Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Written in 1820 before Halloween as we know it even existed, the best known and loved of Washington Irving's stories has become a Halloween classic... Perhaps even the Halloween classic. This status is no doubt due as much to Walt Disney's classic animated version appearing on televisions throughout the United States and Canada as to the qualities of Irving's writing itself. Nevertheless, in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving taps into a primal vein. Published alongside his other most famous story Rip Van Winkle in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving adapts an archetypal European myth into the colonial milieu, itself a period of primal myth-making for American culture. Against the backdrop of autumn in New York and the American Revolution comes this potent story of ghostly pursuit. You have George Washington, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross... and the Headless Horseman.

Many North American tall tales have their roots in European legends and ghost stories. A particularly horrific one is known as the "Wild Hunt": those dark, moonlit nights when a phantasmagorical troupe of spectral huntsmen charge through forest roads astride their night-mares, cursing, killing or carrying off any mortal in their path. A popular modern American version of it is the song "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend," written by Stan Jones while he worked for the US National Parks Service in Death Valley. The better-known American take on the Wild Hunt is, of course, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The Headless Horseman pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, 1858.

The Wild Hunt

The Wild Hunt is ubiquitous across Northern Europe, with variations in the Nordic and Germanic countries as well as the United Kingdom. England's Wild Hunts were originally hosted by faeries, and were often headed by the antlered Herne the Hunter, the Welsh trickster-magician Gwydion, and eventually King Arthur. Herne, a forest spirit, was first committed to paper by William Shakespeare in Merry Wives of Windsor:
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Receiv'd, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.  
Herne the Hunter, illustrated by George Cruikshank, c.1843.

A variation of England's Wild Hunt includes the ancient Anglo-Saxon deity Wodan, as does Germany's. Wodan, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Odin, was considered a guide to the afterlife for dead spirits, or what is called a "psychopomp" by mythologists. It is not difficult to see how ancient Germanic peoples could derive stories of Wodan going on the hunt, picking out the souls of the deceased, could translate to the Headless Horseman.

Åsgårdsreien by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872.

Another version casts the goddess Freyja as the hunter. A prime Nordic and Germanic goddess, Freyja is notable here for her collection of souls from fallen warriors. Freyja keeps her home in the realm of Fólkvangr, and in the aftermath of great battles, half of the slain warriors are received by Odin in Valhalla and the other half by Freyja in Fólkvangr. Modern scholars are not exactly sure why this mythology has two different forms of the afterlife, but some speculate that nested in the names are identifications for two different breeds of warriors (i.e.: Valhalla for "knights" and Fólkvangr for "soldiers," etc.). In the Scandinavian countries, it is Odin himself who hunts, usually tracking down trolls, elves and gigantic jötnunn.

Odin on the Wild Hunt. Illustration by August Malmström. 

A third variation in the German version makes the supernatural Wild Hunt a punishment for cursed noblemen like Hanns von Hackelberg, another obvious translation to the Headless Horseman. Hanns von Hackelberg was the huntsman of Duke Julius of Brunswick during the late 1500's. One evening before the hunt, he saw in a dream that a strong boar would grievously injure him and he would die. Despite the pleas of his men, Hackelberg went on the hunt, and sure enough, he was attacked by a boar. Using his skill and weapons, he emerged victorious in the battle with hardly a scratch. At that evening's feast, however, Hackelberg raised the head of the slain boar and began mocking it and his dream. The head slipped and the boar's tusk sliced into his foot. By the next evening he had passed away from infection, but not before cursing himself with riding forever on the roaring gale with his horse and his two hunting dogs.

