Imagine yourself (or remember yourself) as a junior researcher. Let’s say you’d had good methodological training and were confident about your knowledge in terms of your subject-matter expertise. But you were also at the bottom of the hierarchy in terms of institutional power. Perhaps you were a research assistant, just finishing your masters degree or beginning your doctoral dissertation research.

Suppose you had collected some vital data and then tried to bring that evidence to bear on a crucial interpretation of a case. However, in an important meeting (maybe a dissertation defense?), a senior person in a position of power devalued your methods, disagreed with your interpretation, and refuted your findings. Not only that, but to teach you a lesson (and to get rid of you for a while), that authority figure banished you from your current position and sent you off to do fieldwork in a totally foreign (and potentially hostile) environment.

How would you feel? What would you do?

This Chair’s Report is a story about a researcher who found himself in that situation.

Or rather, it is a story about several stories ….

A Story for this Spooky Season

Every year at this time, my thoughts turn to Hallowe’en. It is no longer the (mostly) carefree holiday that I remember from my school years – a time for indulging in candy overdoses and trying to create the coolest costume. In the era of COVID, there will be no trick-or-treaters roaming my neighborhood, no pint-sized monsters or fairies knocking on my door. I have no excuse to buy multiple packages of bite-sized chocolates to give to the children (and keep as leftovers). So, in order to celebrate the holiday in solitude, I will re-watch my favorite scary movie: Tim Burton’s version of “Sleepy Hollow.”

This film is based on a well known tale by Washington Irving. It is about an itinerant teacher named Ichabod Crane, who takes a job in Sleepy Hollow, a small village in the wilds of upstate New York during the late 1700’s. In the book (and in most of the film renditions), the teacher is portrayed as a lanky, scrawny, and clumsy fellow who is somewhat superstitious. He is nervous because he has heard strange tales of ghosts and goblins in the area. One of those stories claims that the region is haunted by a headless horseman – a mercenary Hessian soldier who had been killed (indeed, beheaded) in the Revolutionary War. It is said that the horseman rides the woodland trails at night, searching for his missing head.

As Ichabod begins his teaching job, he is hosted for meals by the townspeople. He quickly falls in love with Katrina van Tassel, an heiress whose father is the wealthy Squire van Tassel. Unfortunately, the brawny town blacksmith, Brom Bones, already has his eye on Katrina (and her future fortune), so he resents Ichabod’s attentions to her. Tension develops as Ichabod is bullied by Brom, who does several things to frighten the school master, including trashing the schoolhouse and making it seem as though witches had done the damage. Every evening after a meal at someone’s house, Ichabod must walk home at dusk or in the dark. He is terrified of small sounds in the forest, and Bones begins to capitalize on this fear by pretending to be the headless horseman.

One night, Ichabod is invited to a harvest party at the stately van Tassel home. He dresses as well as he can and borrows a horse (“Gunpowder”), in order to make a good impression. As he leaves the party, Ichabod hears strange sounds and senses that there is another rider nearby. He kicks Gunpowder to take a faster pace, but cannot escape the sense that he is being closely followed. Eventually, Ichabod spies the other traveler and is horrified to see that he has no head upon his shoulders. Instead, it is perched before the horseman on the pommel of his saddle. A terrifying chase ensues, and the horseman throws his head at Ichabod, who is hit and knocked to the ground as Gunpowder gallops away. According to the Wikipedia summary of the story,

The next morning, Ichabod has mysteriously disappeared from the area, leaving Katrina to later marry Brom Bones, who was said “to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related.” Indeed, the only relics of the schoolmaster’s flight are his discarded hat, Gunpowder’s trampled saddle, and a mysterious shattered pumpkin.

The reader is left with the interpretation that Brom had masqueraded as the headless horseman in order to scare off his competition for Katrina’s affection. And yet, as readers, we have a lingering feeling that there is truly something eerie and unsettling about the forest around Sleepy Hollow.

Tellings and Retellings

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was published in 1819 in a collection entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The first extant film version of the tale is the 1922 black-and-white silent movie called “The Headless Horseman,” starring Will Rogers. The story was made into a Disney cartoon in 1949, which is scary but full of wonderful sight gags. In a made-for-television movie version in 1980, Jeff Goldblum played the awkward schoolteacher, who courts Katrina and wins her love.

