True Confessions: In which the author relates his own encounters in the land of Sleepy Hollow

Guest bedroom at Washington Irving's Sunnyside in Irvington, New York

The shot I was taking in Washington Irving’s Sunnyside when the lady laughed.

People are always asking me if I believe these stories, they say “Todd, do you believe these stories?” That’s neither here nor there. But I will offer up a couple of experiences I’ve had, both coming from the Sleepy Hollow area of New York.

Washington Irving is the reason that Sleepy Hollow has become a part of our collective imagination. Relatively few people go there, but a good many of us have a vision of it in our minds. Irving wrote “.There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land.”

The cemetery at the Old Dutch Church, the point of the crisis in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, is all one would imagine it to be, with tombstones dating to the 17th century, the final resting place of Katrina Van Tassell and Brom Bones, and if legend is true, the real headless horseman which became the basis of Irving’s most enduring work. I usually find myself with some time to kill when I’m in the area, and typically find myself shooting photos in the cemetery.

The reason most movies about ghosts suck, is that a ghost sighting is usually just an instant in time. In all but the rarest occasions, it’s a few seconds where you think you see something, but your mind can’t process it quickly enough to know for sure. Or sometimes you don’t even register it really, for it’s too quick. When movie-makers try to stretch that experience out to 90 minutes, all but the very best are doomed to fail.

Photographers spend much of their time looking through viewfinders. The world becomes a tiny, isolated place, seen with tunnel vision. When the camera is up to the eye, you’re as helpless as Janet Leigh in the shower, with Anthony Perkins on the other side of the curtain with a knife.

I had the opportunity to shoot the interior of Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, as well as the home of Washington Irving, Sunnyside, just down the road in Irvington. Afterwards I found myself in the cemetery, killing time till sunset, and was taking photos behind the Old Dutch Church. I got the shot and as I lowered the camera from my eye, for a fraction of a second, there was someone standing a few feet to my right, in full colonial era garb. My mind flashed to the thought that it was a re-enactor from Philipsburg Manor across the road, which allowed me to catch my breath at least, except in that same instant, I also saw that I was alone.

It’s said that when the eye sees something which shouldn’t be there, or that the mind can’t comprehend, the mind blocks it out. In my case, my mind processes the event – “did I really see that? Well it’s gone now so I’ll never know,” and five minutes later it’s out of my mind completely. I’ll never know if I truly saw it or not, so there’s no point debating it. Trust me, I know because I spent huge amounts of time debating with myself when I was younger if some of the experiences I remembered ever happened. So if I can’t be sure, I move on and let it go.

Which I would have been able to do this time, except the same thing had happened once before, very near the same spot, when as I was lowering the camera a few months earlier, I spotted a woman in ancient dress out of the corner of my eye. When the same experience happens twice, it sticks. I’ve taken tens of thousands of photos in the past couple of years. Thousands of those have been in places thought to be haunted. And the number of times I’ve seen someone appear to be watching me is exactly two. Both in the same location.

View of the cemetery from the organ loft of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow

View of the cemetery from the organ loft of the Old Dutch Church.

So I finish up and head down the road to meet up with the Sleepy Hollow storyteller Jonathan Kruk at a nearby diner. I had shot earlier in the day at Sunnyside, and he casually asked if I captured the ghosts of Washington Irving’s nieces. I had heard that they were reputed to haunt his old home, as well as the ghost of a young girl predating Irving, which Irving had written of himself. Jonathan went on to say that their “ghostly laughter sometimes wafts through the house.” Jonathan is an elegant kind of guy and has a way with words you see.

Words which stopped me cold this time. It was late winter, and Sunnyside wasn’t quite ready to open for the season. Earlier a couple of ladies had been cleaning in there, but when my guide and I arrived, they had scattered for lunch. I was shooting upstairs in the guest bedroom – one of the locations Irving wrote that the lady’s ghost had been spotted, and my guide went downstairs to see how the cleaning was coming.

Now it’s easy for the imagination to get out of hand when you’re alone in a house dating from the 17th century, kept in pristine condition and restored to how it would have been in Irving’s time. That it’s rumored to be haunted doesn’t help keep one grounded.

I heard laughter behind me, once again as I had the camera to my eye. My guide was a youngish fellow, and I chalked it up to him, making a mental note that Anthony laughs like a girl. That or the cleaning ladies were back.

A few minutes later my guide is up the stairs, and asks casually what I was laughing about. I looked at him, he looked at me, we made ghostly sounds and shrugged it off.

It would make a lousy movie. At most two seconds of action, and there was no suspense leading up to it. Perhaps the one thing in common with all three experiences was the ordinariness of it.

Not that I don’t believe it happened, nor that I heard it. But it only happened once, and there was no apparition, no howling screams afterwards. Just a second of giggling, and someone later telling me that we weren’t the only ones who have heard the peal of a lady’s laughter in the world of Washington Irving.

Travel Rating: Sunnyside is just too damned cheerful to be chilling, unless you manage to find yourself there alone or at night. Philipsburg Manor is much the same, albeit certainly not as cheerful. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both essential stops on anyone’s Washington Irving/Sleepy Hollow travels. They do fairly ooze mood and atmosphere. The Old Dutch Church, the burial ground and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery are different stories however. Large enough to get lost in and a fairly comprehensive experience in how we bury the dead in this country, from colonial to present days. More gothic memorials than you can shake a bone at, and just sitting by the Pocantico River which winds along the cemetery can easily take you into the world of Washington Irving. Better yet, simple to slip into at night, which appears to be a popular pastime. So you’re certain to hear voices from behind mausoleums, see ghostly shapes wandering through the tombstones, and by moonlight it doesn’t really matter that it’s likely just other people doing the same thing that you’re doing. Avoid the tours and the times when it’s overrun with tourists and you have a four or five crypt experience.


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