Revolution, Resurrection and Pumpkin Head Lattes: “Sleepy Hollow” Rises Again

Like many a standard of American literature, Washington Irving’s 1819 short-story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, has seen more facelifts and resurrections than Hillary Clinton’s political career: varied adaptations on the usual theme, always entertaining and sketchy, nightmare fare for some. Irving’s Sleepy Hollow is uniquely American, but its roots reach far under the lightning-charred, tulip trees of time back to Germany’s Middle Ages and the wicked warnings of the folkloric Wild Huntsman, der Wilde Jäger: a headless ghoul who galloped through the forests of Northern Europe at preternatural speeds, seeking bad little children who failed to eat their wegetables, greedy men of ill-repute and stray women of low moral fiber. Be good or der Wilde Jäger vill get you, meinen Kinder!

Photo: Doug Tone
Photo: Doug Tone

Fox TV is the latest raconteur to tell the tale of Sleepy Hollow, the town “that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie.” (This is the second Sleepy endeavor for FOX; the first being 1999’s Night of the Headless Horseman, a CGI animation.) The most flexible thus far in its use of artistic license, this latest narration of the ageless myth benefits from the cleverness and vision of  Fringe creators Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Fundamentally, they follow the basic, chilling spine of the tale and keep pivotal characters in play. Pleasingly, for one never knows what presumptions Hollywood will take, the powers that be kept Irving’s tale exactly where it was intended: Westchester County, New York, in a little hamlet along the Hudson River which “abounds with local tales, haunted spots and twilight superstitions”. Once known as North Tarrytown, the good townfolk of this wee burg finally voted in 1996 to have the town’s name officially changed to Sleepy Hollow.

Accordingly, Washington Irving himself is entombed in the south end of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. This is not to be confused, though oft is, with the adjacent Old Dutch Church and its colonial-era graveyard where Irving’s tale is actually set. With no marked boundaries bewtixt the two, they are generally thought of as one. Irving’s own grave sits on a small hill overlooking Old Dutch and its nightly goings-on. If Autumn, Halloween, New England graveyards and Pumpkin Spice Lattes bring you a toothy grin, the imagery of fluttering leaves, glowing porch lights, colonial burying grounds and Dutch colonial houses in the Hudson Valley will provide, at the very least, a much appreciated gallop through Hallowe’en Town, U.S.A..

Ichabod Crane, Irving’s everyman-antihero, has gone through many a change since his literary birth in 1819, though most iterations adhere to the tenets of what it means to be Ichabod Crane: nebbish, hand-wringing, superstitious, studious and shy. Based on a mesh of two men Irving met during his life, a Sackets Harbor army captain actually named Ichabod Crane and a Kinderhook, NY schoolteacher named Jesse Merwin, the fictional Ichabod Crane has himself become somewhat of an eponym in his neuroses. Animation or live-action, most versions of the fidgety, living scarecrow have been true to form: skittish schoolteacher or hystrionic headmaster. From Walt Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) to Wishbone’s Halloween Hound: The Legend of Creepy Collars (1998) to Jeff Goldblum’s pitch-perfect portrayal in NBC’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1980) the good Mr. Crane has served his calling well, forever fearful of his own shadow, lanky and awkward in carriage, tongue-tied around the beauteous Katrina and gullible to the core.

Even Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), arguably one of the best resurrections yet, sees Ichabod as a very proper reincarnation, if not more mathematically attractive than those whom came before Johnny Depp. Though Burton and Depp massaged and molded Ichabod into an Industrial-era, New York City detective, trading in Cotton Mather’s dog-eared Witchcraft in New England for a doctor’s bag full of newfangled, scientific tools, the scaredy cat is still in there, clinging to the proverbial ceiling. The wild woods of Westchester Co. and haunting beauty, and wealth, of Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci) ruffle his fur justly and deliver unto us the flustered Ichabod we have all come to pity. Now, FOX is tweaking the mold again, and adding a bit more clay; this time he’s a beefier, meatier Ichabod Crane.

More Abercrombie & Fitch than Compugear, the newest Ichabod Crane is played adroitly and very well-sculpted by Englishman Tom Mison (Henry IV, Poirot, Lost in Austen). So obviously theatre-trained, Shakespearean- in fact, Mison brings a decidedly non-telly flip-of-the-cape to primetime viewing. His stage and film background emanates from him like an after-sex radiance, giving him the unchallenged spotlight. But for Mison, the rest of the cast would be good. In his presence, they are good enough. Mison’s Ichabod is neither scared nor hesitant; he is impatient and determined. The divergences from the traditional Ichabod are vast and numbered; a rugged, take-charge, 250-year old Ichabod with a Colin Farrellesque beard is the least of them.

