A postmodernist reading of Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow

If you haven't seen the movie, this will mean very little to you. Also, HERE BE SPOILERS!

If Washington Irving were to awake from a two-hundred-year sleep (brought on by enchanted ale, no doubt) sometime in late 1999 and wander down to his neighborhood cineplex's showing of Tim Burton's adaptation of his story, he would find an entirely new dynamic at work amidst his original Gothic ghoulies. This is the theme of the crisis of postmodernity.

The crucial adjustment Burton makes to "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is the transformation of dour schoolteacher Ichabod Crane into Constable Ichabod Crane, the modernist subject personified. More on him below; for now, however, it is necessary to mention that the film portrays the conflict between modernism and postmodernity specifically, not the Enlightenment struggle with Romanticism that the setting would seem to suggest. This is demonstrated by Crane's statement in the beginning of the film that "we are at the dawn of a new millennium"--a bizarre non sequitur if taken literally, since two hundred years is quite a sunrise. What Burton accomplishes with this line is a repositioning of the issues at work in the film to contemporary times--namely, to 1999, which is indeed the dawn of a new millennium.

That Crane is a modernist subject is evident even to a cursory glance. He professes and defends faith in Science and Reason; he rejects God. But the roots of his belief are analogous to those of modernism itself. He flees to rationality from the religious, severe, but wholly irrational monstrosity that was his father's way of life, and which ultimately led to the brutal killing of his mother. It is particularly interesting that she is not killed as one would expect an eighteenth-century witch to be--by being burned at the stake--but instead by a specifically medieval implement, the Iron Maiden. Crane's faith in reason also has a redemptive aspect--he is portrayed, for example, attempting to reform New York's criminal justice system.

If Ichabod Crane is the modernist subject, then the Headless Horseman is the specter of postmodernity. Paradoxically, the horseman, who is lacking a head, represents the postmodern "body with organs," while Crane, who is all head and whose frail body serves little purpose, represents the "body without organs" that is a central fantasy of modernism. The horseman lacks a center, a vital area which can be struck to destroy him; as Umberto Eco wrote in his essay "Striking at the Heart of the State," decentralization is a crucial aspect of the postmodern state. The aspect of the horseman that horrifies Crane most is not his perverse life and death, and not his eldritch eruption from a tree stuffed with human heads--it is precisely the fact that he is "headless," that is, lacking in reason and the capacity for understanding. When he first arrives in Sleepy Hollow, Crane denies the existence of the horseman, but when he sees him firsthand, he is forced to confront him. This parallels the attitude of modernism to postmodernity: today, modernist thought, represented by Jurgen Habermas, is engaged chiefly in formulating a response to the challenges of postmodernity and postmodernism.

The conspiracy that forms the bulk of the story is also a representation of the crisis. The horseman's first victims are the Van Garretts, whose seal is a windmill, and the story's denouement begins in a decaying windmill. This is a peculiar symbol: the windmill represents both the agrarian economy of the Middle Ages and the Dutch bourgeoisie that provided the first inklings of the Enlightenment (neatly portrayed, perhaps, by the Van Garretts--father and son). Postmodernity disposes of both of these. But the investigation as performed by Crane is also significant: he is convinced that the wealthy Baltus Van Tassel is behind the specter, a reflection of the late modernist charge that postmodernism and postmodernity are merely the tools and byproducts of capitalism. The film does not give a productive answer as to the nature and final motivations of the specter; perhaps Burton wants postmodernity to "find its head" and cease haunting Crane's rationalistic paradise.

Incidentally, not a node your homework production.