Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) is often characterized as a classic ghost story, but there’s actually nothing supernatural about it. It’s the tale of how scrawny, self-important, socially inept and superstitious schoolmaster Ichabod Crane gets his comeuppance thanks to a mischievous ladies’ man masquerading as the feared Headless Horseman of local lore.
So Fox’s new paranormal procedural Sleepy Hollow must borrow from other sources. This week’s pilot episode was a heaping helping of The X-Files—a man seeking supernatural secrets (“the connections are all around us”) teams up with a skeptical but sympathetic woman (not an FBI agent, but she came this close to joining the Bureau)—with a generous side order of National Treasure (“The answers are in Washington’s Bible!”) and a light sauce of Elementary drizzled over everything (he’s British, she’s American).
Still, I am taken with the show. I think, somewhere beneath these similarities to other properties, is an entertaining and potentially very interesting drama that may yield insights into our country’s current sense of itself.
Mulder and Scully, Meet Crane and Mills
Sleepy Hollow’s Ichabod Crane (played by Tom Mison) shares little with his literary counterpart beyond the name. This Ichabod was an Oxford history professor who came to the American colonies to fight for the British crown but ended up switching sides. While fighting a mysterious mercenary in the pilot episode’s prologue, Ichabod is fatally shot. He decapitates his foe before falling dead next to him. Over two centuries later, Ichabod returns to life, crawls out of the cave where he was buried, and stumbles into the present day.
But Ichabod hasn’t come alone. He’s alive because the mercenary he beheaded rides again. As you’ve guessed, he is the Headless Horseman. You may not have guessed the premise’s clever departure from Irving’s story: he’s also one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Horseman is in search of his skull, which was secreted away by one of two ancient “covens”—one (to which Ichabod’s wife Katrina belonged) fighting for Good, the other (whose members are as yet unknown) for Evil—and which, if found, will restore him to full strength, paving the way for cataclysmic destruction and doom, with the village of Sleepy Hollow as ground zero.
Meanwhile, police lieutenant Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) is investigating the beheading death (at Guess Who’s hands) of Sleepy Hollow’s sheriff. Abbie discovers his cache of cold case files. They document unexplained phenomena from colonial times to the present, not only in Sleepy Hollow but also up and down the East Coast. Abbie knows one of those cases well: as a child, she and her sister Jenny got lost in the woods and blacked out after seeing a demonic creature. As a result of that trauma, Jenny’s now “in and out” of mental institutions. Abbie’s experience makes her more compassionate than most toward the new stranger in town who insists he fought in General Washington’s army, even if she isn’t ready to believe his biblically proof-texted explanations of strange goings-on.
During the first episode, Abbie and Ichabod forge an unlikely friendship and sally forth in search of the truth that’s out there… Whoops. Sorry. I caught myself whistling that catchy, classic theme by Mark Snow. Again, comparisons to The X-Files are unavoidable for now, but what I hope will set Sleepy Hollow apart are the themes it touches on from Christian theology and American “civil religion.”
Now, Sleepy Hollow isn’t some ponderous, pretentious discourse on religion or politics. The pilot was fast-paced and lots of fun, especially when the script plays with Ichabod’s reactions to his cultural and temporal shock. For example, as Abbie and Ichabod are driving, he sees a Starbucks that, in his day, was a livery stable, then spots another seconds later. “How many are there?” he asks. Abbie replies, “Per block?” Ichabod hazards the most reasonable explanation he can think of: “Is there a law?” This is nice fish-out-of-timestream comedy, and the writers would do well to give us more. Don’t let Ichabod acclimate too quickly to 2013, or Sleepy Hollow will lose some of the modest freshness it has going for it.
But it would still have a quintessentially American take on Christian eschatology.
For starters, Washington’s Bible has as its last book the notorious but non-existent Book of Revelations! I cringe whenever TV and film characters don’t know that the title of the New Testament’s final document is singular, not plural. I don’t think I’m just being persnickety. The book’s dizzying and diverse visions and prophecies and symbols and hymns make up one “revelation of Jesus Christ” (1.1), a single, unified message of encouragement and hope.
