Be warned. As you read this, the demons are grinding the glorious creatures of folklore into distorted glorifications of the grotesque. Traditional ghosts and conventional goblins are banished—they are too suggestive of a world opposed to a world that has banished Christ. Abolished are depictions of spirits that inspire healthy mindsets with healthy goose bumps. Ghost stories are now disturbingly ugly, bent on the disfigurement of folklore, reducing the mysterious to the mutilated. This deformity makes moviegoers shudder at physical horrors bereft of the spiritual hints that occur round fires. The purpose behind chainsaw slashers and torture porn is to desensitize society to things suggestive of the soul. Atrocities of corporeal nature are stressed to distract people from who they really are. Thus, orthodox ghouls and their orthodox implications are exterminated by the demons.
One way to combat this agenda is to affect and foster a psychological and spiritual return to traditions where the visible and invisible exist side by side without apology. For Americans, such attempts tap into times when America was still innocent and spiritual, when mysteries were still acknowledged and accepted; when men were still men, women still women, and the earth still abounded with the powers of the air.
Washington Irving provides just such a return in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. There is an immediate sense of equilibrium in the groves and valleys that surround Tarry Town and the Tappan Zee because they are described as happily haunted. At once there are walnut trees and witches, neighborhoods and nightmares, the Hudson River and the Headless Horseman. There is rationality because there is belief in the irrational.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a cornerstone of American folklore because it presents a comprehensive worldview. It sets standards for human existence and its relation with the natural and the supernatural. This is a fundamental function of mythic traditions, and Irving’s record of this legend provides a taste for the way America’s forefathers viewed the earth, society, and the unearthly. It is a ghost story that conjures up the ghost of America.
Irving gives his readers a sense of the land and farm life in the great State of New York for the descendants of the first Dutch settlers. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow recalls a rural sanctuary and the stolid, sensible tranquility that breathes from a cultivated countryside. Irving’s delightful depictions of rugged labor and descriptions of pumpkin pie embody, perhaps, the greatest criticism of modern amelioration: whether progress can be truly called progress if the result is nostalgia.
The worthy wight who moves through this idyllic glen is the schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane. As a mythical type, this pedagogue serves as a charming conglomerate of American manhood and those civilized American virtues that men strove to possess. Crane is a scholar and a gentleman. He helps on farms after school-hours, and talks with farmers after dinner. He rocks cradles and gossips with the old wives round the chimney corner. He plays with older boys energetically. He reads tombstone epitaphs to young ladies elegantly. He is an ambitious connoisseur of fine things. He sings at church. He dances at quilting frolics. He is reverent and romantic. And, though shrewd, Ichabod Crane is credulous—a fearfully firm and fast believer in things he does not understand.
Such belief is presented as a norm, as well it should. Any belief, even in the wrong thing, is better than no belief at all. Ichabod Crane reminds us all that there are many things that we can be quite certain of that defy Descartes’ cogito-ergo-sum approach to the universe. Belief that is not so self-conscious—belief without understanding—is essential to our existence, and it has a name: Faith.
Though faith excludes scientific knowledge, it represents a type of poetic knowledge. Such understanding involves standing under something with humility. It is not an overview, but an under-view that is most important, as the shooting stars and meteors of Sleepy Hollow evince. Moreover, there are mysteries lurking closer than the stars that men must also humble themselves beneath and believe in. The shades of this particular enchanted region are clearly and casually acknowledged as the scene of goblin gambols—which are just another occasion of life. The Headless Horseman may cause alarm in the churchyard, but he is nevertheless a well-respected member of the local community, studied by historians and storied by housewives.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is not, however, so much a tale of ghosts we ought to believe in as it is of a gallantry we must believe in. Ichabod Crane, though clownish, is still man enough to be a Casanova. His wooing of the coy Katrina Van Tassel culminated in his famous flight from the Headless Horseman, but it is not the goblin that steals the story as much as the girl. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow uses the courtship and catastrophe of Ichabod Crane to make clear a poignant truth about our lives. The malice of “mere terrors of the night” is less of a concern than love. Every man has, like Ichabod Crane, “been more than once beset by Satan in divers shapes.” It is the daylight danger, that puts an end to evil, who poses greater trials for man to face than the devil and all his works: “a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together…—a woman.”
Giving the devil his due, he will never hold a candle to “a blooming lass of fresh eighteen, plump as a partridge, ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father’s peaches.” What mystery better illustrates the need for faith in unseen powers than a country coquette? No headless phantom, however impactful he is to the fabric of reality, holds such sway. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in dealing with objects of fear and joy, puts all things in their proper place—which is a good lesson for all.
As for the Horseman, he is seldom seen nowadays because no one looks for him. As Ichabod Crane rushed with head awhirl from that headless wraith, so the world rushes too, but in denial of its flight. Worldly men refuse to acknowledge the Things that proclaim them fools. Thus worldly men rave in rationality, dashing from ghosts they argue cannot exist, even as they gallop at their heels. Those who live inside their head will always flee from those who have no head at all—or so the old wives maintain, “who are the best judges of these matters.”