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Literary Essays on Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

— from Mary Shelley to M. R. James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Of Dreams that Wave Before the Half-Shut Eye: A Sleepy Hollow Ghost Story for Hallowe'en

Raw from her parents’ recent deaths and a crushing divorce, an anthropology professor is now faced with losing her chance at tenure and decides to spend her fall break in Sleepy Hollow, New York in a desperate final bid to publish a groundbreaking paper: locating the disputed site of the original Headless Horseman Bridge. But Sleepy Hollow is not new to her; as a child she was hounded by dreams of the valley's ghosts: a rotting, headless trooper, a gaunt, gliding man in black, and a terrifying Woman in White. When she discovers a horseshoe in the riverbank of the dark, Pocantico River, however, the dreams come rushing back, and she is forced to question the difference between dreams and reality, and the boundaries of space and time...


B E F O R E T H E H A L F - S H U T E Y E

Full in the passage of the vale, above a sable, silent, solemn forest stood;

Where nought but shadowy forms was seen to move as Idless fancied in her dreaming mood:

And up the hills, on either side, a wood of blackening pines, aye waving to and fro,

Sent forth a sleepy horror through the blood…

The Castle of Indolence

IN THE BOSOM of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, under the solemn, iron shadow of the Tappan Zee Bridge, there lies a small New York suburb, or rural port called Tarrytown -- a Manhattan sleeper community which peers lazily at the boats steaming up and down the river from the retired comfort of the Hudson's woody heights. The town is bisected from north to south by Route 9, one of the oldest roads in the country, which climbs up the rising hill country for a half mile before descending into the dells of the Pocantico River Valley.

The Pocantico is a dark, sluggish creek which winds its way from the Hudson into the Westchester hinterland, broadening and narrowing in turns as it snakes around cyclopean boulders and fallen trees before fading into the heavy darkness of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve. About a mile upriver from the village which borrows its name is a silent, shadowy glen which the Dutch settlers called Sleepy Hollow.

Unlike the crowded streets of its suburban namesake, the Sleepy Hollow Valley has retained something of its mystic reputation: the sun is blotted out by tall pines and craggy hills matted with cloaks of moss. A strange whim of the atmosphere smothers the soft sounds of hooning birds and purring cicadas, but – through some trick of ventriloquism – amplifies the disembodied rustlings of unseen creatures from the farthest sides of the valley as if they were stirring just behind you.

Although some hikers flock to it as a sublime or even romantic spot, many find it oddly gloomy; to others it is entirely off-putting and alien. Centuries after the local legends of the Headless Horseman or the Wailing Woman in White were first murmured around a snapping fire, Sleepy Hollow is still something of a twilight territory plagued by unsettling sights: odd lights flame in its night skies, hulking shades prowl its woods, and slimy serpents churn in its rivers and lakes. It also has the uncanny power to reunite a lonely hiker with some long-lost region his soul in the sudden span of a moment, repairing broken souls like a kindly handyman who runs his hands through his beard as he discerns the way to set things right. Of course, not everyone wants broken bones to be set back, and some people resent the handyman's meddling. For this reason some people return there frequently as if they had found the key to a forgotten garden where dying men can refresh their spirits. Many others enter it laughing and carefree but leave it with clenched eyebrows and a stony resolution never to go there again – chased out by whatever they heard rustling in the bushes of their subconscious.

Of course most people were introduced to Sleepy Hollow by the story of the hapless carpetbagger Ichabod Crane – a Connecticut schoolmaster who was spirited away by the ghost of a German trooper who roamed the Hollow in desperate search of his severed head. It was a story patched together from its author's life experiences, European legends, and local history. But at its core were uncomfortable truths and unsettling realities: stories of the Woman in White whose ghost wails just before snowstorms; the rumor that a soldier buried in an unmarked grave was scouring the roads at night; and the narcotic influence that the perfect place can have on an imagination at the perfect time – the magnetic allure that can drag a vulnerable spirit from interest into obsession, and from obsession into a new reality that transcends our present understanding of physics and time.

Throughout the last century this story has been reinterpreted by films and picture books and musicals – adaptations which have led many back to the source material – and some back to its hibernating inspirations. That’s how one woman was introduced to this quiet, close-knit kingdom of Nature, a castle of clouds watched over by supernatural agents. Somehow she felt that they had traveled home with her after her first visit to that quiet cove, and she thought she knew what they needed: they needed to make sure that she and all other travelers who tarried there for a time would honor the graves they had trampled. Were they willing to let go of the waking world and be swallowed up in eternal dreams? Were they able to accept the sacrifices needed to pass on into something wider than imagination and deeper than time? The answer to these questions would determine whether their lives would end like a fairy tale or a horror story, and her story began on October 26th at noon.


