Why ‘Sleepy Hollow’ is Truly an American Horror Legend


One thing about today’s horror is that, technically speaking, we’ve become slightly numb to horror that is somewhat familiar. Anything taking place in present day is just too familiar and although there may be legitimate scares and true terror it just isn’t the same as some of the true, old-school horror stories.

Enter The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving first wrote this classic short story in 1820, setting it in small-town New York at the turn of the 18th century. Everyone remembers the old Disney animated feature that was shown to the students in grade school; a humorous take on an otherwise dark legend.

But the classic is anything but humorous or Disney-worthy. Set in 1790 in the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town, New York, the tale follows school teacher Ichabod Crane, an outsider, as he competes with local bad boy Brom Brunt for the hand of young Katrina Van Tassel. After losing out to Brunt, Ichabod leaves town only to be confronted by the spirit of the Headless Horseman and vanishes, never to be seen again.

By Irving’s account, it is implied that perhaps Brunt was behind Crane’s scare, and Crane just simply turned tail and ran as far from Tarry Town as possible. However, over the years, the story has been taken through a few twist and turns and made into a true horror icon. The Headless Horseman becomes a real entity in these variations, going as far as doing away with Brunt in the 1999 big-screen adaptation directed by Tim Burton.

It’s these variations that the public has fallen in love with. These variations that erase any doubt of supernatural happenings and make it truly an American classic in the literary world. On top of the fact that this was horror written by a literary titan in Irving, this isn’t some formulaic slasher. Nothing about this can be used as a generic slasher to begin with.

Sure, in terms of setting the current FOX television show of the same name is an exception to the “present day horror” rule previously mentioned (go away, mediocre-ABC Family-TV-movie The Hollow! You’re not welcome!). But aside from that, Sleepy Hollow isn’t a tale that can really be tampered with. There is no Headless Horseman without Ichabod Crane, or Sleepy Hollow for that matter.

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For that, everything about this tale is dark. It’s set in a small, rudimentary village with a supernatural force that cannot be defeated (unless you’re Johnny Depp). The basic people of this rudimentary village have no way of defeating this terror that has an almost artistic way of separating heads from bodies (a less-than-savory way for anyone who wasn’t familiar with battle to go).

The story is dark, bleak, and gruesome. Victims of the Headless Horseman go out in a quick and violent way. The Horseman’s mere existence cannot be explained, only speculated. That being said, in 1790 the fear of the unknown was greater than it is now. Therefore, the fear of the Headless Horseman was greater. That’s what we’ll forever associate with the Horseman: Fear.

Weigh in below on your take of Washington Irving’s classic, and be sure to catch Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow on Netflix.