When we read Revelation instead as “a series of revelations,” we risk reading it without much reference to Jesus, the risen Lord who is both “the Lion of the tribe of Judah… [who] has conquered” (5.5) and the Lamb “standing as if it had been slaughtered” (5.6), the “living one” who “was dead, and see… [is] alive forever and ever; and… [holds] the keys of the Death and of Hades” (1.18). Christ’s conquering of death by death, his victory over evil by sacrificing himself to it, his calling Christians to endure and persevere by following in his way—these core truths must inform any faithful reading of the book.
Ichabod interprets “Revelations” without reference to Jesus, at least so far. He tells Abbie the Bible “speaks of two witnesses, brought together for a seven-year period of tribulation to defend humanity from the forces of hell. Their battle is prophesied to ordain the fate of the world on Judgment Day.” Ichabod concludes he and Abbie are “called” to be these witnesses.
Revelation 11.1-10 does say God will give two witnesses “authority to prophesy”—to proclaim God’s message to a sinful, rebellious world—for three-and-a-half years, if we take that count of 1260 days literally, while “wearing sackcloth,” until “the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them.” The passage hardly seems to suggest these two witnesses are beating back monstrous forces of darkness with action-packed derring-do. They “conquer” evil as all God’s faithful witnesses (the Greek word gives us “martyrs”) in Revelation do: by patiently enduring trial and persecution, even to death. Since Sleepy Hollow is Hollywood fiction, Abbie and Ichabod may well turn out to be “the two witnesses” in that story’s world; it could be exciting to watch what happens. In real life, however, reading Revelation for insight into our struggles without remaining focused on what Christ has already accomplished in his struggle can lead us astray. We may forget that what looks like victory in God’s eyes very often looks like defeat in the eyes of the world.
An Exceptional Struggle for an “Exceptional” Nation?
Ichabod’s interpretation isn’t surprising, however, given his understanding of the American Revolution. General Washington told Ichabod it “wasn’t merely a war for the future of our country; it would determine the fate of every man, woman, and child on earth.” No wonder Ichabod defected!
One essential tenet of America’s “civil religion”—the meaning-giving myth (not falsehood or lie, but overarching, organizing narrative) that bolsters our national identity— is that the birth of the United States marked a turning point in world history. Of course, it demonstrably did; however, the American narrative means more than the Revolution’s factual fall-out. It refers to the idea that America was elected to fulfill the role of light to the nations, to live as “that shining city on the hill.” The idea is not new. According to the folks over at h2g2, “Patriot millennialists urged their audiences to support the revolution, warning that British victory would spell the ultimate triumph of the anti-Christ and despotism, whereas American independence would lead to the arrival of Christ’s millennium.”
The subject of “American exceptionalism” has garnered headlines lately. How fascinating that, in this moment in our history, as we wrestle with questions of our country’s responsibility in today’s morally and ethically complex geopolitics, a TV series is dramatizing the idea that America, from the beginning, has an “exceptional,” pre-ordained role to play as the arena of an eschatological battle between darkness and light, death and life. Is it true? Americans, including Christians, disagree, and my hope is Sleepy Hollow will stir up that continuing conversation.
I’ll be watching next week. If I enjoy the second episode as much as I did the first, I’ll be tuning in regularly to watch this intriguing story of American identity struggle to break free from a formulaic framework, even as Ichabod Crane clawed his way free out of his grave.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Once again, a great article, Michael! You always seamlessly use scripture to relate to whatever topic you’re speaking about, no exception here. I’ve been very interested in this show since I first heard about it a few months back and you’ve sold me on the first episode for sure. Nevertheless, “Revelations…”
Oh, I know, it always drives me crazy! But thanks for reading and kind comment, Max. I would be interested in hearing what you think if you end up giving the show a shot.
Love your in depth insights. I wrote a rather light and quick review (given how well yours is) on my website at http://wp.me/p37kAZ-1cR
Oh and for years after first coming to Jesus I called the book “Revelations” as well before someone informed me in a very Christ like manner that I was wrong 🙂
I am glad they corrected you in a Christian way, as opposed to my eye-roling and “tsk tsk”-ing!
