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threading the needle of curiosity - the natural world in words and images

invitation to a party

the very place of ghost stories

I want to throw you a party, a Halloween party. I'd have you over, but there is no place to sit; I've just moved in. I really don't have enough chairs for everyone, or silverware for that matter. But Halloween encroaches and with it one of my favorite autumn tales, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” comes to mind. The author, Washington Irving, was an adept satirist; the tale a humorous one. But the horseman, conjured from the 'dreamy influence,' the bewitched atmosphere of the glen and the offspring of the very glen itself, has long surpassed the rest of the tale in popular imagination. So I invite you to sit amongst the words, as the party I want to invite you to is in the landscape that exists in these brief paragraphs, a party in a grove with deep shadows and night noises that become a “dreaming sound in the ear.” The perfect place for a picnic.

Born April 3, 1783 in Manhattan, New York City, Washington Irving is considered the creator of the American short story. He traveled in Europe, lived in England and Spain, and the influence of European Romanticism on his work has been widely acknowledged. Friends with Sir Walter Scott, Irving also had an affinity for collecting folktales that he would later use in his works. The ghoul in “Legend,” the horseman, is, in fact, taken from a tale collected by German Folklorist Johann Karl August Musäus.

The following is an excerpt from Musäus:

“The headless horseman was often seen here. An old man who did not believe in ghosts told of meeting the headless horseman coming from his trip into the Hollow. The horseman made him climb up behind. They rode over bushes, hills and swamps. When they reached the bridge, the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton. He threw the old man into the brook and sprang away over the treetops with a clap of thunder.”

Karl Musäus predates the Grimms and is seen by many to be a careless and satiric folklorist, a moniker that Irving has also been painted with. When pressed by critics to reveal the source of the horseman in his story, Irving finally threw up his hands and declared that he had indeed read Musäus' tale in at least three different volumes.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” takes place in Tarrytown, NY close to the Tappan Zee, a natural lake on the Hudson River. Born to the first generation knowing from birth they were not British subjects, Irving is also the first American writer to include descriptions of the American landscape in his work. Irving's emphasis on nature and supernatural superstitions gave the conflicted past a local habitation. I grew up in Vermont, in an area that resembles its neighboring New York, but missing the grand depth of the Hudson and the power of place such body of water can imbue. Yet still I feel his descriptions are accurate of many a remembered glen illuminated from within by some natural mystery. Irving's landscapes are perpetual and deep and reflect the mysterious effect that occurs when old-world folklore is measured on a new land.

Like many, my first introduction to “Legend” was Disney's 1949 adaptation. Surprisingly true to the original, Disney's sense of the satirical was a perfect match for Irving's tale. Just as today the Haunted Mansion, opened in 1968, is filled with puns and a sense of the ridiculous put forth by character - for example, the hitchhiking ghosts - there lingers a sense of the eerie, the mysterious that emanates from the décor, an allusion to something very real and haunting. The Disney adaptation of “Legend” keeps the reverence for the landscape, the source material for the haunt, that without the humor would lack punch.

Both Disney and Tim Burton, in his 1999 movie, retain the depth of Irving's landscape. It is the one character that is interpreted according to the text. Both movies retain the blasted tulip tree and elude to the tree as being the source from which the horseman springs, as if the land itself carries within it something far older and far more sinister. The 1999 Deluxe Horseman toy by McFarlane would echo this with both horse and rider set upon a supporting tree of skulls. But best not to look too close and sing a psalm instead.

Irving's lead, Ichabod Crane, is himself a teller of tales, and this teller is nested within the papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker, a tale-within-a-tale trope that Irving uses in numerous stories. Through Crane, Irving also introduces New England Witchcraft into American literature for the first time. Crane had garnered the material with which he would entertain the Tarrytown townsfolk from the sole book in his library: Cotton Mather's History of New England Witchcraft. James C. Clark Jr. in his essay “Washington Irving and New England Witchlore” points out that this book doesn't actually exist. For me, this easily adds “Legend” to a long list of frightful stories about false tomes.

