How Folktale Shapes a Village

In his short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving describes the headless horseman as “[the]commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air… apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head.” The legend goes that a Hessian (A German fighting for the British) while riding his black horse, was decapitated by a cannonball during the American Revolution. Although the head of the mercenary is decapitated, he still “roams” around the valleys of Sleepy Hollow in search of his head. This tale is one of Irving’s best alongside Rip Van Winkle. But it ends there. The story is just Folklore. So why is this story so infamous around the town? To answer this, we must look at the historical context and how it influenced Mr. Irving.

Sleepy Hollow is a village located next to the commercial town of Tarrytown. Sleepy Hollow was late to the industrial revolution having its first factory around the 1840s. Therefore, this means, for the most part, Sleepy Hollow was an agrarian society. Irving viewed Sleepy Hollow as a secluded, quiet, and haunted place. Perfect to write a gothic story. Right? Another grand influence of Irving was the Revolutionary War. In the battle where the headless horseman was set to die, there are no witnesses nor recollection of the fight. A lot of the stories thrown around are more hearsay. Thus, it is hard to get the reality of the whole situation. Moreover, it makes the story unreliable as no one can back it up. For instance, was the man who died a Hessian?

The tale then becomes more far-fetched once we look at the scientific facts. 

The spinal cord is a tissue that connects the brain to the body. Upon decapitation, the spinal cord breaks. This being said, head movement after death is still possible. For instance, Dr. Gabriel Beaurieux, a French doctor living in the French Revolution, witnessed guillotine victims and saw his recent observations twitch a few seconds after his head was decapitated. However, this lasted only a few seconds before his head stopped moving. 

Based on these facts, the headless horseman is deniably untrue. A man cannot live without a brain to function the body. The real reason people believe this lie is for community, history, and money. 

Washington Irving and Sleepy Hollow have a mutual symbiosis. Washington Irving drew inspiration from the eerie setting of Sleepy Hollow. This feeling gave the perfect setting for the story of the headless horseman. In addition, this story was one of America’s first popular tales. With popularization, money is involved. Sleepy Hollow capitalized on that fairly quickly. Irving and his work encapsulate Sleepy Hollow’s identity. Washington Irving Elementary School, for instance, has the headless horseman as its mascot. During the spooky season, thousands of tourists visit the cemetery where the headless horseman’s corpse lies. Additionally, the town hosts parades for people to connect and enjoy themselves. However, the most anticipated event every year is their haunted house. With all these events, the local economy becomes robust. The community pride of the town also becomes powerful. The Headless Horseman connects the village as it is the one thing that all of the folks of Sleepy Hollow have in common.

Washington Irving’s influence on the town is grand. The village pays its respects to Irving by honoring many sites to him. Although the legend may be false, the story persists to enhance a strong sense of community and pride in a captivating and spooky tale.

Jack Zhunio – Deerfield Academy – DMSF Class of 2027