Michael D. Winkle

I have listed a number of other examples elsewhere of headless horrorsmen. Like Washington Irving's classic figure in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, these seem to be among the more aggressive of paranormal beings.

-- Jim Brandon, Weird America (1978)

Horsemen and Cyclists

The Night Stalker episode "Chopper" updated the famous tale of the Headless Horseman, giving the acephalic rider a vintage motorcycle as a mount instead of a hellish stallion.

Lest you think the episode is simply stolen from Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow," there appears to be a real-life [?] version of Chopper. Mike Marinacci writes in Mysterious California (1988) about the many ghosts of Ventura County: "Yet another Creek Road spook is the 'headless biker' who rides a big prewar motorcycle." Marinacci suggests that "Perhaps such decapitated spirits are now spurning white chargers in favor of classic two-wheelers." [1]

"Chopper" also gives a bow to the realm of urban legends. Jan Harold Brunvand, dean of urban folklore, mentions the apocryphal tale "The Decapitated Motorcyclist" in The Mexican Pet (1986). A sheet of metal is blown off a truck by a wind gust and beheads a motorcyclist following behind. "The headless corpse's grip convulsively tightens on the hand throttle. . . When he sees the headless cyclist, the truck driver is so horrified that he suffers a heart attack." [2]

That only covers the "origin" of Chopper, however. The result -- a headless corpse unable to rest in its grave -- brings us to Irving and Sleepy Hollow. "Legend of Sleepy Hollow," as just about every school-aged child knows, concerns the misadventures of the gangly schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, culminating in his encounter with "the dominant spirit" of Sleepy Hollow:

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. . . the spectre is known, at all the country firesides, by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. [3]

In Kinderhook, New York, where Irving wrote "Sleepy Hollow," lies the house of the Van Alen family. According to Sharon Jarvis' book Dark Zones, the Van Tassels of the Irving story were based on the Van Alens. Ichabod Crane's rival Brom Bones was actually a fellow named Abraham Van Alstyne, and Ichabod himself was a local schoolmaster named Jesse Merwin. Jarvis reports that the ghost of Merwin has been spotted in the vicinity of the Van Alen house, on State Road 9H.

The concept of the Headless Horseman seems to have been transferred from Europe to America by Washington Irving. The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm (Deutsche Sagen) carries a typical account:

In the year 1644 a woman from Dresden went out early one Sunday morning to gather acorns in a nearby forest. At a spot on the heath not far from the place called Lost Waters, she heard someone blowing loudly on a hunting horn. This was followed by a heavy falling sound, as though a tree had fallen . . . Soon after, the horn sounded again, and when she turned around she saw a headless man in a long grey coat sitting on a grey horse. He wore boots and spurs and a hunting horn hung behind his back. [4]

The headless one, however, passed by without harming the woman. Translator Donald Ward records the belief (p. 412) that if someone committed a crime for which the punishment would have been beheading, but eludes the law in this life, he or she will become a headless spectre after death.

Imported as the concept may be, perhaps there is some phenomenal reality for New York's Headless Horseman. According to Sharon Jarvis:

During the Halloween season, someone in the village -- no one really knows who -- dresses up as the horseman and rides through the streets at night. However, there are reports that sometimes the imitation headless horseman had the misfortune to meet the real one, for the fright of a lifetime. [5]

Headless-horseman-types seem to have been quite common in New England. Louis C. Jones mentions several in his book Things that Go Bump in the Night (1959). Indeed, he feels the need to point out that "Not all the ghosts of the Revolutionary period were headless, by any means." [6]

Just to bring things full circle, an episode of the animated show The Real Ghostbusters featured a descendant of Ichabod Crane whose family has been haunted for the past two hundred years by the Headless Horseman. The twist was, the Headless One kept up with the times, and nowadays he's given up his black horse for a -- well, you can guess.

Blemmye and Youaltepuztli

The general idea of headless creatures is very old and widespread. The Blemmye (plural, Blemmyae) was known to Pliny and other ancient writers. Shakespeare mentions "men whose heads/ Do grow beneath their shoulders" in Othello (Act I, scene iii).

Medieval pictures of Blemmyae look rather silly, and the idea seems to be based on imagining one's breasts as huge eyes and one's navel as a mouth. Yet the headless creatures were known to the inhabitants of Mexico as well, and these are described in a frightful fashion.

According to Montague Summers' The Vampire: His Kith and Kin, the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca sometimes manifested himself as a Blemmye-like horror, which was called Youaltepuztli, which means "ax of the night." Sometimes at night a noise might be heard like someone chopping on a tree with an ax:

Should anyone dare to investigate the cause of the noise he was suddenly caught by Tezcatlipoca who appeared as a decomposing headless corpse in whose mouldering breast were set "two little doors meeting in the centre [the rib cage?]," and it was the swift opening and shutting of these which produced the sound of a man hewing down the trees. [7]

Thus the Blemmye may be some species of undead, but, like the vampire, it must feed on humanity, its chest cavity somehow transformed into a mouth. (Yecch!)

The Dund and the Skandhahata

Headless spectres are so common in some areas, they have generic names for their "species". William Crooke, in his Popular Religion and Folk-Lore of Northern India writes that the sub-continent's Headless Horseman is popularly known as the Dund, which means "truncated".