Halloween seems a particularly appropriate time for Wild Hunts, but traditionally they were held in the dead of winter between Christmas and Epiphany (i.e.: New Years') with the occasional one held around Good Friday. As one might glean from those dates, the Christianization of Europe through the Early Middle Ages transformed these stories from the exploits of the deities to the poltergeists of the angry and cursed. A traditional Canadian version, called the "Chasse-galerie," involves a group of French Canadian Voyageurs who want to enjoy New Years' with their sweeties back in Montreal but are stuck wintering in the north country. They make a deal with the Devil to fly them home in a supernatural canoe, but at a price. If they curse the name of God or touch a steeple, their souls are forfeit. This is problematic, of course, because nearly every swear in Canadian French is sacrilegious and trying not to touch a steeple in Quebec is like trying to swim without getting wet. The Voyageurs agree not to drink in order to maintain control of themselves, but one is not so disciplined...

 La Chasse-galerie, illustration by Henri Julien.

The Hessians

Irving's version of the Wild Hunt begins in hushed legends of the Hessian mercenaries who fought for the British during the American Revolution. By the 1770's, the British Empire was already a globe-spanning superpower that found itself stretched thin more often than not. To supplement their own troops in the various arenas of conflict they found themselves in, the British regularly leased the professional armies of the German states of the Holy Roman Empire. These were connected to the British Crown by way of the House of Hannover, to which King George III belonged. Uniquely of the three Hannoverian monarchs to that point, George III was actually born in England and spoke English as a first language. Nevertheless, he was still connected to the House (he became King of Hannover in 1814) and therefore to the German states.

The soldiers leased by King George III came primarily from Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau, which did a brisk business in military exchange. During the 18th century, Hesse-Kassel was the most heavily militarized state in Europe, with 5%-7% of its population in the military, working out to someone from one in every four households. As a consequence of renting out its extensive military (and employment in its supporting industries), Hesse-Kassel was a wealthy society. Its citizens could reportedly buy meat and wine every day with all the savings from taxes that had been reduced by 1/3rd from the 1760's to 1780's. The term "mercenary" itself is a misnomer. "Mercenary" implies an individual of dubious character whose loyalty can be purchased by the highest bidder. The Hessian troops were a professional military leased by the British, who referred to them as "German auxiliaries." Close to 30,000 of these auxiliaries descended upon the 13 Colonies at the outset of the Revolutionary War.

Hessian infantry, cavalry, artillery, and grenadiers participated in virtually every major battle of the American Revolution. They were at Quebec, Fort Lee, Fort Washington, White Plains, Saratoga, two regiments were at Yorktown, but the most famous encounter was the Battle of Trenton. The Continental Army had suffered a string of demoralizing losses leading to a retreat from New York. To strike a blow and hype morale, Continental Army Commander-In-Chief George Washington decided to attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton during Christmas. The holiday was unpopular among the Americans at the time, due to the confluence of anti-Catholic Puritanism, anti-religious Deism, and anti-English sentiment. The Germans, on the other hand, were observant Lutherans who would have had their guard down on December 24th, 25th, and 26th. Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Day, and the day after attacked Trenton. Outnumbering the Hessians close to two-to-one, the Continental Army won the battle with next to no casualties.

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776 by John Trumbull, 1828 (completion)

The use of Hessian soldiers was unpopular across the board. Americans considered it cruel to the Germans who had no stake in the Revolutionary War and condemned King George III for sending Germans to kill who were then still British subjects. British soldiers didn't appreciate the German auxiliaries, accusing them of stealing British wages. Hessian prisoners of war were often brought to Pennsylvania, where they integrated with the existing community of German immigrants (the "Pennsylvania Dutch", derived from "Deutsch", the German word for "German").  As the war dragged on, the Hessians became more and more critical of British leadership, leading many to defect and stay behind after the revolution. About 5,000 men chose not to go back home, settling in the USA or Canada. 7,700 men were never given the choice. The Revolutionary War, growing casualties, and a harsh defeat also broke Hesse-Kassel as a military state. It was the end of the Hessian mercenaries.

