Fun in the Midst of Fear

Memories of innocent scares in Sleepy Hollow.

Illustration by Tim Foley

Candle-lit porch pumpkins welcomed trick-or-treaters as we scoured the neighborhood with avenues named Crane, Katrina, and Van Tassel like the characters in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Once I filled a pillowcase with full-size candy bars, I headed home, where at bedtime it was a Halloween tradition to read Irving’s tale by flashlight. My 10-year-old hands trembled when I turned the pages, and I heard the distant clip-clop of horses, sure the man without a head was on his way to get me.

The year was 1969. U.S. troops were fighting a war in Vietnam and Woodstock hosted a music festival, but things remained quiet in North Tarrytown where residents lived a simple life. Shadows on the wall and possibly spotting the Headless Horseman were the biggest fears of children who watched cattle graze the Rockefeller property and pretended pirates inhabited the barges that navigated the Hudson River. Baby boomers coming of age in the river town gathered at George’s, a tavern located near the Headless Horseman Bridge. They carved initials in the paneling, drank 25-cent tap beer, and ate the best meatball wedges they’d ever eat while listening to George’s tales of Horseman sightings that had believers looking over their shoulders on the way home.

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Unlike friends who couldn’t wait for high school graduation to haul it out of sleepy suburbia, I stayed. Years passed, and life is no longer simple or quiet. North Tarrytown changed its name to Sleepy Hollow and is now known as the Halloween Capital of the Hudson Valley. When leaves turn crimson and woodstoves fire up, the curious and the brave visit for Horseman’s Hollow and a haunted hay ride through the cemetery. With cheeks rosy from falling temperatures and rising anticipation, some hope and others fear they’ll catch a glimpse of the beheaded man and his steed. Many visitors can’t remember a time without social media, and are more familiar with the fright fest depicted in Sleepy Hollow — the Tim Burton movie and the Fox TV series — than Washington Irving’s Legend. Nevertheless, their hearty laughter and bone-chilling screams light up the night, spelling good old-fashioned F-U-N.

Today we face peril in schools, movie theaters, and places of worship — locations considered safe in 1969 — giving our young more to fear than shadows on the wall and a headless man on a horse. Although real fear lurks in the autumn air in Sleepy Hollow, the bad guys are only bad while in costume, and the terror they evoke fades with the season. To the droves lining up for selfies with the Headless Horseman statue, it doesn’t matter that the place was once known as the village north of Tarrytown or that it is what it has always been — my home. It’s a fun place to visit, and fun is important at a time when recurrent senseless acts of violence make daily headlines.

Halloween candy bars are now miniature, and I haven’t read in bed by flashlight for a while. However, I often find myself awake pondering current events, longing for the carefree days. It’s then that I hear the clip-clop of horses in the distance. The adult I’ve become says it’s impossible, while the child hidden within remembers a simpler time and will always wonder.


Donna Landi is a life-long resident of Sleepy Hollow once known as North Tarrytown. Her writing has appeared in The River Journal as well as several websites.

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