Gothic elements of Sleepy Hollow: From Irving to Burton

It seems almost everyone is familiar with the famous tale of the gangly Ichabod Crane, and the cursed town of Sleepy Hollow. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” includes the integration of folklore, myth, and fable into narrative fiction; setting and landscape as a reflection of theme and mood; and the expression of the supernatural and use of Gothic elements.” ( ) While this story has become more idolized as a mere folktale in American culture instead of a great literary writing, it’s Gothic elements caught the attention of an even more famous director, film producer, writer and artist, the wonderfully eccentric, Tim Burton.

American Gothic writers works were strongly centered around a type of  displaced wilderness anxiety of Puritanical culture. Washington Irving’s  “Sleepy Hollow” is the prime example of this. The first Gothic element shown in the story, is of course, the location. The setting is Sleepy Hollow, a hamlet, close to the Tappan Zee river, that is surrounded by a deep dark forest. That is frightening in all aspects of the word. It is the perfect setting, for a Puritanical school teacher to find himself absolutely lost and filled with anxiety in. Burton also characterized this forest well, with it’s “deadly” looking trees, heavy fogs, and many scenes in which the protagonist characters seemed a bit lost in the forest, themselves.

    The second element is the that of the sound, also introduced in the beginning of the tale. In the opening of the story, we are told of a murmuring brook and the low chattering of Ichabod Crane’s students. Things on this side, are hushed and peaceful. However, later during the story sounds become eerily still and the silence defeaning, except for the shrill sounds of Ichabod’s whistle and the occassional blast of wind through the trees. The sounds get more defined towards the end of the story, with the booming galloping of the horseman, and then the sound goes back to the murmuring of the towns people’s questionings of what could have happened to Ichabod Crane. This same build-up of sounds is used in many classical music pieces, such as Tchaikovsky’s, Overture from Swan Lake. Burton, too makes use of this gothic element of sound by casting Danny Elfman, as a composer for the score of “Sleepy Hollow”. Elfman’s haunting pieces echo through the movie, just as Irving’s descriptions echo through the pages.

    (Elfman’s Sleepy Hollow Theme)


  The third element that is illustrated is that of the use of color in the story. Especially, the colors of black and white. In the story, Ichabod wears a black suit, very symbolic of a Puritanical ideal that fills his mind. Also, the blackness of the nights in sleepy hollow are explained as the stars sinking into the sky, hiding all light. The story does not have many elements of light except for the white church that sits in the middle of the town, and possibly the rosey colors of Katrina’s cheeks and her fair skin. Burton traditionally plays on this aspect of gothic horror very strongly.  He does so, especailly in this movie and contrasts the light and dark of the tale brilliantly. “Although populated by flesh and blood actors, Burton’s Hollywood fright-fest (though not actually very frightening) is as ruthlessly stylised as the Disney animation that breathed a comic chill into Irving’s ghostly yarn in 1948. It is the perfect showcase for Burton’s strange sensibility. Shot in monochromatic tones with splashes of bright red, Sleepy Hollow is a visual delight, and although one of Burton’s more literal offerings, his special brand of the childish nightmare inhabits every frame.”(


The fourth element of the tale of Sleepy Hollow is the element of the supernatural. This of course, is most obviously shown by the encounter between Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman. Yet, it is also shown in the fact that there are many superstitions in the town besides the belief in the horseman. It seems that the town itself is a little “bewitched”. Ichabod Crane, himself is stated to be a strong believer in the stories of witchcraft that seem to hang over the air. The most ironic factor of this element in the story, is that the fate of Ichabod Crane is revealed only to the reader, leaving the characters of the story, dumb founded. The actual outcome, to them,  is still a mystery. This of course, differs in the Burton film, but the air of mystery and the supernatural are brought out even more strongly with the “stories within stories” and the fact that Burton changes some of the characters into witches themselves. (Katrina Van Tassel and Mrs. Van Tassel) This question and air of mystery is something Tim Burton strongly had in mind when he created the film. He explains that a story of the headless horseman is something you just can’t quite characterize, a mystery of characterization, in fact. “The headless horseman is someone you can’t actually identify but he’s strong and there. I love anything that you can’t quite categorise.” (

While Tim Burton did change Irving’s original tale, slightly. It still gives a revival to the great Gothic stories that have become immensely popular through innovative minds like Burton. Burton takes the original frightening tale and makes it partially horrifying, but also extremely realistic and gratifying.  While it is hard to say what exactly sturs one to write tales that so frighten us, it can definitely be said that they leave a lasting impression. Whether or not that impression is a pleasant or disturbing one, of course, is all up to the viewer, or reader of the tale. That is what makes a work,  great.

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