Monday, October 29, 2012

Monstrous Monday: The Headless Horseman

Sleepy Hollow is a real place, not that far from where I grew up - it's just a short way up the Hudson River, across from Nyack.  I spent plenty of time camping and hiking up in Harriman, a state forest just a bit further up the river on the west side, or visiting Bear Mountain, a popular destination.  Like so much of the north east, it's steeped in history, and many of these places have significance dating back to the revolution.

I imagine the name "Sleepy Hollow" is today synonymous with the movie of the same name, but here's an excerpt from the original story by Washington Irving that relates the tale of the headless horseman:

The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war; and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance. Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper, having been buried in the church-yard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head; and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the church-yard before daybreak.
--The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Hessian trooper is a type of spectre, an undead monster that rides each night upon a ghostly horse to harrow the countryside, always seeking his missing head.  The movie embellishes the story further, providing a 'tree of the dead' which includes a doorway to Hell, and includes a witch that uses the Hessian's skull to control the spectre and direct its attacks  In game terms, we can treat the Hessian as a modified spectre:

The Hession, from Sleepy Hollow
The Hessian
AC as plate and shield, HD 6, ATK two weapons or thrown pumpkin, D by weapon type or special, MV 24, AL C, ML 11

The headless horseman attempts to slay anyone it encounters along its nightly course, collecting their heads.  It will only cease its nightly rides when its own head is returned to its grave.  It can only be damaged by magic weapons, and it has standard undead immunities.  It frequently carries a pumpkin or similar gourd carved with a leering face, which it can throw at a victim (once per night) to a range of 30'; anyone struck by the pumpkin must save vs death or die (at least, that’s how Ichabod supposedly dies in the story!)

The headless horseman cannot cross running water, even using a bridge.

A magic user that possesses the horseman's skull can use it to control the horseman, similar to a potion of Control Undead, and the horseman is barred from attacking the possessor.

In your campaign, any particularly wicked and powerful evil warrior, decapitated in a gruesome manner and buried without his head, could form the basis of your own headless horseman legend.

However, the headless horseman motif has its roots in an earlier headless monster, the dullahan from Irish folklore.  Like many of the dark fairies (unseelie or sluagh), the dullahan blurs the lines between fey and undead.  The dullahan acts like an angel of death, a figure that rides the countryside seeking out a specific victim; when it confronts them and speaks their name, they die.  Furthermore, it will dump a bucket of blood on anyone that crosses its path, marking them for a future visit from the dullahan; it can open gates and doors at will; it wields a whip made of human spines, and its decapitated head can breath fire.  You can easily adjust the Hessian to represent a dullahan, giving it a hellhound-style breath weapon and replacing the death-pumpkin with something more like finger of death.

The monster from "Chopper"
There was a cool version of the headless horseman on TV - well, I thought it was cool back in the 70's - in one of those old Kolchak: The Night Stalker episodes, a headless motorcycle rider taking revenge on its killers when its grave is disturbed.  It tracks down its killers and chops their heads off with a sword.  Kolchak finds the missing skull and hurls it at the rider as it's bearing down on him.  I'm sure somebody has made stats for Kolchak as a Call of Cthulhu or Chill character - he's the man.

Below are the other blogs taking part in this 'Monday before Halloween' blog hop - let's see what else is out there!


  1. You combined Old School D&D with Kolchak! And threw in some Irish myths! It's like an early birthday present!!

    Awesome, but then again I am used to seeing some really great posts here so, yeah that goes with out saying (but I'll say it anyway).

    Thanks so much for your monster and for participating.

  2. The Headless Horseman was always a creepy bloke!

  3. I remember both well. I cut my teeth on Sleepy Hollow. I cut my sons teeth on Kolchak. Appropriate, yes.

  4. I just made the mistake of re-reading this book. Forgot how much it terrifies me. Awesome monster pick.

  5. When I was younger a group of young men were decapitated in an horrendous car accident, it was on the front page of the local paper. I read it and had nightmares for years, sometimes still do, of being decapitated! My worst nightmare, but as a child it was awful, I would pull the blankets up making sure to cover my neck, for some reason I believed if they couldn't see my neck they wouldn't cut my head off. Still, I do like this Halloween story, but some nightmares are very hard to get rid of!
    Great choice!

  6. Cool classic monster that often gets overlooked. Love the Kolchak connection; that was a great episode.

  7. He was creepy to read about and scary on film. Great choice.

  8. I really enjoyed your post and the reminder of Kolchak.

  9. I love anything headless and zombie-like. And I really love your blog's header. Talk about making me want to come back...

  10. If I see one, I'll head for the nearest river.
    Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a great show. Watched it all the time when it was on.

  11. Definitely an overlooked option. I hadn't heard of the dullahan so I'm glad you dropped that in. It helps drive home the idea that so much of the culture goes deep.

  12. The headless horseman is scary! The idea of some dude who is just mad at whoever is in the wrong place at the wrong time, always freaked me out, and really, how does he see where he is going?
    I got to drive through Sleepy Hollow when I was coming home from some festival or other, I really wish I got to stay for a bit, gorgeous!

  13. I think every town/city has their version of the Headless Horseman. In my city we had a knock off called The Pus Man. He road around on this 5 mile long, private and very dirt road. At night, he was reported to kill at will. Of course, the actual dead that were found from time to time were the victims of murder and suicide. But it made for a cool precautionary tale. Now following your blog from this hop. Cheers.

  14. I've read a couple of posts now about the Headless Horseman. I'm definitely going to have to write about him at my blog.

  15. I love Sleepy Hollow. These stats are nasty... I love them.

    You did a really good job relating it to other legends. Now I want to go back and look at older monster legends.