What You Eat

The future of Sleepy Hollow is uncertain. The successful FOX television program has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous scheduling over the past year and speculation abounds that the current fourth season may be its last. It has been, in my experience anyway, one of the most literate supernatural horror shows ever. Books and reading abound and an interracial team fights evil week after week. Having done some research on the first season of the program, I continue to be surprised just how detailed the homework of the writers is. My wife sent me a story from Atlas Obscura on the “sin eater.” This is a term, I readily confess, that I never heard before the introduction of Henry Parrish to Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod Crane, guilty over the death of a freed African American freedom fighter, ingests poison to kill himself and severe his connection to the Headless Horseman. Abbie Mills, believing there is another way, locates the sin eater.

The idea is fairly simple, if unorthodox. A sin eater can literally devour the sins of another. In Sleepy Hollow this comes at a considerable cost, but the article by Natalie Zarrelli demonstrates that this too reflects research on the subject. There were, it turns out, sin eaters in the early modern British Isles. Often a poor person with no other options, a sin eater would consume bread placed on the chest of the deceased, incorporating, in an almost Christ-like way, the sins of the recently passed. The dead could then be safely buried, forgiven, while for a pittance a poor soul could walk around with someone else’s sins in his or her body. Sounds like capitalism writ large, to me.

Watching Sleepy Hollow I had assumed this idea was invented for the show. Like so many details, however, it turns out that some digging had brought an obscure historical practice to the surface. Sin eating, as the article makes clear, was never sanctioned by the church. People have often worried that official religion might not deliver the salvation it so readily promised, bound up with rules and rites as it was. Here was a sacrament of the people. Bread could be visibly consumed and symbolically, or literally, sin with it. The sin eater was paid, making this a legal transaction. Although sin eating is thought to have died out, it seems that with the recent, high-level resurgence of evil-doing, perhaps it is a practice that should be recalled. In many ways Sleepy Hollow has been ahead of the times since the beginning.

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Underground Easter

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Recently I had the opportunity to write a post for the OUP Blog on the topic of Sleepy Hollow. I’m not exactly obsessed with the program, but it fascinates me that a television show that is so religiously based was such a hit for a couple of seasons. Religiously based, that is, in a thoroughly secular way. That may sound like a contradiction, but that is precisely part of the charm. We are constantly being informed that religion is on its way out, but we keep coming back to it in other guises. Sometimes disguises. Since today is recognized as Easter among many western Christian groups, I thought it’d be appropriate to consider resurrection. We know that resurrection is an idea that pre-dates Christianity and that it is one of the most basic religious hopes people share, in some form or other. It is also one of the central themes of Sleepy Hollow.

The premise of the series is that Ichabod Crane has been resurrected two centuries after his death. Alive in Sleepy Hollow, he and Abbie Mills fight off a variety of weekly frightening monsters, the primary one being the Headless Horseman. But the Headless Horseman is also a resurrected character. Ironically, he is Death, and even Death comes back from beyond. As particularly the first season goes on, we find other characters dead and risen. George Washington comes back from the dead to give instructions for coming out of Purgatory. The second horseman of the apocalypse, War, is a character brought back from the dead. In the second season, Thomas Jefferson, in a kind of futuristic sense, is brought back from the dead as a kind of living hologram. Where, o Death, is thy sting?

Sleepy Hollow is a secular program. There is no overt religious message. To tell a compelling story, however, the writers keep coming back to the Bible and other sacred texts, and supernatural themes. In researching the program I learned that other networks (who has time to keep track of them all?) also have supernatural features and that competition is fierce. Meanwhile we’re being told that religion is all but stomped out under the weight of rationalism. My observation is that it may be dressed up as something different. It may even be in disguise. Religion, however, is experiencing its own resurrection in popular culture and the idea of Easter has yet to be considered obsolete.