As much a fish-out-of-water tale as it is a horror story, Sleepy Hollow the series addresses sudden time-travel with a healthy bit of tongue-in-cheek. ‘Tis no easy task keeping a 19thC. folktale about 18thC. history pertinent to 21stC. viewers, many of whom might have difficulty differentiating betwixt George Washington and Washington Irving. To remedy this, FOX has added the requisite components. Neither a pathetic, grade-school teacher nor a fussy science geek, Ichabod is redefined as a fetching, Revolutionary War soldier, the very one whom takes the head of a Redcoat amidst “some nameless battle”. (Although, Irving depicted that his head “had been carried away by a cannon-ball”) It is this Redcoat who will soon haunt Ichabod from far beyond the grave and time.

A point of detail, mostly of interest to history and literary sticklers, the Headless Horseman was not a British soldier, but in fact a Hessian jäger: a German-mercenary sharpshooter and horseman hired by the British Crown, like a land-roving, Teutonic pirate. Ichabod’s bio, so the new story goes, tells us he was once a professor of history at Oxford until involuntarily enlisted by His Majesty King George III to fight the American rabble in the Colonies. Once on American shores, he found he could no longer serve under or support tyranny: over to the American patriots he defected, serving bravely under Gen. George Washington. Nothing nebbish there. Certainly more Ralph Fiennes than Woody Allen.

Sleepy Hollow, NY, formerly North Tarrytown
Sleepy Hollow, NY: formerly, until 1996, North Tarrytown

To boot, because cop shows set in New York just will not go away, FOX had to add that facet to the series. Blessedly, instead of Manhattan, it is properly mis-en-scène along the Hudson River Valley. Although, if a visit to the lovely Sleepy Hollow you shall see each Monday night is in your tarot cards, keep in mind the series was filmed on location far below Yankee-tax territory in the right-to-work and healthy tax-incentive state of North Carolina, Wilmington to be precise.

Whilst Ichabod is not the cop this time around, he does play helpful investigator and expert witness to no-nonsense, African-American, female cop Abbie Mills, played affably by Nicole Beharie (42, Woman Thou Art Loosed, The Good Wife). Make way, folks, for numerous, and predictable, one-liners about emancipation, slavery, female lieutenants and ladies-in-trousers. Add Ichabod’s befuddlement about cell phones, electric car-windows, Starbucks, flashlights and asphalt; then sprinkle with Troopers vs. Horseman shootouts using semi-automatic shotguns and a magical axe, and the series can sometimes taste a bit like New York Cheddar: cheesy.

Occasional elements of Charmed and Highlander aside, Sleepy Hollow is a ripping good hour of entertaining television. To boot, the pilot is tight. Even the best of shows have a cringe factor and growing pains in early episodes. (Remember Seinfeld S1?) Sleepy Hollow‘s cast gels right from the start and the production values and writing are as quality as Ichabod’s bespoke frock coat. It’s a brilliant embarkation.

Mison’s Ichabod Crane is the giant spoon that stirs the cauldron, but the cauldron is a mighty fine melange of mystery, dark humour, American history (tweaked just a bit for dramatic effect, of course), 18thC. costuming (if you drool over such things) and the spooky, blue lighting that’s been missing from nighttime television since The X-Files went off the air. With Autumn approaching in mere days, FOX might have nailed this one right on the, well, noggin. If broadcast TV has a drama this season that requires a quiet house, flickering pumpkin candles and port wine in a colonial shrub glass to enhance viewing, Sleepy Hollow is it.

As the Headless Horseman rode off into the sunrise of the Sleepy Hollow premiere, for he must skedaddle back to the sanctuary of his Old Dutch Church grave by each morning’s light, he is seen in silhouette resting a Tommy gun over his broad, frock-coated, headless shoulder, having apparently traded in his magical, Hessian broad axe, for the moment anyway. At least until he regains his head and reconnoiters with his fellow Horsemen of the Apocalypse later in the series to commence mankind’s final demise, thus proving George Washington’s hunch correct, as confided to Ichabod Crane on the battlefield in 1781: the Revolution is not about fighting for America’s freedom, but to save every man, woman and child on the planet.

Oh, wait. That’s not in the book. I’ll bet you a Pumpkin Head Latte Washington Irving never saw that angle coming.

City Hall, Sleepy Hollow, NY
City Hall, Sleepy Hollow, NY

Sleepy Hollow airs Mondays @9/8c on FOX

Hannah’s other fave places to haunt online? and for pre-Revolutionary, historical-fiction featuring another Herr Ichabod,