Why I Want to Punch “Sleepy Hollow”
This TV show makes the historian in me weep.
To me, Sleepy Hollow typifies all the wrong ways of writing alt-history. The writers came up with a story by grabbing a literary figure, bringing him into the present, rolling both into the apocalyptic predictions of the Book of Revelation, and then force-feeding the concept back into history.
In the Sleepy Hollow world, witches are real. Fair enough. We’re crazy for witches right now, and we are starting with the concept of a headless-horseman, after all.
I will attempt to ignore the fact that witches apparently divide themselves into good covens and evil covens. That’s just cliched writing. There’s a reason in the X-Men movies Magneto heads the Brotherhood of Mutants, rather than the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants as originally written in the comic book. “So, what are you doing today, Bob?” “I think this is going to be another day of evil for me, thanks for asking.”
I am also not going to linger on the fact that the very concept of the “good witch” is very 20th century. The word “witch” has traditionally meant a worker of malevolent magic, so a “good witch” makes as much sense as a “good rapist.” Hearing 18th century characters use the phrase is just weird and melts my brain a bit.
But no, my real irritation starts with the fact that, after much investigation, the local sheriff discovers that 100 witches were burned about 200 years ago in the village of Sleepy Hollow. Again, I have no issue with that in and of itself. But your world has to change in response to that above and beyond what encourages the plot, and here it doesn’t. the resulting issues, in order of increasingly annoyance:
No witch was ever burned in the British colonies or in the United States. The handful of executions at Salem were hangings (plus one man who was pressed to death under heavy stones). The reason witches were hung in the British colonies was because they were also hung in Britain. Yes, burning always sounds more dramatic, but…
Don’t write stuff just because it sounds cool.
This information was somehow a secret. The sheriff had to do a lot of research, and the deputy he tells is clearly shocked. Every person raised in America today knows of the Salem Witch Trials, which executed 20 people. How the hell do people in the Sleepy Hollow world not know about 100 executions?
These executions happened around the year 1800. The vast majority of witch hunts in European history occurred between the late 15th century and the mid 17th century. Salem, happening in 1692, was very late in the game, but still 100 years before Sleepy Hollow.
Why did people stop hunting witches? Because people stopped believing in witchcraft.
Now, you could argue that since witchcraft is real in this world, there would be no reason for witch-hunts to stop in the 1600s. However, that would require people to know witchcraft is real, and apparently no one does. It’s a big-ass secret, even bigger than this 100-witch bonfire. You can’t have it both ways.
You know how many people were tried as witches in Britain in 1800? Zero, because in 1736 Britain made it illegal to even accuse someone of witchcraft. Oops.
Everyone Loses in Revelation
Lots of fiction incorporates elements of the Book of Revelation, particularly the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, of which here the headless horseman is Death. No problem there. However, Sleepy Hollow embraces the literal teaching of the Book, in which the appearance of the horsemen is one of the opening acts of the apocalypse. The plot revolves around trying to stop Death and, thus, stopping the apocalypse.
It doesn’t work that way.
Have you read the Book of Revelation? No shame if you haven’t. I haven’t gotten through the whole thing either, and there’s a reason for this:it almost didn’t make it into the Bible not because the bishops thought it was wrong but because it was so utterly confounding to read.
But if you’re going to base your plot on the Book of Revelation, with characters pouring over the Book for clues, you should probably read it first.
The apocalypse of Revelation is not merely a possibility; it is a prophecy of an eventuality. (Presuming you’re reading it literally. But that’s an entirely different argument.) The Four Horsemen ride when Christ himself starts releasing the seven seals. It’s not a “get your shit together and we’ll postpone the apocalypse” moment. It’s a “prepare to meet your maker” moment. There is no stopping the apocalypse in Revelation. There is the possibility of surviving it, but the plot of Sleepy Hollow is very much a concerted effort to stop it, to tell God “no.”
That not how God works, either.