Updating Irving

Movie quality is measured by many standards.  It’s pretty clear that budgets can make a difference—Hollywood movies generally outshine television movies.  Streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu, have been gaining ground here, but they still lack some of the qualia that come from long-term players in the industry.  Often this was measured, pre-pandemic, by box office success.  I’m not sure how it’s all quantified now, but I’m sure it still comes down to money.  To me, the deciding factor about the quality of a movie is often the writing.  Even with a modest budget excellent writing can make up a lot of ground.  Headless Horseman originally aired on the SciFi channel (now Syfy) in 2007, and I wrote a tiny bit about it in a former post.  I recently rewatched it with an eye toward how religion is integrated in it.

Headless Horseman is not a great movie.  Its writing doesn’t inspire and it leaves too many gaps in the narrative to carry the viewer along easily.  Still, religion plays an important role in the story.  This one resets Washington Irving’s tale in the south—from the license plates, Missouri.  The horseman is a serial killer who offered his victim’s heads to the hydra, the serpent that guards the entrance to Hell.  When the killer is stopped and his body sent through the gateway, he comes back every seven years to chop heads.  The town where all this takes place has the biblical name of Wormwood, and everyone in it is literally family.  So every seven years they have to trap seven outsiders to make their offering.  The person who originally stopped the killer was the local priest.

Even this brief synopsis reveals how deeply religion is engrained in this retelling.  Irving’s classic story is set in an overtly religious period (particularly Protestant, of the Reformed variety), and wears this lightly.  Everyone can be assumed to go to church and the Headless Horseman is a Hessian mercenary decapitated by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War.  Over time, with many retellings, the horror becomes more and more involved with religion.  To the point that the religion itself is the real engine of fear.  A town protecting a Hell-guarding hellion doesn’t exactly make them Satanists, but it does mean they’re not far from it.  The in-breeding is, however, a bit insensitive.  My recent rewatching wasn’t with an eye toward the Bible, as my last viewing was.  When retelling the story, however, it seems religion will surface where once it was only in the background.


Annotating Irving

Really concentrating on a short story is sometimes difficult to do.  I don’t have a degree in literature (I took a few courses, but my specialization was religion).  I’ve been on a bit of a Sleepy Hollow kick lately and I wanted to move beyond just the short story by Washington Irving.  Although I’m sure working through the entire Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., the book in which “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was published, would probably be rewarding, it would also be time consuming.  Irving was trying to find his way as a writer and this particular story has been his lasting contribution.  So I turned to local historian Henry John Steiner’s annotated edition.  It has a useful introduction, but still wouldn’t be “book length” without several pages of photos and a large font size.

Sleepy Hollow may lay claim to several signs of historical importance.  It featured in the Revolutionary War.  Washington Irving did eventually settle there.  As a getaway it attracted the wealthy and powerful from New York City because it’s not that far from Manhattan.  Several movie and television renditions have been made of Irving’s story.  This book generally provides local place connections in the annotations.  A visitor to Sleepy Hollow might wonder where this or that event in the story was set.  This book will help with that.  Still, it left me looking for a bit more substantial treatment.  Not necessarily a literary-theory kind.  Let’s face it, academic writers tend to write for other academics. No, a bit more of the folklore, I suppose.

It did allow me to slow down and really concentrate on the story.  Books have an endpoint that really helps in that regard.  This little book (as was the one I recently read on the Old Dutch Church) was published when the Fox series Sleepy Hollow was taking off.  That all-important media tie-in helps to sell books.  Interestingly, the details of a closer reading are revealing.  This isn’t, in origin, a Halloween story.  It’s a tall tale told American style.  Steiner indicates it was based on an older legend—this is something I’d be interested in hearing more about.  Writers are great recyclers.  I suppose a book on the folklore of the lower Hudson Valley might have more of what I’m seeking.  Nevertheless I came away from this edition feeling as if I’d gotten to know the story better.  Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” also appears in his Sketch Book, but perhaps it’s asking too much to have both analyzed together.


