Since teenagers started driving, one of the rites of passages, at least for those who live near real country dark, are nocturnal drives down creepy old roads. It’s my personal theory that the golden age of haunted country roads was the early to mid 1970s, when it became pretty common for teens to have their own cars, and marijuana use was on the rise. Sure, kids still do the same routine stone sober, as well as under the mind-bending effects of beer, but stoners were not only more likely to tell people about it, they were also more likely to embellish the stories in new and creative ways.
If you live in or near Louisville, Kentucky, it’s quite likely you’ve heard the stories of Sleepy Hollow Road, a winding two lane blacktop near the town of Prospect, in Jefferson county. With a tree line which becomes a canopy in many places, at night there’s nothing but headlights to light your way, as even the light of the full moon never finds its way to the pavement for much of its length. We thank the state for the guard rails, as the drop off is steep and over thirty foot to the bottom in some places. Not the kind of curve you want to miss.
In the daylight it’s actually quite beautiful, and like its namesake in the Hudson Valley, eerily still and ominous in its dark shadows.
Settlers found their way into this corner of northern Kentucky quite early, certainly by the turn of the 19th century. But most of the stories certainly have much newer sources, which is why I bring up the penchant of young people to explore the dark and the creepy by automobile.
There’s the mysterious black hearse, first spotted as headlights in your rear view mirror, coming up fast and close. At first you think it could be friends of yours, just messing with you. Or perhaps the police, about to pull you over, having spotted your car load of teenagers as you sped past St. Mary’s Academy and into the night. But the car keeps coming, closer and closer and you’re forced to speed up to keep it from ramming your back bumper. And it’s with horror that you realize as it pulls up beside you that it’s a hearse, its windows tinted black, just before it presses sideways into you, forcing you off the road and down the embankment.
Kind of hard to imagine this story working in horse and buggy days after all. It helps that just beyond the terminus of Sleepy Hollow Road and Sleepy Hollow Golf Course, that you have Harrod’s Creek Cemetery, to at least give an explanation for why a hearse would be traveling this road in the first place. It’s also a creative, if rather unbelievable excuse for why a stoned driver finds themselves at the bottom of a ravine. In that respect, similar to the tale where some who drive into Sleepy Hollow find upon leaving the valley, that it’s been hours, rather than minutes. It is after all, one of the charming effects of marijuana to warp one’s sense of time.
Still it’s plausible, as hearses often find their way into the hands of the general public after their professional days are over. And let’s face it, someone who drives a hearse is likely someone of a more morbid disposition that your average Volvo driver.
What kind of person would drive a hearse? Satanists of course, or some other practitioner of the black arts. And Sleepy Hollow Road has a legend for that as well. From the 1970s to 1980’s, an area just off Sleepy Hollow Road, known as Devil’s Point was supposed to be the site of Satanic rituals and the dreaded black mass. People who lived in that stretch of woods would report ominous chanting and the screams of their sacrificial victims, breaking the stillness of the night. Other, more brave souls who investigated spoke of bonfires in the woods, with people in black robes carrying on it the firelight.
But this is a standard tale told all over the country, most notably off Mt. Misery Road in Sweet Hollow, near Melville on Long Island, New York. Along that stretch of forest and road you also have the tales of Mary Hatchet, a series of tales dotting much of Long Island. And perhaps here, like on Long Island, the stories take on the character of the place name, rather than the place name being based on the legends.
I’ve quoted elsewhere on this site an old song, The Well Below the Valley, referring to a legend of Mary murdering her father who forced her into an incestuous relationship. There’s a variant of this same song, known in Kentucky from the earliest days, as the Cruel Mother, which is itself a variant of a still older song, “The Duke’s Daughter’s Cruelty: Or the Wonderful Apparition of two Infants whom she Murther’d and Buried in a Forrest, for to hide her Shame,” which dates from late in the 17th century.
Here on Sleepy Hollow Road, where the pavement crosses Hite Creek, there once stood a covered bridge, crossing the meeting of the creek and Sleepy Hollow Lake. Legend has long had it that from perhaps an even earlier bridge, mothers once tossed unwanted, crippled or otherwise burdensome babies, perhaps born from incestuous relationships into the deep pools which formed below, which eventually wash into the nearby Ohio River. According to the tale, when the moon shines down on the bridge from above, and the night is still, you can still hear the screams and cries of these hapless victims, as well as the mournful wails of their doomed mothers.
Now it’s hard to believe that such an abomination could be a regular occurrence, but is it possible that once upon a time, or perhaps twice even, that it did? Why not? That these things happened throughout history isn’t easily denied. Humans can be cruel, and even the innocent can be driven to dark deeds by circumstances beyond their control. That some ancient memory of that could be passed down through generations is also quite possible.
Perhaps it’s a tale that originated elsewhere, but a tale so horrid and gruesome that as people settled in new areas, the tale found a new home, there overlooking the rushing waters below. These tales not only provided entertainment when the main form of entertainment on dark nights consisted of storytelling, but they also served a practical purpose. These spots were dangerous for children, and children are drawn to dangerous locations like dogs returning to their gorge. Stories like these made kids think twice before wading into those waters.
Then again, other kids are drawn to these spots for the very reason that others steer clear. There’s no doubt that there is more traffic on Sleepy Hollow Road than other similar roads in the area, and no doubt that it’s the rush of fear that brings them here. Whether the stories are true or not, in the end doesn’t really matter. In many ways, it’s our legends which define us, and it’s my guess that the legends of Sleepy Hollow Road will be attracting young and old for generations to come.