A 1985 film called “Sleepy Hollow: Tall Tales and Legends” begins with Ichabod running terrified through the woods in the dark, where he encounters a man sitting beside a campfire. This person turns out to be the uncle of Kristina van Tassel and the narrator of the film. He tells Ichabod the story of the headless horseman, who supposedly haunts the forest. This production feels more like a stage play than a movie to me (e.g., the narrator frequently steps out of his role and delivers commentary directly to the audience in an aside). In this version, Ichabod is rather one-dimensional: He is frightened from the beginning to the end of the movie, which presents no exploration or analysis of his fears.

Yet another film version, which was produced in Canada in 1999, is called “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” This story begins with a stranger coming into a rustic tavern on a stormy night. As he sits and updates the journal of his travels, the locals take an interest and begin to tell him stories, and soon the scene changes to represent the tale that one of them is telling. For the rest of the film, the scenes alternate between the storytelling in the pub and the story that is being told – the legend of Sleepy Hollow. In this movie (which I recommend), the village and its folk are portrayed with beautiful rural scenery and period costumes. The complex role of Ichabod is played by Brent Carver, who is very proud to be an educated man but is also somewhat cowardly and foolish. He often misreads the facts and misinterprets people’s attitudes toward him.

A computer-animated version, called “The Night of the Headless Horseman,” was produced in 1999, complete with very spooky music and impressive artwork. A clever shadow puppet rendition of the story is narrated with a transcript at the bottom of the screen. Even the Smurfs have gotten into the act! They have an animated version called “The Legend of Smurfy Hollow.” (I’m not making this up.)

Finally, I’ve found a multi-episode TV series (that I haven’t seen) called simply “Sleepy Hollow,” in which Ichabod Crane is apparently resurrected and brought forward from his original era into modern days. This version adds an element of time travel and the character of Ichabod Crane is quite a departure from Irving’s original. In fact, in this portrayal, our hero had been a solider under the command of General George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and claims that it is he who beheaded the horseman!

I wonder if Washington Irving had any idea that his story would be retold so many times and in so many different ways. The catalogue above reminds me of the lasting fascination with stories like Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, of which there 13 film versions have been made, beginning in 1921. There is something about a really good scary story that keeps us enthralled.

The Importance of Gathering Evidence

If you are still reading this Chair’s Report, by now you are surely asking yourself what any of this extended movie review may have to do with TIRF. Let me return to the theme of research.

Most of the film versions described above use Irving’s portrayal of Ichabod Crane as a timid school master, who is highly anxious and out of touch with the people in the village. The plots focus on the tension that develops between him and Brom as Ichabod takes an interest in Katrina. But the version of the story directed by Tim Burton adopts a very different approach, in terms of both the plot and the character development.

Near the opening of the film (nine minutes and 45 seconds), we see the credits and are immediately caught up in the mood of the era. The tone of the film is set with eerie music (film score by Danny Elfman) and increasingly darkening surroundings. (Even the first two or three minutes of this scene will tell you whether or not you should watch the entire movie.)

As that clip begins, we see Constable Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp) trying to pull a body out of the river in New York City. Although he wants to investigate the cause of death, a boorish policeman orders the corpse burned and claims that if a body is found in the river, it means the person drowned.

Their debate moves to a courtroom, where Crane argues that actual evidence is needed before a judgment can be made. He asserts, “The millennium is almost upon us. In a few months we will be living in the nineteenth century. Yet our courts continue to rely on medieval devices of torture!” He objects to such procedures being used to extract confessions. The judge becomes annoyed and berates Crane for his lack of respect, saying sarcastically, “This is a song that we have heard from you more than once!”

 Crane continues, “Why am I the only one who sees that to solve crimes, to detect the guilty, we must use our brains to recognize vital clues using up-to-date scientific techniques?” In other words, he feels that decisions based on his research methods are superior to those founded on assumptions alone.

The magistrate takes offense and says he has two options for dealing with Crane’s haughty attitude – putting him in a cell to learn respect or sending him north to investigate some grizzly murders in a small farming town where three people have been killed. More specifically, the judge says, the victims were found “with their heads lopped off.” Crane grimaces but accepts the assignment. The judge sternly admonishes him: “Remember, it is now you, Ichabod Crane, who is put to the test.”

