Vintage Russian postcard
I am often complimented on how warm my coats look: “You look so bundled up!” It is praise I accept not for myself, but on behalf of the country where I bought them: Russia. I spent a total of two winters there, in Moscow, and each time, I approached the matter of buying a coat with an almost superstitious seriousness, as if the Russian winter were a spirit that watched me as I shopped, waiting to punish me if I made the wrong choice of down, or underestimated the need for moisture-wicking fabric. I was not wrong; I swear, that first winter, the wind felt like a ghost slapping me in the face, chiding me for getting the hood that buttoned rather than zipped. Perhaps that is why, every Halloween, as ghost stories make their return, my mind often wanders to Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” Published in 1842, it tells the story of a vengeful ghost, who in life had his overcoat stolen and now in death haunts the city of St. Petersburg, pulling coats off the backs of innocent passersby. Gogol’s story, at its heart, is a frightening tale of poverty and social isolation. It is also a testament to the power of hauntings that take place on a larger scale, where ghosts seek to collect debts not for individual transgressions but for the failings of an entire society.
“The Overcoat” follows Akaky Akakievich, an aging, awkward copy clerk who is mercilessly ridiculed by nearly everyone in his life over his lowly social status (he is a titular councilor, a relatively insignificant position in imperial Russia’s “table of ranks” system). At work, his superiors lord over him with a “cold despotism.” Despite this, he finds pleasure in his work, in its mundane simplicity: “In copying, he saw some varied and pleasant world of his own. Delight showed in his face; certain letters were his favorites, and when he came to one of them, he was beside himself.” However, as winter approaches, Akaky’s peace is disturbed by a familiar villain: “There exists in Petersburg a powerful enemy of all who earn a salary of four hundred rubles or thereabouts. This enemy is none other than our northern frost.”
Akaky, whose old coat is too tattered to withstand the frigid air, begins saving for a new one, forgoing the small pleasures that make his otherwise dreary life pleasurable (drinking tea, lighting candles in the evening). But Akaky comes to find joy instead in the dream of a new coat: “it was as if his very existence became somehow fuller, as if he were married, as if some other person were there with him, as if he were not alone but some pleasant life’s companion had agreed to walk down the path of life with him — and this companion was none other than that same overcoat.” We share in his horror when, on his very first day wearing his new coat, Akaky is robbed of it. To make matters worse, as titular councilor, he does not have enough pull to get the authorities to take his case seriously. The cold air and society’s indifference sends him to an early grave, but soon afterward, a rumor begins to spread throughout the city: “A dead man had begun to appear at night in the form of a clerk searching for some stolen overcoat.” In death, Akaky gets his revenge.
Gogol’s story could be classified as what Wellesley professor Kathleen Brogan defines as “cultural haunting.” Unlike stories of individuals being haunted by what transpired in an isolated location (haunted castles, Gothic abbeys), in cultural hauntings, societies as a whole face a reckoning. Ghosts, in these cases, are often the victims of endemic injustices who refuse to be forgotten: “Through the agency of ghosts, group histories that have in some way been threatened, erased, or fragmented are cooperated and revised.” Indeed, Akaky’s ghost is indiscriminate; he pulls “from all shoulders, regardless of rank or titles, various overcoats.” He is not looking to terrorize the two men who robbed him, but the city, the society, that left him out in the cold in the first place.
In North America, ghost stories have also worked to counter our national historic amnesia. In Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the headless horseman, a Revolutionary War mercenary for the British, reflects a young republic still fractured and insecure in its allegiances. Ghosts haunt us for the crime of slavery, as in Toni Morrison’s Beloved , and more recently in the Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip’s collection Zong!. The latter revisits the 1781 mass murder of African slaves who were tossed into the Atlantic as part of an insurance scheme. Zong! , Philip tells us, ““haunt[s] the spaces of forgetting” by calling on the ghostly voices of the drowned Africans to finally testify. In Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places , Colin Dickey revisits the slave plantation, the mental asylum, and cites of haunting to disentangle the social anxieties that pervade our ghost stories, like the popular trope of “Indian burial grounds” in horror films such as Poltergeist II : “The narrative of the haunted Indian burial ground hides a certain anxiety about the land on which Americans — specifically white, middle-class Americans — live,” namely “the idea that we don’t, in fact, own the land we’ve just bought.”
Ghost stories are vehicles through which we can explore our anxieties over cultural appropriation, patriarchy, and militarization. In White Tears , novelist Hari Kunzru portrays two white hipsters haunted by the spirit of the black blues musician whose work they exploit. In “Especially Heinous,” a short story from the collection Her Body and Other Parties , Carmen Maria Machado satirizes the popular TV series “Law and Order: SVU” by having ghosts of women and girls whose deaths went unsolved haunt Detective Olivia Benson. In Cemetery of Splendour , Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul depicts a military hospital for soldiers who have a strange sleeping disease. It turns out the hospital was built over the cemetery of ancient kings whose ghosts are still at war with one another. The kings feed off the energy of the soldiers, causing their narcolepsy, in a powerful allegory of the country’s seeming endless cycle of violent coups.
At the end of “The Overcoat,” a policeman sees Akaky’s ghost and follows it into the night, until the spectral thief suddenly stops, turns around, and asks him: “What do you want?” The policeman, in a terror, replies: “Nothing.” What do we want from our ghosts? As we commit ever-new forms of violence, such as the destruction of the environment, we will take on new hauntings. In Iceland, there was recently a funeral for a glacier. That same polar melting is pushing salt water into forests along the mid-Atlantic coast, killing trees and creating what are now known as “ghost forests.” The same cold air that tortured Akaky might one day be nothing more than a ghost of itself, reminding society of its past crimes.
Jennifer Wilson is a writer and critic. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and elsewhere.