“Sleepy Hollow” builds rich mythology

Fox’s Sleepy Hollow premièred last week to rave reviews. Like its predecessors Grimm and Once Upon a Time, Sleepy Hollow offers an interesting spin on an archetypal story.

The town of Sleepy Hollow was a small valley in the settlement of Tarrytown, New York in 1820 when Washington Irving published his short story about a Revolutionary War soldier in search of his head, lost when it was taken by a cannonball. In Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which takes place in 1790, Ichabod Crane is a gangly schoolteacher in competition for the love of Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. His competition is the burly Abraham “Brom” Van Brunt, who sets Ichabod up as an object of ridicule. Katrina sees through Brom’s antics and appears content to give her heart to Ichabod when he meets the horseman and disappears. Katrina marries Brom instead. Other than his horse and a shattered pumpkin, there is no sign of Ichabod to be found. Ichabod considers the horseman might be Brom in disguise during the attack, but the description of the horseman, headless and awash in fire and brimstone, is too horrific to have been pulled off by Ichabod’s rival, given the technology at the time. When the horseman throws his head at him, Ichabod falls from his horse and is never seen again.

Irving’s Sleepy Hollow is a typical horror story. Its setting is a place reputed to have been bewitched by “an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe”. People believe it to be overrun by “haunted spots and twilight superstitions” where they “see strange sights and hear music and voices in the air.”  In this way, Sleepy Hollow is no different than Vampire Diaries‘s Mystic Falls or Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Sunnydale. Similar to these towns, witches, ghosts and evil supernatural entities abound. Irving’s Ichabod is the stereotypical geek, described as tall, lank, “narrow shoulders, long arms and legs,” small head, “huge ears, large green glassy eyes and a long snipe nose.” He is later described as scarecrow-like, hardly the physique one would expect from a leading man. The fact that he would have the girl in the end were it not for his disappearance, shows the advantage of brains over brawn, which may very well be the moral of the story. Also, don’t go out at night, particularly alone and on a path reputed to be haunted by a headless Hessian hefting a pumpkin head.

In the Fox series, Sleepy Hollow is a thriving town with a Starbucks on every corner. Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), a black, female police lieutenant finds a decidedly anti-gangly Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) wandering around town and arrests him for a series of murders. People report sightings of a headless horseman and since Ichabod seems to know quite a bit on the topic, Mills enlists his help to try to stop the body count from rising even further. The backstory, we learn, is that during the Revolutionary War, a Hessian soldier mortally wounded Crane, and Crane beheaded him with his sword. They died together, their blood mixing in the field, forever linking their souls. When someone in 2013 resurrects the horseman–believed to be Death, one of the horsemen of the apocalypse–Ichabod is similarly resurrected. Mills convinces her colleagues to let Ichabod go free to help her stave off the supernatural and catch the horseman before the coming of the Apocalypse.

I love the Supernatural-slash-Fringe-slash-X-Files vibe of Sleepy Hollow. I was a little upset when Officer Andy Dunn (John Cho) and Sherriff Corbin (Clancy Brown) were killed off in the first episode, but delighted to see their return in the second. Cho plays a (literal) devil’s advocate with creepy excellence while Brown’s character’s ghost becomes Mills’s Yoda, giving her cryptic clues when she asks for help. Mison is more than competent as the handsome yet fearless hero-type, solving problems with ages old wisdom over technology. Subtle humour is hidden in Crane’s curiosity about the modern world, feeding much of the banter between he and Mills.  Unlike many of the new science fictiony shows of last season (Zero Hour, Do No Harm, Cult and 666 Park Avenue, to name a few), I think Sleepy Hollow can look forward to finishing out this season while building a rich mythology with the potential to move forward for many seasons to come.