Back to Tarrytown

The very name “Hollow” takes me there.  It’s a resonant geonym.  Near Franklin, Pennsylvania, my early hometown, runs a route called Deep Hollow Road.  For me, with its lush, thick trees and shadowed valley, it always exemplified what the term “Hollow” intended.  And of course, there was Sleepy Hollow.  Now that my article on various movies based on the Irving story has appeared in Horror Homeroom (it’s free), I’m again thinking about my dance with that particular story.  In fact, after I submitted the article I watched yet another version of the tale, Pierre Gang’s 1999 The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  This film on Sci Fi (before it became SyFy) purports to follow the original closely.  It nevertheless has to pad out the story and does so with religion.

Religion—specifically the Bible—and the tale as represented in Fox’s four-season series Sleepy Hollow is what started me on the current leg of my journey.  I sent an article to the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on the topic and when it was accepted I expanded the idea into the book Holy Horror.  So it is that I’ve tried to watch as many versions of the story as I can.  There have been many made-for-television renditions.  Some are available for free on the various services that draw from my pocket monthly.  Others cause me to debate whether I want to pay for seeing a sub-par effort for the sake of completeness.  The scholar’s heart still beats within me, I guess.  The Gang version expands the story with a church scene, not in the original tale.  To inculcate the Bible, however, Tim Burton’s film of the same year was necessary.

For me no story better encapsulates October.  Perhaps it’s the crucial role of the pumpkin.  Perhaps it’s the ambiguity of the headless horseman himself—is he a hoax or something more?  These kinds of questions are answered by various filmmakers but since the viewer ultimately decides the question is left up to us.  If I were still an academic my next book project would be clear.  Instead I’m trying to bask in the wonder that is October—the season of transition from bright blue skies and colorful leaves to long, chill nights and bare trees.  Our time outdoors becomes more focused so that we might get back to the warmth inside.  And if we’re looking for a tale to read that’s not really that scary, but which captures the ghosts of the American imagination, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” beckons.


Not Sleepy Yet

Over a recent weekend I watched four versions of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  (I have two excuses.  One is that it’s October, and the second is that I have an article on Sleepy Hollow coming out on Horror Homeroom.  For the second, read on.)  The story is one that made an impact on me as a child, probably because of Disney’s Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  The cartoon version, which was one of the four I watched, is silly and scary both.  It leaves it to the imagination whether the headless horseman is real or not.  Before that I watched the silent 1922 Headless Horseman staring Will Rogers.  Clearly in that film the headless horseman is what we’d now call a liberal hoax.  It was Brom Bones scaring Ichabod Crane away from Katrina Van Tassel.

The canon of characters grows with Tim Burton’s 1999 film Sleepy Hollow.  Although Burton is hit or miss for me, this strikes me as one of the best October movies I’ve seen.  The headless horseman is quite real and the spiritual world intersects with the rational, crime and punishment world in the haunted western wood.  I didn’t have time for the 1980 television movie this time around, but I decided to watch the 2007 television movie Headless Horseman.  A rather puerile splatter film set in Missouri, it posits that this is the real headless horseman behind Washington Irving’s story.  It has a lot of religious imagery, which is often what I’m looking for in horror.  The writing is poor and the characters shallow, but it isn’t a total waste of time.

What all of these films demonstrate is that Washington Irving’s story, as simple as it is, really resonated with Americans.  How can you reason or plead mercy from a headless man?  Look closely, for there is a parable here.  The headless are merciless and they have the ability to frighten.  The story is generally set in the harvest season.  The 2007 movie makes the horseman’s appearance as a crucified scarecrow.  Although the original story had no such religious elements, they’ve become a standard part of its accrued cultural heritage.  The headless horseman has gone from secular to religious, for it is an American story.  Originally set in the period after the Revolutionary War, it was part of an unsettled nation’s frustrated attempt at normalcy.  This, I believe, remains.  When we can’t make sense of our surroundings, we look back to those stories that seem to have some insight into who we are.  Headless horsemen are quite useful in that regard.


