Are you afraid of the things that go bump in the night? Have you ever felt the crushing darkness close in around you, breathing down your neck? Did you lie in bed one cold night and press your eyelids together because you just knew someone stood, leering at you as you slumbered?

We’ve all felt the creepy crawling fingers of fear tickle up our spines. Most likely, we’ve all read or seen adaptations of Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow. What is it about this story that makes it a classic? The simple fact is Irving speaks to that part of us that fears and loves that bit of fear. This is considered a folktale, taking us to a time in American history so vividly that we feel a part of that world. Irving engages all of the senses in his descriptions like this one:

“Then, as he wended his way by swamp and stream and awful woodland, to the farmhouse where he happened to be quartered, every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination,—the moan of the whip-poor-will from the hillside, the boding cry of the tree toad, that harbinger of storm, the dreary hooting of the screech owl, or the sudden rustling in the thicket of birds frightened from their roost. The fireflies, too, which sparkled most vividly in the darkest places, now and then startled him, as one of uncommon brightness would stream across his path; and if, by chance, a huge blockhead of a beetle came winging his blundering flight against him, the poor varlet was ready to give up the ghost, with the idea that he was struck with a witch’s token. His only resource on such occasions, either to drown thought or drive away evil spirits, was to sing psalm tunes and the good people of Sleepy Hollow, as they sat by their doors of an evening, were often filled with awe at hearing his nasal melody, “in linked sweetness long drawn out,” floating from the distant hill, or along the dusky road.”

Irving, Washington (1992-10-01). The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Kindle Locations 104-108). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

This quote not only makes us see Ichabod walking through his world, but wewalk through this world with him. I almost feel as if I can reach out and catch a firefly in my hand and watch the blink of its pale green light. Irving’s ability to transport us into the world of the story aides him later as he makes us feel what Ichabod feels; he makes us experience the terror and not just see it. This story is perfect evidence of the fact that the workings of the mind are far more able to induce fear than seeing someone cut to bits in a modern horror flick.

Irving builds his story. We are introduced to the little town nestled in the hills. He paints a picture of innocence. Oh, there are stories old wives tell about the horsemen. Some say they have seen him, but it is after all just a tale. Ichabod is a teacher in the school, just like any other teacher. He’s a coward sure, but still a man.

“All the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon now came crowding upon his recollection. The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally hid them from his sight. He had never felt so lonely and dismal. He was, moreover, approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid.”

Irving, Washington (1992-10-01). The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Kindle Locations 381-384). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

The story builds and builds from this innocent beginning like the rolling of a snowball. More and more of the horseman story is brought to light, but our focus is on Ichabod’s love for a woman. We put the horseman in the back of our minds, but he is mentioned time and again to keep his image current. Then as Ichabod is shot down by his love and goes on a ride home, we along with Ichabod remember the stories. Every sound, every shadow that moves brings more and more of the headless horseman story back. The time of night is ripe, the conditions are ripe, and Irving slowly plucks the fruit of our fear. Our heart along with Ichabod’s thumps faster and faster until we see the horseman, and we want to run from him just as Ichabod does.

Let’s go now, and feel what Ichabod felt:

“His heart began to sink within him; he endeavored to resume his psalm tune, but his parched tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, and he could not utter a stave. There was something in the moody and dogged silence of this pertinacious companion that was mysterious and appalling. It was soon fearfully accounted for. On mounting a rising ground, 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!—but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle! His terror rose to desperation; he rained a shower of kicks and blows upon Gunpowder, hoping by a sudden movement to give his companion the slip; but the spectre started full jump with him. Away, then, they dashed through thick and thin; stones flying and sparks flashing at every bound. Ichabod’s flimsy garments fluttered in the air, as he stretched his long lank body away over his horse’s head, in the eagerness of his flight.”

Irving, Washington (1992-10-01). The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Kindle Locations 422-425). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

And what makes this a classic exactly? What makes this story genius? Ichabod is scared away by nothing, by a story. The headless horseman does not exist. Brom scares Ichabod away. The tale of the horseman was powerful enough that Ichabod did not once question its reality.

In my post on the Wendigo, I asked: what part of ourselves are we afraid of in this piece? In this one I think, we are afraid of the cowardly nature of man. No one wants to let their fear get the best of them like Ichabod does. But we are also drawn to the fear of what might be. Uncertainty and the mortality of man scares us, sometimes it scares us to the point of fleeing in the dark of the night.

Up Next: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein