‘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’
-Washington Irving, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’
By now, you’re probably familiar with the legend of the Headless Horseman.
For most 90s kids, your first introduction was probably Tim Burton’s ‘Sleepy Hollow’, but way back in the 1940s Disney created their own adaptation. We’ll get into that, but first here’s a quick history lesson in folklore.
Whilst the Headless Horseman is mostly associated with American author Washington Irving thanks to his classic gothic tale ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, published in 1820, there have been many versions of the mythological figure over the centuries from which Irving took inspiration, spanning various different countries and cultures as far back as the Middle Ages.
One of the first written mentions of the figure dates back to the 14th century in an English poem entitled ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. The unknown author describes Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, accepting a challenge during a Christmas Feast from the Green Knight, a fellow knight transformed into an adversary for Gawain by antagonistic enchantress Morgan le Fay to test the order of King Arthur’s saint-like court. Since Sir Gawain accepted the challenge, he was allowed to strike with his sword first, and he immediately cut the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders. However, rather than falling down dead, as expected, the Green Knight calmly lifts his own severed head and tells Gawain to meet him on New Year’s Morning, when it would be his turn to strike.
While depictions of the Green Knight in art vary, the most common characteristics he has are his immense height, possibly tying him back to figures like Gilgamesh, and his aristocratic clothing. He wears garments of expensive material, embroidered silk in particular, which is made all the more garish by his assortment of gemstones, beading, and gold ornamentation.
The Green Knight’s fate as a beheaded adversary has been suggested, by some scholars, to have been influenced by the figures of the Wild Hunt of Northern European folklore. This mythological motif featured spectral riders in the sky who terrorized communities in the dead of night, usually led by either a god, such as Odin or Wotan, or a mysterious figure who was condemned in death eternally for the crimes he committed in life. In some Germanic telling’s of the tale, the figure is the spirit of a dead Count by the name of either Ebernberg or Hackelberg, and in Welsh versions, the figure is called Gwynn app Nudd, ‘Lord of the Dead’, who is depicted as a wild huntsman riding a large wild black horse. Witnessing this figure and his band of huntsmen and hellhounds was seen as a harbinger of death and destruction, and in some versions of the tale, anyone who witnessed the Wild Hunt was dragged kicking and screaming to the fairy realm or were forced to join the hunt and become agents of chaos.
The Irish have a ghostly tale about a rider called the Dullahan, the ‘Dark Man’, a Grim Reaper like figure who carries his severed head under his arm. While some folklorists argue that the Dullahan is the embodiment of the Celtic God Crom Cruach, a fertility god who demanded human sacrifice in the form of decapitation, most tales depict him as a demonic fae on a jet-black horse with hellfire shooting from its nostrils, holding a whip made from the spine of a human corpse. In versions of the tale from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, he drives a Cóiste Bodhar, a death carriage made from coffins, tombstones, and bones, drawn by six black horses. Gates and barriers fly open as the carriage approaches and the carriage travels at such a speed that it sets fire to the trees and hedges at the side of the road. The origins of his severed head vary from story to story, but most versions agree that the Dullahan was a solider who was beheaded in battle and that his soul is spending eternity searching for his lost head.
The legend says when the Dullahan stops riding, death will soon follow. Some versions say the Dullahan will simply call out the victim’s name and they’ll drop dead, while other versions say he throws buckets of blood at people as he passes; whoever the blood touches dies.
The Dullahan is actually portrayed in another Disney film – ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’.
The Scottish have a similar tale of a Headless Horseman who was decapitated in battle. On the Isle of Mill, a man by the name of Ewen was decapitated by a rival clan at a battle in Glen Cainnir. Some versions of the legend say that the battle was between Ewen and his brother Lachlan, who was outraged with Ewen because he had disrespected their father and challenged Ewen to a battle as a result (though some tales say it was the father himself who challenged Ewen). Ewen lost his head in the battle, managing to mount his horse before succumbing to the loss. The Lochbuie MacLaines believed that ‘Ewen The Headless’ traverses the Scottish lands on his spectral steed, searching for members of the Lochbuie MacLaine clan to take back to the spirit world.
