Unsolved Mysteries of the World
Old Hag Syndrome S01E07
You wake up unable to move, completely paralyzed. You feel something, something evil within the room. You are able to stare blankly at a horrible vision.
The Old Hag.
Legend tells us of a superstitious belief that a witch - or an old hag - sits or "rides" the chest of the victims, rendering them immobile.
The experience is so frightening because the victims, although paralyzed, seem to have full use of their senses.
In fact, it is often accompanied by strange smells, the sound of approaching footsteps, apparitions of weird shadows or glowing eyes, and the oppressive weight on the chest, making breathing difficult if not impossible.
All of the body's senses are telling the victims that something real and unusual is happening to them. The spell is broken when the victim is fully awake and well completely baffled by what just happened to them since now the room is entirely normal.
Confronted with such a bizarre and irrational experience, it's no wonder that many victims fear that they have been attacked in their beds by some malevolent spirit, demon or, perhaps, an alien visitor.
The phenomenon occurs to both men and women of various ages and seems to happen to about 15 percent of the population at least once in a lifetime. It usually is a reoccurring phenomenon in about 10% of that group. It can occur while the victim is sleeping during the day or night, and it is a worldwide phenomenon that has been documented since ancient times. It crosses many cultures and beliefs even for those with no contact between each.
The medical establishment is quite aware of this phenomenon, but has a less sensational name than "old hag syndrome" for it. They call it "sleep paralysis" or SP (sometimes ISP for "isolated sleep paralysis").
So what causes it? Dr. Max Hirshkowitz, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Houston, says that sleep paralysis occurs when the brain is in the transition state between deep, dreaming sleep (known as REM sleep for its rapid eye movement) and waking up.
During REM dreaming sleep, the brain has turned off most of the body's muscle function so we cannot act out our dreams - we are temporarily paralyzed.
"Sometimes your brain doesn't fully switch off those dreams - or the paralysis - when you wake up," Hirshkowitz told ABC News. "That would explain the 'frozen' feeling and hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis." According to his research, the effect only really lasts from a few seconds to as long as a minute, but in this half-dream half-awake state, to the victim it can seem much longer.
In her article, "Help! I Can't Move!,"Florence Cardinal writes: "Sleep paralysis is often accompanied by vivid hallucinations. There may be a sense someone is in the room, or even hovering over you. At other times, there seems to be pressure on the chest, as though someone or something perched there. There may even be sexual attacks associated with the hallucinations.
The sound of footsteps, doors opening and closing, voices, all can be a very frightening part of sleep paralysis. These are known as Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Experiences and they are what make people dread an episode of sleep paralysis."
For all their explanations, however, the sleep experts still do not know what causes the brain to screw up like this, or why some people experience it more than others.
And most interesting is the fact that the phenomenon has been documented in cultures that have not been in contact with one another – its as if the phenomenon has invaded the global consciousness.
In Scandinavian folklore, sleep paralysis is caused by a mare, a supernatural creature related to incubi and succubi. The mare is a damned woman, who is cursed and her body is carried mysteriously during sleep and without her noticing. In this state, she visits villagers to sit on their rib cages while they are asleep, causing them to experience nightmares. The Swedish film Marianne examines the folklore surrounding sleep paralysis.
In Fiji, the experience is interpreted as kana tevoro, being "eaten" by a demon. In many cases the demon can be the spirit of a recently dead relative who has come back for some unfinished business, or has come to communicate some important news to the living. Often persons sleeping near the afflicted person say kania, kania, "eat! eat!" in an attempt to prolong the possession for a chance to converse with the dead relative or spirit and seek answers as to why he or she has come back. The person waking up from the experience is often asked to immediately curse or chase the spirit of the dead relative, which sometimes involves literally speaking to the spirit and telling him or her to go away or using expletives.
In Nigeria, it appears to be far more common and recurrent among people of African descent than among whites or Nigerian Africans and is often referred to within African communities as "the Devil on your back."
In Turkey sleep paralysis is called Karabasan, and is similar to other stories of demonic visitation during sleep. A supernatural being, commonly known as a jinn (cin in Turkish), comes to the victim's room, holds him or her down hard enough not to allow any kind of movement, and starts to strangle the person. To get rid of the demonic creature, one needs to pray to Allah by reading Al-Falaq and Al-Nas from the Qur'an. Moreover, in some derivatives of the stories, the jinn has a wide hat and if the person can show the courage and take its hat, the djinn becomes his slave.
In Eastern Chinese folklore, it is thought that it is a mouse that can steal human breath at night. Human breath strengthens the mouse, allowing it longevity and the ability to briefly become human at night, in a similar fashion to fox spirits. The mouse sits near the person's face or under their nostrils.
In Hungarian folk culture sleep paralysis can be attributed to a number of supernatural entities like wraiths witches, demonic lovers and tiny fairies.
In Newfoundland, it is known as the 'Old Hag'. In island folklore, the Hag can be summoned to attack a third party, like a curse. In his 1982 book, The Terror that Comes in the Night, David J. Hufford writes that in local culture the way to call the Hag is to recite the Lord's Prayer backwards.
During the Salem witch trials several people reported night-time attacks by various alleged witches, including Bridget Bishop, that may have been caused by sleep paralysis.
In contemporary western culture the phenomenon is said to be the work of what are known as shadow people. These are said to be entities that are entirely made up of shadows and can only be seen out of the corner of one's eye. Victims report primarily three different entities, a man with a hat, the old hag noted above, and a hooded figure.
Sleep paralysis is known to involve a component of hallucination in 20% of the cases, which may explain these sightings. Sleep paralysis in combination with hallucinations has long been suggested as a possible explanation for reported alien abduction.