The Sleeper Wakes

From this rich history, Washington Irving drew the background of the Headless Horseman, a chthonic entity swelling up against the sensitive and poetic Ichabod Crane. This spectre is tied inexorably to the retired, rural character of his surroundings, as described by Irving in the Legend's opening refrains:
From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of SLEEPY HOLLOW, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols. 
The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance. Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak. 
Such is the general purport of this legendary superstition, which has furnished materials for many a wild story in that region of shadows; and the spectre is known at all the country firesides, by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. 
It is remarkable that the visionary propensity I have mentioned is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by every one who resides there for a time. However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions. 
I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud, for it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New York, that population, manners, and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved. They are like those little nooks of still water, which border a rapid stream, where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor, or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current. Though many years have elapsed since I trod the drowsy shades of Sleepy Hollow, yet I question whether I should not still find the same trees and the same families vegetating in its sheltered bosom.
Into this quiet, physically and culturally sheltered place comes the cultured, urbane Ichabod Crane from Connecticut. Described as "tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together... one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield" he is the antithesis of the solid bodies of rural working folk of Dutch stock.

Sleepiness, drowsiness, and the encounter of the past with the modern is the dominant theme of both of Irving's most celebrated works, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. In the latter, the eponymous character wanders into the Catskills in the days before the American Revolution, whereupon he meets the ghostly crew of Henry Hudson and sleeps for 20 years. He emerges into a much changed America, now separated from the bosom of Great Britain. Like the Wild Hunt, the "Sleeper Wakes" is a common thread in global mythology and fiction. It's first written versions date back almost 2000 years, and like its popularity among Victorian writers of Scientific Romance (for example, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward), was often a venue for Utopian ambitions and reminiscences. An early Christian version is "The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus", about a group of Christians persecuted under Emperor Diocletian who slumber in a cave until emerging during Emperor Theodosius II's reign over a Christian empire. Irving uses Rip to explore the differences in America before and after the Revolution, as well as to free genteel, lazy Rip from his nagging wife and the responsibilities of a young, healthy male. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an inversion of Rip Van Winkle. Whereas a spectre from the past comes into the modern world in Rip Van Winkle, it is a spectre of modernity that comes into the forgotten Sleepy Hollow.

Not that Ichabod Crane set himself out to be disagreeable. On the contrary, "He assisted the farmers occasionally in the lighter labors of their farms, helped to make hay, mended the fences, took the horses to water, drove the cows from pasture, and cut wood for the winter fire... In addition to his other vocations, he was the singing-master of the neighborhood, and picked up many bright shillings by instructing the young folks in psalmody... Thus, by divers little makeshifts, in that ingenious way which is commonly denominated 'by hook and by crook,' the worthy pedagogue got on tolerably enough, and was thought, by all who understood nothing of the labor of headwork, to have a wonderfully easy life of it." Nevertheless he was an exotic creature whose worldliness was something implicitly held over the community. "Our man of letters, therefore, was peculiarly happy in the smiles of all the country damsels. How he would figure among them in the churchyard, between services on Sundays; gathering grapes for them from the wild vines that overran the surrounding trees; reciting for their amusement all the epitaphs on the tombstones; or sauntering, with a whole bevy of them, along the banks of the adjacent millpond; while the more bashful country bumpkins hung sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address."

Despite this, Crane was not above the local superstitions. On the contrary, he was ever more excitable and gluttonous about them. "He was, in fact, an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity. His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-bound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow." His tome of choice is Cotton Mather's History of New England Witchcraft, a fictional book by the very real "witch-hunter" who went down in infamy for stoking the Salem Witch Trials (obscuring his later beneficent roles in such things as promoting inoculation for smallpox).

The Salem Witch Trials

Much has been written about the Salem Witch Trials from many different perspectives. From February of 1692 to May of 1693, witchcraft hysteria overtook Massachusetts. Over 200 people were accused, 19 were executed, and one was tortured to death for refusing to confess. Of the victims, 14 were women and five were men, and scholars have suggested that one of the women may actually have been guilty of practicing maleficent magic, regardless of whether or not there is any efficacy to it. There was little rhyme or reason to the accusations... Everyone from rich to poor were singled out, as were both men and women. The youngest was five years old, who went insane from her captivity. During the trials, men actually received the most attention, including a Harvard-educated minister who was assumed to have the intelligence and training to lead the coven of evil.

