Visions of Sleepy Hollow

Washington Irving is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and if you’ve passed that way lately, you might have heard from his gravesite the sound of a certain subterranean rotation. That’s because, last September, the FOX network premiered a television show called Sleepy Hollow, ostensibly inspired by Irving’s best-known tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The series is ridiculous and often very funny: a pastiche of horror tropes, textbook history, Christian mythology, and television clichés (the levelheaded cop and her quirky but brilliant partner deal with a skeptical superior; clues conveniently accumulate just in time to solve a mystery; anxiety-inducing music crescendos into every commercial break). Its first season ended in January and captured enough eyeballs that the network renewed the show for a second season.

Irving’s story, published in 1820 and set thirty years earlier, has been adapted many times—perhaps most famously in the 1949 Disney animated feature, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  But no previous adaptation is as weird or bewildering as Sleepy Hollow. The show’s premise: Ichabod Crane, an Oxford professor turned British redcoat turned American revolutionary soldier, is mortally wounded by a Hessian mercenary. Crane decapitates the Hessian before collapsing but, instead of dying on the battlefield, is saved by his wife Katrina, a witch. She casts a spell that leaves him slumbering Rip Van Winkle-like until the present, when he emerges in Tarrytown, New York and teams up with the sheriff, Abbie Mills. Together they battle the undead mercenary Crane decapitated—the Headless Horseman, who, it turns out, is the First Horseman of the Apocalypse—and a parade of other monsters and demons. The result owes more to shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files than anything Irving ever put on paper.

Sleepy Hollow has more in common with another adaptation: Tim Burton’s 1999 film of the same name. Burton’s gothic horror preserves the setting of Irving’s story, the names of some characters, and the well-known image of the Headless Horseman pursuing Crane. As with the show, its premise is otherwise wholly invented. In the film, Crane (played by Johnny Depp) is a detective sent from New York City to investigate a rash of murders in Sleepy Hollow. He is a skeptical man, devoted to rational police procedures and scientific instruments. But Crane’s skepticism is broken when he sees the Headless Horseman, the figure he assumes to be a myth astride a goblin horse, on a supernatural rampage lopping people’s heads off.

These versions of the Horseman—materially real and murderous—signal a total reversal of Irving’s premise. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the Horseman is just that—a legend. For those who’ve forgotten, Irving’s story goes like this: Ichabod Crane is a superstitious school teacher competing with a local tough guy, Brom Bones, for the affection of a girl, Katrina Van Tassel. Returning home one night, Crane is chased by what seems to be the Headless Horseman; the Horseman throws his head at Crane and the scene ends. We’re told that Crane is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again. The townspeople find his hat and a shattered pumpkin in the road, and it’s implied that Bones posed as the Horseman to run Crane out of town.

In the world of Irving’s story, the Horseman does not actually exist and Sleepy Hollow is not brimming with monsters but with superstitions: “There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land.” Certain people, like Crane and the “old Dutch wives” with whom he swaps tales of ghosts and witchcraft, are especially susceptible to these “dreams and fancies.” But Irving suggests that such tales are nothing more than entertainment—and if taken seriously, they are absurd, like the people who believe in them. Crane, humiliated and exiled thanks to his superstitious beliefs, is a cautionary example.

Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow, Fox Broadcasting Company

Irving’s story is less concerned with ghouls like the Horseman than with the power of storytelling, the spell of narrative. The tale’s very structure, consisting of multiple narrative layers, reinforces this idea: the putative source is an old man who tells the story in Manhattan; which is copied down by “the late Diedrich Knickerbocker,” Irving’s fictional historian of New York; and then reproduced in The Sketch Book Of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., another one of Irving’s authorial personas. This accumulation of narratives distances us from the events described and emphasizes the storytelling process, drawing us back into Irving’s central theme. Reader beware, yes—but we’re meant to beware the allure of superstition, not to fear for our necks the next time we’re passing through the shaded groves of Sleepy Hollow.

