1L1 Sleepy Hollow

Most of us know more about Tim Burton and his film than about the book by Irving.

Tim Burton is famous for spooky characters and gory scenes as well as gloomy settings and atmospheres. But he’s also famous for Planet of the Apes or Mars Attacks which are not Gothic.

(Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride, the Nightmare before Christmas …)

Burton is a film and an animated film director but he’s also a great cartoonist.

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Here are some of Burton’s drawings taken from his illustrated book ‘The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories.

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The two summaries tell the main plot of the book by Irving. It’s an American book, published in 1820.

The details about the author and the publication can be found in the summary by Wikipedia but we understand the summary by Shmoop more easily because the language sounds more recent. The register is colloquial but the information given are reliable. We learn that the main character is Ichabod Crane who is a school teacher and a choirmaster. He goes to a place called Sleepy Hollow. We don’t know exactly when the story takes place because it’s a legend. He is in love with the daughter of a rich farmer whose name is Katrina. But there’s a more popular guy in the village who’s also in love with her. Then Ichabod goes to a party and decides to tell her that he loves her but she doesn’t share his feelings so he goes back home very sadly. On his way he meets the horseman and disappears. We don’t know why but maybe Katrina’s lover Brom had something to do with it.

Key Gothic elements:

– the name of the place ‘sleepy’ > sleep is a key feature in any Gothic story > entails dreams, nightmares, unconscious > blury line between reality and imaginary.

– a hollow is a valley but it is also an adjective which is a synonym for ‘blurry’ ‘unclear’.

– the Headless Horseman is a fantastic element adding to the legendary aspect of the story, it’s the scary element, the ghost.

– the main character is a schoolteacher, he embodies reason and rationality so he is challenged by the imaginary events around him just like Utterson in Jekyll and Hyde or the narrator in the Raven who are all literate and cultivated characters.

– there’s a also a love triangle which adds to the emotional oversensitivity of Ichabod.

HW – Questions 5 – 6 + watch the Disney version of Sleepy Hollow and compare with the original plot / Burton’s version. Be ready for oral interventions!


Opening Scene of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

– What’s striking is that the music crescendo starts before the film, already there when we see the logo of the producing companies. The music invades the ‘paratext’ of the film.

– the letters of the credits appear in smoky / foggy white clouds and they disappear / vanish > the text is hollow. The form mirrors the contents ( Sleepy Hollow story / hollow letters)

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– we see hands, handwriting, old lettering, an enveloppe and a seal with red wax > we can read ‘witnessed’ and ‘deceased’ > so there’s an investigation about murders.

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– the red wax looks like drops of blood > this is a bad omen / a prolepse > a reference to something that will happen no doubt.

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– The first scene is a murder / beheading scene. A man is in a horse carriage and is attacked by an unknown rider with a sword. We only here the horse hooves, the blade and see the blood on a pumpkin.

– The angle shots of the camera are highly suggestive.

– We are inside the horse carriage to feel the same as how the victim feels : scared , worried

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– then we see the scene from a high angle shot > all-seeing narrator

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– most importantly we see what the killer sees > the last shot is a hand-held camera shot as opposed to a steady camera shot > the image is shaky / more realistic, we see what the horseman sees.

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– We see Ichabod Crane near a drown corpse > this suggests that he is a scientist or a detective interested in science. He wants to examine the body of the victim but his boss refuses.

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– The next interesting shot is the one with Christopher Lee who is an icon in old Hammer films such as Dracula. He is shot from a low angle shot which makes him seem very impressive. In the background there are black wings which make him look like a bat. It’s a wink at the character of Dracula > an external intertextual reference to Burton’s favourite films.

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– There’s also a signature shot where we read Burton’s name. A pumpkin, a haunted castle and a path leading to the castle.

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– the travel shots where the horse carriage leads Ichabod to sleepy Hollow uses distant shots where the carriage travels away from the camera as if Ichabod was disappearing in the distance, leaving the viewer in the ‘rational’ world while he was entering the dark imaginary world created by Burton.

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– There are two successive ‘door’ scene > the entrance to the village and then the knock on on of the villager’s door.

 Doors and entrance scene symbolize limits or borders in Gothic fiction, the action of stepping in or out of the world of imagination. There’s always a knock on the door, a secret door or a scary door in Jekyll, or Radcliffe for example.

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Summaries

How It All Goes Down

Once upon a time, a guy named Ichabod lived in a little town called Sleepy Hollow. He was the town teacher and choirmaster. In other words, he was pretty important people. That’s the backstory and this is where the craziness starts.

One day, Ichabod realizes that the richest guy in town has an only daughter who’s pretty good lookin’. He decides that he’s going to hit on her so hard that she’ll have no choice but to fall in love with him. Flawless plan, clearly. Oh, there is one problem though. There’s this other guy named Brom and he wants to kill Ichabod for taking his lady. Minor snag.

Ichabod lies low for a while because, you know, he doesn’t want to die, but then something amazing happens. There’s a party at his lady’s place and he is invited. Booya. He gets dressed up, sprays on his finest Axe Body Spray (19th-century edition), and heads off on his borrowed steed.

The party is hoppin’, but when it’s over, his lady dumps him. Ichabod is making his way home, crying all the way, when he meets the Headless Horseman. Ichabod goes nuts trying to get away from him, and when he finally thinks that he’s safe, the Headless Horseman throws his head at him, and knocks Ichabod off of his horse and onto the ground.

The next day, no one knows what happened to Mr. Crane. They see horse tracks, Ichabod’s hat, and a pumpkin, and they all assume the Horseman got him. We hear that Ichabod ran away and became a judge. But Brom laughs mighty suspiciously every time they talk about Ichabod. Hmm, could it be? Nah, it was the Horseman. Right?


The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a short story by American author Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was first published in 1820.

The story is set in 1790 in the countryside around the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town (historical Tarrytown, New York), in a secluded valley called Sleepy Hollow. The most infamous spectre in the Hollow is the Headless Horseman, said to be the ghost of a soldier who had his head shot off by a stray cannonball during “some nameless battle” of the American Revolutionary War, and who “rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head”.

The “Legend” relates the tale of Ichabod Crane, a lean, lanky and extremely superstitious schoolmaster from Connecticut, who competes with Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, for the hand of 18-year-old Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, Baltus Van Tassel. On an autumn night, the ambitious Crane attends a party at the Van Tassels’. He dances and listens to ghostly legends told by Brom and the locals, but his true aim is to propose to Katrina after the guests leave. His intentions, however, are ill-fated.

After having failed to secure Katrina’s hand, Ichabod rides home “heavy-hearted and crestfallen” through the woods. As he passes several purportedly haunted spots. Ichabod encounters a cloaked rider at an intersection in a menacing swamp. Unsettled by his fellow traveler’s eerie size and silence, the teacher is horrified to discover that his companion’s head is not on his shoulders, but on his saddle.

The next morning, Ichabod has mysteriously disappeared from town, leaving Katrina to marry Brom Bones, who was said “to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related”.



1- What do you know about the Legend of Sleepy Hollow? Tim Burton?

2- Do you think Tim Burton is a director of ‘Gothic’ films? Why? Why not?

3- Read the two summaries. Which one do you prefer? Why?

4- What are the key gothic elements in Sleepy Hollow?

5- Watch the beginning of Sleepy Hollow by Tim Burton. Find similarities and differences between the original story by Irving and the twisted version.

6- Do you feel like reading the story? Watch the film?


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