We next see Constable Crane in his lodging, packing his scientific instruments. Before leaving the city, he releases a cardinal he had kept in a birdcage. He rides in a horse-drawn carriage that travels along the Hudson River into wilder and wilder countryside, until it stops at a nearly deserted town. There the driver deposits our somewhat anxious hero and his luggage. Crane walks through the shuttered village until he comes to the van Tassel home (the place he will be staying at during his investigation), where a party is in progress. In a matter of minutes, he is unexpectedly kissed by Katrina van Tassel (in a parlor game), offends her suitor, and meets her father. Although we, as the audience, do not know it, in the first four minutes after entering Sleepy Hollow, Crane meets (or at least sees) the people whose lives he will investigate and disrupt – including most of the main players in this drama.

While the party continues, Ichabod meets privately with the town’s five leading citizens. In that conversation, Squire van Tassel tells him the history of the headless horseman, who had been killed during the Revolutionary War in the forest nearby. The squire admonishes Crane, “Even today the western woods is a haunted place where brave men will not venture.” (It turns out that these woods are home to a very strange tree, which the local people call the Tree of the Dead.)

Crane had already learned from the judge in New York that three people had been beheaded, but it is in this conversation that he is told that their heads were not found. These village elders insist that the murders were committed by the headless horseman, who took the severed heads. But Crane (clearly a rationalist) states, “Gentlemen, murder needs no ghosts come from the grave. We have murders in New York without benefit of ghouls and goblins.” Squire van Tassel responds, “You are a long way from New York, constable.”

Unfortunately, Crane does not yet realize how far he has come from the modern world. In this isolated settlement, he must now exercise his professional skills to gather and interpret evidence. In fact, after the party, as the story progresses, several more gruesome murders occur.

As the story unfolds, Crane uses his instruments and empirical procedures to help him investigate several aspects of the crimes – particularly the complicated relationships among the victims. He poses and revises his hypotheses, and collects and analyzes additional data (by measuring, observing, interviewing, making notes, and reviewing historical documents). He even hires a young research assistant (Jonathan Masbath, an orphan boy whose father was beheaded while he was on watch, guarding the town).

But as the investigation proceeds, Crane has flashbacks to strange events in his childhood. As a result, he encounters buried mysteries of his own and must confront the possibility that evil incarnate does exist. In one such flashback, we see Ichabod as a child, frightened by a storm and hiding in his bed. His mother comes to his room and shows him a thaumatrope: “a card with different pictures on opposite sides, as a horse on one side and a rider on the other, which appear as if combined when the card is twirled rapidly, thus illustrating the persistence of visual impressions” ( In that scene, Crane’s mother holds a disk with a picture of a cardinal on one side and an empty cage on the other. As she twirls the disk, we see that the cardinal appears to be inside the cage. This simple toy will later prove to be important as both a source of insight to Crane and as a metaphor for us as viewers of the film.

The beginnings of a friendship slowly emerge between Katrina and Crane. In this version of the story (spoiler alert!), Brom Bones, uhm, shall we say, ceases to be a competitor for Katrina’s hand. As a result, her relationship with the visiting detective can develop (though with many challenges, doubts, and plot twists) without what is typically presented as Brom’s continuous bullying. Kristina gradually becomes the constable’s ally, but she regularly challenges his thinking and his conclusions.

Even though the town elders want the murders to stop, they decline to go into the western woods with Crane to look for evidence, but Katrina accompanies him. There, she sees a cardinal and tells the constable that she’d love to have a tame cardinal but wouldn’t have the heart to keep it in a cage, so Crane shows her the thaumatrope. As he spins the disk, she exclaims, “You can do magic!” He explains that it is not magic – it is optics. He says, “The separate pictures become one in the spinning. It is truth, but truth is not always appearance.”

Crane continues to assert his rationalism by steadfastly denying the widely held explanation of a ghostly horseman beheading the local folk. Accosting one of the panicking village elders, he insists, “There is no horseman! There never was a horseman! There never will be a horseman!” But just moments later, Crane witnesses that person’s ghastly decapitation and although he himself is not harmed in the attack, he is overcome by the horror of what he had seen. He flees to the van Tassel home, where he collapses in his bed. When Squire van Tassel enters the room, Crane hysterically tries to explain what he had seen:

Crane: It was a headless horseman!

van Tassel (speaking calmly): You must not excite yourself.

