Sleepy Hollow is a 1999 American fantasy film by Tim Burton. It is an adaptation of the short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. Johnny Depp plays a New York police inspector tasked with solving a series of murders committed in 1799 in the village of Sleepy Hollow by a mysterious headless horseman, played by Christopher Walken. The cast also includes Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, and Casper Van Dien. The film, whose development began in 1993, was originally intended to be a low-budget slasher, but Paramount Pictures later decided to entrust the direction to Burton with more substantial means. It has received several awards, including the Oscar for Best Production Design and two British Academy Film and Television Arts Awards.
The ending of Sleepy Hollow might be a bit confusing for people, which is why we decided to explain what actually happened at the end of the movie. We are going to analyze the narrative elements of the story, as well as the meaning of the final scene, and how it all connects to the mystery of the movie and the fate of Ichabod Crane.
What happens in Sleepy Hollow?
Peter Van Garrett is traveling in a carriage, towards an unspecified destination, when, at a certain point, the coachman is killed and beheaded by someone: realizing the fact, Van Garrett runs away among the wheat fields but, finding himself in front of a scarecrow, he too is beheaded by the mysterious man.
New York, 1799. Ichabod Crane is a young police officer who used to make use of rational and scientific methods of investigation very unusual for the time. Given his continued opposition to the brutal methods used by the New York court and the fact that prisoners are sentenced without sufficient evidence, his superiors, both to temporarily remove him from the city and to test him, decide to send him to the remote village of Sleepy Hollow to investigate three heinous murders, in which the heads of the victims were removed.
Arriving in the village, Crane makes the acquaintance of Katrina, the beautiful daughter of Baltus Van Tassel, and remains sensitive to her charm, arousing the jealousy of a suitor for her, Brom.
The village notables explain to the inspector that the killer is the Headless Horseman, a cruel Hessian mercenary with razor-sharp teeth, who lived 20 years ago, and had a grisly habit of cutting off the heads of his enemies; one day, while he was near the village in the woods to the west, he tried to hide from some soldiers and met two little girls, but one, frightened, broke a twig, causing the soldiers to find the executioner.
The Knight tried to defend himself, but was wounded and then beheaded with the same sword, and the soldiers buried his body (along with his head), then stabbing the sword on the grave as if it were a tombstone. The ghost of the Knight now appears to have risen to take revenge. Crane does not believe in such superstitions and begins to interrogate the villagers in search of a culprit, despite another inhabitant of the citadel, Jonathan Masbath, being found beheaded in the woods.
At Masbath’s funeral, Crane makes the acquaintance of his son, who puts himself in his employ to avenge his father’s death and, at the veiled suggestion of magistrate Philipse, exhumes the body of the only woman killed, the widow Winship, revealing that she was pregnant. When the detective then confronts Philipse on the run, he sees with his eyes the Headless Horseman, who kills and beheads the magistrate in front of the impotent Crane.
Crane, having abandoned the path of logic and reason, goes to a witch residing in the woods to the west who reveals the Knight’s burial place, the “tree of the dead”. Accompanied by the young Masbath and Katrina Van Tassel, Crane arrives at the mysterious tree. Digging, the three find the victims’ heads and the knight’s skullless skeleton. Just at that moment, the ghost of the Knight emerges from the roots of the tree, astride his black steed that starts at a gallop, sowing Crane in pursuit of him.
The Knight reaches the house of Elizabeth, the village midwife, and her husband’s efforts to kill the headless horseman fail: the man, his wife, and their little son die beheaded by the specter armed with a sword and ax. Collecting the heads, the knight gets on his horse and tries to return to the forest, but is stopped by a shotgun fired by Brom, which throws him to the ground.
Despite the blow received, the ghost rises from the ground and tries to continue the journey not even paying attention to his attacker who tries, with the help of Crane, to kill the supernatural being. The fight ends with Crane lightly wounded and Brom dead, who is cut in two. While convalescing Crane dreams of his mother, actually a witch, and the day she was discovered by her father, a fanatical priest, and brutally murdered in a Nuremberg virgin, despite being not a malevolent witch, but a “daughter of the nature “, as Ichabod himself defines it.
The fact explains both how he got the scars on his hands (due to an instrument of torture where he fell when he found the lifeless body of the woman), and his hatred towards the supernatural and, above all, towards religious fanaticism, guilty of killing an innocent woman like his mother. This also explains why Ichabod so stubbornly opposed the brutal sentences that the New York court inflicted, without sufficient evidence, on its prisoners.
The next day the village elders, dissatisfied with Crane, gather to go to New York and ask for a new magistrate. Meanwhile, the inspector, thinking back to last night’s clash, understands that the Knight does not kill people by chance, but according to a criterion, and comes to the conclusion that he has not returned from Hell to take revenge by taking souls, but that he is acting under the influence from someone in exchange for a promise to get his missing head back.
He thus begins to speculate about who in Sleepy Hollow may be the Knight’s instigator, coming to suspect Baltus Van Tassel and noting his hypotheses about him in his diary.
