Points of Light Halloween Edition: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Welcome back to the literary graveyard, as we continue our Halloween journey. Today, we take on one of an American horror legends, located in the Hudson River Valley region of New York State. In particular, a small village that plays host to a story of death, ghosts, and mystery- Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Familiar to many, Sleepy Hollow is the tale of Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher that journeys to Sleepy Hollow and pines for the hand of local beauty Katrina Van Tassel. However, Katrina has another suitor- Abraham ‘Brom Bones’ Van Brunt, who delights in pranking and frightening the superstitious Crane. Then at the Van Tassel’s autumn party, Van Brunt spins the tale of the local ghost, the Headless Horseman, a Hessian solider decapitated by a cannonball, and who now rides the countryside looking for his head. Crane is frightened by the story and later leaves the party, presumably after being rejected by Katrina. On his way home, he runs across the Horseman, and endures a panic filled ride to the Church bridge, which is supposedly a barrier to the Horseman. However, the Horseman hurls his flaming head at Crane, who is never again seen in Sleepy Hollow, with many wondering what became of him.
What Writers Can Learn: Ambiguity, Mystery, Suspense
One of the most fascinating things about Sleepy Hollow is its ambiguity. For example, none of the main characters are purely likeable. Ichabod is depicted as an overly strict and moral teacher, but a glutton in his private life, who desires Katrina as a way to access her father’s vast fortune. Van Brunt is a local hero, but a vicious prankster and a bully in many depictions. Even Katrina is hinted to be only interested in Ichabod to make Van Brunt jealous. Each character is genuinely flawed and imperfect, which makes who is likeable up to the reader.
However, that ambiguity also extends to the story itself. Nowhere is this more seen then in the final fate of Ichabod Crane. While it is plausible to believe Ichabod was spirited away by the Horseman, the story also suggests that he escaped and left the town to become a judge in another county. But it is also suggested that his spirit haunts the area. However, the strongest suspicion is placed on Van Brunt, who was described as an agile rider. The story mentions that he always had a knowing look upon his face when the tale was told, hinting that he dressed as the Horseman to frighten off Crane and get Katrina (whom he does marry). What actually happened is left up the reader, and with all the options seeming plausible, the terror of not knowing the truth makes the tale even more frightening.
Of course, no discussion of the story would be complete without the famous chase. Irving wisely builds the section to pulse pounding intensity, beginning with the superstitious Ichabod traveling down a dark road, the ghost stories of the party still ringing in his ears. As the Horseman approaches, Crane demands for his identity, until the ghoul’s frightful visage is revealed. Crane runs off, pushing his horse to the limit as he races for the bridge, the Horseman in pursuit. Crane reaches the bridge, but turns just as the Horseman hurls his flaming at him, ending the chase so suddenly, the reader is left drenched in sweat, stunned into shock and uncertainty, elements that all great suspense stories should.
Sleepy Hollow has been adapted many times in film and television. The Disney adaptation is best for younger viewers, as it maintains a fine balance between Disney charm and frights. Older audiences would be well served by Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, which is loose with the story (Crane is now a NYC constable, called in to investigate the Horseman) and adds a compelling murder mystery and well done gore element, while still paying homage to the original story. The TV movie The Hollow is also a fine choice- a sequel of sorts that deals with The Horseman returning for the descendants of Ichabod Crane, with many dark and genuinely frightening elements. Finally, there is the current TV series Sleepy Hollow, which resurrects a British turncoat version of Ichabod Crane in the modern day, along with the Horseman. While it expands on the story, adding Biblical, historical, and mythical elements as well as a modern crime drama, it is still an enjoyable and fun version, good for anyone looking to expand on the original story.
Come back next time for our final unearthed grave, one filled with ink and paint and plenty of ghouls….