A Look At Sleep Paralysis And The Old Hag Syndrome

You wake up and realize that you can’t move. You can’t speak, and then, all of a sudden you realize you’re not alone.

If you’ve never experienced Old Hag Syndrome, then you’re very, very fortunate. If you’re unfamiliar with the phenomena, let me enlighten you… so to speak.

A person wakes or is suddenly and inexplicably awakened to find that he or she can’t move, feels a weight on their chest or body and senses that there’s an evil or threatening presence in the room. The experience seems so terrifying because the victims, although paralyzed, have full use of their senses and faculties. In many cases the sufferer feels as if someone is sitting or lying on the bed beside them. The feeling of something on top of or beside the person is often preceded by strange smells and sounds, the sound of approaching footsteps or opening doors, and a sense of something dark or evil. The oppressive weight on the chest or body makes it difficult if not impossible to breath and the victim is unable to scream out for help or even speak. Often dark shadows, old women or glowing eyes are witnessed. All of the body’s senses are telling the person that something real and unusual is happening to them, however, when they finally regain the ability to move and speak they find that there’s nothing visible in the room.

In the Gullah lore, this nightmarish experience is described as being “hag-ridden.” The “Old Hag” was believed to be a nightmare spirit in British and Anglo North American folklore. Folk belief in Newfoundland, Georgia and South Carolina tell of a dark figure of a hag who leaves her physical body at night and perches herself on her victims’ chests. The victim wakes with a feeling of terror, has difficulty breathing (because of a perceived invisible weight on his or her chest), and is unable to move.

The phenomenon was widely considered to be the work of demons or incubi, which were believed to sit on the chests of sleepers and engage in sexual intercourse with both men and women. In Old English tales, these entities were called mares, or a mære, and is the root of our modern word nightmare. Today these experiences are thought to be the result of a physiological condition called sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis has become a common medical explanation for a terrifying phenomenon that is happening to more and more people around the world and has been happening to people for hundreds or thousands of years. Today, this event or ‘condition’ is considered a sleep disorder by physicians and researchers who bother to look into the phenomenon, which by the way is very few. And these ‘specialists’ tell us there are two different types of sleep paralysis: hypnagogic and hypnopompic. Hypnagogic paralysis occurs shortly before falling asleep, while hypnopompic paralysis typically occurs right after falling asleep. The typical sleep paralysis experience usually happens when the brain is awakened from REM sleep.

According to the researchers who do study the phenomenon, it may or may not be brought on at times of stress, it may or may not result from improper or insufficient sleep and it may or may not happen if you sleep on your back. The symptoms can -can being the operative word here- can sometimes include complete to partial paralysis of arms, legs and upper body. It can include the sensation of weight or pressure on the entire body, or sometimes just the chest. It can sometimes include a choking sensation, and is usually, but not always, experienced at sleep onset or just as one is waking up.

Auditory or visual hallucinations are often experienced during an episode of sleep paralysis. An intense fear or panic can often accompany the experience as well. The sufferer (erroneously) believes that there is an alien, demonic, evil or malevolent being, energy or presence of some kind in the room with them intent on doing them harm in some way.

As I mentioned, research suggests that sleep paralysis is correlated with REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. The REM sleep cycle is when we seem to have the most vivid, bizarre and lengthy dreams and so our brains shut off our motor centres in order to keep us from acting out our dreams and preventing us from injuring ourselves. Thus our brain is fully active but our body is totally paralyzed.

Thus, neuro-scientists posit that sleep paralysis (and consequently old hag syndrome) is the result of our mind waking up while still in a REM cycle, and our body remaining immobilized because of this safety mechanism which causes the often terrifying sensation of being fully awake and aware, and at the same time paralyzed. This explanation suggests that the sufferer is still in somewhat of a dream state and partially conscious at the same time. This results in the conscious mind perceiving the dream content as real and terrifying. This is somewhat analogous to experiencing a lucid nightmare.

The aforementioned is the scientific explanation of the phenomenon. However, although the theory does or seems to explain the underlying mechanisms associated with the paralysis that occurs during an episode, it fails to account for all the other symptoms or experiences during the event that people continually recount. Sufferers often report pain in various areas of their bodies; horrible smells; feeling violated or strangled. Some individuals have reported having their hair pulled; feeling their bed move or the impression of someone or something sitting or laying beside them. Some people have even reported physical marks on their bodies after the experience has ended.

My own experience with this phenomenon happened about twenty years ago. I had shattered my leg and my knee snowboarding with my sons on New Years Eve. To make a long story a little shorter, I ended up in a full leg cast for months. However, just after the surgery, I wasn’t to put any weight on my leg at all so I wasn’t given crutches and was pretty much bedridden for several weeks. It was during this time that I endured the most terrifying night of my life.

