Old Hag Phenomenon
This article will explain the phenomenon known as ‘old hag / sleep paralysis’. A look at cultural origins will show how far and wide this superstition spreads. The real life experiences will give you chills. Science will help you to understand.
hag (hg) n.
1. An old woman considered ugly or frightful.
a. A witch; a sorceress.
b. Obsolete A female demon.
paralysis [pəˈrælɪsɪs] npl -ses [-ˌsiːz]
1. (Medicine / Pathology) Pathol
a. impairment or loss of voluntary muscle function or of sensation (sensory paralysis) in a part or area of the body, usually caused by a lesion or disorder of the muscles or the nerves supplying them
b. a disease characterized by such impairment or loss; palsy
2. cessation or impairment of activity
Tie these two together and you have an old ugly female demon that can impair your movement. Quite powerful – yes!
FOLKLORE & ORIGINS of OLD HAG SYNDROME
Old folklore stories of The Hag are abundant. Many stories were told to frighten disobedient children. The Northern English Peg Powler, for example, was apparently a river hag who would grab children from the river’s edge with her long arms, drown them, and then eat them. Irish and Scottish folklore depicted the Cailleach as a hag goddess, creator of harvest, weather and sovereignty. The Cailleachas (Storm Hags) were thought to be the personifications of the elemental powers. Persian folklore called the hag, Bakhtak, she would sit on a sleeper’s chest and compress her weight so when the sleeper would wake they would have trouble breathing and feel pinned down.
In Germanic folklore -Mære, Mare, Mara, Mahr, Mara, Mora, are said to be spirits or goblins who ride on a sleepers chest giving them bad dreams. The Mare (nightmare), is similar to the mythical creature’s Succubus and Incubus. In Serbia, the Mare (night creature), is believed to enter through a keyhole, sits on the sleepers chest and tries to strangle them. To repel the Mare and protect one during sleep, one is to make a sign of the cross towards ones pillow, leave an upside down broom behind your door or say an elaborate prayer before bed. Tibetan and Burmese use the term Mara(demon). This demon is said to have tempted Guatama Buddah by trying to seduce him with visions of beautiful women. The core term of Mora can be traced back to the Greek word µóρoς moros, meaning death.
The incubus, a nightmare, an evil being or female demon which causes sexual nightmares stems from Old English 8th century. The Mære, Mare, Mara, Mahr, Mara, Mora arise in Middle English, 13th century. The words nigt-mare, nyghte-marede notes the tormenting goblin. Related terms are found in some Scandinavian and east European languages. During the 15th and 16th century, the meaning of the feeling of suffocation due to the visitation of a nightmare was added. The general use of the word nightmare for any kind of bad dream did not emerge until the early 1830s.
In Fiji, the experience is interpreted as kana tevoro. It is said that this means to be eaten by a demon. This demon is thoughts to be the spirit of a recently deceased relative
who has unfinished business. The afflicted person can often be heard saying ‘kania, kania’ = ‘eat, eat’. After the experience the person is asked to immediately curse or chase the spirit of the deceased relative away by using expletives.
In Nigeria it is said that this experience is ‘the devil on your back’, even though the hag compresses the sleepers chest. This experience is prevalent in those of African descent over white or Nigerian Africans.
Karabasan is the Turkish expression. The demon is known as djinn and it enters the victims room holds the sleeper down and tried to strangulate them. To rid this demon one is required to pray to Allah with certain lines from the Qur’an.
This list is by no means exhaustive. In any culture the experience is relatively similar and carries its own name. The witch or hag sits on a person’s chest so they are unable to move, breath or scream out. This legend dates as far back as the incubus and succubus in the paranormal world. In times gone by the fear of the devil paying a visit whilst you sleep was all too real.
