Sleepy Hollow – Science, Magic, and Modernity

Faithful to gothic tradition, Sleepy Hollow has fear at its centre. Fear is here understood as what cannot be controlled by scientific reason, but it also associated with the horror of the sublime, as argued by Edmund Burke. Tim Burton’s film plays with the familiar opposition between modern science and traditional religion in an ironic way pointing to a more subtle understanding of reality that is often found in horror films (and good anthropology of religion!). This is partly because gothic belongs to the Romantic Movement’s reaction against the overbearing dominance of Enlightenment reason.

Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is a constable from New York City, emblem of industrialised scientific modernity. He seeks to affirm his scientific method in policing against the “medieval instruments of torture”. As a good positivist, Crane states that: “to solve crimes we need to use our brain and up to date scientific technologies.” Having annoyed everybody in his department, he is dispatched into a remote town ruled by superstition and magic. Marking the entrance to this land confined to the past is a Halloween pumpkin.

Crane meets with a group of notables from the town, who tell him the story of the headless horseman, whom they believe is responsible for the latest spate of murders. Crane remarks: “we have murders in New York without benefit of ghouls and goblins.” To which Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon) replies: “You’re a long way from New York.” People of the town have seen the horseman and believe. “Seeing is believing,” they claim. Crane distinguishes between truth and appearance by using a thaumatrope, a toy made of a disk with two sides, one with a bird and one with a cage. By twirling the strings of the disk, the two images appear one so the bird can be seen in the cage, but also free.

Crane’s blind faith in science is the result of a family tragedy. His father, an authoritarian religious man, killed his mother, who practised magic. It was ‘white magic’, just as the one practised by Katrina (Christina Ricci), who tries to protect Crane during his investigation. Yet, Crane, “bewitched by reason,” as he is told, can’t see the good in Katrina because she practises magic. He is “fooled by deduction”, which is shown to be unreasonable. Crane will uncover the mystery and come to understand that reality is not so black and white, that those who might appear evil outsiders (like the witch living in the tree house) are not, while well respected members of society hide murderous secrets. Crane learns that, as he puts it, “truth is not always appearance.”

Modernity, Science, and Religion

The profound economic, social, and cultural changes of the Industrial Revolution ushered a world dominated by science and technology. Industrialised modernity marks a shift in rationality. The dominant rationality of the nineteenth century bears little relation to Thomistic logical rationality, or the rationality of the Italian Renaissance, and even to that of the Enlightenment. Instrumental rationality comes to define reason. Science, within the early positivistic paradigm, is merely knowledge from observation of material reality (although it is guided by a heck of a lot of philosophical postulates). Consequently, reality is narrowly defined as materiality.

Max Weber calls this process rationalisation: the progressive advance of scientific instrumental rationality (Zweckrationalität). It is characterised by the disenchantment, or demystification (Entzauberung) of the world. In other words, the world is objectified and known just as material reality. There is no awe in front of nature; rather a mastering of it (for more, see pages 19-39 of my thesis). The predominance of this narrow rationality means that religion came to be seen as the irrational human sentiment fighting against enlightened scientific rationality . Weber wasn’t happy about it, neither was Nietzsche, but that’s for another post.

Reason, Magic, and Gender

Sleepy Hollow captures well this process of rationalisation as the nineteenth century turns into the twentieth century, but also shows its inherent reductionism and consequent inability of understanding the world around. That is why ‘magic’ is treated, to an extent, as a form of knowledge, a way of understanding the world, rather than simply as a way of controlling it. Magic “mystical action,” as Godfrey Lienhardt (1961: 331) calls it, “is not a substitute for practical or technical action, but a complement to it and preparation for it. … what the symbolic action is intended to control is primarily a set of mental and moral dispositions.”

Alas, the film follows the usual (and trite!) pattern of constructing femininity as close to nature, while men are constructed as ‘reason’ (see Seidler 1987 and Ortner 1974). Crane calls his mother “a child of nature” establishing the connection woman – nature – witchcraft in contrast with man – rationality – religion. Witchcraft belongs to women because it is constructed as ‘irrational’, in the narrow sense of positivistic instrumental rationality. (Protestant) religion is a little more rational and, therefore, legitimate, because it has carved itself a niche by refashioning itself as morality, rather than knowledge (see Tambiah).

Nevertheless, Sleepy Hollow still manages to subvert the usual pattern of normative boundary-making that banishes the odd, strange, and evil outside legitimate society. The odd and ugly witch, living outside the perimeter of ‘good society’, is good, while ‘good society’ is dominated by her evil sister, also a witch, who unleashes the headless horseman. But this is horror and horror, as I have argued before, always turns social order upside down.

For more on modernity: ‘Classical modernity & late modernity’


This entry was posted in 'othering', belief, Enlightenment, fantasy/supernatural, gender, Godfrey Lienhardt, horror, knowledge/epistemology, magic, masculinity, Max Weber, myth, nature, reality, reason/rationality, religion, science, Sleepy Hollow (1999), Stanley Tambiah, witchcraft and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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