Sleepy Hollow Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

A mystical interpretation of the gothic novel. Sleepy Hollow is a gothic horror film directed by Tim Burton. The plot is based on the Washington Irving novel “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

You can lock the doors. You can close windows. But can you survive this night? – this is the slogan of the film.

At the center of Burton’s work is Ichabod Crane, an American constable who went to the village to investigate numerous murders. According to legend, all the crimes were committed by the Headless Horseman, but the main character does not believe in his existence.

Check out the trailer if you haven’t seen it yet.

Book vs Movie

To understand the film, first of all, it is worth referring to the primary source of the plot – the book “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. She served as the inspiration for the film’s script. It should be noted that the motion picture is significantly different from Irving’s short story. This is not a film adaptation illustrating the events of the book. Burton’s film is a standalone work that was rather inspired by the original story.

Sleepy Hollow by Irving is a heavenly settlement where everything flows serenely. This is a corner devoid of the benefits of civilization and technology. Sleepy Hollow is contrasted with the hustle and bustle of the city.

In the book, the main character, Ichabod Crane, is presented as a suspicious teacher. This is a satirical character, somewhat reminiscent of Don Quixote.

He, like the hero of a medieval novel, dreams of a better life, believes in legends and mythical creatures. Crane reads grave epitaphs, sings terribly and makes everyone laugh with his presence. Ichabod dreams of marrying wealthy heiress Katrina Van Tassel, but he has a rival.

The Headless Horseman Chases Ichabod CranePhoto:

Irving’s classic gothic novella turns into a funny story. However, in it, as in Burton’s film, there is a central character – the Headless Horseman. Throughout the story, he seems unreal, his image seems to exist only in the minds of the villagers, which only increases the suspense with each plot twist, forcing the viewer to vacillate between blind faith in the supernatural of all other characters and confidence in his absence of the main character.

In the book, the Headless Horseman turns out to be not a supernatural being, but just a rival of Ichabod. So Irving ridicules Gothic literature, built on mystical traditions. In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, everything is given a logical explanation – here we see Irving’s innovation.

In spite of the devil with all his tricks, Ichabod Crane would probably have lived a calm and happy life if he hadn’t met a creature on his way that gives mortals immeasurably more trouble and torment than spirits, ghosts and the whole breed of wizards and sorcerers put together. This being was a woman.

This quote from Irving’s short story shows that it was Katrina who turned out to be a supernatural being. A woman, in the opinion of Ichabod, is that creature that creates a danger to others.

In this way, Irving effectively satirizes gothic novels that feature supernatural beings.

The essence of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is that humans are worse than the most dangerous witches, ghosts, and wizards.

Katrina Van Tassel rides with Ichabod Crane on a horse

Interestingly, Irving was inspired by German folklore when creating his works. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is similar to Burger’s ballad “The Wild Hunter”. According to its plot, two riders participate in the hunt, but one of them refuses to participate in the fun.

The second continues to hunt, although all the villagers ask him to stop, because he kills their livestock. They send a rider to Hell, but he does not listen to them. He is forced to escape from hellish torments forever.

Here we see a direct allegory for the Rider from the film, who was a cavalryman until his death. He killed everyone, although he was asked for mercy. As a result, he, as in the ballad, was subjected to eternal hellish torment.

Movie Explained

Let’s move on to the film adaptation of the novel by Tim Burton. The director combines several genres. The result is a mystical thriller with elements of horror and detective story. The cast was perfect.

Christina Ricci, who plays Katrina Van Tassel, has developed into a lively and controversial personality. In Irving’s novella, the heroine was a country coquette. In the film, she saves Ichabod from death more than once and even draws a pentagram under his bed for protection.

Sleepy Hollow itself in the film turned from Paradise into a mystical village. All residents are worried about the numerous murders, we often see fog in the frame. Burton masterfully creates a tense atmosphere.

The film’s aesthetic is reminiscent of Grimm’s fairy tales – we see an evil stepmother, a witch and a ghost. Burton rewrites Irving’s novella in his own way, using mystical elements.

Ichabod Crane in Burton’s film from a humble teacher turned into a constable. He is confident in the rationality of what is happening, while in the book the hero is rather superstitious. However, in Burton’s film, Ichabod also has fears: he is afraid of corpses and spiders, and is quite impressionable. With his clumsiness, he involuntarily discharges the atmosphere of the film.

Ichabod looks like a typical romantic hero – he has a pale aristocratic face, disheveled hair. Crane’s intrapersonal conflict is obvious: he dreams of an ideal world, but faces a harsh reality. The hero tries to find a rationale for everything, but encounters inexplicable phenomena.

