The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) - short story

Happy Halloween, horror fans!

Author:  Washington Irving
Caption:  "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 [...] and the spectre is known at all the country firesides, by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow."
Genre:  short story, legend, folklore, American fiction, psychological thriller, thriller, ghost
Scare score:  D-
Rating:  A

Plot overview:  In the late 18th Century on the banks of the Hudson about 30 miles north of New York City, in the small village of Sleepy Hollow, the superstitious schoolmaster Ichabod Crane is actively courting the beautiful young daughter of a rich landowner.  After a party at their farm one fall evening, Ichabod is returning home when he encounters the ghastly specter that is said to haunt the roads at night.

I've always loved this story.  Who doesn't know it?  Or, at the very least, who isn't familiar with the idea of a headless horseman hurling a sinister pumpkin through the air?  This is a pervading tale, and one of the founding fathers of American folklore.  With its short length, it is the perfect bedtime story during the Halloween season.

This story isn't necessarily scary, but it is certainly creepy.  Originally published in the collection of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., (along with "Rip Van Winkle"), this is among Irving's most famous and lasting tales.  You may be wondering, if it isn't scary, why bother reading?  Well I have two reasons for you.  First, you should familiarize yourself with this important work of American literature.  It is beautifully written and filled with lifelike descriptions of the Hudson Valley.  There is plenty of rich vocabulary that you should learn to impress your friends.  Secondly, this is an essential piece of scary literature.  Everybody should read it at least once.


What gets me most about this short story is its spooky ambiguity.  We are presented with Ichabod Crane, a lanky, superstitious type who we aren't made to be necessarily fond of.  We are given a full account of the local characters, their nature, and their beliefs in ghosts and demons that haunt the area.  In fact, the majority of this short story is just exposition.  There is positively nothing scary about 95% of this piece of literature. Then we get to the final few pages.  The chase scene that happens through the woods isn't very scary, but it's a compelling read, and the pace certainly picks up.  Any keen reader will, of course, realize the instant we are presented with a "horseman of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame" that it is probably just Brom "Bones" Van Brunt playing a prank.  But what if it's not?  Either way, this is the true horror of the story:

Say there really is a headless horseman.  Irving pulled this idea from the preexisting concept of a ghostly headless figure in European folklore.  If this is the case, Crane has always been right to be worried about superstition and things that go bump in the night.  Then, we are led to believe that the horseman comes down upon Crane and either murders him and dumps him in the river, or murders him and spirits him away, as the locals go on to believe.  Ah!  Ghost story!  Spooky!

But if not, my friends, if there is no headless horseman and no ghosts in the village of Sleepy Hollow, the story suddenly becomes much darker, and much more frightening in my opinion.  This version of the tale, which is the one I believe in, is that the horseman was just Brom dressed up to frighten Ichabod away from courting Katrina, their mutual love interest, who is described as being as plump as a peach.  If it is Brom all along, then Brom violently throws a pumpkin into Crane's face, which we can understand knocks him from his horse.  Two things can now happen: Crane falls into the river, injured or already dead, and gets washed out into the Hudson with the other garbage.  Either that, or Crane falls, and then is murdered by Brom, who then tosses his body into the Hudson with the other garbage.  Either way, Brom murders Ichabod Crane, which is terrifying and sinister and just downright evil.

I suppose you could argue that Brom just terribly frightens Ichabod, who then leaves town in his embarrassment and shame from being rejected by Katrina, who is probably just an early American bimbo.  But then again, Ichabod is just a gold digger, so who's to say who is morally superior.  But I digress.  I don't think Ichabod just leaves town since we know he only owns like one bag full of stuff that he highly treasures as he is material and vain, and very much a fan of earthly delights.  So, horror fans, it is my belief that Abraham Van Brunt is guilty of murder in the first degree.  And you know what the scarier part is?  The town just shrugs it off.  Not a single soul is concerned for Ichabod.  Either they assume he ran away, or they are totally okay with the fact that he has been kidnapped by some evil spirit.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why this short story is truly freaky.

Fun fact: A teenage Horror Buff once went to Sleepy Hollow for a quick visit.  Not only is the area beautiful (I love the Hudson River Valley), but the little village has headless horseman stuff everywhere - it's awesome!  If you ever get a chance to visit, I highly recommend checking out town hall, which has some awesome murals depicting the chase scene from the story.  While you're there, you can also check out the Old Dutch Church and the grave of Washington Irving, as well as some other famous Americans.

Final critique:  Read this short story. It will take you know more than an hour.  Read it by a cozy fire, or by candlelight to friends or family.  Take turns reading.  Look up the big words you don't know (I learned whilom, supernumerary, peradventure, and erudition).  It's Halloween, folks, so this is the perfect time to check out this easy read.  After you finish, you can be the judge of what's truly scary in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."