"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Monday, October 10, 2011

Legends of The Headless Horseman

Dark and frightening horseman ... artist unknown

I always thought that the story of the Headless Horseman from Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and was a uniquely American story.  Not so, it seems, for the legend, with some variations, exists in Ireland, Scotland, Germany and likely other countries as well.  Each paragraph of my article is illustrated with some really beautiful works of art depicting the Horseman.
Wild chase through the woods ... artist unknown
Irving describes the horseman thus:   "Ichabod, who had no relish for this strange midnight companion ... quickened his steed in hopes of leaving him behind. The stranger, however, quickened his horse to an equal pace. Ichabod pulled up, and fell into a walk, thinking to lag behind,--the other did the same. His heart began to sink within him. ...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!"

From  the British Museum, equestrian
painting of a headless horseman
In 1796, Sir Walter Scott translated The Wild Huntsman, originally written by German poet Gottfried Burger, based on Germanic legend of a huntsman who does have a head, chasing unsuspecting riders in the night to their death.  Other Germanic folklore speaks of a headless horseman who wears a long grey coat, astride a grey horse, blowing a hunting horn to warn hunters of impending accidents.  In other versions, he has a pack of hounds with tongues of fire.  (Cool!)

A classic film-lover's horseman ... stark black and white

Scotsman Robert Burns wrote Tam O'Shanter in 1790, a narrative poem about a poor man riding at night, chased by really disgusting demons of all kinds who cannot cross running water or bridges.

Striking illustration by Kanaru92
I love the legend from the Green Isle best!  In Irish folklore the headless horseman, called the Dullahan, is a terrifying figure galloping through the night, holding his head under his arm, as the arbiter of death.  He wields a human spine as a whip, gallops to a place where someone will die and reins in his wild horse, where the head calls out the doomed person's name.  As told in the legend taken down from oral tradition by Thomas Crofton Croker in Fairy Legends and Traditions of The South of Ireland (1906), the headless horseman is completely different and much more dark and horrifying than any of the above versions:  

(As told by Irishman Charley Culnan on his way home from the pub one dark night) -- "His vision failed in carrying him further than the top of the collar of the figure's coat, which was a scarlet single-breasted hunting frock, having a waist of a very old-fashioned cut reaching to the saddle, with two huge shining buttons at about a yard's distance behind ... see further he could not, and after straining his eyes for a considerable time to no purpose, he exclaimed, with pure vexation, "By the big bridge of Mallow, it is no head at all he has!"   "Look again, Charley Culnane," said a hoarse voice, that seemed to proceed from under the right arm of the figure.  Charley did look again, and now in the proper place, for he clearly saw, under the aforesaid right arm, that head from which the voice had proceeded, and such a head no mortal ever saw before. It looked like a large cream cheese hung round with black puddings: no speck of colour enlivened the ashy paleness of the depressed features; the skin lay stretched over the unearthly surface, almost like the parchment head of a drum. Two fiery eyes of prodigious circumference, with a strange and irregular motion flashed like meteors ..., and a huge mouth reached from either extremity of two ears, which peeped forth from under a profusion of matted locks of lustreless blackness. This head, which the figure had evidently hitherto concealed from Charley's eyes, now burst upon his view in all its hideousness."

Unique art works of the Horseman, with a Disney finale:
I love this impressionistic sketch by Maquinafantasma

Black and brooding, with the demon
horse, by Jurei-Chan

Pumpkin carving, artist unknown

                           A YEARLY HALLOWEEN TRADITION -- DISNEY!

By the time the legend of the Headless Horseman got to Disney, the terrifying demonic creature was still scary, but mainly to children, and the dark nature of the stories, especially the Irish Dullahan, had changed the head to a glowing pumpkin. However, I will always have a special place in my heart for Disney's bumbling Ichabod Crane, and will remember that I was just as scared as poor Ichabod when the horseman gave chase through the wind-swept autumn woods!

