1. Gothic Elements in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

2. The Setting

3. Supernatural

4. The Characters

5. Symbols and Allegories

6. The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow on Screen

7. Further Information


  Gothic Elements in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow appears to be a brilliant and vivid example of a Gothic tale. It is overwhelmed with plenty of horror details and mystical events. However, it is still full of Washington Irvings humour, satire and wit. The bright and humorous beginning of the story turns into a scary and horrifying end. Washington Irving uses a range of devices for creating and enhancing the atmosphere of terror:

  The Setting

     o       Untamed nature a dense dark forest

Unlike European Gothic writers, who used castles, monasteries, and ruins as backgrounds for their tales, Washington Irving chooses a dark forest as a setting for 'The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow'.

The story takes place on the bank of the Tappan Zee river at a small harbour named Tarry Town which is well-known for its forest as 'one of the quietest places in the whole world'. It is remarkable that at the beginning the forest doesnt seem to be dangerous in any way, however, at the end of the story it obtains some supernatural power and turns into a kingdom of mystery and evil.       

o       Colours and light

The most frequently used colours are black and white. They are always contrasted in the legend and have a rather apparent symbolic meaning.

Black represents everything dreadful, gloomy and depressing. It is the symbol of the night with all its enigmas and secrets. In the tale black helps us not only to predict the dismal end of the legend but also to depict the psychological state of the main protagonist the schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, his awe and utter desperation.

White, by contrast, is used to describe daylight, something pleasing and divine. ('whitewashed church', to which Ichabod Crane was rushing, as a symbol of the last hope)

 There is little light in the story, everything is dusk, obscure and blurred. However the forest grows more and more gloomy, till pitch darkness falls ('The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky').        

o       Sounds

 Sound is an essential tool for creating the scary atmosphere. Sounds are nice and pleasing at the beginning (the murmur of the brook, 'the low murmur of his pupils' voices, conning over their lessons', 'chanting of psalms'). The silence of the forest that time doesnt constitute any danger for people.

Yet on the dreadful night of Ichabods death the hash of the forest is described as 'dead', and sounds become sharp and shrill. (Ichabods whistle, the sweeping of the blast 'through the dry branches')

As Ichabod goes deeper and deeper in the woods, sounds grow more and more vague and distant as if he moved farther and farther away from reality (it was so tranquil that he could hear 'the barking of the watchdog from the opposite shore of the Hudson').  And even when Ichabod made an attempt to produce a sound 'his parched tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, and he could not utter a stave'.

o       Size of the objects and people

Lofty, large, vast, enormous - these are the descriptions, which the author gives his characters and the objects of the setting to make them unreal.



q       Stories in a story

Inside the legend itself we are told a lot of myths and tales by the inhabitants of the Sleepy Hollow. For instance the Sleepy Hollow was believed to be a place that was 'bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson'.  Such examples abound in the story (witchcrafts, ghosts, goblins, spirits, haunted houses are constantly mentioned)

q       Everything being covered up

Talking about all these stories at the beginning of the tale, Washington Irving names them 'mere terrors of the night, phantoms of the mind that walk in darkness', which assures us that nothing supernatural is going to happen, since this evil doesnt exist in reality. Yet it goes by the opposite and we meet Galloping Hessian of the Hollow and witness the death of Ichabod Crane. The end of the story is the most perplexing. The author gives us contradicting facts, giving no comments on them. On the one hand, he shows us that the head of Ichabod Crane was found on the bank of the river, and, from the other, refers us to the words of an old farmer, who says that the schoolmaster is still alive. Thus, everything in the story is rather covered up and it is up to the reader to decide what happened in fact.  

q       Supernatural in its corporeal state

Besides the 'drowsy, dreamy influence' that seemed 'to hang over the land', the 'witchful air' of it, there are other cases in the legend when the supernatural forces appear.

The Headless Horseman is the embodiment of the evil and supernatural power. He is depicted very vividly: 'it stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveler'.