German folklore had more than one Headless Horseman figure. In Germany, the Headless Horsemen were closer to revenants, reanimated corpses brought back from the dead to haunt the living (though these are different to zombies because it involves the conscious spirit of the dead returning to control the body, and they do not feast on the flesh of the living). Usually, these revenants do not return to exact revenge or justice upon the living, but to atone for their own sins in life by murdering other sinners, particularly those who have committed capital crimes. In fact, the opening of the folktale ‘Hans Jagenteufel’ explains:
‘It is commonly believed that if any person is guilty of a crime for which he deserves to lose his head, he will, if he escapes punishment during his lifetime, be condemned after his death to wander about with his head under his arm’
In the 19th century, the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, documented tales of the German Headless Horsemen in their research for their magnum opus Grimm’s Fairy Tales, one of them being Hans Jagenteufel. It tells the tale of a woman in Dresden, East Germany, early one Sunday morning in 1644. In the tale, she describes hearing a haunting horn echoing through the woods. She ignores it, carrying on with her business of collecting acorns, but she hears it again and this time she looks up. She sees a Headless Horseman dressed in a grey ‘Hessian-esque’ long and flowing coat, with old fashioned boots and spurs, riding atop a spectral grey horse. Nine days later, when she returned to collect more acorns, the Horseman approached her, his head ‘covered with curling brown hair’ under his arm. He scolds her for stealing the acorns and explains that his misdeeds in life are the reason for his current situation: ‘Thereupon he related to her how that he had lived about one hundred and thirty years before, and was called Hans Jagenteufel, as his father had been before him, and how his father had often besought him not to be too hard upon poor people, how he had paid no regard to the advice his father had given him, but had passed his time in drinking and carousing, and in all manner of wickedness, for which he was now condemned to wander about the world as an evil spirit’.
Other tales are much shorter, such as one where the Headless Horseman, referred to as the Hacklelberg the Wild Huntsman, is cursed to hunt for all eternity and blows his horn to warn other hunters not to ride the next day for they will meet imminent death.
‘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’ - Washington Irving, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’
These folkloric tales laid the foundation for the most famous and enduring version of the Headless Horseman legend – Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’.
Irving’s account of the tale was first published in his 1820 short story collection ‘The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon’, Gent, more commonly referred to by the shorter title of ‘The Sketch Book’. Originally published in seven separate parts, his collection was primarily concerned with his impressions of England, but he dedicated six chapters to wholly American tales, one of which was ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. While American stories within this collection were actually Americanised and Romanticised versions of European folklore, it became a literary sensation and gained Irving international acclaim, with folks describing ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ as America’s first ghost story (though they mean in the more modern sense of the idea, since indigenous communities had their own tales). Historian Elizabeth Bradley explains that Irving ‘would have been introduced to local ghost stories and lore at an impressionable age. He cleverly weaves together factual locations—the Old Dutch Church and churchyard, ‘Major Andre's Tree,’ some actual family names, including van Tassel and Ichabod Crane—and a little bit of Revolutionary War history with pure imagination and fantasy. It's a melting pot of a story, and thus totally American’.
Irving was praised for his explorations of supernatural occurrences in the commonplace, the plight of the outsider (which was particularly influential in the development of an existential American selfhood school of literary thought), and tradition versus progress. This theme is particularly important. According to Professor Franz Potter at National University, ‘the Headless Horseman supposedly seeks revenge—and a head—which he thinks was unfairly taken from him. This injustice demands that he continually search for a substitute. The horseman, like the past, still seeks answers, still seeks retribution, and can't rest. We are haunted by the past which stalks us so that we never forget it’.
The story is summarized succinctly by Britannica: ‘The protagonist of the story, Ichabod Crane, is a Yankee schoolteacher who lives in Sleepy Hollow, a Dutch enclave on the Hudson River. A suggestible man, Crane believes the ghost stories and tales of witchcraft he has heard and read. He is particularly impressed by the tale of a spectral headless horseman said to haunt the area. Crane is also mercenary; he courts Katrina Van Tassel mostly because she is the daughter of a rich farmer and is expected to receive a large inheritance. Abraham Van Brunt (also called Brom Bones) is Crane’s jealous rival, a local favourite and a rash horseman who often plays tricks on the schoolmaster. Late one night as Ichabod Crane rides home from a party at Katrina’s home, he is suddenly frightened by a ghostlike headless horseman. The ghost pursues him and hurls at him a round object that he takes to be a head but is later revealed to have been a pumpkin. The schoolmaster is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again’.
