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Sleepy Hollow’s Apocalypse

“The answers are in Washington’s Bible!” Katrina shouts as Moloch stirs the dark, swirling clouds that will seal her once again in Purgatory. Her husband, Ichabod Crane, stands watching, unable to help as his wife is swallowed up in a world that he can only reach in dreams and visions. Ichabod has been resurrected from the dead in the twenty-first century and faces Death himself in the form of the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow. With the help of officer Abigail Mills, he pieces together what has happened, and what will be happening, in a quiet town on the Hudson River in upstate New York. This isn’t exactly how Washington Irving told the story, but the tale has engrossed dedicated television viewers for three seasons now on the Fox network.

Noting that Fox has shifted Sleepy Hollow to the dreaded Friday night slot against other networks’ supernatural-themed programs, Cinemablend has predicted the third season of the cult success will likely be its last. As a perhaps premature retrospective, I would like to consider the role of the Bible in the series. This isn’t gratuitous Bible-grubbing, the very premise of the first season was biblical in every sense of the word.

A brief summary will help. Ichabod Crane, envisioned in this telling as a former Oxford University professor of languages, is a captain in the colonial army during the US Revolutionary War. Killed in battle by a Hessian mercenary, he beheads his attacker in his dying moments. His wife Katrina (née van Tassel) preserves Ichabod by burying him with George Washington’s Bible on his chest. She’s a Quaker who also happens to be a witch. In the present day, Ichabod reawakens only to be completely confounded by the technological age into which he emerges. Abigail Mills (Abbie), a police lieutenant, reluctantly comes to believe him when he claims to be two centuries old and pursued by a headless ghost. That’s the basic plot.

Here’s the biblical part: the headless horseman is Death, the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse. Also, Ichabod and Abbie are the two witnesses cited in Revelation 11.3. This is the end of days.

As if that’s not enough biblical backstory, Ichabod and Abbie attempt to stop the horseman, time and again, by returning to George Washington’s Bible. Each week a new scary monster emerges as Sleepy Hollow inexorably nears the coming cataclysm. The Bible they consult is replete with woodcuts depicting the apocalypse and, as season one unfolds, hidden messages in the text of the Bible itself. It’s fair to say that without the Bible, the plot of first season wouldn’t have had any narrative glue.

Moloch is the demonic architect of this unrelenting attack on the town. Moloch, in origin, is a “foreign god” known from the Bible (primarily in Leviticus and the books of Kings). In Sleepy Hollow, he stands in for the Devil, reigning over Purgatory and planning to take the world by force through unleashing the four horsemen. Death and War, two of the four, emerge.

At key points during the first season, the Bible saves the day. For example, a golem arises to attack Sleepy Hollow. Only by consulting Washington’s Bible does Ichabod come to understand the nature of the monster and the means for stopping it.

As the first season builds to its climax, the Bible becomes even more central to the plot. Moloch wants to get his hands on Washington’s Bible. He sends a demon to possess the police captain’s daughter, holding her as ransom. The Bible is important not because it’s the Bible, but because it’s Washington’s Bible. The first president left clues in the book that will allow Ichabod and Abbie to release Katrina Crane from Purgatory to take on Moloch. Some of the clues are in disappearing ink while others are extra verses added to the biblical text. Season one ends with Purgatory opened and the horsemen Death and War ready to ride.

Season two, however, shifts the focus. In spinning the plot out further, eventually the Apocalypse is downgraded, and the Bible virtually disappears from the series. Moloch is killed. Ichabod and Abbie question their role as witnesses and whether their job is complete. Monsters still appear, but they are no longer biblical. The premise underlying season one has been lost.

Due to less-than-stellar ratings, Sleepy Hollow has been shifted to undesirable viewing slots during its third season. It’s perhaps tempting to suggest that the move away from a biblical story-line might have something to do with declining interest, but that’s not really a fair assessment. Far more likely is that the series faces the dilemma of where to go once the initial antagonist is killed off. In this case, the antagonist happened to be firmly biblical. The world won’t end after all. Without the Apocalypse to avoid, viewers will naturally seek a more pertinent thrill.

Featured image credit: “The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane” by John Quidor. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. […] I had the opportunity to write a post for the OUP Blog on the topic of Sleepy Hollow. I’m not exactly obsessed with the program, but it fascinates me […]

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