Contrary to popular myth, witch trials were uniquely a symptom of the so-called "Age of Reason." Through the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church held to a doctrine that belief in witchcraft was in itself a heresy. This was slightly altered in 1484 by the Papal bull Summis desiderantes, which allowed accusations of witchcraft to be tried as heresies. To put that in context, the alternative to a heresy trial by Church authorities was lynching by an angry mob. During the 350 years of the Spanish Inquisition, only 3,000-5,000 people were executed for heresy after 150,000 trials (of which about 3% involved torture), a lower annual rate of capital punishment than the modern United States of America. Such a relatively low death toll was due to the purpose of a heresy trial, which was to allow accused individuals to clear their name and be restored to the community... Something an angry, irrational mob was less likely to allow. Modern, 21st century Western society could perhaps learn something from the Spanish Inquisition. Only after the Reformation, when the reach and authority of the Roman Catholic Church had diminished, could witch hysterias take hold. Ironically, it was Reformation and Enlightenment antipathy towards Catholicism that invented the violent reputation of the Inquisition.

The modern panic about fake news being promulgated easily on the Internet was prefigured by the invention of the printing press, which allowed free dissemination of books like the Malleus Maleficarum. This purported witch-hunting guidebook was written by a discredited Catholic clergyman and declared heretical by the Catholic Church. The Enlightenment was also the great age of alchemy, astrology, and occultism. At this early point, there was actually no difference between astrology and astronomy, between alchemy and chemistry. The pioneers of science, like Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, were avidly interested in the esoteric and it was from these studies that modern science eventually developed. Couple the decline of the Catholic Church's power, the printing press, and Enlightenment occultism with geographic isolation on the shores of North America and it is entirely comprehensible why a witch hysteria happened in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Just as the minds of the Salem Puritans were excited by Cotton Mather's words, so was Ichabod Crane.
It was often his delight, after his school was dismissed in the afternoon, to stretch himself on the rich bed of clover bordering the little brook that whimpered by his school-house, and there con over old Mather's direful tales until the gathering dusk of the evening made the printed page a mere mist before his eyes. Then, as he wended his way by swamp and stream and awful woodland to the farmhouse where he happened to be quartered, every sound of Nature at that witching hour fluttered his excited imagination—the moan of the whip-poor-will 1 from the hillside; the boding cry of the tree-toad, that harbinger of storm; the dreary hooting of the screech-owl, or the sudden rustling in the thicket of birds frightened from their roost. The fire-flies, too, which sparkled most vividly in the darkest places, now and then startled him as one of uncommon brightness would stream across his path; and if, by chance, a huge blockhead of a beetle came winging his blundering flight against him, the poor varlet was ready to give up the ghost, with the idea that he was struck with a witch's token.
These wanderings in turn made Crane himself seem like a spectral figure.  "His only resource on such occasions, either to drown thought or drive away evil spirits, was to sing psalm tunes; and the good people of Sleepy Hollow, as they sat by their doors of an evening, were often filled with awe at hearing his nasal melody, 'in linked sweetness long drawn out,' floating from the distant hill or along the dusky road." As the story races towards its ambiguous ending, it echoes the historical reality of people becoming swallowed up by supernatural hysteria until they seem to be carried off by something that may (or may not) be generated from their own excited emotions.

Masculine and Feminine Power

Besides fantasies and stories of the supernatural, Ichabod also contented himself with fantasies about the most eligible bachelorette in the country. Katrina Van Tassel, "a blooming lass of fresh eighteen, plump as a partridge, ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father's peaches," was not only a dish but also the heiress to the productive farm of Baltus Van Tassel. Crane could easily see himself in old Van Tassel's position, "as he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow-lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burdened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea how they might be readily turned into cash and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land and shingle palaces in the wilderness." Van Tassel wealth, as much as Van Tassel beauty, drove Crane to woo the fair maid Katrina.