“The immediate cause, however, of the prevalence of supernatural stories in those parts, was doubtless owing to the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow. There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land… Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major André was taken, and which stood in the neighborhood. Some mention was made also of the Woman in White that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow…”

“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. 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… 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.”

—Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

“So where is it, again, that you’re planning on travelling to during Fall Break?” said a person not in the story to the Professor of Early American Studies, soon after they had sat down next to each other in the faculty lounge of a big, public university in a big, West Coast city.

The Professor was young, neat, and careful in her choice of words.

She was almost thirty years old, but already had the air of a much older person – an atmosphere which was partially the defensive fabrication of a closely-guarded loner and partially the natural result of an unexpected divorce, a distaste for grading anthropology undergraduate papers, and the worn sobriety that comes from burying both of your parents in the same year. She had a somber gravity about her like an old, locked closet which could be hiding musty antiques just as easily as a horrible family crime. In some ways she was unremarkably average: she had medium-length, medium-brown hair, was of medium height and medium weight. But her eyes were striking – a smoldering dark brown that burned like a tree scorched black by lightning.

“New York – just north of the city. I’m working on a little project that’s a carry-over from my dissertation, and I have some research to do there.”

“Really?” said another person – a tenured Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies sitting at the same dining table under a blazing fluorescent light. “Like the Bronx, then? I have a friend from grad school doing a one-woman show about hypervisibility in Latinx trap culture at Keating Hall on the 26th. You should check her out if you have time, her name’s—”

But the Professor of Early American Studies cut her off.

“No, I’ll be in Westchester, and I wasn’t exactly planning on networking this weekend.”

“It’s always a good time to network,” said another person, helpfully and without sarcasm, from across the room.

“You should at least connect with her on LinkedIn,” said the Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies in a measured tone – as if warning the Professor of Early American Studies against performing an act of heresy. “Her name’s” – and here she gave it, along with several credentials.

“You’re right; it wouldn’t hurt to network,” she said with repressed annoyance through a thin smile.

“Where in Westchester are you headed?” asked another person at the table who had not yet chimed in – Professor Bracebridge from the College of Agricultural Sciences who rarely found himself invited into such conversations. He was a fine healthy-looking old gentleman, with silver hair curling lightly round an open florid countenance. He had bright, blue eyes, a wide, warm mouth, and a round, contented figure like the caricature of John Bull on a bottle of English beer. It so happened that he was personable and friendly and didn’t recognize the invisible boundary that the humanities’ faculty had carefully curated between them and the less abstract fields of science.

The three looked at him for a moment as if a chair had spoken, but then the spell was released and the Professor of Early American Studies replied, “Tarrytown area. When I was an undergrad I did a capstone on dark romanticism's rejection of Enlightenment philosophy in Washington Irving,” – here she stifled a mirthless chuckle – “at the time I thought it was pretty high-minded, but I looked closer into my thesis once I got into grad school and realized it was actually very problematic.”


“Yes. Problematic. So I ended up retooling part of it for my dissertation.”

“What was that on?”

“Homolatent masculinity in Irving and Longfellow. It took aim at how they were actually considerably overrated by the Formalists and how a more sophisticated analysis of their works shows that they were actually tremendously reflexive.”


“Yes. Reflexive. Anyway, I’ve done a lot of my research about Washington Irving’s folk influences – for instance, he was actually originally told the story of the Headless Horseman by a runaway slave working at a grist mill north of Tarrytown. I published a paper two years ago about uncovering the original foundation of that mill. There are other place-names that he references – bridges and farmhouses and lanes – that still haven’t been positively identified, and that’s what my research is currently focused on.”

The young Professor of Agricultural Sciences calculated the geography and smiled knowingly.

“Hey, wait a minute – you’re going to Sleepy Hollow.”

“It was called North Tarrytown until 1996, but yeah, that’s where my Airbnb is located.”

“And the fall break lasts until November 2nd,” – here the Professor of Early American Studies felt her blood warm as she waited for the inevitable comments – “so you’ll be there over Halloween?”

The young Professor of Early American Studies took a slow, shallow breath and looked away for a moment.

“It’s actually going to make things pretty inconv—”

“You aren’t excited? You’re not going to check out the holiday stuff there? I'm sure it'll be the perfect place to spend Halloween!”

The Professor of Early American Studies winced.

