Spooky Woods And Superstition: How The Colonial Era Shaped American Horror

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Image: Colonial Horrors Cover Art

European horror writers set their stories amongst Gothic architecture of crumbling castles and abbeys. American authors turned to the Colonial era for backdrops of horror—a time of stifling religion, superstitious hysteria and the dark and uncertain New World.

In his new book "Colonial Horrors," author Graeme Davis brings together both well known and obscure stories to show how the era continues to influence the genre.

"Everybody has heard of the Salem Witch Trials," Davis says. "And there was a lot going on even before that. Some of the puritans thought that anyone who wasn't Christian, including the Native Americans, worshiped the devil. And the wrong kind of Christians, Catholics, also worshiped the devil. By extension, the new world was ruled by the Devil being a pagan land. And the devil would not take kindly to the good Christian people, the pilgrims, the puritans, settling there trying to spread righteousness and Christianity. Therefore, some kind of backlash was to be expected.

"This sort of paranoid inward thinking characterized many accounts at the time. The people felt cut off from one another, between swaths of dark and foreboding woods bristling in their imaginations at least with hostile natives, monsters, dangerous wildlife and what have you-- all orchestrated by Satan in an effort to wipe them out. And this created a hothouse of the imagination, all kinds of horrors came from their minds."

Davis spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Read an excerpt from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving.

Just at this moment a plashy tramp by the side of the bridge caught the sensitive ear of Ichabod. In the dark shadow of the grove on the margin of the brook he beheld something huge, misshapen, black, and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.

The hair of the affrighted pedagogue rose upon his head with terror. What was to be done? To turn and fly was now too late; and besides, what chance was there of escaping ghost or goblin, if such it was, which could ride upon the wings of the wind? Summoning up, therefore, a show of courage, he demanded in stammering accents, "Who are you?" He received no reply. He repeated his demand in a still more agitated voice. Still there was no answer. Once more he cudgelled the sides of the inflexible Gunpowder, and, shutting his eyes, broke forth with involuntary fervor into a psalm tune. Just then the shadowy object of alarm put itself in motion, and with a scramble and a bound stood at once in the middle of the road. Though the night was dark and dismal, yet the form of the unknown might now in some degree be ascertained. He appeared to be a horseman of large dimensions and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame. He made no offer of molestation or sociability, but kept aloof on one side of the road, jogging along on the blind side of old Gunpowder, who had now got over his fright and waywardness.

Ichabod, who had no relish for this strange midnight companion, and bethought himself of the adventure of Brom Bones with the Galloping Hessian, now quickened his steed in hopes of leaving him behind. The stranger, however, quickened his horse to an equal pace. Ichabod pulled up, and fell into a walk, thinking to lag behind; the other did the same. His heart began to sink within him; he endeavored to resume his psalm tune, but his parched tongue clove to the roof of his mouth and he could not utter a stave. There was something in the moody and dogged silence of this pertinacious companion that was mysterious and appalling. It was soon fearfully accounted for. On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless! but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of the saddle. His terror rose to desperation, he rained a shower of kicks and blows upon Gunpowder, hoping by a sudden movement to give his companion the slip; but the spectre started full jump with him. Away, then, they dashed through thick and thin, stones flying and sparks flashing at every bound. Ichabod's flimsy garments fluttered in the air as he stretched his long lank body away over his horse's head in the eagerness of his flight.