Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ghost Spotlight: The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow

Greetings Fright Fans.

I'm not sure when I first discovered the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow, but I do know that from my young days this ghost and the story from which he comes have been favorites of mine.  I don't really know why the Horseman appeals to me, but I have long enjoyed various interpretations of the tale, an original by one of America's greatest ever writers, Washington Irving.
A card from Magic the Gathering (a Wizards of the Coast product) showing a very well done painting of the classic character and as the flavor text is just what it says on the tin.
The basic story, as I am sure we all know, is that of a Connecticut schoolmaster by the name of Ichabod Crane who takes up residence in  Tarry Town in New York state, decides to woo the heiress of a vast Dutch family farmstead, comes up against her chief suitor, Brom Bones, and ends his time in the community being chased by the Ghost of the Headless Hessian and is never seen or heard from again.  Irving's particular writing style gives the tale a familiar, fireside spook-tale feel and it is telling that it is still enjoyed today both in its original form and in several adaptations on the big and small screens.  There have even been comic books based on the tale, so well-written is it.

I don't remember what the first version of the tale was that I encountered.  I believe it was either Disney's version found originally in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad  or the made-for-television version from 1980 that starred Jeff Goldblum as Ichabod Crane and Dick Butkus as Brom Bones.  I confess I enjoy both.  When Sleepy Hollow (directed by Tim Burton) was released I was most impressed thanks to its captivating style, story, and gorgeous visuals.  There have been many other works based on the short story and I have enjoyed many of them.
From the Wizard's of the Coast website, this is the 3rd edition DnD horseman.  It's okay.
The Headless Horseman- Not the main character of Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horsemen is certainly the draw for the audience and the main event as well.  In nearly all the subsequent adaptations of the work the Horseman is the character around which the tale revolves and even though Ichabod Crane is essentially a more important character to these works, it is the Horseman that we all remember time and again, and that includes the Tim Burton version as well.
In character the Horseman is a ghost, said to be the spirit of a Hessian soldier that died "in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War," and nightly rides forth from his grave in search of his missing head, carried away by a cannonball.  The Horseman rides, as his name suggests, a horse (called a goblin horse by Irving on several occasions) and in his one appearance in the story (which might have been Brom Bones) carried what seemed to be his head on the pommel of his saddle, but was later revealed to be a pumpkin, or so it appeared the next day.

Most Hessian soldiers wore blue coats and calf high boots, it would seem, but this is of little consequence to the story as the Horseman is supposed to be a ghost and can dress as he likes.  In most film adaptations the Horseman wears black.  It's slimming and fashionable any time.

The Horseman as he appears in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow taken from the comics adaptation.  This Horseman was famously played by Christopher Walken with teeth filed to points, a gigantic longsword and attire reminiscent of fantasy leather armor.  In Burton's completely supernatural tale the Horseman is definitely a ghostly force to be reckoned with and the minion of a powerful witch.

The Headless Horseman from AD&D 2nd Edition Ravenloft setting.  Throughout the Ravenloft setting one can find characters from literature and film (gothic horror and more modern cinema horror).  This Headless Horseman rides the roads between the realms followed by the severed heads of his victims.  A pretty intense villain but under-used I'm afraid.  Surprisingly his picture looks more traditional than one would expect from a fantasy game, but then Ravenloft was not the usual fantasy setting.

The Horseman from Disney.  This version of the Horseman is simple, hardly more than a black silhouette, but the purple cloak, the red-eyed steed and the flaming pumpkin, along with its being one of the first depictions in moving pictures, makes for an iconic Hessian.

So enduring is the Horseman in popular culture that he appears as a unique monster in World of Warcraft...and that's about all I am willing to say on that subject.

John Quidor, a personal friend of Irving, produced an iconic painting depicting the Horseman wherein he looks much as we would expect a Hessian to look in dress.  This is perhaps the original defining picture of the horseman.  Note the colors of the clothing and that the pumpkin is not carved into a Jack O' Lantern.  The Hessian's horse's wide-eyed look is a bit comical, I think.

Fantasy artist Frank Frazetta went with a rustic, old America charm for his take on the Galloping Hessian.  This is a very detailed painting and very good in my opinion.  The horse looks a bit out of sorts but I like the expression on the pumpkin's face.  An odd, but interesting choice, was to simply create a flat featureless surface for the neck.  Not quite what one would expect from a body that had its head carried away by a cannonball.

This old issue of Classics Illustrated is one example of the Headless Horseman in comics and a simple but decent cover to boot.

The second issue of Eternity comics two part Headless Horseman miniseries.  This story was a departure from the traditional version but a good tale all the same.  The covers are in color but the interior art is all B&W.  I like the look of the Horseman's black cavalry outfit, although it is of a style more reminiscent of the later Napoleonic era or even the American cavalry of the Old West period.  The wispy flaming face I am less keen on.  If I remember correctly this version actually makes Brom Bones into more of a hero.

There many more versions of the Galloping Hessian in art, music, film and print, but I think we've seen enough for now.  A little research will reveal that headless ghost figures, including mounted headless ghost figures are not uncommon in legend and story.  There is something of a universal appeal to them wherever people have heads and ride horses.  I won't say the Headless Hessian of Sleepy Hollow is the best, but he was the first I encountered so that puts him head and shoulders...well shoulders at least, above the rest in my book.

Long may he ride.
Keep your pumpkin (heads) lit.

No comments:

Post a Comment