The devil’s in the detail: Horror as Political Discourse in Sleepy Hollow

“Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and anti-establishment.”

Guillermo del Toro

This is the first in a series of posts that will be exploring the cinematic style that contributes to a particular genre, racial representation, character construction or depiction of popular culture in television shows.

Housekeeping/Super fun self-reflexivity 

This blog usually comments on either my experiences or interpretations of racism based, generally speaking, on my status as a Pakistani British woman (plus a bunch of other stuff, because life, labels, let’s keep it loose, intersectionality….).

However, with this series it will be necessary to expand the pool of creative content that I comment on for the simple reason that there’s not a lot of television shows that extensively depict South Asian or Pakistani characters or representations. My aim with this series is, as I said in the first sentence, to focus on cinematic style but, I don’t believe that can be achieved without commenting on the intertwining relationship of intersectional dimensions (race, class, gender, sexuality etc.) with structural cinematic style.

This post is directly concerned with ABC’s Sleepy Hollow and, as the show’s lead character is an African American woman, part of my analysis will need to confront that. I will be sure to include plenty of links to people much better placed than myself to comment directly on the representation of that particular category. Obviously, I am not the person to be listening to about the veracity of that element of representation so I encourage you to engage with that other analysis.

Horror as a vehicle of social change

Sleepy Hollow, 101
Sleepy Hollow, 101

Horror, as with other fantasy genres, has a great capacity for the allegorical as John S. Nelson explains:

‘The gist of horror is facing evils in everyday life. This is to say that the genius of horror is subtext: symbolism that creeps beneath surface meanings to assault our dreams and awaken our minds.’ p. 382

The often supernatural or ‘uncanny’ aspect of horror lends itself extremely well to a sustained separation of sub-textual communication and on-screen action.

Nelson goes on to say:  

‘To face everyday evils is tough personally, let alone politically…as evils that implicate or even define us, they are so awful that they hurt our minds, and we work to keep their polite appearances in place…the subtexts of horror films push us to penetrate the repressions, face the evils, and undo them.’ p. 382

Horror generally portrays a protagonist of some description overcoming (or attempting to overcome) an otherworldly being and the sum effect of this on an audience is that of the group mentality. We usually travel with the protagonist(s) as they learn of the horror, experience it at great heights and occasionally, but not always, overcome it.

This narrative structure lends itself well to conveying broad political and social situations whilst simultaneously providing a fairly diverting media product:

‘The Monster has many ways and meanings; but horror lets us learn them, refine our defences, improve ourselves, and come together in the action.’ p. 385.

Another important function of the horror-as-political-discourse model is the fact that whilst being diverting, the genre also allows for a visual manifestation of a community’s fear of something (to positive or negative ends, I’m thinking of the various vagina monsters (academically speaking, ‘vagina dentata’) that crop up in horror and sci-fi films allowing men to confront the ever-looming spectre of girl power), which in turn enables a process of apprehension and eventual, if symbolic, overcoming of the manifestation.

Sleepy Hollow as case study

Sleepy Hollow, 101

Fox’ Sleepy Hollow has been renewed for a third season and revolves around the two main characters Abigail Mills (Nikkie Beharie) and Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison)’s role as Witnesses in preventing the rise of the Apocalypse and various demons, monsters and supporters of hell.

The show’s depiction of politics within the framework of the horror narrative occurs partly through the ‘colourmind’ casting choices. If colourblind casting functions on the basis of casting roles without attention to racial ethnicity, then colourmind casting would purposely cast roles with specific attention to racial ethnicity and subsequently integrate that into the character profile. For example, the suggestion of Donald Glover playing Spiderman is an example of what would be colourblind casting – Peter Parker is white in the comics but having a black actor play the role changes the representation considerably. A problem with colourblind casting, however, is instances where white actors are chosen to depict characters previously not written as white (for example, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, a white woman playing a Japanese character). This is a problem because whilst white actors are overwhelmingly overrepresented, black and Japanese characters/actors are not. However, under the principles of colourblind casting this would seemingly be acceptable.

Sleepy Hollow falls into the descriptor of ‘colourmind’ casting because it takes a positive element of colourblind casting, the possibility of seeing characters not as exclusively white, whilst also embedding the realities of experiences of a diverse range of people, instead of ignoring them.