In Irving’s version, the Headless Horseman is the ghost of a Hessian soldier who was decapitated by cannon fire during an American Revolution battle, and his restless spirt now roams over the site of the battle in search of his missing head. His likely inspiration, according to Bradley, was Sir Walter Scott’s 1796 poem ‘The Chase’, a translation of Gottfried Bürger’s ‘The Wild Huntsman’. ‘Irving had just met and become friends with Scott in 1817,’ Bradley explains, “so it's very likely he was influenced by his new mentor's work. The poem is about a wicked hunter who is doomed to be hunted forever by the devil and the ‘dogs of hell’ as punishment for his crimes’.
There may be some historical fact weaved in, however. The New York Historical society claims that there was a real Hessian soldier, renowned for his horsemanship and sharpshooting skills, who died in the same manner as the Headless Horseman, around Halloween in 1776 during the Battle of White Plains. Supposedly his headless corpse was found in Sleepy Hollow and buried in an unmarked grave in the Old Dutch Burying Ground by the real Van Tassel family.
‘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. Such is the general purport of this legendary superstition, which has furnished materials for many a wild story in that region of shadows; and the spectre is known at all the country firesides, by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow’
– Washington Irving
Other characters in the tale are also based on real people. The Van Tassel’s daughter, Katrina, was a young woman of the same name who Irving had stayed with for a short period, and Ichabod Crane was a fictionalized version of Jesse Merwin, a young schoolteacher who taught in Kinderhook, north of the Hudson River, whom Irving met while spending time there in 1809. The name Ichabod Crane likely came from an army captain (other sources claim he was a colonel) Irving knew when he was the aide-de-camp to Daniel D. Tompkins, the New York Governor at the time, but there is no concrete evidence of their acquaintanceship.
There were three cinematic adaptations during the Silent Era, but the longest surviving one was shot back in 1922. Directed by Edward D. Venturini and starring Will Rogers, Lois Meredith and Ben Henricks Jr, this silent film was the first panchromatic black-and-white feature film, and it used the innovative double exposure technique to give the Headless Horseman his spectral appearance. It was short near the real town of Sleepy Hollow, in New Yorks’s Hudson River Valley, to lend the adaptation some authenticity.
Critics and historians’ opinions on this adaptation are scare, but we do know that Christopher Workman, author of Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the Silent Era, isn’t a fan. He laments that the Headless Horseman only appears briefly, once at the beginning and once at the end, and that the film suffers from being ‘irritating and flat-out dull’. A bit harsh, if you ask me!
One of Disney’s most influential animators, Ub Iwerks, who was responsible for the Halloween short ‘The Skeleton Dance’, featured a Headless Horseman in one of his ComiColour cartoons back in 1934. Though not a Disney short, the Disney animators were familiar with this and would use the image of Iwerk’s Headless Horseman as inspiration over ten years later.
The most famous and successful cinematic adaptation of the tale is Tim Burton’s 1999 ‘Sleepy Hollow’, with a star-studded cast including Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Christopher Walken, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon and Christopher Lee. Burton’s version takes liberties with the story – like having Crane be a policeman dispatched to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the strange beheadings occurring there – but its spooky aesthetic and eerie atmosphere earned it praise from critics and fans alike; it even won an Oscar for Best Art Direction. The film grossed an impressive $207 million.
But we’re not here to talk about these adaptations. We’re here to talk about Walt Disney’s.
THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR TOAD: PRODUCTION
The 1940s was not an easy time for the Walt Disney Studios. Although ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ was an unprecedented success, the box office failure of both ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ forced the Studio to fire a massive chunk of their staff, and World War II meant that a lot of foreign markets were lost and many animators and writers were drafted, so the Studio was working with a skeleton crew. This was made all the worse by the (rightful) Animators Strike in 1941, in which the Studio’s employees demanded more consistent pay (the payment of animators was incredibly disorganized, with high-ranking animators earning $300 per week and others earning as little as $12 for the same work). This impacted the production of ‘Dumbo’, which also underperformed at the box office, alongside ‘Bambi’.
