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The Old Hag: Sleep Paralysis, Spirituality, and Pop Culture

Regular readers of TheoFantastique may recall previous mention of a phenomenon called sleep paralysis in connection with posts on Diary of a Madman, and The Fourth Kind. Given the significance of this phenomenon in the lives of many individuals, and its influence in various aspects of pop culture, I will explore this topic in the first of several posts that delve into differing interpretations and explorations of it.

The groundbreaking and initial scholarly research into this phenomenon was conducted by Dr. David Hufford, Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Hufford began his research in Newfoundland through interviews with individuals who claimed experiences with an entity they called “the Old Hag.” As Hufford’s research continued he connected the dots to similar experiences in other countries and cultures. It is now common to see references to the Old Hag and sleep paralysis as expressions of the same phenomenon. Hufford compiled his research into the book The Terror That Comes at Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982). His research on this topic has continued and a more recent and updated form of his thoughts on the subject can be found in an article titled “Sleep Paralysis as Spiritual Experience” in the journal Transcultural Psychology Vol. 42, No. 1 (March 2005): 11-45.

For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, Hufford describes the Old Hag/sleep paralysis as including the following features: “(i) awakening, (ii) hearing and/or seeing something come into the room and approach the bed; (iii) being pressed on the chest or strangled; and (iv) being unable to move or cry out.” Consider a few of the stories of those who have lived through these frightening experiences. The first comes from William James as relayed in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience in Lecture III, “The Reality of the Unseen,” as he describes the experience of a friend of his:

It was about September of 1884 …. Suddenly I felt something come into the room and stay close to my bed. It remained only a minute or two. I did not recognize it by any ordinary sense, and yet there was a horrible ‘sensation’ connected with it. It stirred something more at the roots of my being than any ordinary perception. The feeling had something of the quality of a very large tearing vital pain spreading chiefly over the chest, but within the organism — and yet the feeling was not pain so much as abhorrence. At all events, something was present with me, and I knew its presence far more surely than I had ever known the presence of any fleshly living creature. I was conscious of its departure as of its coming; an almost instantaneously swift going through the door, and the ‘horrible sensation’ disappeared.

A more recent experience comes through one of the many interviews Hufford has conducted into this phenomenon, in this case with a Pennsylvania medical student:

What woke me up was the door slamming. ‘OK,’ I thought, ‘It’s my roommate….’ I was laying on my back just kinda looking up. And the door slammed, and I kinda opened my eyes. I was awake. Everything was light in the room. My roommate wasn’t there and the door was still closed….

But the next thing I knew, I realized that I couldn’t move…. But the next thing I knew, from one fo the areas of the room this grayish, brownish murky presence was there. And it kind of swept down over the bed and I was terrified….And I couldn’t move and I was helpless and I was really — I was really scared …. And this murky presence — just kind of — this was evil! This was evil! You know this is weird! You must think I’m a — … This thing was there! I felt a pressure on me and it was like enveloping me. It was a very, very, very strange thing.

While such experiences may be difficult to fathom for those who have never gone through them themselves, I struggled with this in my childhood years as a part of various sleep disorders, as did my brother. Thankfully insomnia is the worst that I suffer from at present. Hufford’s research, and the research of others into this phenomenon, indicates that sleep paralysis is experienced by a significant percentage of the population. Hufford also reminds us that “[u]ntil the seventeenth century the primary referent of nightmare actually was what we call sleep paralysis, and it was consistently associated with supernatural assault.”

Although sleep paralysis is usually explained by researchers as a form of neurophysiological experience, there are a number of interpretations given to the phenomenon, both from those who experience and research it. These interpretations are found across a spectrum from naturalistic to the spiritual. These include physiological explanations, with the vast majority of those who experience the Old Hag opting for spiritual explanations, including Christians who view it as a form of demonic attack, to paranormal interpretations.

Sleep paralysis experiences have had a significant aspect on religion, spirituality, and popular culture. In the history of Christianity those who have experienced sleep paralysis have interpreted the phenomenon as a form of witchcraft (possibly a factor in the Salem witchcraft trials) or demonic activity, and those who understand it as paranormal make connections to out-of-body experiences, alien abductions, and spirit contact. In the history of folklore the experience may have played a part in stories of the incubus and succubus. The experience has also impacted the realm of the fantastic. As I commented previously, Guy de Maupassant had experiences with the Old Hag that inspired his story Le Horla, which in turn was adapted into the horror film Diary of a Madman starring Vincent Price. In science fiction sleep paralysis experiences have impacted portrayals of alien abductions as evidenced most recently by The Fourth Kind. It would make for an interesting project to research the creators of horror and science fiction to learn the extent to which sleep paralysis may have served as an inspiration.