Our contemporary adaptations reject this premise—violently. Burton’s film stages Irving’s climactic scene only to destroy the rational impulse of his story. We see the Horseman pursue Crane through the woods, nail him with a pumpkin, knock him off his horse, and ride into the night, where the fiend is revealed to be Brom Bones in disguise—just as Irving implied. But later, the “real” demonic Horseman appears, and Bones attacks him. Provoked, the Horseman slices Bones in half; the Horseman’s rational iteration is slain by his supernatural one. It is a deeply self-conscious moment, one in which the film, aware that it has betrayed Irving’s premise, embraces that betrayal and confidently moves into the realm of stylized horror while abandoning any responsibility to Irving’s text. As far as inter-textual relationships go, the scene is weirdly Oedipal. The show doesn’t even bother to grapple with Irving’s story, aside from poaching the Horseman and a few character names, but is committed to its own outlandish premise from the get-go.

What to make of this divergence? We could blame the changing tastes of creative artists and audiences: after all, stories that deal with supernatural forces and reveal them as illusions, in the venerable tradition of Scooby-Doo, are rare. Perhaps the Headless Horseman is too compelling a figure to leave stranded in Irving’s rationalist metafiction; perhaps we’d rather experience him in something nearer in spirit to a folktale—which, as supernatural fantasies, the film and the show more closely resemble.

Or perhaps there’s another way to think about these visions of Sleepy Hollow, one that turns on the question of historical representation. Irving composed his story, of course, from within the same historical moment he depicted—the Age of Enlightenment, an era of the ascendant bourgeoisie and triumphant republicanism, a time when people of a certain class and education believed the forces of reason and progress were sweeping away the retrograde ideologies and social forms inherited from Europe. To this, the success of the United States and its political project stood testament. So it’s no accident that Sleepy Hollow, a Dutch settlement, is an incubator for Old World superstitions, or that the Horseman is a Hessian and, in life, enemy of the American Revolution. In Irving’s day, reason was on the march, not peering back over its shoulder in dread of approaching hoof beats, and his story reflects this basic optimism.

But the film and TV adaptations engage Irving’s moment—the decades on either side of 1800—from a distance of nearly two centuries. That they reject Irving’s rational premise and embrace the supernatural reveals a deep anxiety over how this past is narrated, indeed over how to reckon with the knowledge of certain historical traumas that weigh like a nightmare on the contemporary American mind—a knowledge that haunts our every encounter with the past, a knowledge that cannot be dismissed as “dreams and fancies.”

Strip away the gothic flourishes and supernatural excesses of Burton’s film and you’re left with a struggle over property. Crane initially believes that he’s uncovered a conspiracy among Sleepy Hollow’s elite to use the Horseman to assassinate the town’s wealthiest landowner, Peter Van Garrett. But by the end of the film it’s revealed that the Horseman is controlled by Lady Van Tassel, who was once an impoverished tenant on Van Garrett’s land and, as a child, pledged her soul to Satan if he would resurrect the Horseman to do her bidding. In a remarkable twist, Lady Van Tassel, motivated by class hatred, uses the Horseman to exact revenge on the bourgeoisie of Sleepy Hollow and seize their property for herself—in Marxist terms, this might be called “accumulation by decapitation.” Here, the Horseman is neither myth nor supernatural villain but an embodiment of the historical violence that was essential to the enclosure of private property in the early formation of American capitalism. Knowing this, the film’s opening titles take on new meaning: red wax spills like blood onto Van Garrett’s will, joining violence and private property in one enduring image.

But what to make of this show, Sleepy Hollow, that seems to resist serious analysis? In one sense it is the ultimate artifact of our postmodern moment, with historical events, Christian mythology, occult figures, and pop culture jumbled together into a plunderable collection of characters and images. Like the heads of the Horseman’s victims, they are cut loose from bodily context and sent rolling across the empty, de-historicized terrain of a permanent now. The show revels in its absurdity and exhibits more than a little self-awareness. One of Crane’s sardonic comments—“When did irony become a national pastime?”—strikes the viewer as particularly apt.