This is a man ahead of his time – he created unique tools for forensics, studied chemistry and biology. As in other romantic works, Crane is contrasted with society. The villagers do not believe in rationalism, they laugh at Ichabod. The exclusivity of the hero turns out to be attractive only to Katrina, because she is just as unique.

Sleepy Hollow shows the fears that lurk in our subconscious. For Ichabod, this is mysticism. Events in the village bring him back to the death of his mother. Crane’s father killed her because he thought she was a witch.

Christopher Lee, who became famous for the role of Dracula, starred in the role of the Burgomaster. It looks like the most ancient vampire sent Ichabod to the hellish village.

Interestingly, when making the film, not red, but orange blood was used, since it caused fainting in Burton and Johnny Depp. Therefore, Sleepy Hollow was filmed with a blue filter that distorted the colors. But this only added to the film’s atmosphere of mystery and mysticism.

Actors and roles

Ichabod Crane

The main role was played by Tim Burton’s longtime friend Johnny Depp. He played the rational constable Ichabod Crane, who tries to find a logical explanation for everything.

Depp perfectly fit into the gothic atmosphere, however, according to the book, his character was described as “not a very attractive person.” Johnny suggested adding face pads that would make him look ugly. However, Burton decided to focus on the squeamishness and eccentricity of Ichabod.

Ichabod Crane looking at a dead tree

The hero turned out to be restrained and aristocratic, but emotions are not alien to him – Crane, like the villagers, is afraid of the Horseman, wants to protect his beloved.

Interestingly, Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson and Daniel Day-Lewis were invited to the role of Ichabod, but they refused to shoot. Perhaps this was due to the fact that initially the plot was quite creepy and gloomy. After several revisions, the script became less rigid.

Johnny Depp has never seen Sleepy Hollow because he thinks his acting is weak. However, we do not agree with this. Depp turned out to be a very lively character with his own fears and dreams.

Katrina Van Tassel

The heroine was played by Christina Ricci, known for Burton’s cult film The Addams Family. Her unusual appearance (big eyes, baby face) perfectly matched the image of Katrina. In the film, she was fond of the occult, trying to protect Crane from the Rider and magic.

Katrina Van Tassel looks at Ichabod Crane

Winona Ryder was offered the role of Katrina, but she turned it down. We think that Ricci fits perfectly into the gothic aesthetic of the film.

Headless horseman

The role of the terrifying headless cavalryman was played by Christopher Walken. Interestingly, most of the scenes were played by actor stunt double Ray Park. Walken is seen at the end of the film when the Horseman takes Katrina’s stepmother to Hell with him.

The actor became famous thanks to horror films in which he played the role of antagonists. Here, Walken had a difficult task – to create an atmosphere of horror without words. And he succeeded: it is the mystical secret of the Horseman that keeps the viewer in suspense throughout the film.

Reviews in the media

Upon its premiere in 1999, reviews from critics were mixed. Many have praised Sleepy Hollow for its visual effects, camera work, and color grading. Others did not like the crumpled plot, the fabulousness of the story.

In the US, the film was rated 16+ due to the abundance of murders. This was done after some teenagers were impressed by the naturalistic scenes.

Katrina Van Tassel looking at a dead tree

Critics wondered about the meaning of the film. The following theories were heard: the collapse of materialism, the struggle between pagan beliefs and religion. The rationalism of Ichabod does not work: the Horseman really turns out to be a ghost controlled by a man. Pagan beliefs are used by Katrina’s stepmother, forcing a cavalryman to kill through blackmail.

The film did not receive impressive Oscar nominations, but ordinary viewers appreciated it. Sleepy Hollow has been acclaimed for its amazing mystical atmosphere, many references, and acting.

Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane has become a household name for a romantic hero. The story of his traumatized childhood has drawn sympathy from fans. So the film became a cult film in the history of cinema, one of the best works of Burton.


In 2013, a chronological continuation was released – the television series Sleepy Hollow, consisting of 4 seasons. In the story, the deceased Ichabod Crane is resurrected to stop the killings committed by the Headless Horseman.

Starring Tom Mison, the role of the trooper was played by Richard Citron. The first episodes were quite successful, but after the second season, the ratings of the series began to decline. After the fourth project decided to close.

Poster for the series

It also became known that Paramount Pictures is planning to film a remake of Sleepy Hollow. Lindsey Beer, who previously directed Pet Sematary, will write and direct. The cast and plot has yet to be announced.

We are looking forward to the remake to compare it to the 1999 film. Have you seen Burton’s cult movie Sleepy Hollow? Write in the comments.

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