The Lure of Lore

SleepyHollowOne of my doctoral advisers, Nick Wyatt, has become a friend over the years. I’m sure he would agree that he is often called a maverick, but in the best possible way. He is one of the brightest people I’ve ever known. When it was time for his Festschrift to appear, I had been unceremoniously tipped out of academia and left to my own devices. Being his first doctoral student, I had to contribute a piece, and so I settled on one I had written about an Edinburgh ghost story that seems to have roots in ancient Sumer.  Nick is the kind of scholar who can appreciate such ventures. This paper came to mind while reading Legends and Lore of Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson Valley by Jonathan Kruk.  Kruk labels himself a storyteller, and that was a venerable role in ancient times.  In fact it was a priestly one.  Kruk draws out the many tales of headless horsemen and other spirits mentioned in Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Nothing is proven here, but that’s not the point.

Headless ghosts were a staple of nineteenth-century lore not only in the Hudson Valley, but also in Scotland and Germany, as well as in many other locations.  How a spirit became decapitated is generally part of the draw to such ghoulish stories, and Kruk convincingly points to the tradition of the Wild Hunt as an element in Ichabod Crane’s famous ride.  The point is that stories often contain a truth that facts can’t match.  Case in point: the legend of Sleepy Hollow is alive and well. There have been periods, and will likely be more periods, when interest wanes, but we keep coming back to the story because it teaches us something about ourselves.  Empiricism is all fine and good until you find yourself facing a headless phantom on a nighttime highway.  Experience all of a sudden takes the wheel.

What does this have to do with Professor Wyatt?  My Festschrift article was reviewed, at a much earlier stage, by the journal Folklore.  I received a very sniffy rejection letter, citing, among other scholarly infractions, that I had referred to a popular publication (say it isn’t so!) as a source of the Edinburgh ghost story text. Where else was I to find it?  What scholar would bother to replicate an obviously—let’s just say it—uneducated tale?  Isn’t it beneath scholarly dignity? The stories we tell, I’ve always believed, make us who we are. It may be that materialists will have the last laugh.  When they are carted to the graveyard, however, I can guarantee that there will those among the common mourners who will be able to make a believable tale that their lives meant something after all.

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).

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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.

Stamp Act

Reality seems more and more intangible all the time. Perhaps this is because I can remember a time, not so long ago, when sitting in front of a computer all day would have been unthinkable. Or maybe it is because when I stepped outside to go for a jog, I found a piece of yesterday’s mail lying on the front lawn. Not that it was terribly important, but it was a stamped piece of mail with my name on it. Soaked with dew. Unread. To err is human, so I wouldn’t have worried about it so much if it hadn’t have happened before. In my days of unemployment, I could hear the postal carrier come onto the stoop, talking away on a cell phone, negotiating the mailbox as if it were a nuisance. Then one day I found a bill that I had put out to be delivered on the sidewalk. The landlord once called, wondering where the rent was. We’d mailed it a week ago, but to this day, years later, it never arrived. I know I’m old fashioned, but a stamp used to mean something.

As a child I was a half-hearted philatelist. At the local hobby store you could buy photo-album knock-offs specifically for stamp collecting. Stamps were a promise from the government. I always considered the fact that they were engraved—like dollar bills and liquor bottle labels—to mean that they were serious. There was more than an implied contract here. A stamp meant delivery. Long I would linger over the empty spaces of my stamp album preprinted with the images of the missing stamps. I thrilled to find one of the Grange, although I had no idea what a Grange was. The one with the legend of Sleepy Hollow I coveted with all my youthful imagination: Ichabod Crane being forever chased by the headless horseman. Stamps from other parts of the world were virtually unknown in my small town. When they came, it was like visiting an exotic location in our own living room.

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A few years back I noticed that stamps were no longer engraved. Printed on a printer not so different from the one that sits on my desk, they have lost their souls. Although their costs have continued to rise, they no longer guarantee delivery like they used to. There was a covenant involved. You licked the stamp, putting it in intimate contact with your body, and the government would ensure the recipient would receive it. I’m outside holding a soggy postcard with my name on it. This one made it to within just yards of its goal before falling, unnoticed from the hand or bag of a mail carrier. We all use email anyway, don’t we? I remember a day as a college sophomore when I had never sat before a computer screen. The world was right there in front of me, inescapably real. Something has happened since then, but I have to admit that I don’t miss licking stamps. I just wonder if reality has really changed.