Thanks for both your comments. I read your review and tried to reply at your blog, but something went wonky. At any rate, the long and short of my reply was I agreed with you that the “duality” of having “witches” on the side of the angels (maybe hastening God’s plan? I was unsure of that point, as I think the pilot script was – God’s direct role, if any, in all of this has not been addressed) was intriguing and possibly problematic. However, I also wonder if, despite Katrina’s use of the word “covens,” we are not dealing with “witches” per se, even though they were labeled as such by colonial society. I guess they are dealing in occult stuff, but we have no reason to think (yet) that they are anything but on the right side. (Although, with only one episode, there’s not too much to go on.)
Also, I think the police arrested Ichabod because he was near the scene of the crime shortly after it happened. Of course, now we know John Cho’s character had other motivations for wanting Crane out of the way.
I enjoyed your review and it got me more excited about teasing out the show’s mysteries, and their real-world implications. Thanks for it!
Hmmmm. Maybe that is why I never get comments except my own. I will have to look into that and see what is happening. Thanks for letting me know.
And you are right, Katrina was burned for being a “witch” and the word “coven” was used but we have not heard if they truly are witches or just perceived as such. Although it would be an interesting plot twist if the “good witches” were angels especially since at least one was married to Ichabod. And if that be so, how did the obvious demon and/or the “bad witches” (demons?) imprison Katrina?
But then, with one episode we could be extrapolating concepts that the writers don’t even have in mind yet 🙂
I too am excited about next week’s episode. Thanks for writing and reading 🙂
I just listened to a podcaster who speculated Katrina might not even really be dead. (After all, they buried the Horseman’s head in her grave, maybe instead of and not in addition to her body?) And we don’t know why that priest lived so long – black arts, or maybe just not quite human? I am sure there is much more to be revealed here.
As for your website issues, maybe this’ll help you figure out the problem: when I tried to submit my comment, it said I hadn’t entered the correct CAPTCHA code… but it had never asked me to do so!
Oh, well, either here or there or both, I’ll look forward to continuing the conversation!
On the website, I think I fixed it. And continuing here is fine with me. I just want to make sure for the future people can post if they want.
On Katrina, I think she mentioned that her body was not buried where her tombstone was. So you may be right and she may not be dead. I was kind of looking forward to a conversation between Ichabod and the priest but obviously that is not going to happen now. But I was very interested in knowing how the priest managed to be around for all of those years. And he did immediately recognized Ichabod. On top of that, there was an odd exchange between the priest and the Chief at the dinner as the Chief and Abbie were leaving. Almost as if the priest had either helped him in his investigations or at least knew he was investigating. Or I am reading in more than was there which I tend to do at times 🙂
And I agree. I am sure they are going to give us more as the series moves on.
Man! I missed this detail entirely, but the folks at “The Sleepy Hollow Podcast” (http://www.blubrry.com/sleepy/1866911/001-pilot/#comments) picked it up: the population of Sleepy Hollow, according to the sign at the village limits, is 144,000. D’oh! (In real life, Sleepy Hollow NY only has a population of about 10,000 – but, oh, well.)
How fascinating that, in this moment in our history, as we wrestle with questions of our country’s responsibility in today’s morally and ethically complex geopolitics, a TV series is dramatizing the idea that America, from the beginning, has an “exceptional,” pre-ordained role to play as the arena of an eschatological battle between darkness and light, death and life.
This is an angle I didn’t think about even after watching the episode twice: the newest manifestation of “American exceptionalism.” This tends to bother me more when it happens on the big screen (world’s coming to an end but the only country we see trying to stop it is the U.S., etc etc). But yes, what great coincidence that THIS particular battle that meant so much for the future of the states (and not, say, Haiti’s battle for independence from France) was also tied to the fate of the WORLD. Lol.
