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  • Natalie Taylor


Stories about headless ghosts, and particularly headless horsemen seem to be part of many cultures. Sometimes the horseman appears sans head; sometimes he carries his head as he rides his horse. The “dullahan” of Ireland, for example, is a demonic being shown riding a horse, carrying his head in one hand or tucked under his arm. In the US story, the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a skeptical school teacher is confronted by a headless horseman who chases after him at Hollow’s eve, better known as Halloween.

Traditions of evil apparitions without heads haunt many countries around the world. The Japanese Nukekubi is represented as a woman whose head and torso are separated.

From Europe to the Far East, from Africa to the Americas, headless ghosts walk about, stumble, or ride horses frightening the living. Their back stories often involve violent deaths which have caused the ghost to wander about the location where they died. They are definitely not friendly spirits, most are angry and are seeking resolution or retribution.

Like other ghost stories and fairy tales, they have and common themes and are open to multiple interpretations. In perhaps their most important role as cautionary tales, they are meant to frighten. The separation of the body from the head symbolizes ultimate power demonstrated by monarchs throughout history. The perfect example is the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, who shrieks out: “Off with their head!” when upset—which seems to be a permanent condition in her case. The phrase is now used mostly in jest when admonishing someone for apparent misconduct, but such pronouncements by monarchs were indeed a grim reality in the past.

Not surprisingly, Sigmund Freud connected the headless horseman to sexuality—he claimed that it showed anxiety about castration. For Franz Potter, a professor who has studied these supernatural entities, headless horsemen represent a past that never dies, haunting the living for eternity. In many of the tales, the headless horseman is seeking revenge because he feels that his head was unfairly taken from him. Whatever the reason for a specter riding around at night without a head, you can be sure he is pissed! And without a head, or a thinking brain, it seems impossible to have a rational dialogue with him. The best course for the living is to avoid such ghosts at all cost.

Not to be outdone, San Miguel de Allende has its very own headless horseman! And there are residents who swear he is real. We don’t know how far back the story goes, but in this one, the horseman is distinctly Mexican, he might wear the typical serape over his shoulders, and sometimes a big sombrero sits atop his empty neck.

According to believers his appearance is totally serendipitous—it has no connection to a holiday, or season, but it has to be definitely late at night. And, naturally there has to be a full moon illuminating the deserted city streets to create the proper atmosphere. On such nights, it is said, once the bells toll the midnight hour on the clock tower, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves will break the dark silence. Shortly after, the silhouette of someone on horseback appears descending from the upper Presa located at the Charco del Ingenio. The figure passes the Ignacio Ramirez market, and turns onto Calle Colegio. He then rides past La Salud, the Oratorio, and the Casa de Loreto. The rider increases his speed to a trot on Insurgentes Street, until going into gallop and disappearing in the distance, on the way out of town.

Years ago, a man in town felt skeptical and brave enough to confront the headless horseman when he heard the distant sound of hooves. He stood in the middle of Insurgentes waiting, hands akimbo, but as the rider on a black horse came closer, it became obvious that the legend was true—the rider did not have a head on his shoulders! Terrified, the man dropped to his knees, and tucked his head down because he knew instinctively that he was seeing something improper. But this was not enough. After the figure passed, and the man raised his head, he realized he saw nothing. Everything now looked as dark as a moonless night, and it remained that way for the rest of his life—the apparition had made him lose his sight.

That is why residents of San Miguel know that if they hear the clippety-clop of horse’s hooves on a moonlit night, they must close their windows and draw the curtains lest they witness the headless horseman riding through town. The only clue is that it must be a bright, full moon, well past midnight. I recommend you follow what they do; shut your windows and bolt your doors. Better be safe than sorry!

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