full Sleepy Hollow movie poster

See how Sleepy Hollow hits the Save the Cat! story beats.

Directed by Tim Burton, Sleepy Hollow is a gothic horror film loosely based on Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

It features Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci in leading roles, with other notable actors—Michael Gambon, Martin Landau, Jeffrey Jones, Christopher Walken, Casper Van Dien, and Miranda Richardson—in supporting parts. The story follows Constable Ichabod Crane, played by Johnny Depp, who is sent from New York City to investigate a series of murders involving a mysterious Headless Horseman in the village of Sleepy Hollow.

The film’s development started in 1993 at Paramount Pictures, but directorial changes occurred, with Tim Burton taking over in 1998, and filming spanned from November 1998 to May 1999. Much of its style was inspired by Hammer Horror films, the Mario Bava film Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan) (1960), and the Disney film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1944). The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki emulates the Dutch paintings of the period.

Sleepy Hollow premiered in November 1999 and was well-received by critics for its performances, direction, screenplay, music, dark humor, visual effects, and atmosphere. It earned around $207 million worldwide and won an Academy Award® for Best Art Direction.

Genre: Monster in the House (supernatural)

STC cousins: The Conjuring, The Amityville Horror, The Others, The Innocents, House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Haunting, The Witches of Eastwick, Ghost Ship, The Shining, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan)

Written by: Andrew Kevin Walker (Story by Kevin Yagher & Andrew Kevin Walker, based on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving)
Directed by: Tim Burton

Opening Image: Peter Van Garrett (Martin Landau) whisks away into the night via stagecoach after his last will is signed and sealed. However, the patriarch’s death arrives sooner than expected when the Headless Horseman lops off the head of his coach driver, son Dirk Van Garrett (Robert Sella), before dealing Peter a similar blow. Fresh blood showers a Jack o’ Lantern. And so begins the mystery and violence in the Dutch settlement of Sleepy Hollow.

Martin Landau and a jack o lantern
Peter Van Garrett learns he might lose his head as his son did.

Set-Up: New York City, 1799. Ichabod Crane, a rational New York City constable, discovers a bloated corpse in the Hudson River. Crane wants to perform an autopsy to see if foul play was involved. However, the High Constable criticizes Ichabod’s scientific methods.

Theme Stated: Ichabod is a man of science and skepticism, primarily due to his family history. However, he will have to put his pragmatism to the test when he investigates this forthcoming supernatural mystery, which is more mysticism than science. The theme centers on Crane’s struggle to accept supernatural occurrences that science can’t explain.

Set-Up (cont.): The Burgomaster (Christopher Lee) dispatches Crane to Sleepy Hollow, reportedly plagued by gruesome decapitations. Ichabod is challenged to use his scientific investigation. And if he returns empty-handed without the murderer to face the New York court system, he could be out of a job—if he doesn’t lose his head first!

Christopher Lee in Sleep Hollow
The Burgomaster puts Ichabod Crane to the ultimate test.

Catalyst: Ichabod arrives in the insular town of Sleepy Hollow in Upstate New York. It’s melancholy, autumnal, and full of close-lipped folks who don’t welcome outsiders, particularly city slickers. Ichabod arrives at the Van Tassel mansion.

Johnny Depp on a street in Sleepy Hollow
Ichabod enters the drowsy hamlet of Sleepy Hollow.

B Story: During a Halloween party hosted by Lord Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon) and Lady Mary Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson), Crane meets Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), who blindly kisses him while playing a parlor game. Katrina will not only be a romantic interest for Ichabod, but she will also teach him about the ways of mysticism, which will help him solve the mystery of Sleepy Hollow. She will also help him heal his childhood trauma, much to the jealousy of Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien), Katrina’s fiancé.

Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci and Casper Van Dien in their elegant finery
Ichabod meets Katrina while Brom Van Brunt guards his fiancée closely.

