Did you know that about 40 percent of you have experienced some degree of the "old hag syndrome" and you may not even know it? I remember my first episode quite clearly–it was in the middle of the night when something woke me up. I know I was awake, because I could see my bedroom around me. I was very alert, but I couldn’t move. I was completely paralyzed. I felt pressure on my chest, I had trouble breathing, and my heart started to race. Then, within a few seconds, the episode was over, I could move again, and I sat up in bed, scared and confused.
Old hag syndrome is known in many cultures and can vary in degrees from a somewhat mild case, like I experienced, to a much more extreme episode where a sleeper wakes up paralyzed and sees a spectral presence moving over them. The victim can feel pressure on their chest and possibly even experience choking.
Old hag syndrome, or "sleep paralysis" as it is known in the medical community, takes its name from the belief that an old witch or "hag" would attack you in the night while you were sleeping and literally sit on your chest and try to squeeze the life out of you. In some Asian cultures, people believe this phenomenon is caused by an angry demon that didn’t receive a proper offering.
Pixxy, from Harlingen, Texas, had a run-in with old hag syndrome this past September and October:
One night I was asleep and something woke me up around two or three in the morning. It was really dark and warm in my room, and I could hear a faint static sound-like a radio with bad reception. At first I thought it was my CD player, but when I looked it was not on. But the sound was still there-just static and one faint voice that went in and out, like a radio. Then my eyes were drawn to the far-right corner of my room, and on the ceiling there was something white and unrecognizable just "hovering" there. At first I passed it off as a dream or something else, but the occurrence happened twice more that week. Toward the end of October, it happened again. But this time I had a new experience along with the warmth and static-I had the sensation of being held against the bed. When I saw that white thing, my first instinct was to sit up and run out of the room, but I couldn’t move. I could barely turn over.
Some believe that old hag syndrome is an actual spectral attack. John Michael Greer, a practicing ritual magician, explains in his book, Monsters (Llewellyn, 2001):
This experience isn’t simply a vague general category, or another name for sleep paralysis or some other simple medical diagnosis. It’s a very specific type of event with a whole series of consistent details. The experience almost always happens with the subject lying on his or her back. The subject wakes up, and can perceive his or her actual surroundings, but cannot move or speak as the experience begins. A presence approaches the subject and then presses down, choking or smothering.
Medical science also has its theories on what old hag syndrome is. I spoke with Dr. Emmanuel Mignot, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Director of the Center for Narcolepsy at Stanford University, and former chair of the National Sleep Disorders Research Advisory Board, and got his explanation as to what is happening physiologically when we sleep and during old hag syndrome. "You have two stages of sleep," Dr. Mignot explained. "You have the first type called ‘slow wave’ sleep or ‘non-REM’ sleep, which is the first stage of sleep you achieve. During that stage of sleep your brain waves, which [are measured by an] electroencephalogram (EEG), kind of slow down. You’re groggy, you don’t think a lot, and if one wakes you up, you wake up confused and not really thinking anything specific. And then after about an hour and a half, you go into another stage called REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep. During REM sleep you have these rapid eye movements, or twitches of the eye. You are completely paralyzed, and you’re actively dreaming."
Dr. Mignot went on to explain that we sleep in cycles, and approximately every 90 minutes we go from slow wave sleep to REM sleep and back again. And it is only in REM sleep that we dream, when our brains are very active (as opposed to slow wave sleep, when they aren’t very active at all). It is also in REM sleep that our bodies are completely paralyzed. "If you were not paralyzed during your REM sleep, you would be in serious trouble," said Mignot. "You have to realize that if you were dreaming that you were running around and if you were physically able to run, you would be kicking in your sleep. You could kick your significant other. This problem does exist; it’s called REM Behavior Disorder, [though] it’s not very common. In general, fortunately, you are paralyzed."
As the night wanes on, you tend to have more frequent REM sleep and less frequent slow wave sleep, which is why sleep paralysis is most common in the early morning.
Dr. Mignot said, "Sleep paralysis is a strange occurrence. It happens when your body goes into a stage where it’s half awake and half into REM sleep. Consequently, you get into this paralysis stage, but the rest of your brain [is] switched into the ‘awake mode.’ Sleep paralysis is damn scary. And people are really afraid that they’re going to die-but actually they don’t."
So where is the old hag? What about the specter moving toward you in your bed? The medical explanation for experiencing a visual representation of a dream while you are partially awake is called "hypnagogic hallucinations," Dr. Mignot explains. "Hypnagogic hallucinations are rare, more difficult to find," but maybe they are a somewhat plausible explanation? "After all, dreaming is hallucinating," Dr. Mignot concluded.
Frequent sleep paralysis (multiple times in a week) can be a sign of not getting proper sleep, or, in rare cases, it can mean you have a disorder such as narcolepsy. Very little research has been done on sleep paralysis overall, admits Dr. Mignot. He is currently reviewing data from 1,200 patients in a study that involves questions about sleep paralysis, but it is too soon to know any real facts yet.
The debate on whether old hag syndrome is a supernatural phenomenon or simply a by-product of some disturbed sleeping will go on between the believers and the non-believers. But the fear that you experience when you have one of these nocturnal episodes is very real, no matter whom you are.