Bright Lights Film Journal

An Atheist’s Guide to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

When you believe in things you don’t understand, you suffer. – Stevie Wonder

* * *

In 1949 Walt Disney Studios produced the last, and arguably the best, of their “package” films – barely-feature length vignette collections made on reduced budgets during World War II for theatrical distribution – though the dyad of animated novellas included are improved little by their seemingly haphazard juxtaposition. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, featuring the shorts “The Wind In the Willows” (which in turn inspired quite possibly the most demented dark ride in theme park history) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” has since been rightfully canonized due to its ubiquity in television programming and perennial presence on home video. I remember lucidly the withered VHS sleeves of my family’s first copies (in the 80’s Disney gave each of the shorts its own separate video cartridge and retail price), particularly of “The Wind in the Willows”: I was never enamored of Kenneth Grahame’s bucolic text, but the sight of anthropomorphic rodents and amphibians gulping down foamy pints of ale (a substance with a menacingly alien allure to this youngster) was the stuff of summer daydreams.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” however, was something different altogether – a half-feverish, half-jokey ode to common sense and harvest culture inspired by Washington Irving’s profoundly sterile folktale. As was, I can only assume, customary in many other early 90’s middle-American households, my parents would include “Sleepy Hollow” in a Halloween night round-up of child-friendly entertainment also including the Our Gang short “Spooky Hooky” and the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia (among other even more benign snippets). It was always the highlight of the evening for me, much more so than the acquisition of candy (I was born, alas, with a gastric aversion to sugar) or the jack-o-lantern carving (I could never stand to dirty my hands with squash entrails) or the stressful role-playing involved in donning costumes. The invocation of spirits, however (and later, as I was to discover, the imbibement of same) always struck me as the real deal, even if it was depicted playfully – as it is in another of my favorite cartoons, the Disney Silly Symphony “Skeleton Dance,” which rather joyously refracts the grim desolation of sepulcher motifs through the giddily kinesthetic mirror of human anatomy. Even odder still is that this fascination has stuck with me through my conversion to anti-transcendentalism, though the two predilections may go hand in hand: Examining the concept of Hell, for example, is not likely to entertain anyone who genuinely believes that their soul is in continual risk of eternal damnation. Those who lack belief are free to wallow in the sinister details.

There’s a historical piquancy to superstition and the occult as well, particularly when one considers how pervasive such belief systems were fairly recently (and admittedly, still are, in certain parts of the world), even in the United States. Hawthorne, for example, claimed to have been haunted by the ghoulish “heritage” of American ignorance – particularly the crescendo it reached in Salem, Massachusetts. And the diabolically educational elements of “spook” culture form a significant part of the success of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. Set in colonial New York – in a landscape awash with vibrant, autumnal hues that adeptly suggest the richening of more subtle, vernal colors – the film is as much a caricature of its milieu as any other cartoon period piece, but it effectively and accurately depicts our childish expectations of Dutch-settled New England in an artfully grotesque manner (think Longfellow, who reads easier as transcribed archetype than as poetry). And delightfully mucking up the pastoral painting feel are big band songs from Bing Crosby, which seem to have stepped in from another era entirely to rape the proceedings with marvelously complex 6th chords, and the vividly exaggerated characters – Ichabod Crane himself, with a beaky nose, lanky stature and voluminous appetite quite befitting an itinerant, small town pedagogue (rendered with an impeccable mix of sympathy and ridicule by animator Ollie Johnston); the beefy, tanned-skinned sexual bully Brom Bones with his Davy Crockett-esque coonskin cap; and the ruddy, complacently plump farm baron Balthus Van Tassel, whose daughter Ichabod woos (to Brom Bones’ intense chagrin) with sensitive, epicene gusto for the first half of the running time.

As with most Disney productions, all the sex has been expertly drained from the relationships. Ichabod’s interest in Katrina Van Tassel is predominantly financial and comically gustatory (the teacher trolls around town absent-mindedly for a great deal of the short, evading trouble in a Mr. Magoo-ish fashion while managing to schlep every piece of available food in sight), and despite Katrina’s formidable bust and petticoat-laden coquettishness we can’t even imagine Brom Bones nailing her: She’s more china doll than woman, and probably the film’s least interest aspect. Most of the other females, meanwhile, are inflicted with garish imperfections to accentuate Katrina’s putatively ideal form: Ichabod gives singing lessons to an illustrious trio with a potbelly, bulbous nose and curiously asymmetrical face between them. But while these visual gags are an insincere departure from the source material (and a distracting one, especially when the headless horseman arrives and the animators ameliorate his intimidating features with a buffoonish barrage of slapstick), the asexuality isn’t, necessarily – Irving treats the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow as colonial entrepreneurs as much as narrative cast-members, and it’s not until after Ichabod visits the Von Tassel mansion in the text that his heart flutters uncontrollably. Disney explicitly depicts the metaphorical fields of gold from the paragraph below in Ichabod’s fantasies:

