The boyhood Halloween experience continues to haunt me after all these years. Those activities I’ve grown up with in the month of October have now become traditions: strolls through cemeteries lined by wrought iron fences; toasted pumpkin seeds harvested during the carving of grim aspects in flesh of the large orange gourds; and the reading of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving’s 1820 tale about a bewitched borough in upstate New York–circa the 1790s–that harbors the ghost of a headless horseman. I submit that this classic example of early American literature does for Halloween what Dickens’ A Christmas Carol does for Christmas. But how? And why? The thoughts that follow are a first attempt at understanding the nature of the spell cast by this literary work.
For starters, there’s the nostalgia of the piece. It takes us back into rural, agrarian Colonial America–into upstate New York and the Hudson River Valley. Nestled amongst the rolling hills lays a quiet town (Tarry Town) containing those iconic fixtures of early American life: the baker, the alehouse, a one-room school house presided over by a schoolmaster, the village church with adjacent cemetery, and farmsteads. Recreation and social life centered around beer, church, hunting, and agriculture. There are the “Sleepy Hollow Boys,” led by Brom Bones, who add just the right touch of revelry and mischief to town life.
This tale, moreover, is highly atmospheric. In fact, the setting itself exerts over the reader the same dream-like quality it casts over the inhabitants of Tarry Town. In Greek mythology, the line between the material and spiritual realms are intertwined, blurred even. Nymphs and faeries make their home in the woodlands and seas. The same quality is found in this literary work where the setting itself becomes, as it were, a character in the story: “A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a high German doctor…Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie.”
The climax of the old tale comes on Halloween night (that is tonight), the night–as legend has it–the spirits are most active. It was the ghostly tales told during a rich farmer’s annual frolic that set the stage for the climax of the story, an encounter with the most fearsome specter of Sleepy Hollow: the headless horseman. This, ultimately, is what this literary piece is: a well-told ghost story. And we love it for its ability to suggest that there is a world just beyond the senses, a world that is far more expansive, far more mysterious than the one that presents itself to the five senses. To conclude, allow yourself to enjoy all the magic of a ghost story, well-told. Here is Brom Bone’s recounting for Icabod Crane the Sleepy Hollow legend, borrowed here from Walt Disney’s adaptation of Washington Irving’s tale…