Crane's antithesis in all things, including the pursuit of Katrina, is Brom Bones. "He was broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair and a bluff but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance," writes Irving. "He was famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship, being as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar. He was foremost at all races and cockfights, and, with the ascendancy which bodily strength acquires in rustic life, was the umpire in all disputes, setting his hat on one side and giving his decisions with an air and tone admitting of no gainsay or appeal. He was always ready for either a fight or a frolic, but had more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and with all his overbearing roughness there was a strong dash of waggish good-humor at bottom."

Part of the appeal of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is this contrast between two foes who could not be more opposite in demeanour or activity. Navigating between them is Katrina, who is not in any way, shape, or form a pliant object to be rewarded as a trophy to the victorious. One of the greatest curiousities of modern gender relations are how they work in effect to resurrect and reinforce antiquated gender relations. The trope of the manipulative woman, though no more accurate of individuals than any stereotype, is rooted in a biological reality... Being a sexually dimorphic species, men and women conceive, attain, and maintain power in different ways. The path of brute physicality is more open to men than to women for obvious reasons that men are typically larger and stronger than women. Modern gender discourse tends to focus on this, its social outcomes, and the implicit threat that male physicality poses to women. What is decorously left out of the discussion is how women have traditionally exerted themselves in non-physical ways, through use of emotion, sexuality, and intellect.

Stories from legend, myth, and literature abound. An entire book of the Bible, Esther, hinges on the eponymous woman's ability to exert this kind of power over a Mesopotamian king to save the Hebrew people from genocide. A considerable volume of psychological literature examines how women, and especially girls, will express aggression through gossip, slander, and reputation assassination, or what is known in the literature as "Indirect, Relational, and Social Aggression." A probably unintended side-effect of feminism's emphasis that female worth is proved by making women more like men is the growing extent to which women express aggression through traditionally masculine means, that is to say, physical violence [PDF link]. Yet at the same time, third and fourth-wave feminism disseminates the traditional view that women are powerless, naive, morally pure, honest, helpless victims of masculinity whose safety requires the harnessing of male power through simultaneous male protection of women and submission to the authority of women, affected by the pathologizing of masculinity and especially male heterosexuality... A view of male and female relations that are so Victorian as to be practically Mediaeval. Quite literally it is the ethos of chivalry, white knights and distressed damsels. Irving uses the term "knight-errant" to describe Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones three times (adding "of yore" twice). Yet this is all a cultivated underestimation of women that directly obfuscates the processes by which women have traditionally exercised power.

Irving is savvy enough to know this, at a time when avenues towards masculine power or the gender neutrality afforded by modern industrialized society simply did not exist. Modern industrialized society is, in many ways, the true basis of individual equality, where one may be judged by competence and accomplishment in an information-based economy that favours the traditional attributes of neither gender. Yet Irving is also courteous in refusing to say one way or the other. The competition between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones ends the fateful night of the quilting frolic, and not at the hands of the Headless Horseman. At the party's conclusion, "Ichabod only lingered behind, according to the custom of country lovers, to have a tete-a-tete with the heiress, fully convinced that he was now on the high road to success. What passed at this interview I will not pretend to say, for in fact I do not know. Something, however, I fear me, must have gone wrong, for he certainly sallied forth, after no very great interval, with an air quite desolate and chop-fallen. Oh these women! these women! Could that girl have been playing off any of her coquettish tricks? Was her encouragement of the poor pedagogue all a mere sham to secure her conquest of his rival? Heaven only knows, not I!"