Crane: But it was a headless horseman!

van Tassel: Of course it was. That’s why you’re here.

Crane: You must believe me! It was a horseman, a dead one! Headless!

van Tassel (soothingly): I know, I know.

Crane: You don’t know because you were not there! It’s all true!

van Tassel: Of course it is. I told you. Everyone told you.

Crane: I saw him! (He collapses, senseless, in his bed.)

This realization (and acceptance) that the headless horseman does exist represents a turning point in the plot and in Crane’s understanding. From that moment on, he is beset with competing hypotheses about a possible conspiracy and the motives for the murders. He revisits his notes, questioning his conclusions and re-examining his reasoning. Eventually, Crane, Katrina, and Jonathan go to the western woods looking for evidence. With only his two intrepid companions as witnesses, Crane begins to confront the supernatural directly, hacking into the bloody bark of the Tree of the Dead. He realizes it is actually “a gateway between two worlds” – a pronouncement he would not previously have believed, let alone uttered. Having gone this far, Crane uses a shovel as a data collection tool and literally unearths the evidence that the horseman’s skeleton is lacking its skull. His interpretation of this new datum is that the erstwhile Hessian soldier is killing the townsfolk in an attempt to regain his missing head.

Later, at the van Tassel home, Crane finds a chalk drawing of a pentagram under his bed and interprets it as a curse. He soon mistrusts everyone (except Jonathan) and after misinterpreting some of Katrina’s actions, he leaves Sleepy Hollow with bitter words to her. But while he is riding away in the carriage, he takes the thaumatrope from his pocket and spins the disk. Once more, the cardinal appears to be in the cage, and Crane realizes that he was wrong about Katrina and possibly about his interpretation of the evidence. He orders the coachman to take him back to the village so he can resume his investigation, but he does not discover the real culprit until a piece of previously misinterpreted data falls into place.

There follow some action-packed scenes involving escape from a burning windmill and a wild carriage ride in which Crane, young Masbath, and Katrina are relentlessly pursued by the horseman. They barely escape, but Crane saves them by –

Oh, but wait. If I say anything more, there will be no mystery left for you to uncover. And at this time of year, we all need some mystery in our lives, to distract us from the routine of our daily existence and make us examine our assumptions.

Lessons to be Learned

There are at least six possible lessons to be learned by examining this version of the legend of Sleepy Hollow, and some of them are directly related to research.

First, in this story, a mixed-methods approach to data collection and analysis yields more in-depth information than did Crane’s initial strictly rational convictions alone. After a great deal of difficulty and angst, the detective realizes that there is value in ways of looking at life other than those views he had previously held.

Second, in conducting his investigation, Crane learns a great deal about himself as well as about the murders and other people. He recalls at least part of his buried childhood history, which had been influenced just as much by the supernatural as were the mysterious deaths in Sleepy Hollow.

Third, Crane learns to both doubt and trust his instincts, even though his findings are repeatedly refuted by authority figures. For example, while he suffers from a fever after being wounded by the horseman, he tries to explain what he’s discovered: that the headless horseman is controlled by “someone of flesh and blood – as I’ve always said!” Squire van Tassel exclaims, “These are ravings!”

Fourth, we can see the thaumatrope as a metaphor for research. Looked at one way, the data seem to lead us to a particular interpretation. But when we spin the disk, we may see something else entirely.

Fifth, when embarking on new research projects, especially those that involve some controversy, it is a good idea to hire a loyal research assistant to help you. And it always helps to have a supportive colleague who will follow you into the tangled western woods.

Sixth, even if you get discouraged and give up on a research project in frustration, it is often a good idea to take a break and try again. Revisiting the data after a pause for reflection can often yield fresh insights. Metaphorically speaking, you can take a brief carriage ride out of the spooky village, but then turn around and reengage in your efforts.

Finally, I find the ending of Tim Burton’s film reassuring, largely because it differs from the other versions I have seen. I am tempted to say that a final message of the story is that love does (or at least can) conquer all.

Whatever message you may draw from the legend of Sleepy Hollow and how it relates to research, I hope you have enjoyed this slightly spooky Chair’s Report. Happy Hallowe’en!

Best wishes,