[Horror has long been as much about the sources of the scares as the jumps they produce, and American horror is no exception. In this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the symbolisms behind our scary stories. Leading up to a special weekend Guest Post on a very scary disease, past and present.]
On the original American scary story that’s also an ironic American origin story.
I still haven’t had a chance to catch any of the Sleepy Hollow TV show that ran for four seasons a few years back—if you have, please feel free to share your thoughts in comments!—but it’s certainly further proof of the lasting influence of one of America’s earliest professional writers, Washington Irving. Certainly much of Irving’s extensive body of work, including the metatextual masterpiece the History of New York about which I wrote in that hyperlinked post, has largely vanished from our collective national consciousness; but two of the stories in his first published collection of fiction, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819), have endured across those nearly two hundred years about as fully as any American literary works (from any century) have. I’m referring of course to that hen-pecked sleeper Rip Van Winkle and to the focus of today’s post, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
“Sleepy Hollow” has endured because at its heart, as the 21st century TV show seems (from what I’ve seen and read about it anyway) to understand, it is about a simple conflict that is at the heart of many scary stories: between an extremely ordinary everyman (awkward and shy schoolteacher Ichabod Crane) and an equally extraordinary supernatural foe (the terrifying Headless Horseman). Like many scary story protagonists, Ichabod has an idealized love interest, the buxon Katrina Von Tassel; and finds himself competing for her affections with a far more popular and confident rival, Brom Bones. The culminating intersection between the two plotlines—between Ichabod’s supernatural and romantic encounters—engages the audience on multiple emotional levels simultaneously, just as so many contemporary horror films strive to do. Indeed, the only significant divergence from the now well-established formula is that the everyman hero loses—the Horseman scares Ichabod Crane away, Brom Bones escorts Katrina Von Tassel to the altar, and Ichabod’s story becomes the stuff of local legend.
That resolution lessens the story’s scariness factor (it seems clear that Brom was masquerading as the Headless Horseman), but at the same time amplifies its status as an originating American folktale. For one thing, Irving’s fictional narrator and historian Diedrich Knickerbocker presents Ichabod’s story, like Rip Van Winkle’s, as precisely such a folktale, a part of the collective memory of his turn of the 19th century Dutch New York and thus of Early Republic America more broadly. And for another, it’s possible to read Brom Bones’ triumph, and his resulting union with the town’s powerful Von Tassel family, as an ironic reminder—much like Rip’s concluding images—that the more things seem to have changed in this post-Revolutionary America, the more in at least some ways they have stayed the same. America’s landed elites maintain their power, manipulating our folk legends (even our scary stories) to do so—and our overly ambitious schoolteachers flee in terror before that social force, remembered simply as a funny and telling part of those stories.
Next scary story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Scary stories you’d AmericanStudy?