Sleepy Hollow continues to be weird

My students asked today for a Sleepy Hollow update – which I wasn’t fully prepared to give.  After they found the Lost Colony of Roanoke (on a magic island in the Hudson Valley, no less), I had sort of given up on the show.  I caught up tonight – and it continues to be terrible, but in some rather odd ways.

For one, some officers of the British army are also demons, which takes the moralization of American history that the show has been doing all along to new and strange places.  The premise is that Washington and a band of good guys was tasked with protecting the world from evil (via the British), so perhaps its not surprising that the writers decided to literally demonize British officers.  Nevertheless, it seems like a very literal way to make the point that Americans were the good guys in this fight, and the British were the bad guys.

The second sort of bizarre thing was that Ichabod’s wife, the witch, who was burnt at the stake in 1782 (she wasn’t really killed, but not because there weren’t witch trials in the late 18th century) is first introduced to Ichabod as a Quaker nurse.  It’s not clear if she was also a witch at that point – but it struck me as odd that her Quakerness and witchyness seemed so easily integrable.  I’m not an historian of religion, but it seems like the writers might have surmised that since Quakerism today allows a fair amount of latitude in terms of religious practice, perhaps 18th century Quakerism did too.  It does, though, seem like a very marginalizing move, to cast Quakers as insufficiently religiously serious to object to one among them also being a witch.

Finally, the witches were allied with the Freemasons, which I have no way to explain.  I’m teaching the U.S. survey again next semester, and I’m trying to figure out how to use one of these episodes in class.  With popular historical perspectives this semester – in particular Ask a Slave and the soundtrack to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – I didn’t give my students enough of a framework to talk about the sources.  They thought that Ask a Slave was funny and that Bloody Bloody was selectively accurate, and a bit vulgar, but I need to find a better way to connect the production of popular historical material to what they’re learning in class.  In the past, I’ve asked students to evaluate pop history in light of what they’ve learned in the class so far – but since we don’t get to Washington’s plantation, Andrew Jackson or the American Revolution until the middle of the course, I’m on the lookout for something that I can ask them to consider in the first few weeks, or that they can use as a jumping off point for their first set of response papers.  Perhaps the Roanoke episode of Sleepy Hollow (or, for that matter, Supernatural) might fit the bill afterall.

Let us talk about Sleepy Hollow

I am an unabashed fan of badly realized history in books, TV and movies.  I started my U.S. survey this semester with the opening scenes from National Treasure, I legitimately enjoy Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy (though, to be fair, the history in that is spot-on, with the exception of the witches, demons and magic bits) and, predictably, I really liked the new Sleepy Hollow TV series premier.  It’s not that I think that badly done history is something that ought to be celebrated, its that a lot of the romanticized historical genre (in which historians lead dramatic and dangerous lives, or in which discovering something about the past is crucial to the advancement of the plot) seem to willfully get things wrong (again, Harkness is the exception here).  The opening of National Treasure for example, involves one Charles Carroll, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland, as the keeper of a long-held secret clue to find a treasure originally hidden by the Freemasons (who, apparently, morphed from the Knights Templar, but I’ll leave the problems with that to a medievalist).  So quoth the film:

“It didn’t reappear for more than a thousand years when knights from the First Crusade found hidden vaults beneath the Temple of Solomon. You see, the knights who found the vaults believed that the treasure was too great for any one man, not even a king. They brought the treasure back to Europe and took the name… the Knights Templar. Over the next century, they smuggled it out of Europe and formed a new brotherhood known as the Freemasons, in honor of the builders of the Great Temple. War followed. By the time of the American Revolution, the treasure had been hidden again. By then, the Masons came to include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere. They knew they had to make sure the treasure would never fall into the hands of the British, so they devised a series of clues and maps to its location. Over time the clues were lost or forgotten, until only one remained. And that was the secret that Charles Carroll entrusted to young Thomas Gates.”

The problem?  Charles Carroll was a Catholic – the richest Catholic in Maryland, in fact.  He would not have been a Freemason.  It’s not like there weren’t myriad other ways to start the story in National Treasure.  The hoarded gold could have been taken from Spanish privateers, or (as in the sequel) some kind of Aztec treasure.  So, my friends and colleagues have asked, what?  Bad movies, bad TV shows are made all the time with less than plausible premises.  But I think that the willful manipulation of history – what seems to be the intentional getting-it-wrong, is often quite revealing.  In setting up National Treasure the way they did, the writers were implicitly making an argument about the long, noble and storied history of the United States – tying American liberty to the glory of the crusades to the nobility of the Templars to the antimonarchicalism of the Freemasons.  Much of this is just flat-out wrong, but it’s wrongness serves a rhetorical purpose, and stakes a particular claim about America’s place among other glorious causes.

The visual pun in this poster is also fantastic.

So, when I came across Sleepy Hollow yesterday, I was quite taken with the myriad things that show got wrong, and wonder what that wrongness means about the kind of American myth the writers are trying to tell.  (As a totally un-ironic and genuine aside, I’m thrilled that the main character is a woman of color – and that her superiors are, respectively, an African-American and Latino man – and that none of this is treated as surprising or weird within the world of the show.  It’s sad that having a diverse cast is a cause for celebration, but there it is)  Perhaps the biggest error from an historical perspective is that Ichabod Crane’s wife is (a) a real witch, (b) was apparently burned for witchcraft in 1782 and then (c) buried in a church graveyard with a notice to the effect of her witchery on her tombstone.

The witch trials at Salem took place about 100 years earlier, and while people accused of witchcraft were still being killed in Europe in the 1740s, formal trials in America had ceased by the beginning of the 18th century.  On top of that, people who were excommunicate, which I’m fairly sure being convicted of witchcraft would have made Crane’s wife, didn’t tend to get church burials.  Ultimately, this piece of anachronism is sort-of solved by the fact that Crane’s wife isn’t really dead, but trapped in a witchy forest, and in her grave is the horseman’s skull, which must be kept from him at all costs.

But, by creating a world in which witch burnings continued into the early republic, the show’s writers seem to be suggesting two things.  The first, is that the world of early America was less rational than we tend to think, and that the Hudson River Valley was particularly irrational.  The second, is that the problems of Colonial America persisted at least until after the Revolution, and with the re-awakening of the Headless Horseman in 2013, into the present day.  Or maybe they just thought being accurate wouldn’t make such a good story – but I still think that these inaccuracies, willful or no, paint a very interesting picture of Colonial/Revolutionary America, and tell us something interesting about American historical memory.