For Halloween, I decided to reread Washington Irving’s 1820 ghost story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I say reread like I read it recently, but really it’s been since like high school. Maybe middle school. I have a dim memory of watching the Disney cartoon in seventh grade around Halloween, but I didn’t really remember much about the original.
As I started writing, I realized that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow would’ve fit right in with my M.A. thesis, which was about the ways narratives haunt each other. (Wooooooo! Spooky, right?) It was about why we can’t let stories rest in peace, why we have to keep resurrecting them and rewriting them. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is definitely one we can’t let rest in peace. It’s been retold so many times that the original really surprised me.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is hilarious, y’all. It’s not even remotely scary. I LOLed. Mostly, it just made me hungry for all the delicious Dutch delicacies Ichabod Crane gets to eat and homesick for fall in the Northeast, where I lived/visited a lot for three years—long enough to know that the Northeast has us all beat for autumn scenery. (If you don’t believe me, check this out.)
Irving is writing around 1820, but he sets his story thirty years earlier, in 1790. The people of Sleepy Hollow give itinerant schoolmaster Ichabod Crane the shivers with stories of a fairly recent ghost: the Headless Horseman. Rumored to be the ghost of a Hessian mercenary whose head was blown off by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War (ouch), the Headless Horseman rides forth at night to terrify unlucky passersby…blah, blah, don’t go past the cemetery at night, blah, blah.
Yeah, that’s what everyone remembers about The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
But the narrator also repeatedly references the story of the very real Major John André. I must have read over it the last time because the narrator assumes his readers know what happened to Major André, but in middle school, I didn’t know. But this time around I knew about him, and the presence of his memory gave the story a certain bittersweetness, a certain tone of regret.
The British officer was caught up in Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Colonial Army hanged him near Tarrytown, New York as a spy—even though he wasn’t, not exactly. He was caught behind enemy (American) lines in civilian clothes, which was enough to convict him. André claimed that as a prisoner of war, he had a right to try to escape in civilian clothes. His commanding officer refused to turn over the more valuable Benedict Arnold to George Washington to save André’s life, so André was hanged even though no one really wanted to do it, but they had to because The Rules of War and all that…It’s a sad, sad story.
I don’t think Major André’s execution ever sat quite right with anyone who encountered it. It never has sat right with me.
There’s no reason for André’s story to be referenced in association with the Headless Horseman, and Irving doesn’t explain much about André. He takes it for granted that readers know André’s story and will find the reference unsettling. Certainly the people of Tarrytown would have found a reminder of André unsettling in 1790. Probably they would have found it unsettling in 1820. Many people who remembered the 1780 hanging of John André would still have been alive forty years later.
Major John André is the real ghost in the story.
BAM! Proof right there that people tell ghost stories about things they feel bad about.
But back to the story itself. Irving has a real Jane Austen vibe going as he makes fun of all the characters out the side of his mouth. This makes me think people in the first quarter of the nineteenth century would have been big fans of the current trend in irony as humor.
So if The Legend of Sleepy Hollow isn’t really scary, why have so many adaptations insisted on making it so? Is humor not as much fun as horror?
What are your favorite spooky reads?