Preamble: My History With Sleepy Hollow
Most of the time I don't really notice when I have a long history with a particular character or story in various forms of media. It took viewing the premier of X-Men: Days of Future Past to realize, and feel somewhat shocked by the realization, that seeing the first X-Men film had dramatically impacted my life in subtle ways as a young person. I wised up a little sooner with Sleepy Hollow, probably around the advent of the TV show in 2013.
Attending religious schools as a kid, the works of literature we were allowed to read as curricula were often heavily censored, if not absent. Of course, I didn't know that at the time, but eventually caught on from comparing library editions to my textbooks. A general rule of thumb for these textbooks, the determination seemed to be that the older a work was, the more likely it was to be acceptable for students to read. That didn't stop governing bodies removing whole pages from Shakespeare, but the short story writers who made it in, and definitively captured my imagination were Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe. Poe was an afterthought in the textbooks, with just a couple of stories, handled with noticeable distaste. Ironically, the blandness of the textbook selections made these writers stand out more noticeably and inspired me with a love for "dark fantasy" fiction, exactly what the textbooks were geared to prevent. There must be some kind of lesson in that.
Of these, I believe the first story I read was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Even then I realized that it was funny, surprisingly sad, phenomenally ambiguous, and was capable of producing a lasting impression. To my personal history with the story a little further, I ended up lecturing about it as an English Professor many years later and what was scheduled for an hour long discussion turned into a total of six hours by popular demand.
We spent our time just taking apart the different layers of possible meaning and interpretation over a three week period. And I don't recall a single student seeming bored during those hours, they just became more and more invested in the story, the more familiar they became with it. Everyone had answers. Everyone had theories. Because they came to realize that it was a story for everyone. In fact, it was a great exercise in close reading and analysis for the students, though I wasn't silly enough to point out that their entertainment served a purpose.
The Sleepy Hollow film by Tim Burton was a different animal altogether in my mind, though it did come up in the classroom and formed a good touchstone of shared experience. I had discovered it as a college student myself, and it took me down a different avenue in appreciation for film as a medium. The overwhelming total design of the film, from the costumes, to the settings, to the added elements of characterization fascinated me and pointed out how a dialogue with an imagined past created by a 19th century writer could become a modern dialogue with an imagined past in the 20th century with a host of new meanings and experiences for viewers. I was captivated by it and am still a big fan of the film.
I became aware of the Fox TV show Sleepy Hollow by accident sitting in a darkened panel room at San Diego Comic Con in 2013 where I thought I might get a little work done before reporting on more panels, only to be told to turn off my computer. Forced to sit in the dark and silence, I watched the premier, prepared to be a little skeptical, if only because my plans had been thwarted. Seeing the show, and then the Q and A with the cast of the show afterwards, as well as the extreme enthusiasm of the packed room of fans, made quite an impression on me. It broke me again out of the idea that the story by Irving was in any way sacrosanct. In fact, it felt like fan fiction, something my students could have dreamed up given a few more hours and a lot of professional training. I was a near-fan if not a fan of the show by the time I left the room.
Now, in case anyone out there might recall this, I'll comment that the two pieces I've ever written about the Sleepy Hollow show on Bleeding Cool were a tad critical. The first because there was a historical mistake that other scholars and fans then e-mailed me about, agreeing on, and the second because I was feeling a little put off by Season 2 of the show in its first two episodes. My complaint there was that the pace was too break-neck and I was worried the show would lose some of its core features in the drive to escalating action scenes. It turns out that one of our trusty reporters, Kirk Staley, actually asked the cast and crew of the show about this trend in a Q and A at New York Comic Con this year, and found many fellow reporters agreeing over this concern, only to be assured that the pace would level out and that there would be more room for the characters and the mythology of Sleepy Hollow to breathe. That has indeed turned out to be the case, and I'm back on track with the show, very happy with how the season is shaping up.