“Not a bit. I think it’s actually… concerning to reinforce the celebration of colonizer culture and religious superstitions by indulging in that kind of stuff. I think it would actually be much more valuable if the town started holding a literary festival focused on encouraging young writers in the City instead of propping up more dead white men who don’t actually deserve their places in the canon.”

Professor Bracebridge nodded to himself, digesting her words.

“And you don't think that you're propping them up by writing about them?”

“Actually, I'm placing them within a context and subverting their messaging.”

“Of course, of course... And you’re really just going to spend Halloween Night in Sleepy Hollow at the library?”

Here the Professor of Early American Studies perked up; her eyes flashed.

"Actually, no – I’ll in the field. I’ve already done a lot of manuscript research online. I’m going to… Tarrytown to do practical, archeological research. I’ll be taking extensive notes about the place-names mentioned in Irving’s stories. So I’ll mostly be outside doing a field survey of one of the rivers there.”

“Really? Looking for what?”

“I’ve actually been able to most of my research remotely – from books and maps and microfilm – but the last part of my paper centers around investigating the original location of a bridge that was abandoned after the Albany Post Road was relocated sometime after 1794. There hasn’t been much research done on it, so it might be a wild goose chase – there might not be any traces left of it after 230 years – or it could be a significant historical discovery.”

His eyes shined shrewdly.

“Ah… the covered bridge, you mean?”

“They didn’t have covered bridges back then.”

“The Headless Horseman Bridge, though?”

“The one that Irving was referring to in the story, yes.”

“But it’s real, huh?”

“It was real.”

“And it really has – uh – stories associated with it? Ghost stories and stuff?”

Bracebridge looked closely into her unblinking eyes. He thought he saw something soft, nervous, and guarded. He decided to step back and cede the ground.

“Anyway, that sounds fascinating. I know that you’re, uh, subverting his legacy, but it seems like you have a lot of interest in the story itself.”

The Professor of Early American Studies nodded slowly. A series of memories and feelings rippled somewhere deep beneath the surface of her consciousness like a half-dead sea monster thrashing unexpectedly on the ocean floor before falling once more silent in the black waters.

“I liked his stories a lot as a kid. You learn to see things differently – er, see them more clearly – in grad school, though. I think it will get some attention from the journal I’m submitting it to.”

Bracebridge looked closer again. His face softened.

“When was the last time you were published?”

“Last winter,” she said with a pause and a repressed frown. “And I need to have either a very original or very newsworthy publication this year if I have any hope for making tenure. So it’s very important for me to stay focused.”

The older professor sighed for her and grinned sympathetically.

“I’m sure you’ll come up with an absolute home-run. But take my advice – enjoy the holiday, too. Don’t take yourself – I mean your research too seriously.”

He smiled – somewhat sadly – and stood up out of his chair (causing the Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies to feel tremendously relieved), picking up his coffee mug and heading out to his 1:00pm class.

“Have a good time while you’re there – and hey: watch out for the Headless Horseman!”

He said this last part as if it had just occurred to him as the perfect thing to close with.

While the Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies rolled her eyes at this, the Professor of Early American Studies felt what little warmth she had harbored for the old man’s kindness freeze over into a strange discomfort…


“The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard. The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits…

“To look upon its grass-grown yard, where the sunbeams seem to sleep so quietly, one would think that there at least the dead might rest in peace. On one side of the church extends a wide woody dell, along which raves a large brook among broken rocks and trunks of fallen trees. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. Such was one of the favorite haunts of the Headless Horseman, and the place where he was most frequently encountered.”

— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The morning after this exchange took place, the Professor of Early American Studies was driving up the swells and dips of New York Route 9 in a car rented from La Guardia. As she drew further from the clangor of Long Island and rose into the Hudson Highlands, she slowly began to feel the grip of an inner tension loosening. Something else – distant and familiar – started to replace it: a dizzy openness that reminded her of the first time she had visited Tarrytown. It was the feeling of a homecoming, but she had no friends or family waiting for her – just a series of closed houses and meaningless street names. But this yearning hum of home vibrated deep inside of her and drew her forward as surely as a magnet draws a bent, rusted tack.

And yet, she still seemed weighed down by a fog – insensitive to the delicious autumn scenery that flew past her: the crowning of the sun over the eastern hill country, the clean, blue sky ribboned here and there by pink wisps of cloud, and the pot-bellied oaks and maples, their black trunks furry with green moss, glowing with golden warmth from their luscious foliage.