The Studio was on the brink of financial collapse by the early 1940s, so a quick decision was made to make several package films that combined live action and animation – these included ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, ‘Saludos Amigos’, ‘The Three Caballeros’, ‘Make Mine Music’, ‘Fun and Fancy Free’, and ‘Melody Time’. These performed adequately enough for the Studio to decide to return to older projects pitched during the late 1930s, including ‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad’.
The idea to adapt ‘The Wind and the Willows’ had been floated shortly after the release of ‘Snow White’ but it was shelved because Disney felt it was ‘awful corny’. However, it was eventually decided that the production would go ahead, partly because it was a well-known and much-loved book that would bring in audiences. The film was temporarily delayed due to rewrites, the Strike, and Disney’s inability to decide whether or not he wanted to go ahead with the film. ‘The Wind and the Willows’ resumed production in 1946 but was shelved again following more layouts later that same year, and a new, separate, production was started – an adaptation of Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. Disney was already considering combining ‘The Wind and the Willows’, now around 25 minutes long, with another short. He went back and forth several times before deciding to combine it with ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. The narrators for each segment were soon cast – Basil Rathbone for ‘The Wind and the Willows’, and Bing Crosby for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, both chosen for their national identity connection to each story.
Robert Neuman, author of ‘Disney’s Final Package Film: The Making and Marketing of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)’, notes that the two stories were ‘an uneasy alliance’ and received negative responses in return. One critic claimed it felt ‘uneven’ because it combined two literary classics that were too different from each other, and that ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ segment in particular was ‘silly and bumbling’ and ‘flat and prosaic’. For many modern critics, it represents a ‘final misstep by Disney in a decade, the 1940s, marked by economic distress due to the impact of the war’ and that its ‘somewhat desperate and half-hearted attempt’ to unite these stories means ‘one leaves the cinema slightly frustrated’.
Marketed as a fun A and B picture, popular with the horror genre, it has the charming sensibilities of Disney’s ‘Silly Symphonies’ and showcases some of Disney’s best Halloween aesthetics. Various critics at the time thought so too, praising it for its creative artistic style and comparing it to the classical tradition of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. One critic for The New York Times, in particular, praised it for being ‘a return to the realm of pure animation’, noting:
A pair of durable literary works has fashioned a conclave of cartoon creatures which, by and large, have the winsome qualities and charm of such noted creations as Mickey Mouse, Dumbo […]
A few scenes, such as Ichabod's comic courting of Katrina van Tassel, the beauteous belle of Sleepy Hollow, and the dance at her Dutch farmstead, have wit and imagination
That famous scene where the gullible and terrified Yankee schoolmaster, astride his bony nag, is chased through the Hollow by the Headless Horseman may be as terrifying to youngsters as any previous Disney hair-raiser
The amiable Mr. Crosby's narration and the couple of songs he casually tosses in with the assistance of the Rhythmaires, is smooth and professional. The same may be said of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’
And as for the argument that the two stories are awkwardly meshed together, I would agree with Douglas Bode who suggests that the main interconnecting theme of the tales is ‘Disney’s fascination with the potential for death’.
THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR TOAD: STRENGTHS
The film’s strengths come from two distinct aspects: its narrative and its artwork.
Both stories are structured as if a family friend is reading them by the light of the fire on a cold autumn night, with live action sequences of physical books leading us into the animated segments. ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ sequence is narrated by Bing Crosby, who has one of the loveliest baritone voices I have ever heard. His accent is quintessentially American, grounding the story as a uniquely American tale. His rendition of The Headless Horseman song is also a lot of fun, and a very underrated villain song. It also features some of the coziest autumnal imagery of the film, and some funny antics only animators can get away with.