To complete this four-pronged history I'll mention the new comic series Sleepy Hollow from Boom! Studios following the characters from the TV series in new adventures, written by Marguerite Bennett. Shortly after the series was announced, I had the pleasure of doing an interview for Bleeding Cool Magazine #12 with artist on the comic Jorge Coelho, and found that his approach to working on the comic combined humor, versatility, and an openness to the various strands of tradition that left me even more interested in seeing the comic than I would have been anyway. Learning that Lumberjanes' Noelle Stevenson was doing the back up features further charmed me. The artwork for both the main story and back up are simply spectacular and enter into the spirit of the show and mythos so fully that they seem to tap the same cultural inspiration of the show without being at all derivative. The comic is an excellent addition to the Sleepy Hollow tradition in modern day.
Taking a Road Trip To Sleepy Hollow On Halloween
When Halloween rolled around and I thought of activities within striking distance, I realized how many times I'd crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge without ever taking that brief detour into Tarrytown or Sleepy Hollow beyond. Googling Sleepy Hollow, I was somewhat surprised to find that there were plenty of Halloween events in the town, and that the Old Dutch Church, graveyard, and various historic properties were located there and accessible. But I tried not to place too heavy a weight of preconceived notions on what visiting Sleepy Hollow would be like on going there in person. I knew that Tim Burton's film wasn't filmed there and was an art object of its own, and that even the TV series was wildly fictitious regarding location, not filmed there either. I wanted to have an enjoyable Halloween, and since the day dawned with great luck in weather, I knew that I'd probably have little regret in making the trip.
I rolled into Tarrytown by car around noon and stopped off at the Chamber of Commerce/Visitor's Center where there were plenty of free maps and literature confirming that most of the Headless Horseman related sites and events in the two towns are off the main drag of Route 9 and that even parking wasn't too much of a problem. Aware that things might get a bit more crowded later in the day, I headed to the cemetery and Old Dutch Church and my minimal expectations of that experience were blown away.
Not only is the lovely church well preserved (and active), but the church and cemetery had been decorated festively, and special fresh-cooked food tables and stalls had been set up with visitors in mind. The fall colors had taken hold of the wooded surroundings, making for really lovely photos and the cemetery itself was vast with many, many interesting gravestones and mausoleums to pore over. This church, dating from 1685, and only vacant of services during the Revolutionary War, was of course established by Dutch Settlers, and the early American gravestone art surrounding its own cemetery is spectacularly interesting. The graves even include the Van Tassel family, and the historical antecedent of Katrina (here Catrien), with haunting artwork.
This cemetery, of course, is where Washington Irving's Headless Horseman begins his ride, and streams nearby have various attribution of having been possessed of the original bridge Ichabod Crane is reputed to have fled across in the story. Shrouded in yellow leaves, the peaceful stream banks made for another atmospheric walk when I moved on from the Dutch Church and its cemetery to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery proper (renamed in honor of Washington Irving from Tarrytown Cemetary in 1849) where Irving, his family, and many other notables were laid to rest.
If you're a fan of taking in the historical and artistic aspects of funeral moments, this cemetery will keep you busy for hours with seemingly endless paths and varied tomb styles.
But before I could get far beyond a visit to Irving's very well-tended War of 1812 veteran's tomb in his family plot, I found myself followed by a mysterious presence. A spectacularly well-designed specter of a Headless Horseman in uniform quietly meandered through the cemetery on a black horse, delighting visitors (and his horse was not above accepting apple slices from the food vendors).
If that sounds kitsch, I'll add that I didn't know he was following me for some time as I obliviously snapped pictures, never looking behind me, which caused a lot of hilarity. I spent about three hours in the cemetery and only drew the visit to a close when I got a bit tired from clambering over the hillsides and down around the stream to take in the autumn colors. The town has done a tremendous job preserving the church, the cemeteries, and the living legend, and in being welcoming to tourism. I could have gone home from my jaunt happy with the day at that point, but I still had an evening appointment and some time to spend.
Driving out through some neighborhoods well decorated for Halloween from the picturesque to the gruesomely funny, I reached Kingsland Point Park to check out a view of the Hudson in grey but temperate weather and found more autumn colors and a quite deserted park.
Walking through the trees and out to the river, I took in the view of the Husdon in each direction, on one hand the bridge with Manhattan in the distance and in the other, that view that seems almost unchanged leading up into what must have been totally unknown territory in that era hinted at by Irving when the Dutch ships arrived. Because I'm a geek that way, I imagined the ships passing and Henry Hudson scrawling maps devoid of detail. All terra incognita.