The executive producer of the show, Heather Kadin, stated:

“It was a conscious effort to have a diverse cast just to represent our world. I don’t think it’s realistic for the whole cast to be white. I also think when you are developing a show and casting it mostly Caucasian and you get down to the bad guy and the network is like, ‘You have to have some diversity,’ then all of the sudden…that’s why the person of colour is always killed [first in horror shows]. And because we have so much diversity in our cast and we’ve had the freedom to cast our villains and victims however we want, so we can kill as many white people as we want.”

There’s evidently much to be said for Sleepy Hollow’s approach to casting a diverse cast as Abigail Mills and her sister Jenny are well-rounded characters, with extensive development of their personal motivations, a natural consequence of casting them as lead characters that confront the intersections of being female and African American.

This decision also highlights how political and social commentary doesn’t necessarily always have to be subtext – casting a black woman fighting a headless horseman is purely textual commentary. Sleepy Hollow is a notable example because whilst there is the cultural and social relevance of responsible casting choices, this also gives it the capacity to expand into additional sub-textual commentary on subjects of race rarely extensively discussed or allegorised on mainstream media.

Abbie and Jenny – impcat of casting choices

Sleepy Hollow, 104
Sleepy Hollow, 101

The main plotline at the beginning of season 1 concerns an encounter Abbie and Jenny have as children. Whilst travelling through the forest they see the god, Moloch. They are, obviously, disbelieved by their parents and others. The shots of Abbie recounting the incident to Ichabod are slightly blurry at the edges (as with the many flashbacks recounted from Ichabod’s point of view) and so washed out they are almost all white. The figure of Moloch is little more than a shape in the distance for the viewer, with the numerous trees making the shots even murkier.

This one encounter is repeatedly returned to during the course of season 1, with the forest clearly a prominent event in shaping the lives of Abbie and Jenny. In the present time, Abbie, who eventually claimed they hadn’t seen anything, is working at the local police department whilst Jenny, who is detained at a mental institution for part of the season, continued to claim that they had indeed seen some kind of creature.

Their positions are significant in that they parallel the theme of establishmentarianism v anti-authoritarianism: Abbie conformed to her community’s disbelief and is rewarded with a position at an institution built on enforcing rules; Jenny continued to assert what she saw and is painted as a mentally unreliable vigilante. The show’s decision to develop this storyline results in a positioning of Jenny’s vindication; their first sighting of Moloch was a warning shot in the god’s ultimate aim of bringing death and destruction to Sleepy Hollow and, presumably, everybody else.

In doing so, Jenny is brought in from her position as outsider without forgetting the sister’s respective origin stories. The repeated shots of the forest cement their symbolism as a liminal space; the forest encompasses Jenny and Abbie’s changing relationship, the bridge between their world and Moloch’s, and also signifies the fight they must engage in as adults against Moloch.

Anti-authoritarianism, then, has a place in this world and seems to be actively required if they are to overcome the dark forces. Whilst that is an obvious enough message in terms of a general questioning of authority (and the consequences of doing so) the fact of Abbie and Jenny being played by two black women is one that is rare for horror. As others have noted, an allegory of racial justice is all too evident in this narrative. Sleepy Hollow depicts a parallelism with the consequences of calling out racial injustice versus denying it and becoming a part of the institution.

This particular reading may be a little hard to envision for some people but it does follow the model described by Nelson. Horror is built to depict people coming together against a common evil and Sleepy Hollow’s colourmind casting does much to allow for readings concerning race into a narrative already brimming with political and social commentaries.

Abbie and Jenny confronting each other

In 104, ‘The Lesser Key of Solomon’ Abbie is forced to track down Jenny as her sisters escapes from the mental institution. It emerges that Sheriff Corbin, whom Abbie thought was solely her mentor, was actually Jenny’s mentor too. In her capacity as a police officer Abbie has to take Jenny to be questioned and the extended scene in the interrogation room serves as a significant point in the development of their relationship.

Abbie admits she was wrong to deny that they’d seen Moloch in the forest, as well as admitting the especially adverse effect it had on Jenny’s life.

