North Tarrytown

Ichabod Crane has undergone many incarnations since Washington Irving conjured him. Not very sympathetically described in the original “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” he was gangly and somewhat clumsy and full of self-importance. The story of which he is forever a part, however, has become iconic of American myth-making. A deep symbolism runs through the story of the headless horseman, and for those who’ve actually been to Tarrytown, the modern incarnation of Sleepy Hollow, there may be a disconnect between the urbanity of a town so near to New York City and a rustic school teacher in a rural setting. Still, there seems to be quite a bit of buzz about the current television series “Sleepy Hollow” that I decided to see for myself what was happening. The conceit of Ichabod Crane reawakening, in a kind of Rip Van Winkle twist, in the present day is engaging. He is now a professor at Oxford University turned patriot to the American cause, which brings him to the point of actually beheading the horseman in the first place. But this literate, witty, and moody retelling involves more than Irving. The Bible is pretty much central to the series, at least as far as I’ve seen.

The headless horseman is none other than Death, the final of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, according to holy writ. Although the characters all refer to the Apocalypse as “Revelations,” something that causes premature baldness in biblical scholars, the program places the town of Sleepy Hollow at the crux of the oncoming end of the world, with the other three horsemen to be summoned along the way (Pestilence or Conquest, War, and Famine, for those who are keeping score). Also, witches, hearkening back to Salem, have a prominent place in the narrative, and the forces of rational law seem to be at their collective wits’ end to make any sense of religion breaking into a secular world. Without the Bible’s final book, Sleepy Hollow would have no legs (as well as no head).


In Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane came through as a detective plotting science against superstition. At the end, however, even the most rational had to admit there was more going on than the science of the day could explain. That is part of the appeal of the Sleepy Hollow legend. No matter how strong the light we shed on them may be, our psyches reach out for the immaterial, the ghostly, the supernatural. We like to believe in sacred books and spells to protect from evil. Even the Twilight Zone episode “The Jungle” plays on how in even the most advanced cultures we still build skyscrapers with no thirteenth floor, as if our towers represent an unknown hubris for which we may be held accountable. Irrational? Perhaps. But Sleepy Hollow is not so somnolent these days when the Bible once again takes center stage and hoofbeats are heard once again in the night.

Black Monks and Grim Reapers

Last night I assisted my daughter with a stint of volunteering at the local community “haunted house” for charity. This is one of the high points of October, so I was glad to be asked. I reprised my role that I developed for Nashotah House: in that context the character was called “the Black Monk,” based on a local ghost story. While I was on the faculty of Nashotah there were plenty of students who swore the Black Monk story was true, the actual event involved an early student who drowned while trying to walk across water (something many students think they are capable of) – this was actually during the winter, however, and Upper Nashotah Lake is not always as thickly frozen as people assume. The poor student broke through and is buried in the cemetery on campus. Halloween was a major event at that Gothic location until a new, evangelical administration came along. During a haunted hayride, the kids of the community lumbered along on a hay-wagon while costumed students jumped out to scare them. I played along in a costume my wife made where my face was invisible and the flowing black robes eerily blended into the night.

In my current secular context, of course, I was simply The Grim Reaper. This character has a very ancient pedigree. Religions from the earliest times have personified Death as a character that all people inevitably meet. The Mesopotamians had Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, the Ugaritians had Mot, the god whose name is “Death,” and the Hebrew Bible has “the Angel of Death.” We are often not given a physical description of this baleful but sometimes beneficent supernatural entity. When Revelation was finally penned, Death is one of the four horsemen, and he rides a pale horse, but we do not find many physical details. In the fifteenth century Death was pictured as a skeleton, often with a scythe. His role is that of the classical psychopomp, or guide to the next world. He is not evil, but when the doorbell rings you’d rather hope it had been Avon calling rather than the G.R.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker

Appealing to the fear of the unknown, I lurked last night in the shadows, face completely obscured, not speaking, stepping out to reminded holiday revelers that what is really scary is that which we can not define. When playing the silent ghoul, sudden movements are not necessary to frighten, shouts and screams are unimportant. The simple reminder of mortality and the unspoken question “is he here for me?” are sufficiently frightening on their own. Whether the Black Monk or the Grim Reaper, this character has a natural place on the chilly nights of October. And sometimes it seems there is just not enough October to keep all of us in line.