It’s October. A nip’s crept into the air, here in the mid-Atlantic. Pumpkins line the sidewalks outside supermarkets and stores smell of that bewitching blend of cinnamon and clove. It’s time for hayrides and apple cider, for kicking through piles of new-fallen leaves and remembering to put on a jacket before heading out in the morning.
At the same time, nights are getting darker. All of nature is preparing for the long sleep of winter. Sometimes a morning fog rolls in, so thick that when you walk out into it, you could fancy yourself alone in a world of roiling white.
Almost alone, that is. You know there’s something out there, concealed by the fog, watching you through eyes far keener than your own. That sudden set of footsteps you hear--the mailman’s or a serial killer’s? That rasping noise--a blowing leaf, or claws scraping the sidewalk?
Welcome to October, the season of Halloween.
Your earliest fears never leave you. Not the later, adult fears, concerning mortgages and cancer, money troubles, health and relationships. Those may keep us up at night, but they don’t inspire us to hide our heads beneath the bedcover. The fears I’m talking about children’s fears, born of that time before one’s world whittles itself down to the merely possible. They are ridiculous, even risible, and they can still ice up your insides, make you glance over a shoulder and think, even if just for an instant: what if . . . ?
My friend’s eight-year-old son is terrified of zombies. Another child I knew growing up always checked behind her door to make sure no aliens were hiding there. For me, the king of all spookdom was undoubtedly the Headless Horseman.
There are many legends of headless horsemen, of course. The Irish have the Dullahan, a grim spirit that uses the spine of a human corpse for a whip. El Muerto is the name of the decapitated equestrian rumored to terrorize south Texas. The dark and lonely hills of Dartmoor are reportedly haunted not only by headless riders, but also, perhaps to spice things up, by headless horses. My particular nightmare, however, was undoubtedly the most famous of all: the legendary Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.
Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad had to be partly to blame. I’ve never actually seen Mr. Toad’s side of the adventure, but Mr. Ichabod’s section was frequently shown around Halloween during my childhood. Those last seven minutes of the film, where Ichabod confronts the Horseman in a gloomy, blue-tinted woods, remains a masterpiece of tension.
I recall sleepless hours spent frozen beneath my bedsheets, straining my ears for the sound of hoofbeats outside. Every shadowed corner of my room had to be watched lest a tall, black figure stepped forth, ax in hand and cape a-flutter. Then, one night, I heard something creak. Heart pounding, instantly on full alert, I looked out into the darkness of my room and saw a black-gloved hand reaching for me. The Horseman had finally come for me. Throwing the covers over my head, I trembled, awaiting the end.
Never have I felt an emotion so primal, pure, and unfiltered. This includes a traffic accident years later, when the car I was riding in went out of control, spinning completely around in the middle of a freeway. Then, I had time to grit my teeth and anticipate the impact of one of the trucks that had been speeding down the road behind us. The Horseman’s black glove, in contrast, blotted out all else. It and my terror of it were the only things in the world. And while, when I realized that all the trucks stopped in time and I wasn’t about to suffer the fate of a bug on a windshield, I experienced a nearly bone-melting relief, that night when I finally dared pull back the blankets to face my empty and silent room . . .
The truth is, I was disappointed. No, I didn’t want to be decapitated--still don’t, thank you very much. But for just one instant, legend entered reality. For that handful of seconds where I was convinced the Horseman stood over me, the world contained something beyond the dates and numbers printed in my textbooks that my teachers insisted comprised the whole of reality.
And although I can now say with confidence that the black glove I saw was a hallucination brought on by terror, I also believe the Horseman actually was there in my room, just for an instant. I’m not saying that I think he’s real; trot down any lonely lane in Sleepy Hollow in the dead of night and I guarantee there’s a near hundred percent certainty you’ll emerge at the other end with your head firmly connected to your neck. What I mean is that the Horseman was present in spirit, and since he is an actual spirit, that’s all he requires to go on existing. Most ghosts, I think, would be rather diminished by reality. There’s many a good horror film that’s been ruined by too close a look at the monster.
So take your moaning, smelly zombies, your screaming aliens with scales and slimy fangs, your lugubrious vampires--sparkling or not--and shifty-eyed serial killers with their quips and over-complicated schemes. Instead, let’s salute a spirit with panache, one who haunts quiet country lanes, mounted on the back of a fiery-eyed steed. Picture him silhouetted against a full moon, his red-lined cloak artfully tattered. As his horse rears, silvery light gleams off the edge of the ax he holds upraised in one hand.
Keep that image in your head. Maybe this Halloween you’ll have a chance to walk alone at night. With luck, there’ll be a breeze, rattling the fallen leaves against the ground. Listen for hoofbeats. If you hear them, don’t bother turning. There won’t be anything there. Savor instead the cold thrill of terror tracing a finger down your spine and know the Horseman’s graced you with his presence. Give him a nod from me--and don’t lose your head!
This Halloween, let’s raise a toast to the Headless Horseman. May he continue to ride--and scare--a thousand years!
A. E. Decker hails from Pennsylvania. A former doll-maker and ESL tutor, she earned a master’s degree in history, where she developed a love of turning old stories upside-down to see what fell out of them. This led in turn to the writing of her YA novel, The Falling of the Moon. A graduate of Odyssey 2011, her short fiction has appeared in such venues as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fireside Magazine, and in World Weaver Press’s own Specter Spectacular. Like all writers, she is owned by three cats. Come visit her, her cats, and her fur Daleks at wordsmeetworld.com or @MoonfallMayhem.