The shots are framed with tight close up’s on Jenny and Abbie’s faces, which are well-lit despite the dark, sterile and monochrome room.

Sleepy Hollow, 104
Sleepy Hollow, 104

This framing and lighting subtly mirrors the composition of a scene where the sisters and Ichabod interrogate a Hessian soldier about the whereabouts of the key of Solomonl; there is an unnaturally dark background with light around the subject’s face. The difference with the Hessian, however, is that the light is behind him, leaving his face shady and thereby untrustworthy.

Sleepy Hollow, 104
Sleepy Hollow, 104

Jenny and Abbie have a silver table between them, along with silver chairs and a white wall. These serve as counterpoints to the dark floor and lighting around them. As the sisters are well-lit and framed sympathetically, their conversation is to be innately trusted and read as genuine, in both emotion and truth.

Sleepy Hollow, 104
Sleepy Hollow, 104

The cinematographic choices underscore what they are saying; Abbie promises to be a better sister but, more importantly, the sisters acknowledge the harm caused by Abbie pretending they hadn’t seen anything in the forest.

The counterplay of light and dark is utilised to imbue the classic horror trope of good v evil in a platonic relationship between two black women, purely for the sake of developing their relationship.

As discussed before, the parallelism in this relationship between the show’s storyline and the concept of racial gaslighting is made vitally important by the casting choice. Jenny and Abbie are given a metaphorical home in each other, and subsequently the capacity to ground their personal developments in each other. For me, they’re the most important (and best) relationship of the show as, in addition to being excellent, well-rounded humans, they also represent the politics-in-horror-discourse: the allegory between their character history and the question of racial gaslighting is only possible because of the colourmind casting.

Further, the answer to that question is answered by the show in affording Jenny validation for what she saw, Abbie the opportunity to grow into her new role as a Witness and the both of them the space to confront the truth needed to move on with their lives together.

Too good to be true

That happy ending is, unfortunately, far too neat. As Season 1 progressed their relationship was relatively intact with a decent amount of screen time for the sisters and other people of colour in the cast (including John Cho, Orlando Jones, Nicholas Gonzalez, Jill Marie Jones and Amandla Stenberg).

Season 2 was a different story altogether with Abbie completely sidelined and the focus instead on Ichabod and Katrina Crane. This meant Jenny also featured less, with Frank Irving institutionalised in a mental hospital. The hashtag #AbbieMillsDeservesBetter flourished and as Fangs for the Fantasy states:

‘The very character of this show that made it so rare and so beloved by many fans, especially POC, has been eroded since season two began – the show is becoming Whiter; the POC are less prominent and less important and the White characters – new and old – are moving into the space they once occupied. This surprisingly and very appreciated racially diverse show is losing the very elements that made it so unique (and garnered it such a passionate following) in a sea of overwhelmingly White programming.’

The model Nelson describes of horror-as-political-discourse involving comprehending the object of fear and rallying around to eventually confront it is not followed from within the text. Instead, we are faced with people of colour being shifted out of the show to focus on the white (and let’s face it, totally bland) characters. Suddenly, the political discourse being confronted here is not one about the representation of women in horror, or African American women building relationships with one another or an allegory about racial gaslighting. It’s become about a show whose writers demonstrated an intelligence for racial sensitivity whitewashing the show, leaving the reader to confront the reality of the expansive sidelining of black characters and other people of colour.

I don’t think Guillermo del Toro or Nelson intended the concept of horror-as-political-discourse to mean the horror we confront is the horror of whitewashing but that’s just where Sleepy Hollow has ended up. The only difference here is that it appeared to begin as genuinely positive representation for women and people of colour, only to revert to type and re-focus on white people. Season 1, while it lasted, was still an excellent example of horror functioning as an allegory for political and social change that involved renegotiating traditional horror tropes. Season 2, not so much.

Further Reading

15 of the best horror films with social-political subtext

John S. Nelson (2005) ‘Horror Films Face Political Evils in Everyday Life,’ Political Communication, 22:3

Sleepy Hollow sparks fan discussion on diversity in the media

What every TV show can learn from Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow & the continued sidelining of Abbie Mills

Sleepy Hollow: The lesson Fox learned about viewers love for diversity on TV


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