Think of a ghost. What do you see? The first image that comes to mind may be a floating white sheet in the vague outline of a person, with two holes cut out for its eyes. Ghosts in this form were popularised in the 19th century, the idea being that apparitions of the dead would reappear wrapped in their burial shrouds, but in time this representation has become hackneyed, more readily associated with childlike and comic characters than anything truly haunting. While some films, such as Finisterrae (2010) and Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), use the sheet trick in imaginative and unsettling ways, in our cultural memories it's more likely to evoke the unconvincing ghost disguise in Beetlejuice (1988), the trick-or-treating party in E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Charlie Brown's botched costume in the Halloween TV special It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown (1966).
Director David Lowery has been thinking about ghosts for a long time. When he made his first film at the age of seven, his brother wore a bedsheet to play a ghost, and in his animated short My Daily Routine (2011) a ghost again appears in the same guise. Perhaps it was inevitable that he would one day bring this idea to fruition in a feature. “It's something that has long been a fascination of mine, and the idea of doing a haunted house movie with somebody wearing a sheet was something I thought of a couple of years ago,” he says. “I thought it would be really funny to make a straight-up horror film, a very traditional horror film like Poltergeist , but have the ghost constantly be represented by somebody in a sheet, and always visible. That idea was just something that amused me when I'd think about it from time to time.”
Read the rest of my interview with David Lowery in the September 2017 issue of Sight & Sound