Who could ever forget Disney's Legend of Sleepy Hollow  from 1949?
Seeing THIS coming at your would scare anyone of ANY age


  1. Oh yeah, the Disney movie definitely scared the crap outta me as a kid. They used to show it on TV around Halloween but they don't anymore. I think I may have read the Irving book in school too, but I don't recall for sure.

    Did you see the Johnny Depp version?

  2. Becks, one of my favorite Disney's. I do remember seeing sometime on the big screen as a child but don't remember when. If you think it's scary on TV "You aint seen nothin yet"!

  3. Rich, I haven't seen it for a long time, come to think of it. I must be thinking back to younger days, oh so long ago! LOL. I did like the Depp movie, although they took so many liberties -- what am I saying, liberties? They RE-WROTE the whole thing practically -- but it was a fun movie!
    Paul, I never got to see the Disney on a big screen, and I'll bet it was formidable, especially the big pumpkin head coming right at your face!

  4. Fun post, Becky, especially apropos for the season. Ah, October. Love it.

    It reminds me that I really do want to watch the Disney version again if I can find it.

    It it perfect for Halloween. (I'm also watching THE UNINVITED which I recently purchased. Finally!)

  5. True story, Becky: when I was a middle school teacher I used to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to my kids for a few days before Halloween. They loved it, as I am a master of voices! Anyway, it was known by everyone in the school that I pranked my homeroom class every year on Halloween: I'd hang glowing pumpkins inside lockers and I'd use a voice manipulator at silent reading time to say, "Icabod, Icabod Crane." My all-time favorite, though, was one year while my class was taking a test I sat down at my desk (which I kept behind my students, I was a stand in the front of the room teacher) and while they were busy answering questions I got a homemade effigy of the horseman from under my desk and sat it in my chair and then waited for the first student to bring their test to my desk and scream! Oh, it was loud! So much fun was had by all--especially me!

    Their reward for being tormented: we watched the Disney version--they always loved it.

    Thanks for giving so much background around the story and other cultural takes on the myth.

  6. Yvette: I haven't seen the Disney for a long time either, longer than I thought. And I love October too, best month of all. Cool weather, autumn trees, horror movies on TCM, Halloween!
    Kim: You sound like a wonderful teacher! I had one who did things like that and I loved him. He's one I never forgot. I'm glad you liked the other legends. I did not really try to be too intensive - just mainly wanted to have some fun - but the myths interested me a lot!

  7. What a wonderful post for the season! I have been to the real Sleepy Hollow many times in the fall, and there is just something about that little town.... if you listen, you can hear the hoof-beats. I also loved Tim Burton's version with Johnny Depp - that was a real feast for the eyes. Oh, I'm feeling all autumn-ish now (and a little scared....).

  8. I absolutely love this film. The animation is great and has a real Walt Disney family feel to it. The perfect film pick for Halloween. I will be posting a Halloween and a favorite fall favorite movies post, over on N and CF. I hope you drop by to check it out.

  9. I haven't seen the Disney version in years. I've got the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp one, so I may have to make that my Halloween double feature this year. Awesome post--BEAUTIFUL artwork and chilling stories.

  10. The Disney version managed to capture the sly humour of Irving's story and still scare the bejeebus out of you. Bing Crosby was the perfect narrator.

    My son Gavin has switched to his autumn programming loop which includes Disney's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow". I never tire of it, but the hubby is climbing the walls!

    Loved the article. The art work is impressive and I appreciate the background information. I shall go forth and amaze all with my new found knowledge.

  11. Beck: I just watched LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW on youtube. Someone has posted it in 3 (or 4) parts. Fun. Can't wait to watch this with my granddaughter when she's a little older. :)

  12. Fun and informative post, Becky! Like Caftan Woman, I always thought Bing Crosby did a wonderful job as the narrator. But this post and the comments were very insightful; I also learned that Kim Wilson probably left many children with childhood emotional scars!!

