It is difficult to think of an American ghost story more well-known than that of Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Though Irving’s original sources for the stories may have been local folklore based on the same stories which the Grimm Brothers would collect and publish back in the Old World, Irving’s tale would emerge as one of America’s first and most familiar stories until, like the best stories, it seeped into the American consciousness the way well water rises from some hidden source deep underground.
One of the characteristics of “Sleepy Hollow” that marks it as a legend is that one does not need to have read the literary story in order to be familiar with the story. I was struck by this as I tried to remember when or how I first heard “Sleepy Hollow.” I grew up in the Hudson Valley, the setting of Irving’s most famous stories, and these stories still exist as part of the local culture, both oral and literary. I may have first heard the story from a grade school teacher or librarian, reading aloud from one of the many children’s book adaptations, or it might have been a storyteller who told it at some Halloween event.
I suspect, however, that I first became aware of the story in the same way many children first become aware of it, by seeing the old Disney animated cartoon. I still picture Ichabod Crane as he was imagined in that macabre cartoon, a ridiculous scarecrow of a man trying to keep his seat on the skeletal nag Gunpowder as they galloped through the dark woods pursued by the infernal Headless Horseman. I wonder how many American horror stories have borrowed that image of the terrified traveler being pursued by the shadowy rider (although no other story I know of has used a pumpkin to such terrifying effect, and it is one of the ironies of recalling those things which scare us as children that, while the phrase “flaming pumpkin head” sounds ridiculous, it doesn’t detract from my memory of how scary the image of it actually felt to me as a child, with the pumpkin resembling a skull with demonic burning eyes)
Every telling of the story, however, be it oral, literary or film version — and you can now add to those audiobook, comic book, and ebook versions — are based on a story that is both unique and magical in its own right, even after the nearly two centuries since its original publication.
I recently reread “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” along with the rest of Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, the collection of stories published in 1820 in which both “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” first appeared). During this rereading I was struck as always by Irving’s descriptions of the landscape of the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains. Irving is often referred to as the first American storyteller, and it is easy to understand why for, even now, it is difficult to find any American writer before him who used the landscape to invoke both setting and tone. If there is one point upon which many of the adaptations fail, it is that they do not do justice to Irving’s use of the landscape to invoke mood and to suggest that part of Sleepy Hollow’s otherworldly atmosphere comes from its stories. This is Irving’s description of Sleepy Hollow:
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.
Sleepy Hollow, it is suggested, is a place where stories are still very much alive. Indeed, by the time Irving gets around to describing the legend of the Headless Horseman, the horseman himself is so strongly tied to the strangeness of Sleepy Hollow itself that he seems to have been summoned into being as a manifestation of its genius loci:
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.
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 Irving’s unhurried descriptions on the magic of the place, its wild dreamlike atmosphere and its dark legends which set up the story, for it is implied that these stories infect the very air of the place, and even outsiders are susceptible to the “witching influence of the air.”
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.
It is this “witching influence” which casts its glamor upon Ichabod Crane, the school master from Connecticut, but this influence only goes so far, for Ichabod still views the beauty and abundance of the place, the generosity of its inhabitants, through his own narrow view of the world. He travels through the woods, admiring the red apples and the golden fields, but he can only see these things in terms of what he can eat and what he can hoard. Even his desire for the beautiful Katrina van Tassel is seen more through the lens of her father’s wealth than sincere romantic love. Ultimately when Brom Bones, one of the local boys who is vying with Ichabod for Katrina’s favor, tells a story about how he was pursued one night by the ghost of a dead British soldier, the suggestion of the vengeful ghost combined with Ichabod’s own preoccupation with the hellish images invoked by his reading of the works of Cotton Mather summons up a spirit that seems determined to chase Ichabod from the Eden of Sleepy Hollow, where Ichabod has bullied his young students, upset the natural course of true love, and even disturbed the peace and quiet by subjecting the local church to his painfully off-key singing.
Whether the ghost truly is a restless spirit from beyond the grave or an example of American ingenuity invented by Brom Bones in order to get rid of his romantic rival for the hand of Katrina van Tassel, it is left to the reader to decide.
What is apparent is that however one interprets this story — as a ghost story, an example of Old World legends transplanted to America, or a staple of American literature — and in whatever medium one might read it, hear it, or view it, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is both a timeless story and a commentary upon the timeless appeal of stories themselves.
(George G.Harrap & Co.Ltd., London.,1928)