You Can’t Outrun the Horseman: The Roots of the American Slasher
There are stories we can’t escape from, that resonate and recur, that we revisit willingly or not, sometimes molding them to fit the time we are in or to address our contemporary circumstances. As we confront the evils in the world, the boogieman returns. Michael Myers and Ghostface are back in the modern consciousness, as are Candyman and Leatherface. These boogiemen have always been chasing America’s first slasher: The Headless Horseman.
In 1820, when Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” captured the imaginations of the young nation, we didn’t have Poe yet, Frankenstein was still across the ocean, and only one major work of horror had come from an American writer, Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland.
The Headless Horseman was born of the American Revolution, a ghost from the fairly recent past, a reminder of the colonial past. In various forms, the Horseman has been a Hessian mercenary, a vengeful spirit cursed to pursue interlopers treading upon “Indian Burial Ground,” and the symbol of civic pride for a small village in New York’s Hudson Valley.
“I told this fellow that Sleepy Hollow was full of ghosts, but he wouldn’t listen,” Fritz Vanderhoof (played by John Sylvester White) tells Ichabod Crane (Jeff Goldblum) in one version of the tale. The Hollow is indeed full of ghosts: the specters of colonialism, slavery, racism, anti-intellectualism, and sexism that continue to plague this country.
In almost every version, the Horseman is used to torment Crane, be he schoolteacher or detective, as he brings new ideas to the village. Crane is the embodiment of education, of progress. He doesn’t put up with sexism; he seeks evidence in the face of religious fervor; he rejects traditional gender roles.
On the other hand, Brom Bones represents the toxic masculinity inherent in the patriarchy. He doesn’t want things to change (although I imagine if he was of age, he would have fought valiantly against the British), and he denies scientific advancements but doesn’t necessarily believe in the supernatural. That disbelief, however, does not mean he won’t use the lingering fears of ghosts and vengeful spirits to his advantage.
This dichotomy has continued for 200 years. Intellectual progress versus fear of change. I hate to make it sound so black and white as I know it is not so simple a paradigm. In Tim Burton’s 1999 Sleepy Hollow, for example, the detective Crane (Johnny Depp) is faced with numerous attacks on his pursuit of truth through science. But the fear of scientific advancement did not rob him of his mother. Rather it was his father, a member of the dominant clergy, who executed his nature-worshipping mother. And so, we see the strange middle ground of American conservatism: an over-reliance on science is just as bad as adherence to non-Christian religions. In the midst of this, we get a blade-wielding night marauder bent on eliminating anything that upsets the status quo.
Even Disney got into the act, and for many Americans, the animated headless Horseman throwing his jack-o-lantern across a covered bridge was the first exposure to the legend. We saw the leafless trees covering the road and heard Bing Crosby’s dulcet tones relating the tale all the way from 1949.
It is, however, Burton’s 1999 version that truly captures the Horseman’s slasher essence. Multiple victims abound and while they are most often dispatched via decapitation by sword, the Horseman is not averse to using whatever happens to be at hand. In a fight scene between the Horseman, Crane, and Brom Bones (played with smug confidence by Casper Van Dien), the Horseman picks up handheld farming tools, including a small scythe. Later, he uses a pointed fence post tied to a rope to not only spear a victim but then drag him from inside a church. While these scenes do not exist in the original tale, it is precisely this adaptability of character that has helped keep the Headless Horseman in the American consciousness for two centuries.
The lineage of slashers in America begins with the specters of revenge, an undying villain, and generational traumas presented in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” We will never outrun this nation’s first boogieman. He’s always there to remind us of our colonial past and is ready to lop the heads off those who would deny the truth of that past. Like any powerful boogieman — like all of our slashers from the 1970s to today — the Headless Horseman wasn’t created in a vacuum. He was created from our own neglect and recognition of sins still awaiting punishment.
No matter where you go, the Headless Horseman is right behind you. 🩸
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. In October 2020, The New York Times called Cry Down Dark the scariest book set in Utah. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net or on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.
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