Debate: Ichabod lodges at the Van Tassel mansion. In the study, he meets the town elders—Baltus Van Tassel, Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones), Magistrate Samuel Philipse, Doctor Thomas Lancaster (Ian McDiarmid), and Notary James Hardenbrook (Michael Gough). Crane asks who the murders of the Van Garretts and the Widow Winship were attributed to.

The Van Tassel Mansion with a stormy sky
The Van Tassel Mansion in its Halloween splendor.

They explain that it’s the Headless Horseman and give his history as a barbarian Hessian mercenary (Christopher Walken) with filed-down teeth and a thirst for blood in the form of beheadings. He’s later captured, beheaded by soldiers, and buried in the Western Woods, a haunted place. Though frightened, Ichabod doesn’t believe the tale of the headless specter.

Christopher Walken, mouth agape with sharp teeth in Sleepy Hallow
The mercenary Hessian (with head still attached) was a terror to colonial troops.

Break into Two: During the night, Jonathan Masbath (Mark Spalding), acting as a sentry against the Horseman, is beheaded. The following day, Ichabod investigates the headless corpse using his scientific techniques.

Ichabod Crane wearing strange goggles
Ichabod uses strange devises of his own invention to detect crime scenes.

Fun and Games: Ichabod learns there are “five bodies in four graves.” After having the graves dug up, he learns that the Widow Winship was with a child, and the child was slain in the womb by the Horseman.

Ichabod Crane stained with blood
Ichabod learns the bloody truth about one of the Horseman victims.

Jealous Brom Van Brunt also bullies him in an elaborate Headless Horseman prank. When Ichabod falls unconscious, we learn of his childhood—including his closeness with his mother, Lady Crane (Lisa Marie), who was a witch.

Ichabod Crane rides his horse in the stables of Sleepy Hallow
Ichabod Crane on his trusty steed, Gunpowder, before Van Brunt pranks him.

Ichabod and Katrina’s enchantment of each other blooms. Katrina is Baltus Van Tassel’s spiritual daughter. As a fearful Magistrate, Samuel Philipse attempts to leave town, and he’s beheaded by the horseman, which Ichabod witnesses. Now he has proof that the suspect he’s chasing is not a natural man but supernatural.

Ichabod Crane and Katrina Van Tassel
As their mutual affection blossoms, Ichabod explores Sleepy Hollow with Katrina.

Ichabod and Young Masbath, whom Ichabod has taken on as an assistant after his father was murdered, venture into the Western Woods to learn more about the Horseman. Ichabod meets with the Witch, who directs the two to the Tree of the Dead, where the Horseman is buried. Along the way, they discover Katrina.

Ichabod Crane next to a twisty tree trunk
Ichabod checks out the haunted Western Woods to discover the murderer.

Midpoint: Ichabod, Young Masbath, and Katrina discover the Tree of the Dead and the Horseman’s grave, tying A and B Stories. Ichabod finds the missing heads and witnesses the Horseman as he emerges from the tree on his sable steed, Daredevil.

Ichabod, Katrina and young Masbeth near the twisty tree trunk and the towering Horseman
Ichabod and his new friends discover the Horseman’s lair.

Bad Guys Close In: Ichabod gives chase as the headless killer rides to town. The Horseman strikes again, killing the town’s midwife, Beth Killian (Claire Skinner), and her husband and son. To stop the Horseman, Brom Van Brunt and Ichabod team up to fight him. Van Brunt is cut in half, and Ichabod is wounded.

the Headless Horseman rides between picket fences
The Headless Horseman terrorizes Sleepy Hollow with sinister aplomb.

All Is Lost: As Ichabod has a whiff of death moment from his sword wound, he has a fever dream, a final flashback where we learn that Lady Crane is put into an iron maiden by her strict religious husband for practicing benign witchcraft. Ichabod witnesses it, traumatized. He’s also at his lowest moment as he still knows nothing about why the Horseman is doing what he’s doing and at who’s bidding, as the killings are systematic and not random.

The Headless Horseman rising above a headless corpse
The Horseman claims another victim—and severed head!

