Yesterday was distinctly autumnal around here. Cloudy and cool, the overcast was definitely moody although the equinox is still a couple weeks away. Still, the mood was right for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The earliest full cinematic adaptation of Washington Irving’s story is the 1922 silent feature The Headless Horseman, starring none other than Will Rogers. Now, Irving’s story is fairly brief, and to get nearly a full seventy-five minutes out of it, the tale lends itself to some padding. The film makes a great deal of Ichabod Crane knowing Cotton Mather’s A History of Witch-Craft, and even being accused of being in league with the Devil that leads to a disturbing scene where he’s nearly tarred and feathered. In reality Mather’s book was Wonders of the Invisible World, but the point of the film is better made with the fictional title.
Having watched Tim Burton’s 1999 version—Sleepy Hollow—many times, I was taken by the introduction of the Bible into the story. The groundwork, however, was laid by Edward D. Venturini’s version. True to the story, Ichabod teaches Psalmody in his role as schoolmaster. Venturini’s film has a contrived scene in the church on Sunday that includes a lengthy sermon with everyone—even the usher—falling asleep. The episode, which is lacking in Irving’s original rendition, introduces the Bible into the narrative. The connection is thin, but nevertheless present. Burton picked up on the religious element and built it firmly into the plot as Ichabod Crane’s backstory as a skeptic, raised by “a Bible-black tyrant.”
As someone interested in the integration of religion and horror, early examples, despite the comic aspect of Venturini’s version, are often instructive. The comedic spirit is actually in the original; Irving’s tale gives a caricature description of Crane that gives the lie to the handsome protagonists beginning with Jeff Goldblum on through Johnny Depp and Tim Mison. Will Rogers plays the homely image to its hilt, and although lighthearted, the movie has some classic horror elements. To arouse his dozing parishioners, the minister yells “Fire!” When they awake asking where, he states “In Hell,” which sleeping churchgoers can expect. Although the eponymous headless horseman is shown to be Brom Bones, a remarkably effective early scene presents a skeletal, ghostly rider that haunts at least the imagination. The sun is out this morning, and the brooding skies of yesterday have passed. They will be back, however, as the season for ghost tales is only just beginning.