The Creation of Halloween

Fore and aft of that encounter is a rich tapestry of Halloween imagery. At the time of Washington Irving's writing, Halloween did not exist as the holiday we know. That would take almost another century to fully form, and Irving has in place in creating it...
It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day, the sky was clear and serene, and Nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet. Streaming files of wild-ducks began to make their appearance high in the air; the bark of the squirrel might be heard from the groves of beech and hickory nuts, and the pensive whistle of the quail at intervals from the neighboring stubble-field... 
As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly Autumn. On all sides he beheld vast store of apples—some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees, some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty pudding; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies; and anon he passed the fragrant buckwheat-fields, breathing the odor of the beehive, and as he beheld them soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slapjacks, well buttered and garnished with honey or treacle by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel. 
And after departing...
It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travel homewards along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon. The hour was as dismal as himself. Far below him the Tappan Zee spread its dusky and indistinct waste of waters, with here and there the tall mast of a sloop riding quietly at anchor under the land. In the dead hush of midnight he could even hear the barking of the watch-dog from the opposite shore of the Hudson; but it was so vague and faint as only to give an idea of his distance from this faithful companion of man. Now and then, too, the long-drawn crowing of a cock, accidentally awakened, would sound far, far off, from some farm-house away among the hills; but it was like a dreaming sound in his ear. No signs of life occurred near him, but occasionally the melancholy chirp of a cricket, or perhaps the guttural twang of a bull-frog from a neighboring marsh, as if sleeping uncomfortably and turning suddenly in his bed. 
All the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon now came crowding upon his recollection. The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally had them from his sight. He had never felt so lonely and dismal. He was, moreover, approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost-stories had been laid. In the centre of the road stood an enormous tulip tree which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth and rising again into the air. It was connected with the tragical story of the unfortunate Andre, who had been taken prisoner hard by, and was universally known by the name of Major Andre's tree. The common people regarded it with a mixture of respect and superstition, partly out of sympathy for the fate of its ill-starred namesake, and partly from the tales of strange sights and doleful lamentations told concerning it. 
As Ichabod approached this fearful tree he began to whistle: he thought his whistle was answered; it was but a blast sweeping sharply through the dry branches. As he approached a little nearer he thought he saw something white hanging in the midst of the tree: he paused and ceased whistling, but on looking more narrowly perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan: his teeth chattered and his knees smote against the saddle; it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another as they were swayed about by the breeze. He passed the tree in safety, but new perils lay before him. 
About two hundred yards from the tree a small brook crossed the road and ran into a marshy and thickly-wooded glen known by the name of Wiley's Swamp. A few rough logs, laid side by side, served for a bridge over this stream. On that side of the road where the brook entered the wood a group of oaks and chestnuts, matted thick with wild grape-vines, threw a cavernous gloom over it. To pass this bridge was the severest trial. It was at this identical spot that the unfortunate Andre was captured, and under the covert of those chestnuts and vines were the sturdy yeomen concealed who surprised him. This has ever since been considered a haunted stream, and fearful are the feelings of the schoolboy who has to pass it alone after dark.
I've written extensively about the Victorian invention of Halloween elsewhere. Here Irving shows a masterful command of the prototypical imagery for an 1820 short story. His passive voice dilutes some of the terror, but it is nonetheless still pregnant with atmosphere.

Then there is Ichabod Crane's ride with the Headless Horseman itself!

Sleepy Hollow on the Silver Screen

As one of the first, best, and most archetypal of American horror stories, Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was also an early choice when Hollywood warmed up to the idea of portraying horror on the silver screen. Hardly more than a decade or two go by before some version is seen in theatres or television.

The very first was a 1922 version starring cowboy funnyman Will Rogers. Filmed on location in New York's Hudson Valley, The Headless Horseman sadly missed out on the contemporaneous wave of Expressionist films shaping the visual vocabulary of horror films for generations to come. At its core, this film was meant as a comedic vehicle for Will Rogers, with only a few trick shots of the Headless Horseman himself. Those shots are incredibly effective, and almost worth the weight of the remainder of the film. One of the most glaring flaws with the 1922 version was the length. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a short story and has difficulty sustaining a feature length presentation. The climactic encounter between Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman can only last a few minutes, and the rest must be taken up with the drama between the three leads. That can be interminable when it's the frightening, horror parts one wishes most to see.

