200 years on, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ still chills

Nearly two centuries after its publication, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is as popular as ever.

Fox TV has a modern-day hit on its hands with its retelling of the 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by American author Washington Irving (1783-1859).


The supernatural-themed drama series — starring Tom Mison, Nicole Beharie, Orlando Jones and Katia Winter — premiered on September 16, 2013. It attracted 10 million viewers and earned a 3.5 rating/9 share, making it the network’s highest-rated fall drama premiere in the past eight seasons. It was so popular, in fact, that merely weeks after the first episode aired, Fox renewed Sleepy Hollow for a second season.
The history of “Sleepy Hollow”

Originally written while the itinerant Irving was living abroad in England, the popular tale was one of 34 essays and short stories — including “Rip Van Winkle” — comprising “The Sketch Book,” which Irving wrote under the pseudonym of “Geoffrey Crayon.”

One might argue that the post-Revolutionary-War tale of Connecticut schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and the dreaded Headless Horseman in the Dutch enclave in New York State known as Sleepy Hollow has never been far from the American imagination.

Irving’s vivid imagery involving the wild supernatural pursuit by the Headless Horseman has sustained interest in this popular folktale through many printed editions, as well as film, stage and musical adaptations. (Since it’s long out of copyright, you can getThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow ebook for free here, or read it online.)

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1899 Cover of "Sleepy Hollow" Library of CongressAccording to American University professor Lewis Grossman, the Headless Horseman has remained one of America’s favorite ghosts, in a roster that includes Casper, Freddie Kruger and Charles Dickens’ ghosts of Christmas. Grossman based his conclusion on his research in Google’s Ngram Viewer, a phrase-usage graphing tool that charts the yearly count of selected words and phrases. Grossman also used the tool to monitor the author’s popularity.

“The American-born Washington Irving was, at one time, more popular in England than Charles Dickens,” said Grossman, who spoke at the Library as part of American University’s “Books That Shaped America” lecture series. The series was inspired by the Library’s selection and exhibition of influential American works, including Irving’s ghost tale.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was one of the first works of fiction by an American author to become popular outside of the United States. Regarded as the first American to earn a living by his pen, Irving argued for stronger laws to protect writers from copyright infringement. In the January 1840 issue of the New York literary magazine Knickerbocker, Irving endorsed legislation pending in the US Congress that would offer stronger protection for American copyrights abroad. The copyright legislation was not enacted.

Long in the public domain, Irving’s tale has been immortalized on stage and film, most notably by Walt Disney in 1949 — with tunes sung by Bing Crosby — and 50 years later by director Tim Burton in his 1999 film starring Johnny Depp.

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The real Sleepy Hollow

Located on the historic Hudson River, the real-life Sleepy Hollow remains a popular tourist destination, especially during Halloween. The town boasts Irving’s home (“Sunnyside”) and his gravesite in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Village administrator Anthony Giaccio recently reported a spike in visits to the town and its tourism website, which he attributes to the Fox show. Although the show is filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina, Giaccio hopes its popularity will do for Sleepy Hollow what the hit television series “The Office” did for Scranton, Pennsylvania.

An excerpt from the original book
From The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving

The immediate cause, however, of the prevalence of supernatural stories in these parts, was doubtless owing to the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow. There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land.

Several of the Sleepy Hollow people were present at Van Tassel’s, and, as usual, were doling out their wild and wonderful legends. Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major André was taken, and which stood in the neighborhood. Some mention was made also of the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow.

The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.

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