Dark Night of the Soul: Using her benign witchcraft, Katrina helps to nurture and heal Ichabod back to crime-fighting health. He’s determined to solve the mystery. It’s a conspiracy between the town elders, he discovers as he makes notes, which leads back to the home he’s staying in, Baltus Van Tassel. After Peter and Dirk Van Garrett were slain, Van Tassel took over as the town patriarch.

Young Masbeth and Ichabod Crane riding their horses
Young Masbeth assists Ichabod Crane in discovering the truth.

Visiting the notary, Ichabod figures out the roles the town elders play. It seems Peter Van Garrett had married the Widow Winship in private, seen over by Reverend Steenwyck. The magistrate played a role too. And Doctor Lancaster knew of the child, which the will left everything to. The successor of the will after all the benefactors died was Baltus Van Tassel.

When Ichabod returns to his room, he finds that Katrina seems to have cast an “evil eye” spell on him. She also burns his notes, implicating her father as she believes he is innocent.

Reverend Steenwyck calls a town meeting in the church to rail against Ichabod Crane. However, before that begins, the Horseman rides into town, allegedly slaying Lady Mary Van Tassel. The Horseman goes after Baltus. As Doctor Lancaster comes clean about the conspiracy, Reverend Steenwyck bludgeons him to death with a large cross. Baltus shoots and kills the reverend. Baltus Van Tassel is later beheaded.

Break into Three: Ichabod suspects Katrina is behind conjuring the Horseman by taking his skull. He decides to leave Sleepy Hollow. However, he learns that the beheaded “body” of Lady Van Tassel is not hers but a proxy corpse. He also knows Katrina used a protection spell on him, tying A and B Stories together.


Gathering of the Team: Learning that Katrina is innocent and Lady Van Tassel is the guilty party, Ichabod and Young Masbeth head to find her.

Executing the Plan: Lady Van Tassel reveals herself as the mastermind behind the Horseman. She faked her death and killed Sarah, Van Tassel’s servant girl, to pretend she was dead. She then lured Katrina to the windmill and revealed her true ancestry. She and her twin sister were once part of the poor Archer family, but Peter Van Garrett forced them out in favor of Baltus and his family. She sought revenge on Van Garrett and anyone who harmed her family.

She made a pact with the devil to raise the Headless Horseman for vengeance. This would let her claim the Van Garrett and Van Tassel estates uncontested. She used fear, blackmail, and seduction to infiltrate the Van Tassel household and manipulate the other elders. After eliminating all potential heirs and witnesses, including her sister, the Witch of the Woods, for helping Ichabod, she summoned the Horseman to kill Katrina, the only obstacle to her plan.

Lady Van Tassel in Sleepy Hollow
Lady Van Tassel reveals herself as the black widow weaving her sinister web.

High Tower Surprise: The Horseman comes for the heads of Lady Van Tassel’s enemies—Ichabod, Katrina, and Young Masbeth.

Dark Night of the Soul: After an exciting exploding windmill and a stagecoach pursuit, Ichabod, Katrina, and Masbeth are led back to the Tree of the Dead. Lady Van Tassel follows. She shoots Ichabod in the heart. However, Katrina’s little book of spells, which she’d gifted him, saves his life.

Executing the New Plan: Before the Horseman can cut off Katrina Van Tassel’s head so Lady Van Tassel can control everything, Ichabod finds the Horseman’s skull and returns it to him. The Hessian reattaches his head, reanimating his human form. Being released from the Satanic confines of Lady Van Tassel, he sweeps her up on his midnight steed and takes her back to Hell with him.

Ichabod Crane holds the Headless Horseman's skull
Ichabod returns the Horseman’s skull to undo the curse.

Final Image: Ichabod returns to New York City with Katrina and Young Masbath, marking the beginning of a new era. He has solved the mystery and found love, untangling his outer and inner problems, and with that, transforming… just in time for the upcoming nineteenth century.

Ichabod and Katrina exit a carriage on the streets of New York City
Ichabod and Katrina return to the Big Apple.