Unlike the ‘Mr Toad’ sequence, which is both lighthearted and action-packed in a family-fun way, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ segment is distinctly darker in its portrayal of the Horseman and has actually been compared to the filmmaking of Val Lewton for its dreamlike/nightmarish qualities, and the way the writers and animators used what was dubbed the ‘Lewton Bus’ technique. This was an early form of the jump scare - a character is thrown into a tense situation and ordinary things become frightening because the character is unsure whether the noises are coming from something neutral or something actively antagonistic. In Ichabod’s case, it’s the forest. Hooting owls and croaking frogs become a threat of approaching danger, as do moonlight-obscured trees, until Ichabod gets close enough to know he’s safe – until he’s not. It’s a brilliant way of using misdirection to create tension, and the pay off with the Horseman’s final reveal is worth it.
Speaking of, the story’s end is pretty unique within the Disney canon, for it is one of the few – perhaps only – where the antagonist/villain wins. Ichabod Crane may not be the most likable of characters, but he is still our protagonist, and whether or not you believe the Headless Horseman in this version of the story is legitimate or Brom Bones dressed up as him, either way, Ichabod Crane disappears. Disney do try to lighten the ending with the suggestion that made Crane picked himself up and dusted himself off after the frightful encounter, starting a family somewhere far away, but the insinuation is that the townsfolk of Sleepy Hollow known better – the Headless Horseman got him.
The artwork itself is what makes it one of Disney’s greatest spooky stories. Contrasting with the Golden Age-influenced realism of ‘Mr Toad’, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’s art is highly stylized and often surreal, adding to the nightmarish quality of the tale. The lead art director for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ was Mary Blair, who was responsible for bringing a more modernist approach to art to the Disney Studios (she would later work on several Silver Age productions, including ‘Cinderella’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, and ‘Peter Pan’). Blair consulted the illustrations Gordon Ross created for a 1939 book edition of the tale for the look of the characters and referred to the colour palettes and flat layouts of paintings of American folk artists to create the daylight sequences of the small town, giving it a uniquely American aesthetic that we still recognise today. One of her biggest influences was the deep colour contrasts in William John Wilgus’s painting of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman (1855); the close proximity of the Horseman to Ichabod also influenced much of the framing of shots to create fear and tension between the characters and emphasise the Horseman as a real threat to Ichabod’s life.
One of Blair’s main goals as an artist was to subvert Realism in favour of Surrealism and Expressionism, for they are exceptionally powerful at creating physical manifestations of characters’ psychological and emotional states. The climatic chase scene, for example, features many unusual angles and midnight-inspired hues to emphasis Ichabod’s loneliness, melancholy. The colours change dramatically to deep reddish-pinks when the Horseman is revealed and an almost supernatural lighting, associating him with passion and hellfire, as you can see in the image below:
Blair’s original concept art inspired many of the skewed angles we see in the sequence, which was unusual for animated features, and most Hollywood films, at the time for they were more about filming the action within the frame, rather than using the camera/frame as a storytelling device in itself.
Robin Allen referred to the climatic chase scene as ‘splendid Grand Guignol’, and I think that’s a fantastic comparison. It has all the tension, fear, and theatricality of that era of performance, and Disney’s animators lean into it without reservation. The Horseman is gleeful in his pursuit of Ichabod; it’s all a thrilling game to him, while poor Ichabod and his horse are riding for their lives.
Perhaps the best shot in the entire sequence is pure Grand Guignol – the Horseman throws his flaming pumpkin head at Ichabod, but as it is shot from Ichabod’s point of view, it is as if the flaming head is coming right at the audience, ready to destroy those watching in a spectacular show of fire and anger. Some critics loved this spooktacular ending - The Spectator said, ‘the episode culminates in a spectacular Hallowe’en ride, executed with great skill and cumulative horror, and guaranteed to give any child nightmares for a week’ and a UK reviewer claimed it was ‘as powerful as the death of the animals in ‘The Rite of Spring’ [‘Fantasia’] or the forest fire in ‘Bambi’’.
It is only in the last few decades that Disney’s version of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ has gotten the recognition it deserves. If you haven’t seen it, I really hope you’ll seek it out – it’s a lot of fun and it provides that much needed dose of Halloween goodness every horror fan needs once in a while.
- Victoria Brown