The non-believer may already understand that what preys upon the unsuspecting plagues the believer even more greatly, but he likely misinterprets the foundation of such fear. He will claim that the strongly religious see goblins and ghouls because they wish to devolve to these beings responsibility for men's crimes; the Devil's existence being as laughable as that of some Higher Entity, he may add that such believers need to counteract the goodness in their hearts with the evil emotions that sometimes overcome them. But here is a question of heads and tails. Responsibility for the evil done unto others lies in our hands – this even the believer knows. And yet somewhere between the headlines of gore and wickedness one senses another presence, a dark whisper that feels like the wind, a rattling of one's bones that would normally be a shiver. What this really is has many scientific explanations, and perhaps they are all in a way not untrue. Yet even as children and without any parental encouragement, those of faith sense something stirring beneath the surface of our plain and pleasing world. Occasionally it even appears at brief junctures in a shadow, a vision, an eerie, unexplained whistle during an otherwise noiseless night. And what lurks in the heart of men, good and bad, forms the core of this classic tale.
In the vein of proper horror stories, our exposition of the facts should begin with a warning. We land in a village in the state of New York, a "spell-bound region" populated by cruller-eating, Mynheer-saying Dutch settlers who have remained isolated from the world abroad and its sweeping turns. In this case the warning comes in the form of a legend whose stalk has grown well past the landscape's other weeds:
A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere .... Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions .... The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance. Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.
The alleged historical details implicate the entirety of Sleepy Hollow in the plot – not that there really could be a plot from a few hints provided later, but much like the Horseman I am getting ahead of myself. What is vital is the understanding that the location possesses an eerie power to infect even temporary visitors, including the gangly Puritan schoolmaster Ichabod Crane. Crane is one of those literary creations who remain with us as we age because we sense that we will eventually espy him in a slightly altered form in our own reality. He is not so much a caricature as a living characteristic, and that characteristic is Puritanism itself. Crane is a stern lecturer and a frugal bird who carries all his worldly belongings in a large handkerchief; he favors the meek over the more privileged, guests at the houses of his pupils, shines as a learned singer of psalmody, and spouts the wisdom credulously culled from this book. He compensates for his feeble appearance with pigheaded courage and blinding optimism that someone more cynical than I could easily mistake for feelings of superiority. How then can he earn epithets such as "wonderfully gentle and ingratiating" and "a kind and thankful creature"? Because, at times, he is those as well; at least until he makes the acquaintance of Katrina Van Tassel.
Katrina is young and beautiful with child-bearing hips and a sizeable inheritance. In a word, she is as nubile as they come. Crane, like all solitary fools, believes himself fated to meet a lass who could easily do a hundred times better than Crane – and that says little against our schoolteacher. What she exudes in voluptuousness and luxury Crane omits within his mangy, thrifty shade; they could not be any worse matched. To make matters even more difficult, there then appears a suitor who is more up to up the task:
A burly, roaring, roistering blade, of the name of Abraham, or, according to the Dutch abbreviation, Brom Van Brunt, the hero of the country round, which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood. He was broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance. From his Herculean frame and great powers of limb he had received the nickname of BROM BONES, by which he was universally known. He was famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship, being as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar ... The neighbors looked upon him with a mixture of awe, admiration, and good-will; and, when any madcap prank or rustic brawl occurred in the vicinity, always shook their heads, and warranted Brom Bones was at the bottom of it.
Katrina's choice is complicated – or at least such an appearance is desired. Between Crane and Van Brunt lies a vast and indefinite canyon of education and culture that brawny attraction and headstrong heroics will not be able to overcome in the course of a healthy human life. Yet Crane cares little for such antics, and he is drawn to Katrina as he is drawn to the opulent feasts at her father's mansion, feasts that start him re-imagining a future he has never considered in bright color:
As the enraptured Ichabod fancied all this, and as he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burdened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness. Nay, his busy fancy already realized his hopes, and presented to him the blooming Katrina, with a whole family of children, mounted on the top of a wagon loaded with household trumpery, with pots and kettles dangling beneath; and he beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heels, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee – or the Lord knows where!
For all his beliefs in the supernatural, in the ghoulish, the grim, and the ghastly, Crane's tragic flaw could be precisely his lack of imagination. He cannot imagine a world in which he, simple beast, could not meet his needs; nor a world in which the strong spirit within him could fail in its fortress against the materialist barrage. Is Puritanism nothing more than fear of the wicked, damnation of their accomplices, and the strength derived from prudence and restraint? That would explain much of Crane and his fantasies. And those ghost stories on long winter evenings with old Dutch women? Few things have ever cost a man so dearly.