Sleepy and Hollow

Call it nostalgia.  (“It’s nostalgia!”)  What with major expenses rolling in like the longer nights—a major plumbing job followed by the roofers back again to fix another leak—I try to accept my joys in inexpensive doses.  I’ve written before about how “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” caught my childhood imagination.  My brothers and I, growing up in quite humble circumstances, were collectors.  Not having much money, the collecting tended to be of free stuff, much of which drove our mother crazy.  Bottle caps, believe it or not, could be had for free from the openers on vending machines that dispensed genuine glass bottles.  We had bags full and the aroma was wonderful.  We had baseball cards—which were cheap and would now be worth something had they been kept—by the boxful.  And we collected stamps because they came free in the mail.

Yes, even bills used to have stamps.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow stamp was released for Halloween in 1974.  I don’t recall how I heard about it, because there was no internet in those days.  I knew, however, that I fervently hoped one would come so that I could add it to my collection.  It never did.  In fact, I never actually saw the stamp itself.  When we moved house my childhood philatelic ambitions met an abrupt end as those endless childhood collections (which included metal slugs dropped from trucks rumbling out of the local steel mill and fossils found by the river under the bridge where those slugs pinged) were simply thrown out.  I would never see the coveted stamp, and now we use email.

It took many years—decades now—to occur to me that the stamp might be available online.  I guess I had pictures of the price tag of that upside-down airplane stamp in mind as I navigated to a vendor who was asking less than a dollar for a mint copy of a ten-cent Sleepy Hollow stamp.  Gritting my teeth between plumbing and roofing bills, I finally clicked “check out.”  With postage ironically costing more than the contents, still I felt giddy.  This was a piece of childhood on a simple slip of sticky paper.  I am not a stamp collector.  I will likely never be.  I do have vivid memories of bags full of aromatic bottle caps, and shoeboxes groaning with baseball cards, and cheap albums with common stamps.  They’re long gone.  But on my desk I now have a small piece of memory from many years ago, and  I have to wonder if I’m the pedagogue or his headless haunter.


Not so Hollow

It is difficult to say how an idea might grab you.  I really have no idea why Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” took my childhood imagination prisoner and has kept it stoutly locked up over all these years.  Perhaps it was the Disney version seen as a child that left me with shivers of wonder akin to a species of joy.  The autumnal setting, the implied ghost, the ambiguity of the final scene.  I used to be as avid a philatelist as one can be in a small town, and the Sleepy Hollow stamp of 1974 held me transfixed long before I ever encountered Tim Burton’s vision of the legend.  After having watched the silent Headless Horseman a couple of times, I went back to The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and read the original again.  This time I followed it up with the appendix in my edition, written a decade or two after the story by an older Irving.

The 1922 movie runs fairly close to the literary original (for the most part), especially when you add the appendix.  The appendix (in the edition I have—The Modern Library, 2001) is an essay titled “Sleepy Hollow.”  It reflects on Irving’s recollections of what Sleepy Hollow was like in his youth (he returned to the area to settle later in life).  The village church, which features in “The Legend,” provides a source of much of his reverie and this is incorporated into the early cinematic version as well, in the Sunday morning scene.  I also noticed how frequently psalmody enters the original story.  The tale does not mention the Bible, but psalmody was an early form of church music, and “The Legend” has Ichabod use it when he’s afraid as well as for teaching students to sing, for a few shiny shillings.

Washington Irving is sometimes credited with the invention of the short story as a literary form.    His younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe worked in that format, and the two of them contended with making a living (the former more successfully) purely as literary writers.  Irving’s spooky tales, however, often have something of the comic about them.  His story-telling style uses folksy, folkloric exaggeration and humor to prevent it from becoming too dark.  Poe would snuff the candle and let the fear be unhindered.  I knew of Sleepy Hollow before I discovered Poe, and this recent resurgence is perhaps a way of exploring my own literary roots.  It’s nearly half-way through September already, and Tarrytown beckons. 


