Closer Readings Commentary

Re-imagining “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

We never bury the dead, son. We take them with us. It's the price of living. — “The Golem” episode, Sleepy Hollow television series.

Washington Irving was one of the most beloved and influential writers in 19th-century America. His timeless story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” concerns the fate of a gullible and self-centered schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane.

EDSITEment’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow lesson plan invites middle school students to explore the artistry that helped make Washington Irving our nation's first literary master and ponder the mystery that now haunts every Halloween—What happened to Ichabod Crane? Activity 3 guides students through a four part analysis of the characterization of Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones, his brutish rival in the story.

Comparisons are drawn between the two characters’:

  • physical appearance;
  • social framework;
  • contrasting values;
  • varying effects on student readers.

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.6: Analyze how differences in the points of view of the characters and the audience or reader (e.g., created through the use of dramatic irony) create such effects as suspense or humor.

Why did Ichabod disappear from his community following a humiliating episode and a desperate flight from the terrifying specter of local legend, the Headless Horseman? Activity 4 asks students to develop an imaginative response to this mysterious ending. They can speculate on the nature of Ichabod’s later career or write an obituary that sums up what he made of himself after his fateful encounter with his own worst fears.

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.3.e: Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on the narrated experiences or events.

Comparative analysis: then and now

First published in parts over the course of 1819–20 in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was destined to become one of the most popular and long-lived ghost stories of all time as evidenced by its many popular adaptations. Why does this story continue to capture the imagination of modern day readers and viewers?

Have students compare the original text with the following two contemporary re-imaginings of the story:

(1) Though Sleepy Hollow, New York, was the first choice for on-location filming, Washington Irving's village was deemed not suitable for Tim Burton's 1999 feature film interpretation, Sleepy Hollow. The production ended up being made in the UK. Have students consider how Burton’s film dramatization of Ichabod Crane and his nemesis, the Headless Horseman, differs from Irving's original conception.

Suggested questions: Despite the foreign setting, how much does this film manage to stay true to Irving’s original setting?  Do the characters and plot elements retain a measure of authenticity even though they have been altered?

(2) Another contemporary incarnation of the story is found in the Fox television historical fantasy, Sleepy Hollow, which also deviates from the original text. Set in modern day Sleepy Hollow, New York, this series converts the character of Ichabod into a Revolutionary soldier who wakes up in the first decade of the 21st century along with the Horseman (one of the four from the Apocalypse.) Each episode witnesses the two adversaries carrying on their century’s old battle with historical flashbacks to life in 1776 America. 

Suggested questions: How does the time travel and flashbacks effect the story? Does the modern day Sleepy Hollow setting for the television show echo the mood that Irving’s 19th-century village establishes in the original text?

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.7: Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors.

Halloween connections (and Christmas too)!

The New York Times article, “Sleepy Hollow Capitalizing on Legend,” reflects on the actual village along the Hudson River in New York State where Washington Irving set his tale two centuries ago. The town has recently undergone a “total reawakening” due to all the media coverage and film publicity it has received with these new renditions of the story. It has also spawned a robust, commercial Halloween industry embraced by the citizenry.

Folk beliefs hold that on Halloween the veil between the worlds is permeable and spirits of the dead—like Irving's ghostly Headless Horseman—are able to cross over to the land of the living to pay a friendly visit or to haunt! Delve into the ancient Celtic roots of this holiday and learn about Latin American traditions in Origins of Halloween and the Day of the Dead.

Students may be surprised to learn Halloween is not the only red letter day on the calendar to benefit from Washington Irving's fertile imagination. We also have him to thank for a certain jolly character who lands on rooftops and bearing gifts makes his way into many homes on Christmas night!

Yes, it was Washington Irving: the author of America’s Christmas who conjured up our modern day Santa Claus. Learn how Irving’s descriptions of merriment witnessed in his travels abroad among the English nobility came to shape the spectacle of Christmas as it is practiced today in America.