She felt the rise of the road viscerally with each twist and turn, but her eyes never strayed to the scenery on either side. She kept the radio set to WNYC’s NPR station, pulling her mind away from these vestigial pangs that she both failed to understand and refused to resist with the subdued mélange of breathy-voiced, middle-aged experts calmly debating the significance of global events without arriving at any consensus.

She rounded the bend where the town of Irvington gave way to her destination, passing the gilded sign – announcing “Welcome to Historic Tarrytown, Settled 1644” – situated in the shadow of a rain-stained memorial for the town’s Civil War dead. A few more turns of Route 9, and she was passing Patriot’s Park. Today it is an airy village green with a quiet brook bubbling through it, but over two centuries ago it was a tangled, stagnant marsh named Wiley’s Swamp, and the rustic bridge that used to cross the brook was the site of two fateful encounters: the historic capture of Benedict Arnold’s British handler – the tragic Major John Andre – in the early autumn of 1780, and the fictitious encounter of Ichabod Crane with the Headless Horseman in the early autumn of 1790. Although she tried to brush off the romantic thought, she was now aware that – for the next rolling half mile – her rental car would be retracing the famous between the schoolmaster and the goblin.

Driving beyond Patriot’s Park, she made a couple of ascending turns before she reached the summit of a rising ground adjacent to Sleepy Hollow High School – the approximate spot where the two riders first caught a clear look at each other in the moonlight, free of the vines and brambles of Wiley’s Swamp. Suddenly, the road descends here and plunges towards the Old Dutch Church several hundred yards off in Sleepy Hollow. Even in a car you can feel gravity pulling you faster as you wind toward the Pocantico River. At some point before the 19th century, the original Albany Post Road was straightened into modern Route 9, preventing the route of the chase from being followed precisely – but it can be replicated. The change happens at the fork between Route 9 and New Broadway Street; by turning right at New Broadway, you can follow the path of the colonial-era road which made a sideways S-shape: curving up to the river and crossing it a few hundred yards east of the church, running west along the river’s natural curve, and sweeping northward towards Albany, passing the front of the church, and continuing to run in step with modern Route 9. The first turn in the S happens at the intersection of New Broadway and Crane Avenue, and it was around here – straight out from Crane Avenue, and 100-some yards upriver from the modern bridge – that the original span is theorized to have crossed the Pocantico. Even at the time Irving penned the story this bridge had been abandoned to decay for over twenty years, and although some amateur historians have tried to locate the stone foundations, no serious inquiry has ever been mounted.

If you travel to Sleepy Hollow yourself and walk along the riverbank behind the church, you will quickly find -- some fifty yards upriver from the modern bridge -- a suspiciously convincing set of stone piles across from one another within sight of the church. Some prominent scholars have argued that this is unequivocally the site of the colonial era bridge, that no inquiry is needed. The Professor of Early American Studies was basing her entire paper on the hypothesis that these were the footings of the bridge that replaced the original. She was convinced by three pieces of research: an engraving of the bridge by Amos Doolittle, the silversmith, a letter from James Kirke Paulding to Guilan C. Verplanck describing its location, and a map drawn by the Hessian captain, Johann Ewald. All of these artifacts suggested an as yet undiscovered location further upriver -- just east of Battle Hill.

For a moment she remembered the first time that she’d driven up this road – almost twenty years ago. It was a vacation with her late father during one of his custodial weekends. They’d driven from Youngstown, Ohio through Pennsylvania and across the Tappan Zee Bridge in a single day (with only two bathroom stops) in search of the site where her favorite story took place. She remembered watching the cartoon with Bing Crosby narrating a tale that uneasily tempered humor with terror, and cocksure romance with crippling rejection. It was funny, sweet, and scary – and brooding there, folded up in its dark heart was the figure of the Headless Horseman clattering down the woodland road in his billowing scarlet cape, saber flashing overhead. He was a strange villain: determined but mindless, dauntless but indiscriminate. He struck her as frighteningly tragic – an anonymous ghost trapped in limbo after being killed in another country’s war. He was terrifying but pitiable, and she fell in love with his story immediately.