Then I ventured further to the small Lighthouse at Sleepy Hollow and over the metal-mesh walkway over swirling waters, peering inside the lighthouse room on the main level with its empty chairs and simple furnishings.
More walking back at a leisurely pace revealed a children's playground probably innocently designed by giant climbing sculptures of human teeth that in the context of Halloween seemed a little darkly amusing.
Fairly exhausted, I headed into a pub in Tarrytown for dinner where I met most of the customers in costume, including a colonial era confab, peaked hats and all, tucking in. Where they came from or where they were headed I didn't know but I later caught up with them again at my destination.
My final destination as night set in was the Horseman's Hollow experience at Phillipsburg Manor. The Manor buildings, including a large white building and a mill, date from 18th century, but had been converted into a Halloween terror-fest for the season.
From a visitor's standpoint, the Visitor's Center there with plentiful bathrooms, a shop, and outside food stalls, were very welcoming. Then it was time to join the line leading into the unknown "entertainment", now running in its fifth year on the spot. It's probably for the best that I didn't know just how freaky the experience would be, since I have a limited threshold for these things.
Lit by candle-filled lanterns, a woodland path took me into an actor-filled (at least I hope they were actors) hour or so long wander through a well-stocked maze of constructions of horror tableaus. There was a massive attention to detail and artistry throughout the displays of various gruesome scenes, from zombies, to corpses, to supernatural thrills, but what took the cake were the performances of the many costumed denizens who had taken an almost obsessive approach of getting as near to the touring visitors as possible without touching them and of course, endless "jump outs" where freakish ghouls, historical personages gone wrong, and specters menaced your progress.
The most terrifying experience, for me, was a corn maze in pitch darkness that seemed to go on forever, mostly because the group meandered around more than once before being given a hint about the location of the exits. The narrow confines, the brushing corn stalks, and the hidden ghouls were enough to really get the adrenaline pumping, however hardened a haunted house-goer you may be from Halloweens past. Toward the end of the walk-through I saw my group of colonials again, apparently doing the tour themselves rather than hosting it, to my amusement. But the specter of the same (I think) Headless Horseman I had met previously at the cemetery, this time with a flaming pumpkin, seemed to bar my way to the exit. Just as he did for Ichabod. It was a fitting end to the entire day. To be honest, the way my feet felt after a day of walking in heeled boots, if the Horseman had offered me a lift, I would have accepted it, too.
As must be obvious by now, my journey to Sleepy Hollow, while it took a bit of travel and a lot of walking, was an impressive experience. When I compare it to my previous history with the story, film, TV show, and the like, I am aware that this has been an entirely separate event that stands alongside those elements in my life, but certainly engages in conversation with them.
I got to see other people enjoying the Sleepy Hollow mythology, their reactions, and the way in which the town celebrates its name day. And for me, that was very enlightening for different reasons than I expected. I now feel I understand better how the imagined past looms large in our present day, how we need it and seek it out at just about every possible opportunity. Washington Irving's Sleepy Hollow is the quintessential Halloween story just as Dickens' Christmas Carol is a quintessential Christmas story, a fan favorite for reasons. We can make it our own, and choose to take part in it and that's down the accessibility of the original material and the creativity of generations of storytellers bringing it to life in new ways for us. And we then follow their lead and address the roots of the tales again to make them our own.
In the TV show, we can see the way that humor forms a bridge between the colonial past and the modern day in the relationship between Abbie Mills and Ichabod Crane and their constant sparky dialogue as well as Crane's observations about the absurdities of modern life. How better to view our present than through the lens of a fictional past, one we can adjust at will to bring out our foibles best? Sleepy Hollow is alive in so many ways today, and the town itself is a significant piece of the puzzle. If you are a fan of the original story, or any of the steps in between that story's composition and modern day, why not add to your appreciation by taking part in the way the town itself celebrates the story that has left such an impression on our imaginations? It's like taking part in a ritual of bringing the story to life again, requiring participants to add to its evolving meaning. And hey, it's a lot of fun, to boot.
Hannah Means-Shannon is the EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter