Halloween is . . . the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow
"On mounting a rising ground," writes Washington Irving in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "which brought the figure of his fellow traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror struck, on perceiving that he was headless!" No story says Halloween better than this one. This year, my local supermarket decorated its foyer with a life-sized paper mache of Irving's famous spectre, and we even find new M & M television advertising featuring a pretty nifty headless Hessian. Modern readers might find Irving's original text a bit wordy, yet it still evokes an eerie magic, with its haunted church-yard and ominous woods. Reading it today still transports us into the hearth, where we live "the "marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him."
Contemporary film-makers still feel drawn to the story, and their attempts to capture Irving's magic have let to varying degrees of success, from contemporary interpretations like THE HOLLOW and HEADLESS HORSEMAN (the latter which gave the story a backwoods horror angle, not unlike THE HILLS HAVE EYES of all things), to Tim Burton's wonderful SLEEPY HOLLOW, which re-imagined Ichabod Crane as a police detective. Still, the most brilliant interpretation comes from the least likely source: Disney's 1949 adaptation.
Watching Disney's version on TV during the 1970s became one of the most formative experiences of my young imagination. Narrated (and sometimes sung) by Bing Crosby, the story stays remarkably faithful to Irving's original story. The animators use deep, rich colors to capture the horrific majesty of the horseman, and even peppered with humor, the terror that Ichabod feels on his fateful ride seems real and genuine. One of the most remarkable moments occurs when Ichabod, forced into an embrace with the spectre, peers down into the open neck hole of the horseman's tunic and sees . . . what? Something that evokes terror, something that undercuts the ambiguous ending that Irving's story leaves with us. It all might have been Brom Bones' practical joke, but Ichabod sees something that terrifies and possibly revolts him. This is a moment of genius on the part of Disney's animators, and (I mean this) one of the greatest moments of horror film history.
Reportedly, Disney's imagineers originally planned to tie its Haunted Mansion attraction in to the Sleepy Hollow legend. According to Jason Surrell's book on the history of the attraction, the original concept involved a climax in the conservatory, where spectators would witness the crossing of the headless horseman past the window overlooking the graveyard. How cool would that have been?