Hollow, Sleepy Hollow

Legend_of_Sleepy_Hollow_U.S._Stamp

It was recently announced that Fox has renewed Sleepy Hollow for a fourth season. Please! No spoilers in the comments (as if)! I’m running a season behind so I want to protect my innocence. The announcement coincided with the happy news that my article on the Bible in Sleepy Hollow has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. I’m irrationally chuffed about this since my past publications have been primarily textual explorations of documents in languages nobody reads any more. Having something contemporary accepted for publication felt—dare I say it?—cool. As if I were part of the supernatural television crowd. It also affirmed my decision for which book to pursue next. When I say “pursue” I mean “write.”

You see, as a young scholar I struggled trying to decide what direction my research would take. After writing my book on Asherah, I was a bit sated with Ugaritic goddesses, although I started a book on Shapshu, goddess of the sun. The sun gave way to the weather and I wrote Weathering the Psalms. I lost my job in the midst of my revision of that project and it has taken a decade to find my way back to academic publishing. Research, however, takes on a vastly different form when you’re not hired to do it. Colleagues say, “I can get you access to my university library.” Such a kind thought, but my mind always says “when?” When would I have time to visit a library? I get up at 3:30 for my commute and get home in time to go to bed so that I can wake up again at 3:30 the next day. Research reading on the bus is dicey at best. Weekends are for getting the things done that are neglected all week long. Research has to be squeezed into the interstices.

That’s why I’m pleased about Sleepy Hollow. Watching television, even if on DVD, can be research. I’ve got decades of backlogged reading upon which to draw. When my tastes for light horror integrate with what I’m interested in researching it is a happy day. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” captured my imagination as a child. It was probably based on the Disney version, but even so, I never lost the fascination. Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is still one of my favorite movies. Watching the episodes of the Fox series takes time, but now I know that time is not just simple relaxation. No, it’s research. Now to find the time to write that book that’s brewing in my head. Inspired, perhaps prophetically, by a Headless Horseman.


Washington Irving

WashingtonIrvingLess known now than he was in his own lifetime, Washington Irving is an odd literary character. Many writers, at least of tomes we now have our children read in school, were not necessarily stars in their time. Some were obscure, their genius only becoming clear when they were safely dead. Washington Irving, however, rocketed to fame fairly early in his life and became what Brian Jay Jones refers to as an icon. He was one of the most famous men in America in his lifetime. Although he was never properly a novelist, he pretty much earned his career by writing. Today he is best remembered for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” two tales from his Sketchbook. Those of us who work in Gotham may not realize that Irving gave New York City its famous nickname. He also coined the sobriquet “knickerbocker” that still describes New Yorkers and their basketball franchise.

Washington Irving: The Definitive Biography of America’s First Bestselling Author, by Jones, is a revealing look at the author. Irving was raised in a strict, religious family with a father known to many simply as “the Deacon.” As Jones makes clear, Irving did not accept the harsh religion of his father, moving on to become skeptical of religion itself. Like his attempt to make writing a profession, in his religious outlook Irving was ahead of his time. Having been raised with a deity who had no respect for humanity, it is no wonder that a mere mortal might turn his back on the divine.

This was during the flowering of the age of reason. Like his younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe, Irving knew early losses yet did not call out for a supernatural deliverance. Although evangelical sentiment has never been far from the surface in America, it would not bubble through to anything like modern proportions until Irving had been dead for about sixty years. Indeed, he died the same year that Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. Jones does not go into detail concerning Irving’s religious affiliations during life, but he had his funeral among the Episcopalians, and found his final resting place in the cemetery at Sleepy Hollow. Today his legacy in that regard lives on. With a difference, however—in the most recent movie and television versions, religion has been injected in an obvious way into what Irving wrote as a merely secular tale.