” she said.
The lack of creators of color came across as problematic, as several users noted that the trend appears to have started on “spooky hood alt TikTok.” TikTok is notorious for boosting videos from conventionally attractive, thin, white creators .
Indeed, several videos show posts from “spooky hood alt TikTok” with earlier upload dates than most of the viral participants. Lorenz was called out for whitewashing the TikTok ghosts thread on Twitter, though her thread did feature creators of color in subsequent tweets.
According to Lorenz, the trend appears to have started in Southeast Asia. She noted that many of the earliest uploads originated in that area of the world.
I earnestly just love Halloween and ghosts. I shared some of these TikToks and photos b/c they reminded me of spooky stuff I used to see on Tumblr. I didn’t meant to cause controversy, I was just excited about Halloween and I’m sorry if my thread offended or upset anyone :( — Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) September 23, 2020
One user noted that “if dressing up as a ghost makes you look remotely like a KKK member” it may be best to avoid the practice entirely.
Correction: Lorenz’s original thread featured creators of color.
More on TikTok
Nahila Bonfiglio reports on geek culture and gaming. Her work has also appeared on KUT's Texas Standard (Austin), KPAC-FM (San Antonio), and the Daily Texan.