But the question remains, why are people hallucinating the same figure? Why are they seeing what is termed as Hat Man, or The Hooded Monk, or and Old Witch even if they have had absolutely no prior knowledge or belief in such a figure?
And what is more disturbing in some cases is the hallucinations and the messages from these figures is surprisingly similar.
And still, more disturbing is the fact that some people experience this phenomenon while not sleeping, being fully awake and conscious in the middle of the day, and in some cases, having a witness to experience it with them.
The visions of Hat Man and The Hooded Monk will be a feature of a later podcast.
In the case of The Old Hag let's get some first hand accounts. This first one is from G Mulder from Minnesota:
I was around twenty years of age and had to move back to my folk's house for a while as I broke up with the girl I was living with in the year of 1980. It was spring of the year and I was stressed out, but went to bed and enjoyed listening to my mystery theater on the radio, when I went to bed. I had my old bedroom back; across the hall was my other bedroom for a time. My folk's bedroom was around the corner, and they were in bed as well for they had to get up for work. I was laid off of my job, so I could sleep in.
I fell asleep listening to my radio show and staring at my Right Guard deodorant can in the street light coming in through the window. My shades were pulled, yet there was some light that still filtered in.
I fell asleep at some point and my radio went off after the hour timer. That is when I got my visitor. I woke up around three in the morning and noticed a red light flashing out the window, and to this day I am not sure what that was.
But now awake I sat up and saw my door open enough to see into my other bedroom. What I saw was evil and scary. There was just enough light to slightly lighten up the room, but in the middle was a deep black swirling cloud. To me that is what it appeared. Just swirling in a circle, it felt real and had a consciousness. Then I saw two small red eyes peering out form the middle of it.
I just stared, and when it felt the fear in me it rushed so fast in my direction it took me by surprise. It knocked me back in bed and I felt this heavy weight on my chest, like something was sitting on my holding me down. I could not breath, scream or move anything.
It had me completely paralyzed, what seemed for along tome. I tried to wrestle with it, but got no where. When I screamed for my dad, it just came out like a soft muffle that no one could hear. I could turn my head slightly and see my clock and saw time slipping away during my battle with the old hag.
Suddenly it was gone. I could breathe. I sat up and felt myself breathing heavy and I was dripping with sweat. This was for real, I thought. What was it? I did not see it on me; just felt the pressure and its presents.
Then I looked at the door again and saw the swirling list, back in the other bedroom. Then round two happened. It rushed at me again and I went through the same scary event. This went on again for awhile, and then it let off. Before I could get out of bed, I was dead tired, but I knew I was awake.
The third time happened as well and most of the night had passed. I did manage to turn the radio on again for an hour between events, and when the last one occurred it left for good. Soon after I just stared into space, trying to calm down and get a grasp at just what happened.
My dad soon got up to get ready for work and the sun was just coming up. I felt it was safe to get some sleep. I noticed the can of deodorant was on the floor, something was in my room. The radio was just tuning off and I could still feel the dampness of my sweat on the sheets.
I went to sleep and when I got up around noon, I told my mom of this and said I would never sleep in that room again. She though I was being silly and just had a bad dream. I do not have nor ever had a dream like that. That was real.
It was years later when I read the book Communion about alien intervention. The authors experience told of aliens coming into his house and could not move, much like my experience. But with the alien encounter you usually don't remember what they do to you when they take you. I had to wonder if that happened to me. It was explained so closely to my experience.
I was considering hypnosis, but never did. Then a couple years later I heard of professionals calling it sleep paralysis. You are caught in-between sleeping and awake stage. You are awake and yet you can't move, and it feels like the old hag syndrome.
This may be, but I believe mine was real. I do believe in entities and they do roam, they just passed my way that night. Some people have reoccurrences over their life time. I have never experienced it since and God willing, I never will. It was my worst nightmare. I thought I was going to die that night.
Here is another from Lucy who explains she was fully awake during this exchange:
I had one of these experiences, only where mine differed from most were that: I was wide awake when it happened, I was not paralyzed, I was able to move freely, I didn't feel any weight on my chest and had no difficulty breathing.
I did experience the exact same visual and auditory phenomena though. I heard footsteps coming down my stairs first. It made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I just felt like I wasn't alone. I looked in that direction, and saw a dark form, it just looked like a glob without and general shape. I guess a "cloud" or "wisp", which I have heard it described as would fit. It was so dark that it even stood out in a pretty dark room. This thing was orbing it's way toward me, not moving. It went from the middle of the stairs, to the bottom, then was in front of a coat rack in the corner of the room, and then at my feet. I'm still not completely terrified because I think it could just be my eyes playing tricks on me combined with some creaking stairs. That was, until "it" happened.
I saw a very old person (couldn't tell if it was male or female) hovering over me, with long, scraggly hair, and long sharp fingernails on it's hands, which were extended toward me. All I could see was a head and hands, nothing else. It had a REALLY mean look on it's face that haunts me until this day. It wasn't a solid figure, it looked more like what a mirage is described as, or perhaps a hologram. I pulled the covers up over my head and prayed, making a cross with my fingers across my chest. When I looked again, it was gone. When I reached to turn a light on I was afraid of what I might find, but there was nothing there. I've never seen it since. This was several years ago now.
I'd never even heard of this phenomena until looking on the net to see if others have had this experience, and when I saw all these other (nearly identical) accounts, it was creepy, and convinces me there is more to it than a sleeping disorder. I believe these "things", whatever they are, are very real. The fact that I was neither asleep, nor paralyzed also rules out sleep paralysis as a viable explanation in my case.
Have you experienced this phenomenon? Do you believe it is merely sleep paralysis? Or is it an unsolved mystery? Share your stories with us on our Facebook Page. Just search Unsolved Mysteries of the World.