In Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," what do the villagers think the headless horseman is doing out at night, and why is he in such a hurry?

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In Washington Irving’s 1820 story of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the local townspeople regularly discuss the terrifying figure who haunts their village at night.  Sitting around the local pub, people could be heard sharing scary stories and describing the ghostly figure in their midst:

“The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the headless horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.”

That the horseman was active at night -- which is only appropriate when the topic is horror and there is a cemetery nearby -- is evident in the stories the townspeople tell each other about the fates befallen some of their own.  In the following passage, Irving relates the headless horseman’s routine as described by villagers:

“The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. This was one of the favorite haunts of the headless horseman; and the place where he was most frequently encountered.”

Regarding the apparent hurry in which the Headless Horseman appears to always be, Irving’s villagers suggest that the horseman’s identity is that of a Hessian mercenary killed during the Revolutionary War, and who is in a perpetual rush to return to his grave:

“. . . the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head; and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak."

 Not unlike the legend of vampires, the horseman apparently can function only at night, and must return to his burial site before the appearance of the Sun.

Read the study guide:
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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