Blending elements of European tales, the story from Musäus, the superstitions of the Pennsylvanian Dutch, plus the erroneous and mocked ideas of Mather's, with the dark suggestions of the hollow itself, Irving has created a heady mix delightfully drunk on a “fine late day in autumn.”

“Legend” isn't the only Irving text that uses the landscape to conjure spirits. Rip Van Winkle is another tale that blends a humorous character with a suggestive and numinous landscape – “the small hollow, like an amphitheater, surrounded by perpendicular precipices over the brinks of which, impending trees shot their branches.” From this split in the mountain, within this grove, a group of mysterious strangers appear. But as author of the tale, Irving escapes even himself in properly identifying their source. The silent strangers in the mountain play at bowling.

Now there have been lots of interesting theories on exactly who these men are, perhaps the most titillating one is that Rip Van Winkle is an early tale of alien abduction. Rip eventually identifies them as Hendrick Hudson and his crew, but is never sure. Irving's manner of introduction is suggestive of Charlemagne and his men, and reminiscent of tales of the sleeping king in the mountain, even the exploits of King Herla when you add Rip's enchanted nap to the mix. But I feel that Philip Young's essay, “Fallen from Time: The Mythic Rip Van Winkle,” best elucidates who it is Rip meets in the hollow.

“The bowlers of the Catskills are impersonating a disguised Thor, in a figurative or symbolic way, in his principal role as God of Thunder, and the actions of these resurrected men are the means of their worship. The solemnity Rip and Peter felt, in the presence of a mystery, is entirely appropriate to so sacred and secret an occasion. “Rip Van Winkle” then is our version of a myth that survives as a description of a nearly forgotten ceremony in the worship of Thor for the production of rain.”

After 20 years sleep, Rip is reborn from the grove, just as the horseman is reborn from the tulip tree, but Rip's is the experience of a living man, occurs once and has positive overtones. Young also goes on to suggest that Rip's experience in the mountain glen was an initiatory one. Yet, Rip's initiatory experience might be interpreted as a failure, for Rip gains nothing but the loss of his manhood and an eternal timeless living sleep that is his life even as he... “sits on the bench at the inn door.” While Rip tries to tell the tale of what has happened to him, he doesn't ever really know. “He was observed, at first, to vary on some points every time he told it, which was doubtless owing to his having so recently awaked.” Even though most readers are sympathetically endeared to Rip's childlike innocence, a failed initiation still makes for one hell of a scary bedtime story.

There are more questions here to be tackled. Why do both “Legend” and “Rip” allude to supernatural characters associated with thunder? How is landscape and sound used to create trance states to evoke spirits? And why do so many authors feel the need to nest narratives inside narratives and create false tomes to lend legitimacy and divert the possibly potency of their own beliefs onto an un-criticizable source? But we often tell tales not knowing exactly why they are scary, or captivating. The audience responds to the suggestions in the shadows and this is enough. Boo!

I am happy to be back on the East Coast. The red flame of the maple tree in autumn is within my grasp. I return to walk forests where dissolute farm roads, trees growing in the tracks, are far older than the first families of the Pacific Northwest. Grassy knolls of moss appear in the birch woods, and the moon lights down on mill ponds eddying with the decay of past ambitions and family fortunes. Deep quarries suggest unknown monsters just beneath the toes of those who swim there, breaking the skin of fallen leaves with every stroke. The barn owls screech and friends jest the horseman rides out when the jack-o-lanterns go missing, even though the theft is possibly just a prank.

Long after the joke has floated away an enchanting unease remains. Happy Halloween.


“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” www.princeton.edu.

James W. Clark, Jr. Washington Irving and New England Witchlore. New York Folklore Quarterly Volume and Issue No.: XXIX, No. 4: pp. 304-313. New York Folklore Society

Phlip Young. “Fallen from Time: The Mythic Rip Van Winkle.” The Kenyon Review Vol. 22, No. 4, Autumn, 1960: pp. 547-573. Kenyon College. www.jstor.org.