[A]s he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow-lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burthened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness. Nay, his busy fancy already realized his hopes, and presented to him the blooming Katrina, with a whole family of children.

It’s intriguing how Ichabod’s mental path swerves directly from real estate to progeny without any intimacy as linkage (and it’s equally funny how in the preceding, unquoted paragraph, his dreams all involve the gourmet cooking of livestock, described with the only language in the entire novella that could be considered sensual). How distant is this, though, from the impotent family values in most Disney films, promoting the nobility of contributing to American industry while saving time for wholesome domesticity? Still, reinforcing the benign ideals of family life are not quite the same as aspiring to predatorily insert one’s self into a handsomely wealthy lineage (near to the American dream as it may be), and it’s seemingly for this reckless desire that Irving “punishes” Ichabod with the Headless Horseman in the original story. It’s implied that Katrina bursts Ichabod’s bubble of grandeur at the harvest shin-dig and, having violated the delicate balance of the Crane-Bones-Van Tassel love triangle with a direct proposal, he’s sent away penniless, only to have his sorrow fed upon by a decapitated rider.

This is the most notable alteration in the animated adaptation – while we view Ichabod’s ignoble intentions with a laugh (it occurs to me that they’re even less respectable than simple lust would be), the connection between his desire for Katrina and his run-in with the horseman is not sturdy enough for us to assume a causal relationship. Instead, Disney intervenes with a characteristic dash of old world Gnosticism that wildly improves both the story and its spiritual significance: Ichabod Crane’s gullibility. It’s ham-handedly introduced – before Brom Bones sings the “Headless Horseman” number Bing Crosby’s narratiahon simply tells us that Ichabod believes in ghosts without any foreshadowing before it whatsoever, and it’s one of those odd, tell-tale seams in classic animation that reveal the handprints of multiple script writers and drafts (not to mention, very likely, the influence of coffee-and-cigarette fueled arguments about proper narrative direction). But in a way we relish being heaved down Disney’s rabbit hole so brusquely, because what follows not only enchants all the preceding content in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” – it also includes eight of the most accomplished minutes in animation history.

The “Headless Horseman” musical number is a dense pocket of Disney brilliance, a collaborative effort aligning the inimitable talents of several men while maintaining an impeccable cohesion: We never lose sight of the fact that we’re listening to Brom Bones – outlined with incandescent yellow from the furnace behind him – attempting to scare Ichabod Crane out of Sleepy Hollow so he can wed and bed Katrina himself. Wolfgang Reitherman lent his sense of spatial fluidity while Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball allow a wealth of dissonant emotions to populate Van Tassel’s living room (Katrina’s amusement, Ichabod’s mounting trepidation). Likewise, the diversity of visual and aural influences littered about the screen and soundtrack is staggering: The scene encompasses Dixieland, Boris Karloff, Albrecht Durer, bandstand jazz, Edgar Allen Poe (or, more accurately, wood carved illustrations of his tales), and John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (below), just to name a few. The result is a story within a story (Brom Bones “elucidates” the tale of the Headless Horseman) depicted with horrifically makeshift illustrations (Brom rides a wooden chair towards Ichabod casting ominous shadows, a startled cat shrieks and darts into a hollow pumpkin, a window flies open letting in the grave solemnity of the dimming woods, and so forth). The effect is such that despite the distancing nature of the stylized animation we feel very close to the action – the scene is directed half at Ichabod and half at “the camera,” assuming Ichabod’s isolated, “alien” POV in relation to the remainder of the community who offer vocal accompaniment to Bones’ tune – and it’s though we’re imagining these images while being read to, and Disney’s animators are simply splashing them onto cels as they soar from our brains.

