If you’ve never read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” you probably think of it as a terrifying tale of a graveyard haunted by the vengeful ghost of a Hessian soldier decapitated during the Revolutionary War. That’s how it gets the Hollywood treatment. If you have actually read Washington Irving’s original short story, then you know that it’s really a tongue-in-cheek yarn, with some spooky atmospherics, recounting from the victim’s point of view an elaborate hoax staged by a young courting couple to scare away the maiden’s unwelcome suitor: Ichabod Crane, a smug, pompous schoolmaster who also happens to be quite superstitious. In sum, it’s more droll than genuinely scary.
Either way, the story makes a great theme for Halloweeny theatrics. And it’s a tourism gold mine for the Hudson Valley, since Sleepy Hollow is an actual village in Westchester and Irving was one of our own, at least part of the time. A Manhattan native, he paid his first extended visit to Tarrytown at the age of 15, sent by his parents to evade the 1798 yellow fever epidemic. He bought his riverside home Sunnyside in 1835, and died there of a heart attack in 1859.
By the time he moved to Tarrytown – the village next door to Sleepy Hollow – Irving was renowned on two continents as “the first American man of letters.” He had already written both of his most famous stories, “Legend” and “Rip Van Winkle”; covered Aaron Burr’s treason trial for a newspaper; co-founded the literary magazine Salmagundi; coined the phrase “the almighty dollar,” as well as the nicknames “Gotham” for New York City and “Knickerbocker” for one of its residents; spawned the fiction that Christopher Columbus’ contemporaries believed the Earth to be flat; and, with his accounts of traditional Yorkshire Yuletide celebrations in his Bracebridge Hall stories, planted the seed of inspiration in Charles Dickens that would soon lead to the writing of A Christmas Carol.
Now among the properties administered by Historic Hudson Valley, Sunnyside takes full advantage this time of year of its associations with the classic American “ghost” story. First off, you can tour the Irving estate itself; Sunnyside is open from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in October. Admission costs $14 for adults, $12 for seniors and $8 for children aged 3 to 17.
Meanwhile, a nearby Historic Hudson Valley property, the Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson, is home on autumn evenings to an elaborate walk-through experience called the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze. More than 10,000 individually hand-carved, illuminated pumpkins decorate the historic 18th-century riverside landscape, stacked and grouped into imposing sculptural arrangements, such as a gigantic dragon.
On to Sleepy Hollow itself: The Old Dutch Church hosts “Irving’s ‘Legend,’” a dramatic performance of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by master storyteller Jonathan Kruk, flavored with live spooky organ music by Jim Keyes. It’s appropriate for kids aged 10 and up.
Finally, for the hardcore scare enthusiast (not recommended for children under 10), “Horseman’s Hollow” at Philipsburg Manor takes visitors through an 18th-century town driven mad by the Headless Horseman. Creatures, human and otherwise, lurk in the shadows.
For full schedules for all these events, directions and to order tickets, visit www.hudsonvalley.org/plan-your-visit/halloween.