<< But yes, what great coincidence that THIS particular battle that meant so much for the future of the states (and not, say, Haiti’s battle for independence from France) was also tied to the fate of the WORLD. Lol. >>
Yep! I don’t know how to sort out everything there is to say about American exceptionalism, and really only touched on the issue here because that’s all the episode did. One thought that does occur to me, though, is that God chose Israel to be an exceptional nation for the purpose of service. I can’t remember ever hearing anyone describe “exceptional” America as a servant nation. Not our politicians, not foreign politicians, “not nobody, not no how” (in the Cowardly Lion’s immortal words
). Which is not to say America can’t and doesn’t serve other nations in foreign aid, humanitarian resources, and so forth – just that no one points to that as how, if at all, we are “exceptional.”
I don’t know whether exceptionalism will become an ongoing concern in “Sleepy Hollow,” of course, but the seeds are there should they chose to explore it. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Yeah, the exceptionalism seems to pop up in regards to our beliefs, but not spiritual beliefs (for obvious reasons, what with separation of church and state. And I don’t mind), but belief about human rights and all that. And our military. Can’t forget the military, lol.
Overall I liked the show and I want to like the show, but some of the story lines just don’t seem very realistic to me. Didn’t any of the officers wonder why Abbie could identify a small mark of the hand of the assailant, but couldn’t give any facial or hair color facts? And she just walks into the room of a psych unit and demands his release and walks out with him? After legally restraining him for evaluation I am sure there would be a lot of paperwork to release, not just handing him a paper she had lying around. I would like to hear Ben rant about the inconsistencies of this show. But, both my wife and daughter seem to like it so I am sure I will continue watching. I do like much of the concept. I also hope they continue the fish out of water reactions of Ichabod. I am always concerned with a show that speaks of “good” witches. I will wait and see how they carry out this story line.
It’s true, the pilot didn’t hang together as tightly as it could have at all points. (I really felt it needed to be a bit longer, but, oh, well.) I have to admit, this airing so soon after Ben’s “Heroes” rant was posted, I can only imagine the drubbing he would give it, too! 🙂 But, I found it entertaining, and plan to stick with it for a while.
I suspect the “good coven” is going to turn out to be something more than what we call “witches,” but I suppose we shall see. This being primetime network TV, I do very seriously doubt that this will turn out to be any kind of introduction to Christian theology; but I don’t have serious worries that it will prove harmful, anymore than I think “Harry Potter” or “The Wizard of Oz” are harmful for their “good witches.”
Thanks for reading and commenting!
I talk about the second episode at http://wp.me/p37kAZ-1e5
Hi, there is something that struck me about Sleepy Hollow, and I purposely went to Christian sites to see if anyone mentioned it. My impression, and I’ll admit I’ve only skimmed Revelation, is that the idea behind it is that all that happens is part of God’s plan, that he is the one responsible for the Four Horsemen and everything else, that this is some sort of cleansing/punishing kind of thing. And if I’m right in thinking that, then Ichabod would not actually be fighting evil but would rather be fighting God’s plan for the final days.
Am I wrong? Are the Horsemen not part of God’s plan? Is it acceptable in the Christian religion for people to attempt to prevent the apocalypse? Are the final days optional?
Hey, Charles! Thanks for reading and commenting. Briefly, I think you are right in your reading of Revelation. It’s been a while since I’ve studied the book in depth, but I think the point of the “four horsemen” imagery is that, in some mysterious way not clear to us “down here” but clear from the heavenly perspective that John has been granted, these terrible forces are somehow serving God’s good purpose for the renewal of all things (i.e., the new heavens and earth). So, though they are evils (war, plague, and the like), they aren’t agents of evil somehow, contra “Sleepy Hollow.” (Certainly not semi- or fully autonomous agents of evil, as the series posits. But that’s what makes it fiction rather than Bible study!)
That said, I think it’s always acceptable, to say the least, for Christians to resist evil. Whenever and wherever it is in our power to cure the sick, work for peace, and so on, it’s our calling as Jesus’ disciples to do so. We’ll never completely conquer evil – that’s God’s job – but neither does God call us to tolerate it: “Oh, it’s all part of God’s plan for the end days” (I am not putting these words in your mouth, Charles; it’s an attitude I’ve heard, though). Only God knows how these things will figure into the final scheme of things. We don’t. What we do know is Jesus’ clear command to love and serve God and neighbor.
