Out of the new TV shows I’ve been watching this fall, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is probably my favorite. Naturally, it’s been struggling to find an audience. Sleepy Hollow, on the other hand, which so far I would describe as “adequate,” and enjoyable more for the ways that it is bad than for the ways that it is good, has already been picked up for a second season. Thus runs the world away. That’s not to say that there aren’t good things about the show. I am watching it, after all! I particularly like the interaction between the two leads, the exactly-once-per-episode jokes about how Ichabod Crane doesn’t understand what life is like here in the future, and the seriously creepy visual design. And good or bad, the show is well worth examining as a case study in the way that patterns of influence shape stories over time.
First things first: “small group of overmatched and improbably hot people battle a series of fairy-tale monsters in a modern small-town setting” is officially a TV genre now, just like the sitcom and the police procedural. The codifying text here is Buffy, obviously (with the X-Files as an important precursor), but when Buffy came out is was charming in part because it didn’t fit into any model of what TV was supposed to be like. And even Angel and Charmed, which were blatant attempts to recapture Buffy’s magic, always felt more like commentaries on the horror genre than like genre texts in their own right. But with Supernatural, and then Grimm, and now Sleepy Hollow, I feel like that’s changed. It’s the diffrence between Leprechaun and Leprechaun in Space, if that makes any sense? Sleepy Hollow is so transparently the kind of show that it is… big shadowy monster in the foreground, little monster of the week based on random and freely-adapted folklore, secret clubhouse where the heroes hang out and consult old manuscripts… you know the drill. It even has a hero with vaguely defined superpowers: Crane starts as a fish out of water who doesn’t know how he got to the modern era, and knows as little about magic as his modern partner. But four episodes in, he’s already had a chance to show off his extensive occult knowledge, his eidetic memory, and his knowledge of Middle English. (Protip for the show’s writers: Roanoke Colony was founded in 1585, two hundred years after Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, and seven years before Shakespeare wrote Richard III. But whatever.) He’ll probably reveal that he knows ye olde kunge-fue in due course. As demonslayer procedurals go, this is entirely formulaic… and although there’s a nod to the French and Indian war, and a nod to the Boston Tea Party, and a nod to the lost colony of Roanoke, this wafer-thin colonial gloss never matters very much. It never distracts you from the underlying operations of the genre. (And really, that’s how you know that it is a genre to begin with.)
The other thing that’s interesting about this is the way that the show departs from its source text. In the TV show, Ichabod Crane is a British convert to the colonial cause, who, in a Revolutionary war battle, gets axed in the chest and then beheads a mysterious, tattooed-and-branded Hessian mercenary who turns out to be none other than Death, as in the horseman from the Revelation of St. John. Crane’s wife, who is a witch — did I mention that she’s a witch? no? well, that’s okay, because neither does the show, until it’s convenient — casts a spell binding Crane’s life to the Horseman’s life (Death’s life?!), and sealing both of them into suspended animation until the early 2010s, when a shadowy secret society, hilariously composed of the descendants of the other Hessian mercenaries, uses dark magic to revive the Horseman, thus accidentally reviving Crane as well. And there’s a prophecy, and the rest of the Apocalyptic Bridle Club and Horse Fancier Association, and a bunch of witches, and the Phoenician blood-god Moloch is rattling around somewhere in there… like I said, we’re in familiar territory.
But oh my goodness, what would poor Washington Irving have thought of this?
Lest we forget, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a very, very different kind of ghost story. Aside from that one awesome chase scene, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” isn’t really horror at all. (H.P. Lovecraft, who knew from secret societies and apocalyptic demons, wrote of Irving that “most of his ghosts are too whimsical and humorous to form genuinely spectral literature.”) In the story, Ichabod Crane is a milquetoast schoolteacher who falls in love with the wrong girl, and either A) is eaten by ghosts, B) is driven off by the girl’s nefarious alpha-male ex-boyfriend, or C) it’s totally B, guys, honestly, it’s not even really ambiguous. The Horseman is not a horseman of the apocalypse — he’s not even really the Horseman! And Crane, rather than fighting off an escalating series of demons and racing against time to solve a centuries old puzzle, either runs and dies or runs and keeps on running. To an extent, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a grimly pessimistic tale of mankind’s inability to suppress its baser impulses. Crane is knowledge and piety; the ex-boyfriend, Brom Bones, is superstition, parochialism, and general loutishness. Whether’s Crane’s defeat is supernatural or not, the important thing is that he is defeated, and speaking as a bookish pedant, I’ve always found that tragic. But from another point of view, it could be seen as a rousing defense of parochial loutishness, smugly demonstrating the superiority of the old country ways to Ichabod’s newfangled book learning. And, with the horseman thus fondly regarded, it could be seen as a story about how spooky folktales are important as stories… how they give shape to our experience, and how, through narrative, our lives become part of the fabric of our culture, whether we want them to or not. For in the coda of the tale, Crane, who has been run out of town by ghost stories, becomes a ghost story in his own right.
It’s a symbol of his further defeat, perhaps, that in the Sleepy Hollow TV show Crane is the Mulder to his modern partner’s skeptical Scully. Pragmatism, skepticism, and rationality, in these shows are always wildly irrational. Every time anyone expresses doubt, Crane’s nostrils flare: “Don’t you realize what we’re dealing with here? Don’t you remember what we saw last night?” “Well, yeah,” says his partner. “Then why won’t you believe every cockamamie theory that I or anyone else ever suggests ever?!” bellows Crane. “If you don’t implicit believe that magic is real, then the Horsemen of the Apocalypse have already won!” The dialogue is paraphrased, but it’s not that far off. And really, as an Oxford professor, Crane ought to be able to spot the flaw in that syllogism a mile away.
The Tim Burton movie occupies an interesting halfway point in the development of the legend. Here, as in the show, Crane is a badass lawman facing down a supernatural menace with the help of some white magic and a heaping spoonful of sheer damn manliness. But at the beginning of the film, although he’s still a cop, he’s a pointedly modernist and intellectual sort of cop, fussing around with his steampunk CSI accessories and whatnot. Eventually, confronted by evil beyond his ken, he has to abandon this part of his personality and become a more ordinary movie hero kind of character, acting on instinct and passion rather than reason — which is, come to think of it, a fairly typical Tim Burton plot structure, although the characters don’t always manage the transition. Anyway, my point here is that the Crane from the movie begins as the Crane from the short story (sort of), and ends up as the Crane from the TV show (again, sort of).
Finally: I really, really hope that Sleepy Hollow gets picked up for a third and then a fourth season. Because I really, really hope they have to play the absurd plotline that they’ve set up for themselves all the way out to the end. Why? Well, the show’s already got two major villains (the Horseman and Moloch), but it’s way too early yet for us to have seen the REAL hand pulling the strings. There’s got to be a bigger bad. And who could that be? Well, since we’ve been talking about syllogisms, I’ll put it to you this way.
- Every major event of the Revolutionary War was part of America’s struggle against a cabal of satanists trying to bring about the biblical apocalypse.
- One major event of the Revolutionary War was America’s struggle against the British monarchy.
(I leave the conclusion as an exercise for the reader.)