‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' still scaring America 200 years later

Posted at 3:46 PM, Nov 20, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-22 17:29:03-05

Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers have each kept people from going to sleep in recent decades, but will anyone remember them in 200 years?

Since “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was first published in 1820, the Headless Horseman has terrified nearly 10 generations.

That is some staying power.

Written by Washington Irving, commonly described as America’s first best-selling author, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was printed as part of a collection of short stories known as “The Sketch Book.” From the initial pressing, it was clear the story had tapped into a dark side of the American zeitgeist.

“It’s the first genuinely American horror story — it’s intrinsically in our DNA,” said Irving biographer Brian Jay Jones. “It’s our ghost story.”

The story, about awkward schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and his pursuit of Katrina Van Tassel’s affections, is set against the backdrop of autumn in 18th century New York — where a menacing spectre looms on horseback. The small town of Sleepy Hollow was unlike any setting used in popular literature, according to Jones.

“It was specifically set in the United States, which nobody had done before,” he said. “Irving invented the American short horror story.”

But it wasn’t the setting that has given “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” longevity on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Much credit goes to the minacious character Irving described as, “the dominant spirit.”

“There’s something really cool about the Headless Horseman; he films well, he paints well,” Jones said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s probably one of the greatest ghosts in literature.”

The Headless Horseman seen on Fox's "Sleepy Hollow" (left) and Walt Disney's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

Despite its short length, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has been adapted into both major movie and television productions seven times since the first in 1922. It’s been 15 years this week since director Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow,” starring Johnny Depp as Crane, was released. That picture made over $206 million worldwide and won an Academy Award.

Fox’s series “Sleepy Hollow”, currently in its second season, draws more than 6 million viewers every week and last week was named among the Top 20 shows on network television, in terms of social media engagement.

What would Irving think about the Headless Horseman’s gallop into the Twitterverse?

“I think he would totally love “Sleepy Hollow,” because he was a great adapter,” Jones said. “He stole ghost stories from others, including Dutch horror stories he heard growing up.”

To understand the lasting power of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” one needs to look no further than the story’s text.

Try not to flinch when Irving describes the chill Crane feels upon seeing the Headless Horseman: “His heart began to sink within him; he endeavored to resume his psalm tune, but his parched tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, and he could not utter a stave. There was something in the moody and dogged silence of this pertinacious companion, that was mysterious and appalling.”

Chances are, the Headless Horseman will still be a part of Americans’ nightmares long into the next century.

Brian Jay Jones’ most recent book, “Jim Henson: The Biography,” is available now. He is currently working on a biography of George Lucas, due out in 2016.

Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.