Those who struggle with sleep paralysis experiences often do not share them with others for fear of ridicule. This situation is made worse by a large percentage of therapists who are unaware of the phenomenon, and many who are choose naturalistic physiological, anthropological, and physiological interpretations to the frequent consternation of many who experience the Hag and who understand it as a core spiritual experience. Interestingly, Hufford believes that folk belief concerning such experiences and scientific knowledge can co-exist. He states that “there is nothing specific within our scientific knowledge of SP that contradicts spirit interpretations.”

Those who wrestle with sleep paralysis should know they are not alone. As a way of addressing concerns several resources are available. These include David Hutton’s book, finding an online group in order to share experiences, and finding a professional knowledgeable in sleep paralysis who can discuss ways to address the phenomenon.

In the future TheoFantastique will explore other facets of sleep paralysis, including an interview with Louis Proud, author of Dark Intrusions: An Investigation into the Paranormal Nature of Sleep Paralysis Experiences (Anomalist Books, 2009), and an interview with Paul Taitt, one of the producers of the documentary Your Worst Nightmare: Supernatural Assault (Soul Smack Live).

Comment Pages

There are 12 Comments to "The Old Hag: Sleep Paralysis, Spirituality, and Pop Culture"

  • Alan Lenzi says:

    Thanks for this. Very interesting. I experience sleep paralysis still as an adult.

    I think I’ve found a reference to sleep paralysis in an ancient Babylonian poem I’ve been working on. (I’m a scholar of the ancient Near East.) See here if you’re interested.

  • natalia says:

    it is scientifically proven this happens when the transition happens from dream state to wake state but early days people who were not aware of this pointed it towards such kind of supernatural theory

  • Natalia, thank you for your comments. While a physiological explanation has been provided as you note, this does not necessarily mean a spiritual or supernatural theory is not possible, as David Hufford points out. Many of those who experience sleep paralysis understanding the physiological perspective yet still adopt paranormal or supernatural interpretations.

  • [...] my research on sleep paralysis or the Old Hag phenomenon discussed in a previous post, I came across a documentary on the topic called Your Worst Nightmare: Supernatural Assault. The [...]

  • [...] was criticized at the 1992 Abduction Conference held at M.I.T. by folklorist and SP expert David Hufford, who had been invited to present a paper on SP and its relevance to abductions. Hufford’s [...]

  • Death says:

    Is it a demon or is it a ghost?

    Is it sceintfic or super-natrual?

  • Interpretation of the phenomenon is varied and has been discussed here in various posts.

  • Deborah L. Falk says:

    This website is informative. I’ve had two experiences in my life and felt strongly that they were not nightmares. I have had scary dreams like everyone else. But the two events that I experienced were terrifying because I was awake and aware of what was happening. The first event happened 17 years ago. I woke to go to the bathroom when I found that I couldn’t move. My husband lay beside me. I tried to move my hand but couldn’t. I wasn’t sure what was happening. I moved my eyes to my side of the bed and saw a black outline of a man. My perception was that he was full of hate and it was directed to me. With the jolt of fear, I believe I shocked myself out of the paralysis that had pinned me to the bed. The second event occurred shortly after the death of my father 15 years ago. I was sleeping and was awoken when I felt something move and place its head on my shoulder, its arm over my chest and a leg over my left leg. I couldn’t move. My husband was sleeping and I couldn’t do anything to wake him but moan. This woke him up. The presence slowly left and I could feel the lifting as though it was relucant to let go. I didn’t feel any evil but felt afraid that something like this could happen to me. My father died a Christian and was a good man. He had a good heart. My husband and I were going to bed one night shortly after my father’s death when my husband turned out the light in our bedroom. He was walking around to get into bed. I had just laid down a few minutes prior and hadn’t closed my eyes yet when I was sitting on a bench with my father. He turned to me and said, “I have a joke to tell you about Lazarus’. When my husband sat on the bed to lay down, it jerked me out of the ‘nightmare’? Is there such a thing as a waking nightmare? Was it an hallucination? I sleep better nights forgetting that these things had happened. I was watching a show on T.V. about Dr. David Hubbard and discovered that I wasn’t alone. So, I googled hima nd found this website.

  • Tanya says:

    I Suffered from the old hag visits. When I was a child. So did my mother, brother and other family members. I grew up in Newfoundland. My family and I stopped seeing her after we moved across the country. All I know is that after 30 years I still fear her and wont look towards my bed room door at night ill this day.

  • Janine says:

    that same exact thing happend to me that other morning i was sleepy peacefuly and i saw this black figure which is a grim reaper petting one of my toys i was so scared. i heard heavy breathing and i was making scared gaps and I screamed HOLY SHIT! because i was really patrified

  • Alexandra says:

    soo.. do is paralysis always about someone coming into your room or can it be about pat truamatic events?

  • Alexandra, if you look at the other comments you will see that there are differing interpretations of what SP might be. For some expanded thoughts on this you might enjoy the interview I did with David Hufford for Paranthropology journal. You can read that at http://www.academia.edu/4041334/_From_Sleep_Paralysis_to_Spiritual_Experience_An_Interview_with_David_Hufford_Paranthropology_vol._4_no._3_2013_.

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