Quite the popular spirit, the Irish name Dullahan might not be very well known, but it’s Americanized version, The Headless Horseman, most certainly is. And the legend of these harbingers of death go back much further than Washington Irving’s tale.
The Dullahan isn’t precisely a ghost, or rather, it is a ghost, but it is also a part of the fae court. The Dullahan also doesn’t have to just ride a black steed – they are often seen driving a black carriage made of bones pulled by headless horses, and using a whip made of human vertebrae to drive the steeds through the night. Inside the carriage is death itself, come for whomever the Dullahan senses in near death.
Unlike Banshees, which the Dullahan often work with in tandem, the headless specters are not bound to a single family, and will often hunt and area instead of a bloodline. Unlike the classic tale, the Dullahan do not carry Jack-o’-lanterns as substitute heads. Instead, they carry their own severed heads, which have many powers. First and foremost, the rider can hold their decaying corpse-head aloft and it can see for miles and miles, seeking a soul about to shuffle free from its mortal coil. The head’s eyes will glow bright red or green when this happens, and the horseman will ride off to collect its prize. The head can also speak, but only once per ride. It will speak the name of the one who is going to die. If that person can hear the head’s voice, they will die instantly, and anyone else will be struck dumb while the rider continues its work.
Additionally, there is no stopping the rider. Whether on horseback or driving their skeletal carriage, all gates and doors will automatically open for the Dullahan. The idea of running water stopping the rider is ludicrous, as nothing can stop it from reaching its destination. It can travel so fast, in fact, that the hooves of its horse or wheels of its carriage can set fires as it passes. It also does not like to be watched; observers will get a splash of blood in their face if they are lucky, or the rider will use its bone whip to remove their eyes if they do not take heed to look away. When the rider stops, that is where their prey is to die.
The Dullahan most likely springs from legends of Black Crom, an ancient Celtic god who demanded yearly sacrifices in exchange for good harvests. The preferred method of sacrifice was decapitation. After the lands of Ireland were converted by Christian missionaries in the sixth century, the god, also known as Crom Dubh in its native tongue, took mortal form and began collecting its tributes on its own. Later, the myth was expanded to include vile men (and occasionally women) who were executed for their crimes via beheading. Because their sins were so great, they were forced to remain on Earth and serve as death omens until they had repaid their debt.
The American version, The Headless Horseman, was made popular by writer Washington Irving in his short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which appeared in Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent in 1820. The story was written while Irving was living in England, and was based upon the Dullahan legends mixed with German legends of “the wild huntsman” that would pursue people through the woods. Irving’s horseman was a Hessian, linking to the German legend, that had his head shot off by a cannon during the Revolutionary War. The soldier’s spirit rose from its grave to collect heads, trying to find his own. In the original story, the horseman doesn’t wear a pumpkin head or carry a Jack-o-lantern, it’s simply implied that Ichabod Crane’s rival, Bram, was dressed as the horseman and threw a pumpkin at the nervous school teacher, which Crane mistook for the horseman’s head.
The Headless Horseman went on to become a staple of American storytelling, a popular figure still today with a television series based on the story and several movies made telling various versions of the tale. In Ohio, a more modern version of the story exists, the Elmore Headless Motorcyclist. In the story, a young man is shipped off to war (typically World War I), and his girlfriend promises to be faithful and true. He is discharged early from the war due to an injury, and returns to the states. He purchases a motorcycle and rides it to his girl’s farm, driving all day and into the night to get there, cutting the engine early so he can surprise her. He sneaks up behind her and she screams, covering her mouth with her hand as she realizes who it is. The soldier sees that she has a wedding ring, her promises to him broken. Furious, he jumps on his bike and rides off into the darkness, gunning the bike as fast as he can go. Angry and grieving at her betrayal, he doesn’t see the barbed wire fence marking the edge of the deep creek bed (or perhaps he does and wants to die), and he and the bike sail through it, the wire catching him on the neck and decapitating him as he and the bike crash down into the creek. Years later a bridge is built there, and the ghost of the rider, looking for his head, appears to travelers on the lonely country road leading to the farm.
Another character that may have been inspired by the Dullahan (and Washington Irving’s headless horseman) is Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider. The Ghost Rider isn’t headless, of course, instead appearing as a skeletal rider, but the mission of the rider to travel through the night looking for the wicked is very similar, as is the use of whips and the bike having flaming tires.