In the office of the notary Hardenbrook, Crane finds the marriage certificate of Peter Van Garrett to the widow Winship and the new testament of Mr. Van Garrett who leaves everything to the widow, thus uncovering a conspiracy, hatched by the same notables of the city with knowledge of the secret: Reverend Steenwyck had married them, Dr. Lancaster treated the pregnant widow, Magistrate Philipse took care of enforcing the widow’s rights and drawing up the new will, which Hardenbrook keeps.
Masbath’s father and midwife Elizabeth have therefore suffered the consequences of this story, having come to know the truth as the first was the witness of the new testament, while the second for his profession. Crane deduces that the elders agreed to help the person who controls the ghost of the Knight, so that the Van Garrett estate would be inherited by the Van Tassels, the closest relatives (and that Philipse was dead because he wanted to back down).
Therefore Baltus Van Tassel is the prime suspect. Back at the inn, Crane and the young Masbath find Katrina reading the entries in Crane’s diary accusing Baltus, and then, when the girl leaves, they find a drawing under Crane’s bed that they interpret as the evil eye.
At night, Ichabod and the young Masbath see a cloaked figure entering the woods; following her, while the young Masbath remains behind to wait, Crane discovers that the figure was of Lady Van Tassel, second wife of Baltus and stepmother of Katrina, who is engaged in a sexual encounter with the Reverend Steenwyck.
When Ichabod and young Masbath return to their quarters they discover that the cards pointing the blame to Baltus are gone; Katrina took them so that the agent cannot blame her father, burning them in the fireplace of the ruin of a house on the moor, of which only the fireplace with an archer sculpted on her remains intact.
The next morning, news spreads around the village of the suicide of notary Hardenbrook. When everyone then retires to the church for an assembly to rule against Ichabod, Mr. Van Tassel arrives who, shocked, says he saw the Knight kill Mrs. Van Tassel as well. Terrified, the citizens holed up in the small chapel and tried in vain to kill the ghost with gunfire.
Reverend Steenwyck attempts to force Van Tassel out into the open, thinking that he is the one the knight wants dead, but the guilt-ridden Doctor Lancaster tries to reveal the whole truth to Van Tassel. The reverend then takes a heavy wooden cross and with it kills the doctor in the head; Van Tassel inadvertently lets a shot go off the gun and kills Steenwyck.
A small revolt is unleashed against Van Tassel, who escaped to the upper floor of the chapel, is harpooned by the Knight with a picket from the fence. The Knight drags him out of the chapel, only to behead him and steal his head.
Katrina faints and Crane, running, notices a drawing that the girl has traced on the floor with chalk, the same one that she had under her bed: the investigator then interprets it not as the evil eye, but as the spell with which young man controlled the Headless Horseman.
Thinking that Katrina is responsible for the murders, Crane leaves Sleepy Hollow to warn authorities that the perpetrator of the crimes has been found; during the trip Crane casually leafs through a book given to him by Katrina and finds there the drawing of the floor which was actually a spell of protection towards the loved one.
Crane then returns to the village, where he discovers a disturbing truth: the corpse that was believed to belong to Mrs. Van Tassel, in reality, belongs to another person. The woman faked her death.
How does Sleepy Hollow end? What happened to Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow?
Lady Van Tassel kidnaps Katrina and leads her to the old mill where she tells the truth to the girl: the real name of her family was Archer (archer in English, explaining why it was engraved on the fireplace of the old house), and after the death of Father Van Garrett had unjustly resulted in her and her family being thrown in the middle of the street, evicting them to house the Van Tassels.
Her mother, a powerful witch, taught her daughters in the forbidden arts and died leaving them alone in the world. Lady Van Tassel / Archer reveals how it was she and her sister (the witch of the woods known to Crane, who was killed for showing the detective the place where the Knight’s tomb is located) who made American soldiers discover the mercenary of Hessian witnessing his death and burial.
The woman decided to steal the knight’s head by resurrecting him and controlling him, to take revenge on Van Garret and Van Tassel; her revenge would be accomplished by seizing the assets of the two families. Having her husband killed by the knight, the final step in the plan is to eliminate Katrina, so that her fortune eventually goes to her. Lady Van Tassel then awakens the Knight once more.
Meanwhile, Crane and the young Masbath reach the mill and help Katrina to escape by climbing to the top of the windmill, clinging to the blades to go down and then setting fire to the building with the Knight still inside: the expedient is useless because the Knight is immortal, as already deceased.
Crane and the others escape to the tree of the dead, and in the struggle, the detective is hit by a bullet fired by Lady Van Tassel, but stopped by Katrina’s spellbook held on her chest; Crane, with the help of the young Masbath who stuns Mary by hitting her with a large branch, retrieves the skull and returns it to the Knight who returns human: he hoists Lady Van Tassel on horseback and kisses/bites her, devastating her lips with his fangs to then drag her with him into the tree of the dead, returning to Hell. Salvi, Crane, Katrina, and young Masbath return to New York in time for the new century.
Who was the killer in Sleepy Hollow?
If wasn’t clear from our analysis of the story, The Headless Horseman was, indeed, the murderer in the movie. This is where the movie differs a bit from the original story, but Burton’s narrative interventions made sense in the context of the movie, so it’s only natural for people to wonder whether the Headless Horseman was the actual killer in the movie. He was, of course, controlled by Lady Van Tassel, but he committed the actual murders.