Your thought that Ichabod might actually not be fighting evil is an intriguing one. I doubt the series will go there – again, it’s kind of strip-mining Scripture to get an exciting mythology – but I could envision them, at some point, introducing a crisis of Ichabod’s confidence, either that he has been working for the wrong side, or that the Apocalypse is inevitable… It’ll be interesting to see how things develop!
I did catch the concept that in Revelation, it is God who releases the four horseman in ushering in the great day of the Lord–Judgment day. And if we take a strict straight view of scripture and apply it to the show, then Ichabod would have to be working against God as you correctly pointed out. Especially if Ichabod and Abbie are truly the two witnesses, then they would have to be working against God if they continued to try and stop the horsemen.
That said …. 🙂
I like the way Michael put it that the show is “kind of strip-mining Scripture to get an exciting mythology!” We have to remember a couple of things. First this is Hollywood and they have a huge track record of misrepresenting and misinterpreting the Scriptures. Second, fighting a war essentially against God would be one that would have to be lost or else even the most secular person would have trouble with the suspension of disbelief. Finally, any show is ultimately vying for longevity and if the horseman win (as pointed out by the second point) the show would not have the potential of having many years/seasons run. When we put these into perspective, I think that we have to give a large set of latitude whenever Hollywood uses the Bible as long as they are not secretly being anti-God in their twisting and turning.
What I take away from this show with the use of the Scriptures is as follows. First, the Bible is not only placed in a good light, it is revered if even only by Ichabod. Second, the texts are being use to illuminate the greater struggle between good and evil and so far the Bible has been seen as a beacon for the good side (part warning sign part instructions). Finally, those who are holding the Bible in high regard are not idiots. True, Ichabod can seem off and crazy and odd in this time but in relation to his own he is sane and intelligent. Of course none of these are absolutes, but I am willing to give it a chance to spread its wings and see where it wants to go.
Back to the specific of the four horseman and Ichabod fighting them. I kind of look at this as he is fighting for God’s timing. No one in the show has denied that the judgment day apocalypse will happen (at least not the I remember or have seen) but that it was seemingly attempted to be brought forward by the agents of evil at least once back when Ichabod beheaded the pale rider. In addition, the forces of evil seem to be attempting to do this again as if the forcing of God’s plan to trigger outside of God’s timing would cause a disruption of sorts where evil can attempt to seize control. This would align why the side attempting to help the headless horseman is presented as evil and working with the demon character. I realize it is a stretch but as I said, I am giving the show a chance.
I like your comment, Patrick, especially the idea (more nuanced than the series is, I think, but…!) that Ichabod is fighting for God’s timing.
Frankly, though, the series hasn’t yet (that I’ve heard) made any mention of God. And I am still wondering about the extent to which we can say Ichabod reveres Scripture. He certainly reveres Washington’s Bible, and the thought occurs to me that maybe he believes the answers he needs are in that particular copy of the Bible, not in the Scriptures themselves (let alone the Christ to whom they witness). Remember, the Four Horsemen text was marked for him – maybe Washington, or the Sisters of the Radiant Heart, or whomever, have marked other passages, too?
I suppose some part of me should be offended by the series’ smash-and-grab approach to Scripture but, as I say, it’s not supposed to be a Bible study; and while I guess some could find the show a stumbling block, I do think (thus far) that it advocates a moral, if not a Christian worldview. It’s not as though Ichabod and Abbie are anti-heroes, trying to give the Horsemen an advantage or something. (You get at this in the last paragraph of your comment, Patrick.) And I find it entertaining, so I am glad to stick with it until it does something to make me think better of it. (As it’s a fantasy, though, it would have to be something pretty egregious.)
Have not seen tonight’s episode yet 🙂
I have noticed the lack of mentioning God. In addition, I had a thought that perhaps “Washington’s Bible” is not an ordinary Bible as well. But so far no indication of that either.