Sleepy Hallow

Sleepy_hollow_ver2Upon occasion I found movie clips to be of great help in explaining ideas in religion classes. A movie whose clips I used sparingly, due to concerns for squeamishness, was Sleepy Hollow (the Tim Burton movie, not the modern television series). Upon viewing it again recently, I was impressed by just how much religion is intertwined in the narrative. This is especially interesting since Washington Irving’s story does not contain much in the way of religious symbolism or motifs. From the beginning of the film, Rev. Steenwyck is one of the conspirators, making the church complicit in the attempt to subvert the van Garrett will. When Ichabod Crane arrives in Sleepy Hollow the cleric drops a Bible—a recurring motif in the movie—on the table beside him, telling Ichabod it is the only book he will need. Christianity and Paganism clash throughout the film as a number of the women are revealed to be witches, either “innocents” or practitioners of a darker kind of magic.

In flashbacks Ichabod Crane recalls his mother’s white magic that draws the ire of his ordained father. Indeed, Ichabod’s father is a stylized amalgamation of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism blended into one. His harsh white chapel houses an inquisitorial torture chamber in which he murders his wife. Seeing her pagan symbols in the fireplace ash, he too drops a heavy Bible to point out his wife’s sins. When he stalks off from his medieval chamber of horrors, the camera angle shows him to be headless—he is the true terror, rather than the Horseman who was raised by magic and appeased by the simple return of stolen property—his head. Even in the present Rev. Steenwyck is both an adulterer and a murderer. The melee in the church leaves the final three conspirators dead.

The white witches, however, are marked by their purity. Mother Crane is so light that she can float up into the air. Katrina van Tassel draws chalk icons to protect Ichabod, indeed, the whole town, from evil. While Ichabod refers to his father with the evocative phrase “Bible-black tyrant,” his mother was an innocent child of nature. In the film Ichabod moves from the rational view of life to one that allows for the supernatural, in the form of magic. True, the Horseman cannot cross onto the consecrated ground of the church (another Catholic concept mixed in with the Protestant milieu), but the faith that saves Ichabod’s life is the book of spells given to him by Katrina. Yes, the physical book stopped a material bullet, but it was faith the put the book in the pocket in the first place. All very appropriate to bring students’ minds to religion in the autumn of the year.

Movie by Faith

Yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger carried an article by film critic Stephen Whitty entitled, “Where script meets scripture: Recent films take a leap of faith.” The phenomenon he observes is that mainstream, big studio-backed film-makers are more and more turning to plots and scripts that emphasize faith. It is not always standard, revealed religion-type faith, but a belief that there is something else. Something beyond that with which our daily lives presents us. People are seeking, but traditional religions are having a hard time convincing them that they have the answers.

In a striking contrast, films that present a spiritual danger frequently revert to the stock image of a Catholic priest as the means of deliverance. When is the last time a Protestant exorcist took on a demon on the big screen? Torn though it is with its long and checkered history of imperialism, exploitation, and scandal, the Catholic Church with its obscure rituals is effective where the machinations of the Protestants are not. This too is a leap of faith, one that believes in the efficacy of ritual despite its origin or lack of scientific theory. Science provides a way of understanding the world that many people experience as cold and comfortless. Even many scientists choose simply to trust in what their spiritual guides teach them.

Over the weekend my wife and I watched Sleepy Hollow. It is an annual tradition; it is our October movie. In this film Tim Burton plays off the superstition of Sleepy Hollow – in fact real, in the movie – against the science of Ichabod Crane. In the end, Ichabod has to face the supernatural on its own terms in order to bring the world back to science. Having sent the headless horseman back to perdition, Crane once again returns to a New York City at the start of a new millennium, full of the optimism of science. It is the dilemma of the modern western world. People are tugged, torn even, in two diametrically opposed directions. Our experience leads us to believe in a “demon haunted world” while science placidly informs us that all can be explained. Movies do reflect the human outlook in many respects, and the end sequence has yet to be shot.