  13. FlickChick: I would LOVE to see the real town! How lucky for you. I'm sure I would feel the atmosphere too, and I love to be scared!
    Dawn: I agree, and I certainly will stop by to see your Halloween post!
    Michelle: Thank you so much for your lovely compliment. I just fell in love with the artwork I found, and the stories, especially the Irish Dullahan, gave me chills too!
    Caftan Woman: Too much of a good thing CAN drive you crazy, even Disney! Thanks for your compliment on my article, and I am glad to send you forth packed with new grisly stories for Halloween!
    Yvette: I didn't think to look on Youtube! Thanks for the heads-up.
    Rick, I'm glad you liked it. Bing Crosby was good, wasn't he? And if Kim scared many schoolchildren, I did the same thing with my kids, as my Dad before, and his Mom before him...that's the Irish for you!

  14. Becky - I saw the Disney feature as a little kid - was it on Disney's TV show? - I don't remember, but it chilled me to the bone (though it seems we watched it every year for a while)! Had forgotten about Bing Crosby's narration, but can hear it now.

    I took my two young godsons to see the Depp movie when it was in release. I enjoyed it, but I think it gave them nightmares.

    When I think about it I realize that the film versions of "Sleepy Hollow" stand out in my memory more than Irving's story. No doubt the terror of actually seeing that @$%&! horseman galloping around the countryside.

    Great history of similar tales from around the world - and wonderful illustrations.

  15. Eve, it was on every year when I was a kid, I just know. I don't know why it isn't anymore. Irving's description of the horseman is not nearly as scary as seeing him on film in most of the veresions. The Depp version's horseman is spectacular. If it just had not strayed SO far from the actual story, it would have been teh quintessential Sleepy Hollow movie. As it is, it's good, but not as Irving's tale. I'm glad you enjoyed the different tales and representations of the horseman. The Irish tale was especially gruesome - I liked it! LOL!

  16. Oh, Rick, it was all in good fun. I'm terrified of snakes and just about every April Fool's Day my class would pay be back for my Halloween fun by hiding a rubber snake somewhere in or around my desk. Thankfully none were brave enough to use a real snake.

  17. Great post. I like to re-read the story this time of year. One October I took a pilgrimmage to North Tarrytown, New York, now calling itself Sleepy Hollow. (If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.) Lots of fans of the story roaming around sites in town, including the cemetery. By the way, the mascot of the high school is The Headless Horseman.

    Always loved the Disney version.

  18. That Disney film still scares the snot out of me. Oh, and thanks for putting that Bing Crosby tune in my head ("Ichabod, Ichabod, Ichabod Crane...").

  19. Kim: I've always said that children are for slave labor around the house, fun to embarrass when they are teenagers, and really fun to scare with the good old stories. My Dad did it and I adored him -- I did it to my kids, and they...well, they tolerate me...LOL!
    Jacqueline: I'd love to visit there. And you gotta love a mascot called the Headless Horseman!
    Ivan: I'm so happy that my article gave you a song to torture you. Irritating my readers is my main goal -- what am I saying?!!

  20. Becky, I loved your LEGENDS OF THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN post! The different artists' renditions of The Headless Horseman were beautifully and scarily rendered! I've never seen a version of the story that I didn't like. I rather enjoyed Tim Burton's take on the story (Depp's version of Ichabod cracked me up with his constant fainting :-)), and who doesn't love the Walt Disney version? I remember that when I was in high school, there was a TV version of SLEEPY HOLLOW starring Jeff Goldblum as Ichabod, and I thought he did a darn good job; granted, I had a crush on Goldblum at the time. I still like Goldblum, but wouldn't it be cool if Adrien Brody played Ichabod Crane? Is he built for the role, or what? :-)

  21. You know, Dorian, Adrien Brody would be perfect! And I never saw Jeff Goldblum's version, but I'm sure he was just right for it. I have always liked him. I'm glad you liked the post, especially the pictures. I loved searching for them and finding some special ones!

  22. John Quidor painted the 'Wild Chase Through The Woods' picture above.