As for the being offended, I do see your point. But I remember that before you can run, you must walk and before that stand and before that crawl. So I am a bit happy when it looks like Hollywood might be trying to crawl. Especially when so many other properties they produce don’t even attempt. So, I tend to give grace and mercy as long as it is not mockery. Of course, if this goes south fast then I might be singing a different tune. But until then 🙂
Hey Patrick! I restrained from reading your comment until I’d seen ep 3, but I should’ve noted your first line! At any rate, I think you’re very gracious indeed in your suggestion that “Hollywood may be trying to crawl.” I very strongly suspect there is no serious Christian theology undergirding this show, but I also sense that — in addition to their primary purpose of entertaining — the creative team might want to venture a few important thoughts on some topics about good and evil (especially given ep 3, how all it takes for evil to win is for good folks to stay silent), personal responsibility, moving forward in life despite fear — all good things, and not the exclusive concern of Christians. So, like you, I also don’t think it’s veering into mockery.
I am finding it more interesting than “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” frankly, and didn’t think that would be the case; so my ramblings here are as much attempts to figure out why as they are practices in looking for parables of the Gospel in popular entertainment. Thanks for reading!
After having watched episode 3, I agree that this does not seem like a case of Hollywood trying to crawl and more a case of them just exploring some universal concepts of good verses evil and the consequences of your actions.
I do like “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” but from a standpoint of kind of a popcorn version of James Bond with the gadgets and quasi-spy like government agency thing going on but definitely agree that “Sleepy Hollow” has a lot more meat to chew on. 🙂
P.R., as a secularist, I wouldn’t have any more trouble suspending belief regarding a war between man and God regardless of who won. It’s just a matter of creating a God who is convincingly beatable,
Interesting perspective, Charles, and thanks for it. We’ve yet to see whether “Sleepy Hollow” posits any God, convincingly beatable or otherwise, in its mythology. I would assume, given that they’re quoting the Bible left and right, God’s got to come into things sooner or later… but, as we all know, that gets tricky on prime-time network TV. I do still hope they’ll have the courage to address God directly in some fashion, though, even if it doesn’t line up with my theology in all particulars. Tell a good story, I’ll come along for the ride and very likely enjoy it – plenty of time to process later!
I had not looked at that way because of what I believe about God but you are so correct. Hollywood has given us countless iterations of “god” and/or”god-like” beings that are beatable giving us no reason to assume that they would be having an unbeatable god in this show. In addition, and I believe Michael has pointed out, the series has yet to address God and I am thinking that they might just continue to avoid the concept of God so as to not offend anyone even though they are quoting from the Bible.
I see this is article and most of the comments are over a year old, and am curious what thoughts you have on the show now that it is in it’s second season.
Hi, Malishka! Thanks for reading and commenting. I started out as a BIG fan of this show a year ago, and I thought the way it so audaciously and unapologetically played fast and loose with US history was part of its charm. Increasingly, however, it became more about that than the characters, which was the other secret of its success. I think, for the first half of the first season, Abbie was unarguably the show’s central character; but, gradually, it became more about Ichabod, rather than keeping the two in balance. With the out-of-nowhere, crazy revelation of who John Noble was really playing at the end of last season, I decided I’d had enough. Too much silliness, not enough character work, too sloppily done. I haven’t sampled the second season.
I take it you are sticking with it? I do sincerely hope you’re enjoying it, if so. Life’s too short to stick with shows one doesn’t enjoy! Maybe at some point I will stop back into Sleepy Hollow and see if it’s more to my liking. What are you thinking about its sophomore season so far?
Thanks for the response!
There are parts of the show I like and parts that I just can’t watch. I love the characters of Ichabod and Abbie, and the plot twists with Henry and Katrina. After the end of the last season, I thought I wouldn’t watch it anymore, just because this show has gotten really dark and heavy for me! I decided to check out the first two episodes and am still unsure if I want to continue watching it from a Christian standpoint. I am not sure if I’ll keep watching or not, but i was glad to read your thoughts and other comments about this show.
I think that, though its theology is as unreliable as its American history
, the show has lots of positive messages about friendship and love, and loyalty, and fighting the good fight, all things Christians can affirm. It’s just, for me, the wackiness finally got in the way!