Consider the preposterous backstory that Sleepy Hollow substitutes for historical content: a demon, Moloch, looking like he wandered off a Slayer album cover, aims to bring about the End of Days by introducing the Four Horsemen into the world. He commands assorted ghouls, and maybe the British Empire and Hessian mercenaries. Resisting him are heroic Freemasons led by George Washington; somehow, the American Revolution is a central event in their struggle. It’s a wonderfully farcical comment on American exceptionalism and the fundamentalist Christian view of U.S. history, sure. But it also reveals an aversion to looking the past squarely in the eyes, perhaps because it’s more comforting to gaze at demons than recognizably human figures caught up in the bloody work of history.

And yet, despite—or because of—the show’s fixation on the supernatural, Sleepy Hollow gestures toward what may be a more honest relationship with the past than Irving’s forward-looking rationalism. At the center of the show’s postmodern whirlpool, disorienting and confusing as it may be, is a plunging sense of melancholy. Crane, chronologically out of joint, grieves for his wife (trapped in purgatory), a son (he never knew), and an entire life wrenched apart by two centuries. The show, bent on undermining historical authenticity, nonetheless insists that the past makes claims on us—emotionally, yes, but also in ways that shape our actions, our loyalties, and our struggles in the present.

This pervasive melancholia extends beyond the personal and the supernatural. Sleepy Hollow, as if afflicted by a nervous tic, can’t help but return to specific historical traumas: slavery, genocide, colonialism. The references pass quickly—Crane is glad that Mills, a black woman, was “emancipated”; he’s distraught to learn the Mohawk nation was nearly wiped out; the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke appears as a plague-ridden apparition outside of town. Such moments are jarring; they seem to break the spell of “dreams and fancies” and remind us that repressed horrors cannot stay repressed for long, that the repressed always returns, even in ghoulish, irrational forms: as demons, witches, monsters, or even a Headless Horseman. On Sleepy Hollow, the present is literally invaded by the terrors of the past in a way that’s perhaps truer to America’s history of unhealed wounds and haunted dreams. Unlike Irving, writing against the superstitions of the past, we experience the past as superstition: history is the thing we cannot but glance backwards at in horror, over our shoulders, as we hurry forward and listen hard into the night for the sound of hoof beats drawing nearer.

Headless Horseman

Sleepy Hollow, Fox Broadcasting Company

About Scott Borchert

Scott Borchert works at Monthly Review Press and is studying Cultural Reporting and Criticism at NYU. He lives in New Jersey.
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4 Responses to Visions of Sleepy Hollow

  1. Paul Zolbrod says:

    Scott Borchert’s examination of “Sleepy Hollow” contains some interesting observations about a contemporary tv show apparently gaining traction done in postmodern fashion. To me–a retro literary scholar and a long-time admirer of Washington Irving’s under appreciated American classic–he overlooks something essential about the original work: the magnificence of its language in the service of the irony of an early American opportunistic fool fancying himself fit for rich property ownership simply because that’s what he wants–maybe even a forerunner to Jay Gatsby. To be sure, there are other ways to interpret the story. But what makes it work–what amounts to its verbal mastery–is the language itself, offered in the old fashioned medium of print.

    Read the story carefully. In fact, read it aloud, preferably to someone who still can listen to human speech effectively transmitted through the two-dimensional silence of the written page. In hearing the language–whether in the mind’s ear or aurally– allow yourself to visualize Irving’s rich descriptions of the farm landscape Ichabod Crane covets; or imagine without the benefit of overwrought manufactured visual effects his furtive flight from that farmstead when the headless horseman frightens him away from it. Once you to readjust to what print can do in the hands of a literary master, you discover that a story told the old fashioned way on the page can fill the mind’s own eye with images far more vivid and more fully your own than overwrought cinematography dictates. As the movie does, apparently the video production strays not only from the centrifugal force of the story itself but from the gravitational pull of its own language into the realm of your own visual imagination. i

    • Nice job, paul. The comment says it all. I seldom watch much on tv but the comment nails it: for mastery of language, you need to read things aloud and a good place to start is Irving.

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