The Dund actually has his head with him, tied to the pommel of his saddle. He rides at night and calls to people in houses, trying to get them to come outside. Certain vampires of eastern Europe were prone to use this same trick. The inhabitants of Bengal, meanwhile, speak of the Skandhahata, another headless corpse. "He dwells in low moist lands outside a village, in bogs and fens, and goes about in the dark, rolling about on the ground, with his long arms stretched out. Woe betide the belated peasant who falls within his grasp." [8]

Crooke also speaks of the Ghostly Army seen along the Queen's highway near Faizabad: "They say that after dark the road is thronged with troops of headless horsemen, the dead of the army of Prince Sayyid Salar."

Losing Our Heads Elsewhere in the World

Donald Ward, in his translation of Deutsche Sagen, notes that "Headless spirits and divinities were widely known in ancient Egypt as well as classical antiquity . . . The earliest documented reference to a headless spirit in Germany was in a sermon written by Geiler von Kaysersberg, ca. 1505." He also mentions that Iceland had similar traditions in the Middle Ages. [9]

In Celtic countries like Ireland and Scotland, headless spectres abound. Like those of India, they have their own name: the Dullahan, or Dubhlachan. "The word Dubhlachan originally signified a dark, sullen person, but over the centuries it has become applied to this unusual phantom," writes British author and anthologist Peter Haining. [10] There are not only headless horsemen but headless coach drivers as well -- and phantom coaches are often pulled by headless horses. Indeed, headless dogs and even bears have been reported in the British Isles.

The latter entity sparked one of the strangest letter writing campaigns in history, in the pages of the Modern Language Review. In Volume 1, Number 3 (April 1906), one H. Littledale quotes Shakespeare's Puck: "Sometime a horse I'll be, sometime a hound,/ A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire." (Midsummer Night's Dream, III:I.) Littledale suggests "headless" actually meant "leadless"; that is, free from a leash. In V. 2 no. 1 (October 1906), Littledale reports having found a second quote in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, wherein "my phantasie/ Presents a thousand ugly shapes," including that of "headless bears."

"It seems clear, therefore, that the 'headless bear' was a popular terror," concludes Littledale. A later correspondent discovered a poem about a headless horse.

Headless women are not as often reported as men, but they are not unknown. Perhaps the most famous of these female spectres is that of Anne Boleyn, ill-fated wife of Henry VIII, which haunts the Tower of London.

In North America the glowing phenomena called ghost lights or will-o'-wisps often get tangled up with headless spectres. The Maco Ghost Light, for instance, which haunts the railroad tracks near Wilmington, North Carolina, is thought to be the ghost of a conductor who was killed in a train accident in 1868, the ball of light supposedly being his lantern. [11] Louis Jones mentions a similar story from New York state, that of a headless brakeman who swings a red light. [12]

Carl Kolchak went to an expert on the French Revolution to find out about headless spectres. "Madame Guillotine," however, did not mass produce such ghosts, although Washington Irving (again) wrote a classic tale about a spectre of the Terror entitled "The Adventure of the German Student."

It is believed by some psychical researchers that a traumatic death confuses a soul passing into the Great Beyond to the point that it remains on the earthly plane. Certainly losing one's head, whether by cannonball, sword, or freak accident, would be traumatic. Maybe this is why so many ghosts and undead creatures of folklore are described as headless.

Oddly enough, the Saxons of pre-Roman Britain believed the opposite: "decapitation was an attempt to prevent the spirit of a 'powerful and feared individual from haunting the living,'" according to Fortean Times writer David McGrory. Perhaps, however, the Saxons were wrong in this assumption. McGrory also mentions that a field near Heydon, Cambridgeshire, where many headless skeletons were unearthed in the 1950s, had, "for as long as anyone can remember, been reputedly haunted by spectres of giant warriors." [13]

Pearl-fishermen used to "get rid" of marauding starfish by chopping them up and tossing the pieces back in the sea -- when in fact, each piece grew into another starfish! Perhaps there lay buried around the world many long-forgotten corpses, decapitated with an eye on keeping them down, but which are waiting instead to rise and seek revenge -- and a new head or two!


1. Marinacci, Mike, Mysterious California (Los Angeles: Panpipes Press, 1988), p. 87.

2. Brunvand, Jan Harold, The Mexican Pet (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986), p. 56.

3. Irving, Washington, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in The Sketch Book (New York: Signet Classics, 1981 [1820]), pp. 330-331.

4. Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, German Legends of the Brothers Grimm (1812-1814). New edition edited and translated by Donald Ward (London: ISHI, 1981), Vol. I, p. 246.

5. Jarvis, Sharon, Dark Zones (New York: Warner Books, 1992), p. 155.

6. Jones, Louis C., Things that Go Bump in the Night (New York: Hill & Wang, 1959), p. 130.

7. Summers, Montague, Vampire: His Kith and Kin (New York: University Books, 1960 [1928]), p. 261.

8. Crooke, William, Popular Religion and Folk-Lore of Northern India (Dehli: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1896 [1893]), Vol. I, p. 258. (This book carries an extensive chapter on the Rakshasa, as well.)

9. Grimm, op. cit, p. 412.

10. Haining, Peter, Leprechaun's Kingdom (New York: Harmony Books, 1980), p. 39.

11. Brandon, Jim, Weird America (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978), p. 174.

12. Jones, op. cit, p. 53.

13. McGrory, David, "They Might Be Giants." In: Fortean Times no. 101 (August, 1997), p. 32.