Ub Iwerks bypassed this problem almost entirely in his 1934 animated adaptation. Iwerks' career in animation went all the way back to 1922, when he became the chief animator for a young Walt Disney, producing crude cartoons in Kansas City. After moving to Hollywood, it was Iwerks who actually fleshed out Walt Disney's idea for a new cartoon superstar named Mickey Mouse. Unfortunately, despite Mickey's success, Iwerks didn't feel he was given the credit he deserved nor the dignity owed him by his longtime friend and employer. Financial backers were convinced that Iwerks was the true secret behind Walt's success and offered him his own studio. In 1933 he began a series of one-off short retellings of fairy tale and folkloric stories called ComiColor Cartoons. This included the 1934 version of The Headless Horseman. Clocking in at a tight nine minutes, and featuring music by legendary animation composer Carl Stalling, Iwerks' Headless Horseman jumps almost immediately into what everyone really wants to see.

Ub Iwerks' The Headless Horseman (1934).

Sadly, Iwerks was unable to find long-term success on his own. He was an excellent animator but needed Walt's knack for storytelling and innovation. Theirs was an amazing partnership that the demands and interests of Hollywood, working on both parties, broke up. Eventually Iwerks did find himself back at the Disney Studios in 1940, but his relationship with Walt never really recovered. Rather than return to animation, Iwerks moved into the field of "special processes" to improve the quality and realism of animation.

1940 wasn't the best time to be working for Disney, though. The war in Europe closed off much of the foreign market, only being exacerbated by the onset of war in the Pacific and the entry of the USA into World War II. Unable to afford feature length productions on par with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Fantasia (1940), the studio opted for "package films" of shorts strung together into feature length presentations. Disney's wartime package films drew to their end with The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). Two half-hour shorts based on Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow were originally intended as feature-length films, but were reduced due to budget and story constraints. That limitation worked to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow's favour, preventing them from drawing out the story too much. This version says everything it needs in rapid succession, drawing quickly towards the dramatic, genuinely frightening climax.

To Disney's credit, this is the only version that leaves the identity of the Headless Horseman as a mystery. Other film versions are too tempted to lay down an answer one way or another, providing either a natural or a supernatural explanation. Was the Headless Horseman real, or a hoax by Brom Bones? Was Ichabod Crane dead or merely chased from Sleepy Hollow? Bing Crosby, the narrator, doesn't give us a definite conclusion, just as Washington Irving intended.

Disney's has become the definitive version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Every version since then (and every version before it for that matter) has suffered by comparison with it. Animated versions came out on television in 1970 and in theatres in 1972 preceding the film Charlotte's Web. A live-action version surfaced in 1979 in Once Upon a Midnight Scary, hosted by Vincent Price. The episode featured three stories and was designed to encourage literacy among children. Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends, an American folktale-focused follow-up to her prior series Faerie Tale Theatre, had an episode based on it in 1985. The most ambitious version prior to 1999 was a 1980 television movie version starring Jeff Goldblum as Ichabod Crane.

Then in 1999 came the first live-action feature film version since 1922. Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow was part of American Zoetrope's informal horror trilogy including Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (1994). The screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker departed radically from the actual story written by Washington Irving: Ichabod Crane serves as a policeman in New York whose dependence on the Scientific Method has landed him in an unfavourable position with his more traditional betters. To prove himself, Ichabod is sent to the hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of head-chopping murders... Along the way uncovering an malicious revenge plot and definitive proof of the existence of the supernatural. 

After Sleepy Hollow came a handful of other low-budget adaptations, but Burton's film opened a crack for versions that only took Irving's story as a starting point for something otherwise wholly original. Most notable is the TV series Sleepy Hollow, which transposed Ichabod Crane, Rip Van Winkle-style, into the modern day to fight the Horseman and a supernatural conspiracy. Another is The Hollow (2004), based on the common trope of a modern descendant of Ichabod's who is still tormented by the Horseman (a trope perhaps best used in a 1987 episode of The Real Ghostbusters cartoon).

As the most famous American horror story, it is unlikely that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow will ever fall too far from the silver screen. That is a remarkable feat on its own, let alone taking into consideration that the best version of it was already made some 60 years ago. The story itself is a fundamental part of American literature, mythically linked with the creation of the United States itself, and simply the perfect cozy Halloween tale.

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