I wasn’t able to sleep with my husband in our bed because of the cast and the need to keep my leg elevated, so I was sleeping in our youngest son’s room. I was awakened by the sound of footsteps and the floorboards creaking. As every mother knows, we’re ever vigilant when it comes to our children so we sleep with “one ear open,” so to speak.

I immediately sensed that someone or something was in the corner of the room and I KNEW it wasn’t my husband or either of my sons. I heard the footsteps near the bed and I felt someone or something sit on the edge of the bed, and I heard the bed springs creak and moan. The room was very dark and I couldn’t see anything at first. Then I smelled a horrible stench. I can only describe it as a rotting, musty, moldy smell. And then I felt something pressing on my chest and I couldn’t breath.

I began to see an outline of an old woman (can’t remember the details very well any more) and my heart began to pound so hard I could feel it in my chest and hear it in my ears. This thing, presence whatever it was, was moving closer and closer to my face and I could feel its hands on my throat. I tried screaming but no sound came out. I tried moving and was unable to move.

I was absolutely terrified and beyond rational thinking. I desperately searched the room looking for something… what I don’t know. I heard my husband snort (in his sleep) in the other room and then all of a sudden I could move and speak. I screamed for my husband while at the same time jumping up out of the bed and literally running -in a cast- to where my husband lay peacefully sleeping. I refused to sleep in that room again. I stayed and slept on the sofa in the living room for the duration of the time I had to keep my leg up.

I found out a few years later that my son, who was ten at the time we lived in that house, also had the same experience in that room.

Can this experience be considered a sleep paralysis episode? Well, I was sleeping prior to the episode and I was unable to move or speak. But that’s all I can confirm with any certainty. First, I didn’t just fall asleep or I wasn’t on the verge of waking up. I had been in bed for a few hours. Neither was I sleeping on my back. I woke up on my left side. Though some would argue the point, considering I had shattered my leg, I was not stressed. My sleep was a little disrupted due to the discomfort and of not being able to sleep in my own bed, but it wasn’t overly so. I wasn’t in the middle of a dream when I woke up. And I know this because I’m a dream researcher and therapist and I’ve been recording my dreams for years. I would have been aware that I was dreaming.

I was also completely awake and alert before the pressure on the bed or my chest began, and the fear increased gradually. I didn’t wake up terrified. Nor was I the only one to experience this phenomenon. Therefore, the evidence or argument for the sleep paralysis theory being the ’cause’ of a sleep related hallucination is tremendously weak. Just as a side note: I have had difficulty sleeping for many years now. It started long after this experience. I suffer from frequent wake ups and I’m lucky if I can sleep for two straight hours at a time. So you would think that I would be a strong candidate for recurring bouts of “sleep paralysis.” Additionally, I also suffer from migraines. But, thankfully, I’ve never had this horrible phenomena repeat.

Not all researchers, academics and interested observers of this phenomenon buy into the medical or scientific explanation; or at least not all of it.

Dr. David Hufford, the foremost authority on sleep paralysis and “the old hag” syndrome argues that; after studying these experiences for over three decades, and indeed experiencing it himself beginning in college, the scientific paradigm is ill-equipped or incapable of explaining the varied experiences connected to the episodes and so we must look to something other than the materialistic method for an accurate explanation.

According to Hufford there are several typical “symptoms” that are universally experienced during, or within, this phenomena that help individuals identify and acknowledge that they are victims of such terrors:

  1. The individual is somehow suddenly awakened
  2. The sufferer is paralyzed yet fully cognizant of their environment and thoughts
  3. The individual is unable to speak
  4. The victim generally finds it difficult to breath
  5. A negative or evil presence or entity is sensed or seen
  6. The experience is terrifying

“Sleep paralysis embodies a universal, biologically based explanation for pervasive beliefs in spirits and supernatural beings,” Hufford argues. “The experience thrusts mentally healthy people into a bizarre, alternative world they find difficult to chalk up to a temporary brain glitch.”

Currently, there seems to be only two theories for this phenomenon; a physiological, scientific one related to a malfunctioning sleep mechanism and a supernatural one that has developed into folklore and tales of demons and witches sneaking around in the dark trying to suffocate or seduce us. There has to be another explanation, something between the two, one that explains all the symptoms or collective experiences of the phenomenon and provides a realistic and logical cause at the same time.

I will admit that it’s helpful and probably reassuring for individuals who’ve experienced this to know that there is at least some physiological basis for the encounter, and to know that they’re not alone, nor are they crazy. But just knowing what the mechanisms of REM sleep are, and what the possible problems may be doesn’t help me, and I assume many others, in understanding why a relatively rare, or supposedly rare, physiological malfunction in the sleep cycle results in what we see and what we feel during this “glitch” as David Hufford called it.

It’s my intention to continue researching this subject and hopefully develop or at least discover alternative theories, ideas or possibilities.

To read more accounts of very real experiences with this phenomenon click here.