You can thank Washington Irving for the most iconic of all the characters you’ll see traipsing through the woods on All Hollow’s Eve.
While “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” does not take place on Halloween, The Headless Horseman has become a hallmark of the holiday, all thanks to the American author, Washington Irving. Though the 12,000-word short story was originally published in 1820, its legacy still permeates American culture.
The story follows a small town in New York which is adjacent to the haunted valley of Sleepy Hollow. Legend has it that a Hessian trooper lost his head via cannonball during the Revolutionary War.
The legend of the Headless Horseman is described in the story. “Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this specter, 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.”
Almost as famous, or infamous, as the Horseman is Ichabod Crane, the gangly, almost ghostly himself schoolteacher of Terrytown.
When Crane endeavors to court the town coquette, Katrina Van Tassel, he also attains an adversary, rogue Brom Bones.
The autumnal setting of the small, New England town and the haunts of specters make “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” the perfect fall read to get in the mood for Halloween.
Described as having an “appetite for the marvelous,” Ichabod Crane himself is a lover of spooky stories.
The best part of the story is that everything is left up to the readers’ imagination. Is the Headless Horseman real? What did Brom know? Does Irving tell us what happened to Ichabod?
Though perhaps it can’t be quantified, there exists something about “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” that has caused it to permeate American culture and secure it a place in our nation’s literary canon.
Tim Burton’s 1999 film, “Sleepy Hollow,” draws on Irving’s original characters and setting but devises a wholly new plot. Johnny Depp stars as Ichabod Crane, a young New York City detective who comes to Sleepy Hollow to “detect” what has transpired with a string of ghastly decapitations.
While the movie is not a true encapsulation of the original story, it shows how deeply “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has entrenched itself into the stories we continue to tell today, almost two hundred years hence.
Even if people don’t know the story, or at least an idea of it, they can recognize the Headless Horseman.
The New Yorker posted its daily cartoon on its Facebook page on Sept. 13. Created by Jeremy Nguyen, it featured a stern-looking man in eighteenth-century garb, presumably Ichabod Crane, speaking to a headless rider atop a horse, holding in one hand a flaming jack-o-lantern. The caption read, “Put that down. It’s still September.”
With October almost here, spooky stories and Headless Horsemen are in full justification, and there’s no better place to start than with the original, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Arts & Entertainment Sectional Editor