Sister My Sister: An Open Love Letter to Abbie and Jenny Mills from Sleepy Hollow
By Paula D. Ashe
First of all, let me be all the way real here: I am so behind in my Sleepy Hollow watching it’s not even funny. The show is currently halfway through its third season and I have only seen two, maybe three episodes so far. That’s not for lack of interest, mind you. From what I can tell Abbie’s trapped in some hell-like dimension and Jenny has like, demon powers or something? It sounds delightfully crazy and I can’t wait to get back into it. However, I’m currently riding the struggle bus (with Katrina Crane…don’t get me started) so I won’t be able to catch up until things get a little less hectic.
I sincerely hope that other people are watching though. In 2013 SH premiered on Fox with a masterful first season that combined genuinely creepy apocalyptic themes with the pacing and action of a police procedural. Which, is pretty impressive given the somewhat outlandish premise. The protagonist of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – Ichabod Crane— wakes up after a two-hundred and thirty year supernatural coma to discover that his (im)mortal enemy – Abraham Van Brunt— has colluded with the forces of evil to become one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, namely, Death. In attempts to track down the fiend, Ichabod is arrested by Lt. Abbie Mills of the Sleepy Hollow police Department. As he is the prime suspect in the brutal decapitation of her friend and mentor, Sheriff August Corbin. Once the pair realize they are after the same killer, they unite to utilize their unique skills to track down the murderous Horseman and eventually avert an apocalypse.
For a black feminist horror fan (like myself) there are few examples of entertainment that have my perspective in mind. While web-based comedies like Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and the YouTube sensation Got2BReal keep me laughing until I cry. There’s not much out there in terms of horror. Certainly, there are black female characters in some horror-based programming, but for the most part black women and horror are just two things that are rarely paired together in a meaningful way (for a list of notable exceptions check out the Graveyard Shifts Sisters Blog). Sure, there are black women in horror films and television shows, there has been for quite some time. However, there tends to be this process through which a black woman in a horror movie becomes more woman and less black, especially if she is attractive in a Eurocentric way. So we get heroines like Jerrryline from Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight who are totally badass but have little in the way of character development. Or alternately, we get a character like Michonne from The Walking Dead, who starts off as a character with a phenomenal backstory and enough gravitas to hold viewers rapt on her own, but is often presented as a sort of ‘side-kick’ to Rick after regaining the emotional sensitivity needed to connect with people again.
These are just two examples but trust me- there are plenty more. So, it’s with this background in mind that I have to state how much I adore the sisters Mills. I won’t go into too much depth with their backstory – but it’s fascinating to say the least – and instead focus on their dynamic. In what could have been just another cliché trope of ‘good sister’ versus ‘bad sister’, Abbie and Jenny are complicated people with their own pasts. Their shared pasts, and individual and shared hopes for the future -provided there is one, since the apocalypse is always only some artifact or portal away in the SH universe.
As a police detective, Abbie has always played things by the book. She is confident, capable, and committed to her job. On the other hand, her younger sister Jenny is a criminal, wanderer, and committed…in an institution. Being the survivors of a mother with a mental illness and eventual wards of the state, the two of them have had to use different methods to make it through the world the best they could. For Abbie, that meant closely following the redemptive tutelage of August Corbin and becoming a representative of authority. For Jenny, that meant running from her demons until she could be contained in the same psychiatric hospital as her mother. As a result of that rift, much of the first season is spent exploring the dynamic between these two sisters, amid a backdrop of growing darkness poised to overtake their small town, next the world.
After realizing that her sister’s visions are in fact not paranoid delusions or hallucinations, but messages from the demonic presence of Moloch. Abbie tearfully explains her position and apologizes to Jenny as best she can. Initially wanting to reject her, Jenny realizes that with their father’s abandonment and mother’s death they are the only family the other has. During the episode, Nikki Beharie and Lyndie Greenwood give flawless performances that blow my cheesy description completely out of the water.
As viewers learn more about the Mills sisters, their positions as black women never come into conflict with their development as complex characters. In fact, the writers are smart enough to weave that fraught history and earned strength into the narrative. What I appreciate most about Abbie and Jenny is that they are allowed to be both black and women, and neither aspect of their identities diminishes one or overshadows the other.
For example, their ancestor, Grace Dixson is a housemaid (servant, but okay) in the home of a powerful warlock who uses her considerable magic to protect the sisters and their family’s magical abilities. She does this in spite of being (essentially) a slave during the early colonial period in the United States. Although she exists in a seemingly subjugated state, she is a woman clever enough to write down the generational ‘lukumi’ folk religion passed down generation to generation (seemingly through matrilineal lines) that eventually helps the sisters communicate with their deceased mother, Lori.
In the episode ‘Mama’, the Mills sisters discover that – just like Jenny – Lori wasn’t actually insane; she too possessed supernatural abilities but they were misinterpreted by contemporary society. At one point, upon realizing their mother’s true history and recognizing the significance of her legacy, Jenny looks to Abbie and says, “Even through all that pain, she kept fighting”. While watching that scene, I was struck by how that sentiment is part of the story of every black woman I know. Almost every woman. I’m not here to argue about who has the most pain, but, for a program on Fox to acknowledge the intergenerational traumas experienced by black women, I had to (and did) sit up and applaud.
Paula D. Ashe is a native Ohioan who came to Indiana in search of a flatter landscape. A writer of dark fiction, her supernatural novella “Mater Nihil”, was published by JWKFiction in the Four Ghosts anthology in 2013. Her award winning dark fiction has been published in several anthologies; Nexus Literary Magazine, the Indiana Science Fiction Anthology 2011, Indiana Crime 2012, and Indiana Horror 2012. She also had stories appearing in Serial Killers: Iterum and Hell. Most recently her work has appeared in the heavy metal horror collection, Axes of Evil II (2015) and the third installment of the Horror World Press series, Eulogies III (2015). She is also one of seven contributing writers to the 7 Magpies project, the first horror film anthology written and directed by African American women. Paula lives with her wife and too many pets. You can visit her neglected website at Paula Ashe official site