An enormous tulip-tree is another supernatural object. Describing it the author uses personification: it 'towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air'.


  The Characters

-         Static flat characters described ironically

Another Gothic trait that can be traced in 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' is the creation of flat characters, who dont alter during the development of the story. They are static and have only one or two distinctive features. Katrina Van Tassel is a protagonist of this type. Her appearance is widely admired but there is no direct information about her inner world, no hint on it in the tale. She is just an archetype of a joyful, young pretty damsel.

One of the favourite and most frequently used Washington Irving's devices  for describing characters is irony. (Ichabod Crane was 'esteemed by the women as a man of great erudition, for he had read several books quite through, and was a perfect master of Cotton Mather's 'History of New England Witchcraft', in which, by the way, he most firmly and potently believed'.)

-         Human psychology- almighty fear

Washington Irving proved himself to be a master of human soul and psychology. All the following quotations show most picturesquely the inward state of Ichabod and the effect the overwhelming fear makes on his mind:

'All the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon now came crowding upon his recollection.'

'He had never felt so lonely and dismal'

'fearful are the feelings of the school-boy who has to pass it alone after dark.'

'His heart began to sink within him'

'His terror rose to desperation'

Besides the author uses interrogative sentences, as if they were the inner thoughts of Ichabod. (What was to be done? To turn and fly was now too late; and besides, what chance was there of escaping ghost or goblin, if such it was, which could ride upon the wings of the wind?)


    Symbols and allegories

Ø           The thick and impenetrable woods - as an allegory of the kingdom of mystery and evil

Ø           The Headless Horseman an allegory of devil

Ø           The 'uniform tranquility' in the forest can symbolize death

Ø           Katrina Van Tassel as a symbol of youth and beauty

Ø           Baltus Van Tassel as a symbol of abundant wealth on the one side and ignorance and narrow-mindness from the other  

Ø           Ichabod Crane as a symbol of mankind that is fond of everything unknown and scaring, but that can not resist supernatural forces when it concerns the real life.


The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow on Screen

Cast: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Casper Van Dien, Mark Pickering, Michael Gough, Jeffrey Jones, Ian McDiarmid
Director: Tim Burton

 Manufacturer: Paramount Pictures
MPAA Rating: R (Violence, gore)

Run Time: 01h:45m:01s
Release Date: November 19, 1999

 American journalist James Berardinelli characterized Tim Burton's 'Sleepy Hollow' as stylish and atmospheric as any motion picture. However these aspects 'are its lone strengths'. According to him the film 'suffers from tepid performances, feebly drawn characters, and a meandering narrative'.

This unflattering evaluation can be opposed to the opinion of another American journalist, whose point of view on the film is more positive:

 This is a pretty good take on the tale. Mr. Depp brings his own quirky personality to the role, and coupled with Ricci (an offbeat personality herself!) lifts this movie up from a simple horror/slasher. Not a bad way to spend some free time, and be sure to watch it with the lights turned off.



Cast: Brent Carver, Rachelle Lefevre, Paul Lemelin, Vlasta Vrana, Kathleen Fee, Michel Perron, Dawn Ford,  Paul Hopkins

Director: Pierre Gang

Manufacturer: 342Media DVD Center

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild violence)

Run Time: 01h:31m:01s
Release Date: August 19, 2003


This version is believed to be a bone-chilling live adaptation of Washington Irving's classic short story. It tells the story of a schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane, an enchanting love-triangle, and of course, the Headless Horseman in its impressive and scaring way. It reveals the mystery that has enthralled families for generations.

Further information

For the original text of the legend: http://www.americanliterature.com/SS/SS04.HTML

To see other reviews on the films: http://efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=9543&reviewer=128

For fuller version of James Berardinellis review:  http://movie-reviews.colossus.net/movies/s/sleepy.html

To watch the films on DVD: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00000A52C/103-7271812-0867856?v=glance

To hear the voice of the Headless man: http://www.hyland.org/sleepyhollow/



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