She remembered feeling butterflies as they dipped down the hills and rose with the swells, and then shock as she recognized the Dutch Church from one of books in her collection of illustrated adaptations of the story (she only had six at the time, but it was up to forty-eight by the time she sold them all after her divorce). Its white steeple and gable shone in the bright, October day like a beacon in a storm. She’d felt her skin prickle as they neared the modern bridge and shivered audibly as they bounded over the Pocantico – still believing at the time that this was the exact spot where Gunpowder had carried Ichabod Crane over the river (…only for him to look back and behold the goblin rider rising in his stirrups in the very act of hurling his head at him). She remembered getting out of the car with her father and peering over the stone guardrail into the black, sluggish river below. She had expected something broader and cleaner and quicker; this gloomy creek buried in shadow exceeded all of her expectations, and she told her father that she was absolutely certain that it must still be haunted…

But the Professor of Early American Studies tried to avoid sentimentality. She was hungry for professional security, and these wistful memories did absolutely nothing to slack her appetite. She kept on Route 9 instead of turning right, sped disinterestedly past the ironwork statue of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, and crossed the modern bridge in front of the Old Dutch Church without a blink or glance. She wasn’t here to gently unearth some dead thing rotting in that Old Burying Ground; she was there to drag it by the hair out of its shallow grave, dig a new grave – deep and true – and bury it there for good.

Another mile further, and a few turns, and she had arrived at the Airbnb she had scheduled for the week. It belonged to an older couple who were aware that she was in town for research and understood that she didn’t plan on being entertained or visited. Without a word she grabbed her carryon, travel bag, and knapsack, found the latchkey, and walked up the stairs to her suite.

It was located above an unused garage in their backyard. A 1990s-era three car garage met the family’s needs, while this simple brick structure dated back to the late 30s and operated as a gardening shed on the ground floor. The rooms above – a kitchenette, half-bath, and bedroom – were all that she needed. The only window was a half-moon transom looking out over the shaded street. The only lights were a desk lamp by her bed, two vanity sconces in the bathroom, and a stained-glass pendant hanging over the kitchenette. Even with all of them turned on, she had to admit that it was a strangely dark place. There was no table, but she could turn the bed into a workspace in no time. She felt no discomfort at the idea of sleeping with her notebooks, reference guides, and laptop piled around her.

It was almost 10am by the time she set her gear up and unpacked her books. Without a glance at the golden leaves outside of the window or a moment’s reflection, she injected the flash drive, opened her manuscript, and began adding thoughts that had occurred to her during the tedious drive…




The first time that the Horseman came to me in a dream I was six years old. In my dream I was running around with my friends on a wooden play-set – swings, monkey-bars, slides, and all – set up on a wide, open ground just on the other side of a church I didn’t recognize. A woods, darkened by deep green foliage, surrounded us on all sides in the distance, but it was maybe a quarter-mile away, and I couldn’t imagine a less threatening place, even though I wasn’t sure where I was and the sky was heavy with low-hanging, strange purple clouds.

I don’t remember seeing him leave the forest, but when I turned around and saw his figure there, I somehow knew that he had come from the forest. But what I saw held no comparison to any of the portrayals that I had soaked my imagination in to that point.

The Headless Horseman, to most people, is synonymous with power and speed and might – the embodiment of physicality and masculinity divorced from thought or reason. He is opaque with blackness – as impenetrable and unknowable as midnight – only scored here or there by flashes of scarlet in his horse’s demonic eyes or the crimson lining of his voluminous cloak. He represents mindless violence: an almost a fascistic threat of savage tyranny; a jackbooted, German soldier in a high-collared, blood-red cape; a mounted storm-trooper with no reason – or face – to appeal to. But what shambled quietly up to the play-set was nothing like what I expected. It seemed tired more than anything – wearily patient. Instead of charging out of the trees with its saber flashing in the grey light of the overcast sky, it simply appeared like a rising mist and watched with its invisible eyes as my friends obliviously tore around the swings and monkey bars.

It was dressed like no Horseman I had ever seen in the many books or movies I had checked out of the library: instead of towering in a black leather suit or slashing about in a scarlet cape, it leaned wearily over in a faded green jacket with rust-colored lapels and dust-whitened jackboots. Cracked leather hostlers held two heavy-looking pistols, and a tarnished saber clanked rustily in its scabbard. Instead of a flamboyant cloak, its bent shoulders were bare, and instead of a sword or jack-o-lantern, its bloodless hands clenched the reins of his horse, as if desperately hanging onto something it knew had already been lost. The horse, too, was far different from what I had seen in my picture books: unlike those steaming, black stallions – the very animus of power and aggression – it was a silent, shambling old thing, grey with white spotting (what I would later learn to call a dappled grey), with horrifying, sightless eyes – milky and bulging.

The Horseman spurred this animal onward with a light kick in the ribs, and they lumbered forward towards me while none of my friends noticed. They crossed into the bed of woodchips, approached the top of the slide where I was standing, and when my ankle was within arm’s reach, it stuck out its waxy, white hand – and I woke up…


“A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a [Bavarian alchemist], during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his [shamanic ceremonies] there... Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.”

— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow