The Legends of Sleepy Hollow

headless_horseman2A scary story:

Once upon a time there was a story that was about . . . well, it was maybe about a lot of things, like frustrated masculinity, or colonialism, or early-national political uncertainties, but it was definitely not about a guy on a horse who really did not have a head. Or about his three companions, the other three horseman of the apocalypse. Or about the occult purposes of the Boston Tea Party. Or George Washington’s bible. The lost colony of Roanoke? Also no. And then that story was given a “modern-day twist” so as to be about all of those things. But the scary part is that the result is … fun. Even to an historian.

Fox’s Sleepy Hollow premiered this fall in a blaze of publicity (it has had both the wrapper on the New York Times home page and approximately nine out of ten ad slots during Fox’s Sunday NFL games). The publicity has paid off – ratings are good, and it was renewed for next season after only three episodes, extraordinarily rare even for deserving Fox shows. The show does not share much with Washington Irving’s 1819 short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” A central character is named Ichabod Crane, yes, but rather than awkward and lanky, with “his whole frame most loosely hung together,” he looks like a particularly fit Jesus. As in the story, Ichabod’s love interest is Katrina Van Tassel, but in this new telling he is married to her, which would be the biggest deviation from the original if not for the fact that she is also a witch, trapped in Purgatory by a demon named Moloch. The occult is everywhere in Sleepy Hollow, another deviation from the story: Irving’s town is rife with belief in the occult—a nice image of early-national religiosity—but (spoiler alert) the scary horseman is not actually headless [1]. Irving’s story is set some years after the Revolution, but in the opening scene of the show Ichabod is shown fighting in the war, facing and beheading a large, violent Hessian. The Hessian gets him, too, though, and Katrina uses her occult power to put Ichabod in a sort of suspended animation that saves his life but connects him, in some way, to the Hessian (as Katrina explains, “There isn’t time to explain”). Ichabod wakes up in our time just as the Hessian—who turns out to be “Death itself,” front-man of the Four Horsemen—is awakened from a similar state to inaugurate the End Times. So, the central difference from the original is that Irving wrote about men contesting for a woman’s favor, while this story is about the resurrected Ichabod Crane teaming up with the Sleepy Hollow police force to prevent the apocalypse.

Also, the horseman’s horse is white instead of black.

Five episodes in, it’s apparent that it’s not just Irving’s story that is up for re-imagination, but American history as well. Frequent flashbacks place Ichabod at the center of the planning and execution of the Revolution, and the war itself is given cosmic significance. “The Revolution,” Washington has told Ichabod, “wasn’t merely a war for the future of our country: It would determine the fate of every man, woman, and child on earth.”

washingtons_bibleIt’s up to Ichabod to explain this to people, though, including us. “It appears little of what actually transpired found its way into your textbooks,” he tells his partner, Abbie. This could be the sort of pop-culture appropriation of history that makes us nervous, if not for the fact that the stories are so over-the-top. The show’s web site promises that it is “[r]ipe with untold stories from American history,” but these are not the dangerous sort of alternative historical narratives. It’s unlikely that anyone watching the show will mull over the possibility that the resurrected spirit of Virginia Dare led the colonists of Roanoke, threatened by the plague that killed her, to a safe haven just outside of Sleepy Hollow. What is more likely is that they will google Roanoke, or Virginia Dare, and maybe pick up something, and it’s hard to see a downside there. Even the proposition that the American founding had cosmic significance—a chestnut that does have some uncomfortable resonance with alternative narratives people actually believe—is rolled out here with such comic aplomb as to be defanged. “The answers are in Washington’s Bible!”[2]

The concept of the show actually offers opportunities for usefully juxtaposing Ichabod’s time and our own. So far, this has been limited to Ichabod’s brief, awkward moment of surprise that his partner is African-American (“You’ve been emancipated, I take it?”). That she’s a woman has not yet drawn noticeable comment, though, and a particularly low spot in this respect involved the pair needing a Mohawk shaman for help fighting a demon. Abbie and Ichabod—who is shocked that Native Americans did not fare well after the Revolution—go to visit the only Mohawk they know, a used-car salesman named Seamus. He is at first offended that they think every Native American can fight demons…and then obligingly takes them to his fully-equipped demon-fighting lodge and offers them the dream-world-inducing tea he happens to have on hand.

Such missteps aside, at the end of the day Sleepy Hollow is historical camp, which for my money is much less fraught and annoying than most “historical fiction.” Also, more fun. Very much like reading “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” while watching Sleepy Hollow you find yourself spontaneously giggling—so they do, actually, have something important in common. Irving’s story-teller-within-the-story identifies the moral of his own yarn in a way that resonates with this new Sleepy Hollow: “[T]here is no situation in life but has its advantages and pleasures, provided we will but take a joke as we find it.”


[1] As with Tim Burton’s identically-titled 1999 “adaptation,” the word “Legend” is dropped from the show’s title – Crane and Mills are dealing with verifiable truths, not legends. See Martin Kevorkian, “‘You Must Never Move the Body!’: Burying Irving’s Text in Sleepy Hollow,” Literature Film Quarterly 31 (2003): 27-32.

[2] Which bible, incidentally, appears to have been a unique translation. When Ichabod reads from Rev 6 – the bit about Death on a pale horse—it’s sort of a mash-up of several verses, not really matching any one translation I could find, let alone one available in the eighteenth-century. Maybe Washington’s bible was a polyglot and Ichabod was sight-translating from the Greek—in the show he’s a former professor at Oxford. I maybe spent too much time on this.

4 responses

  1. I’ve been watching this in order to see what they did with history and it is very campy, but I’ve also noticed some very nationalistic overtones. I’m waiting to pass judgement until I know how they are going to deal with the idea that Americans are saving the world from the apocalypse. Until then, I agree, it is fun and entertaining. Thanks for the review.

  2. Amazing. Sounds like it deserves to be on the Early Americanist movie shelf of honor next to (cough cough, another guilty favorite) National Treasure.


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