It was too warm, too humid, but in spite of the unseasonable weather, there were sure signs of autumn at the farm. Patches of fall foliage peeked out from the swathes of green. The scent of cinnamon cider donuts wafted on the slight breeze, mixing with that earthy smell of fallen leaves. Orange pumpkins of all sizes twined through one field, and crowds—both local and city peepers—carted kids and wagons along the trails to pick the latest crop of apples. As my family strolled across a footbridge, my dad joked about the smashed pumpkin lying just underneath it.
“Looks like the Headless Horseman was here.”
“Ah, but the bridge! He can’t get across,” I replied.
We all smiled, participating in a multi-generational family joke based on a mutual love for Washington Irving and Walt Disney’s 1949 cartoon version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I grew up watching that, and, now, my children watch it with me and with my parents. The stories have taken on new depth now that we all live in the Hudson Valley, too, living and walking where Irving and his characters lived and walked.I think the emphasis on Irving in the Hudson Valley is part homage to our native son and part of the larger appeal of Halloween—that our local ghosts can scare us, but we can, ultimately, domesticate them.
My mom broke into one of the songs, familiar to us all: “Once you cross that bridge, my friend, /The ghost is through, his power ends.” In the film, Brom Bones sings the first line and his eager audience fills in for the second, a kind of call-and-response that demonstrates their shared knowledge of local customs. It’s a critical musical lesson in how to avoid losing one’s head. Of course the head here stands as metaphor for reason; the song finishes with the line “you can’t reason with a HEADLESS MAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!!!!” The fear that main character Ichabod Crane experiences during that song (during which he does, at least metaphorically, lose his head) felt distant on my family’s trip to the farm. Yet in autumn, in the Hudson Valley, the specter of Irving’s ghosts is always looming.
In Irving’s story, Ichabod Crane is the outsider, unfamiliar with the local ghosts and easily spooked. At the story’s end, his fate is unclear; Irving leaves the reader with these words to conclude “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”:
The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire. The bridge became more than ever an object of superstitious awe; and that may be the reason why the road has been altered of late years, so as to approach the church by the border of the millpond. The schoolhouse being deserted soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue and the plowboy, loitering homeward of a still summer evening, has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.
The bridge is symbolic here—as a point of change, division, and boundaries. Disney sets the story on Halloween night, itself an historical hinge that many cultures have seen as a kind of opening up of the spirit world. Like Irving’s other famous Hudson Valley tale, “Rip Van Winkle” (both originally published in 1820 as part of Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon), both deal with a singular night, on which a lone hero must grapple with the spirit world’s unusual intrusion into ordinary events. The protagonists and the nights on which they roam serve as metaphorical bridges between the natural and supernatural worlds. There is even a literal Rip Van Winkle Bridge in the Hudson Valley; it spans the river with views of the mountains Irving loved, but it, like all bridges, represents a crossing over. There are always sides. On a sunny afternoon of apple picking, it’s easy to feel like one is on the safe side of the spirit-bridge. Maybe that’s just the daylight talking.
The end of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” shows decay, and the traces that haunt the people of Sleepy Hollow with physical reminders of a schoolmaster who was “spirited away.” That feeling of mystery, of conflict between the spiritual and material worlds, lies at the heart of Irving’s work and the continued appeal of his stories, especially in the Hudson Valley. As a child, I visited Washington Irving’s home Sunnyside, and I have taken my own children there, as well as to his burial site at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Though we don’t attend many of the specifically Halloween-themed events because of the fear-factor for my children (I prefer when they sleep), there is no shortage of cemetery tours, ghost walks, and Irving-themed activities in the area. Both Irving specifically and history more generally haunt the Hudson Valley, leaving their trails, their echoes, their ghosts to contend with contemporary crowds.
Just yesterday, I walked with my girls around Home Depot’s Halloween section. They loved it, and for two kids who are utterly obsessed with ponies, they were surprisingly unbothered by the pony skeleton decoration. It felt like another, more general reference to Irving. As we completed our errands around the store, my kids kept wanting to go back to the Halloween shop. There were buttons to push, to test the moving, light-up lawn decorations. Sizes ranged from miniature to gigantic, and haunted fare heavily outweighed the more general autumnal décor. My children insisted that they love scary, creepy things, but I wonder to what extent that’s true. In the open warehouse of Home Depot, perfumed by the scent of fresh-cut lumber and illuminated by fluorescent bulbs, how scary are a bunch of lawn ornaments for sale? These are Irving’s ghosts domesticated, without the wild range of the town or the forest. We can buy them and install them around our homes, taking a place idealized for its familiarity (a word etymologically-related to family) and adding a spooky layer. Underneath, it’s still home.
I made my case years ago for the purpose of scary stories as tales that can help us cope with real anxieties. There’s something so tidy about narrative structure that, even when the ending isn’t happy, finds a way of satisfying readers’ expectations in logical ways. I think the emphasis on Irving in the Hudson Valley is part homage to our native son and part of the larger appeal of Halloween—that our local ghosts can scare us, but we can, ultimately, domesticate them. Many Christians oppose Halloween for its spiritual undercurrents, seeing it as competition for the spiritual realm of Christ. Yet some Christian traditions recognize All Hallows’ Eve as the precursor to All Saints’ Day and The Day of the Dead, feast days that serve as a liturgical bridge between the living and the dead. It’s a recognition of the saints who’ve gone before us. And a look at hagiographies shows us a gory history that makes Irving look soft and sentimental by comparison. Feast days have long been sources of tension for Protestant church authorities who saw them as unholy opportunities for sin. Yet many people who consider only the physical world for most of the year become more open to a world of spirits on Halloween. Keeping it local makes it mean something.
Keeping it local is also a kind of taming. If all the residents (save poor Ichabod) of Irving’s Sleepy Hollow understand the rules by which The Headless Horseman plays, then he can be thwarted. Some of the buttons on the Halloween decorations my daughters and I explored didn’t work, but we could clearly see that they were not plugged in. Their source of power was evident, and we could subdue it. Local ghosts hold sway over our imaginations; they can be thrilling, but they can also be controlled. There’s the bridge to cross, the cemetery gate to close, the plug to unplug. Ghosts who adhere to our schedules, our dates and times, our boundaries, are safe spirits. Halloween crosses that bridge, from the material to the spiritual, but so many of our popular culture manifestations of the holiday are still firmly grounded in the physical world. There is an opening, though not necessarily a transcendence.
I enjoy many aspects of Halloween. I still love dressing up, and I take my children trick-or-treating. I appreciate the craft and characters of folklore and fairy tales like Irving’s, which are grittier in their earlier versions, though I dislike any media with a lot of gore or violence. I look around me, in the midst of this Hudson Valley autumn, and see sign after sign of the local ghosts. I can joke around with my family about a ghost whose power can be confined by crossing a bridge on just the right night. But as a Christian, I understand the relationship between the physical world and the spiritual world in quite different terms, where Christ is the universal bridge and one stands to lose and gain far more than one’s head.
As one who serves Christ Incarnate, there is no either/or between the physical and the spiritual. It’s a both/and, day and night, year-round, time immemorial. Christ is the universal bridge, eternally disrupting the local ghosts to whom we cling, whom we long to control. In Christ, there are no geographic boundaries, no limits on space or time, because He is in them and transcends them at the same time. Christ’s cross is the eternal bridge. Don’t look back. Don’t look down. This is no local ghost.