The balladic nature of the song (it actually resembles the corrido form structurally, concentrating on a single character’s history and attributes instead of detailing a coherent narrative), written by Don Rage and Gene De Paul and sung in Bing Crosby’s campily inappropriate, genteel baritone, allows for another important change to the driving motivations of “Sleepy Hollow”. In the original text it’s not entirely clear what the Headless Horseman wants, aside from corporeal revenge for his present state, and in the legend itself the horseman is described as carrying his severed head like talisman wherever he goes. In the cartoon, however, the need for violence is rooted in more practical matters. While he does indeed still “[hold] his noggin’ in his hand,” the Horseman’s fellow ghouls aren’t all that fond of his appearance. Thus, “With a hip-hip and a clippity-clop / He’s out looking for a head to swap / So don’t try to figure out a plan / You can’t reason with a headless man”. Indeed, Brom suggests that the only logical course of action to take should one encounter the Horseman is to cross the bridge out of Sleepy Hollow – on the other side of which the specter has no power (it appears that, as with most tenets of meticulous transcendental hierarchies, even the undead have their limitations).

The final sequences of “Sleepy Hollow” are laced with tenebrous misunderstanding – after leaving the Von Tassel household, Ichabod’s mind is wiped clean of his connubial aspirations as he rides his mule into an oneiric forest where frogs and ferns seem to lugubriously whisper his name. These scenes are quite funny, but there’s a fierce sense of hopelessness behind them: Ichabod’s trust in misleading empirical data, influenced by the fabulism of rivals, is his undoing, rather than his arrogance or opportunistic intentions. The confrontation between Ichabod and the Headless Horseman should be less gag-laden than it is, but the attention to detail – the fuming nostrils of the Plutonian steed, the Horseman’s lacking of even a neck, and the headlong hurling of the flaming pumpkin through the bridge/vortex at the scene’s close – confirms the reality of the Horseman (at least in Ichabod’s mind) in startlingly subtle ways.
The narration indulges in omniscient, free-indirect discourse for the majority of the film (the only primary head we don’t crack is Katrina’s), but the “Headless Horseman” musical number represents an unexpected shift, after which we’re lost in the confused corridors of Ichabod’s brain. Until the last few seconds of the film, we are Ichabod, and it’s terrifying; not only because of what Ichabod sees and is victimized by but because of what he believes.

The lyric “You can’t reason with a headless man” turns out to be crucial. While the Horseman has been decapitated, his search for a new head is the most practical goal in the entire picture, as well as the one with the most existential urgency: Until he finds a skull and brain the Headless Horseman isn’t even a legitimate entity, he’s a personified objective. Ichabod, on the other hand, is totally lacking in the “reason” that might help him win Katrina more expediently – he’s not only an easy-to-mock woolgatherer but a believer in spiritualist folly that makes his universe impossibly hazardous (indeed, what the superstitious receive in exchange for sensibility is the comforting promise that arbitrary rituals – such as the spilled salt Ichabod tosses over his shoulder – will protect them). Brom Bones chooses an ironically fitting ghost with which to frighten Ichabod, because the teacher’s occultist vulnerabilities prove that he, too, is headless – far more so than his antagonist, whose pragmatism, subdued eroticism and mercantilist economic outlook (there’s a finite number of perfect heads out there, right?) make him the model American citizen. Ichabod is, by comparison, a eunuch – a stork-like man pecking his way through the trials and troubles of life.

While Irving’s Ichabod Crane embodies a firmer moral, one steeped in a classically frontier-American sense of chivalric propriety, Disney’s Ichabod propounds a far more useful (and a far more modern) message – the relevance of which extends far beyond love triangles encircling the lustless courtship of old money. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a cautionary tale of belief, of the dangers of faith that hinders our success, and it’s likely the only one of its kind to be found in the slush of mainstream family animation. But wryly grinning at us from every shattered pumpkin and every bale of hay is also a fascinating study of how aesthetically satisfying the pageantry of superstition can be – which, perversely, is the primary contribution “Sleepy Hollow” has made to film culture. In the Tim Burton remake, the veracity of the Horseman’s existence is never in question, and Ichabod is played more as a nebbish techie than a Yankee Doodle-ish ladies man with a formidable Achilles heel. Most viewers remember, above all else, the odd appearance of the cartooned schoolteacher, and his knee-knocking fear, and yet what enables the ride of the Headless Horseman in the first place is an irrational trust in fiction – in fiction once tendentiously treated as fact. If only the transition from the fact of today to the fiction were tomorrow were smoother, we might not all feel so headless, galloping through dark, snowy woods with miles to go before we sleep.