The thing about classics is they’re open to interpretation. And expansion. Since taking an interest in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” I’ve been reading modern novels based on it. Several of these are self-published and although they show the distinct signs of that, they are nevertheless creative. Human beings are a creative lot. And the basic idea of Sleepy Hollow gives us a lot of material to develop. Well, not really, I guess. It’s a rather simple story of a love triangle in a dreamy small town where there’s widespread belief about ghosts, particularly a headless horseman. You can nevertheless go in a lot of different directions from there. Especially since we have two centuries since the story was published.
Filmmaker Jude S. Walko has written a horror treatment of the Sleepy Hollow tale in modern times. The Unhallowed Horseman is graphic and violent and involves the gritty reality of being raised in a broken home. This isn’t for the faint of heart. One of the reasons, I expect, that Irving’s tale has survived is that he wrote it, according to the standards of the time, for a genteel readership. There’s no sex and no violence. It’s funny rather than really scary. The characters are likable, if shallow. There’s the frisson of a ghost but it’s never clear if he’s real or not. In the end order is restored in the small village and the interloper is gone. For these very reasons more recent readers are probably looking for something that fits more in our times.
Walko’s version has an emotionally scarred protagonist who is, according to modern practice, drugged into compliance. He’s smitten by the cutest girl in the school, but the other guys try to take her at will. The protagonist’s homelife is a shambles. The sheriff is a descendent of Brom Bones, without any of his good qualities. And due to a cosmic, astrological sort of event, the headless horseman rides again. This horseman, however, is described as pure evil. Almost in demonic terms. On the night of the annual Halloween festivities this horseman gruesomely kills many of the characters off. The high schoolers all drink, and the teenage boys have no morals. At the end there’s a community left in mourning and no real future. Nihilistic like some modern horror, this version won’t leave you smiling like Irving’s does. Of course, if you write a classic it can be taken in new directions, and can be made to reflect the realities of new times. Walko has his eyes open to the era in which we find ourselves.