Experiencing The Hag is frightening to say the least. One woman woke one night to find a creature sitting on her chest. In the darkness it was an evil looking shadowy figure. She felt a strong force holding her down. She tried to scream, but seemed to have lost her voice. She tried to hit the wall with her arm, but her arm would not move. The experience lasted all of 30 seconds. She stated that she doesn’t believe in ghosts but this left her feeling scared and confused.
I have a Slovenian friend who shared her terrifying experience through tears. She was woken from her sleep, completely paralysed, and unable to move an inch. She felt darkness around her and could barely breathe. She started to feel death upon her and thought of her future and her children. Visibly shaken she shared her fear of dying. Her prayer was fast and repetitive but she could still feel the pressure of this darkness making its way inside her torso…pushing and pushing its way in. She felt that if she was a weak person she would give in and let it take her over body. Instead she fought as hard as she could. The darkness was strong and kept at her for what felt like an hour. By this time she was growing painfully tired, still trying to move but unable, trying to scream…but no sound.
A man in his mid-40s and who lives alone, had a similar experience. He stated it was a warm night so he slept with the window slightly ajar. He woke to a light breeze and tried to get up to close the window, but instead he found he was pinned to the bed. He noticed the room was darker than normal and could see a black mist hovering above him. The more he tried to move the heavier it became. He felt a tight compression on his chest area. He immediate thought he was going to have a heart attack, but he knew this was - ‘Mora’.
Another woman stated that she had suffered with this phenomenon for the past 12 years. It started with just being unable to move, like someone was on top of her, pinning her down. Although she tried to move and scream, all she seemed to be able to do was slightly wiggle her toes and faintly murmur. In the beginning she felt very frightened and would try with all her might to wake up. Upon waking she would be unable to resume sleep for a few hours. Now, given that how long this has occurred, she has become somewhat used to it. Sometimes she lies on her back to see how long she can take the awful, overpowering feeling. In the end, it becomes too much and she wakes herself up. She has observed that over the years this "thing" has kind of metamorphosed into a dark being, which is doing this deliberately for some reason. For a while she thought this was something that she may have invented in her head. It still occurs about every 2 months. Sometimes once a night, other times several occurrences in one night.
These experiences are so frightening because the victims, although paralysed, seem to have full use of their senses. At times they smell strange smells, hear the sound of approaching footsteps, see apparitions or shadows with glowing eyes, and feel the oppressive weight on the chest. All of the body's senses are tell the victims that something real and unusual is happening to them. Once they are fully awake it is like the spell is broken and the victims recover, but are completely perplexed by what just happened to them since now the room is entirely normal.
Thus far we have looked at folklore and beliefs that are embedded through generations and heard the frightening real life experiences. What about science?
On average it is said that we get seven hours sleep per night. During sleep it is typical to experience cycles of non-REM and REM sleep which last between 60 to 90 minutes per cycle. So this would lead one to believe that the average person could have between 3 to 7 sleep cycles per night. Sleep paralysis is said to occur due to a disassociation of mixed wake, REM sleep and muscle atonia. (muscle atonia = muscle paralysis during REM sleep). This is the moment where sleep paralysis dominates sufferers. An attributing factor is hyperactive neural structures releasing chemicals in the brainstem which in turn impact muscle atonia. Hypocretins assist with regulation of sleep, this amino acid is released by the hypothalamus through to the locus coreuleus regions of the brain inducing the consistency of sleep. People who experience sleep paralysis are said to lack hypocretins, in turn suppressing of the activation of the locus coreuleus and enticing an arousal system predisposed to sleep disturbance.
So what about the sensed or felt presence that occurs in sleep paralysis? Hallucinations are the core experience.
Hypnagogic hallucination: A vivid dreamlike hallucination that occurs as one is falling asleep. The opposite of a hypnopompic hallucination which is a vivid dreamlike hallucination that occurs as one is waking up.
A neuropsychological perspective is that sleep paralysis is interpreted as consistent with the hypothesis that out-of-body experiences are caused by a breakdown of normal process of bodily-self sensations, which suggest that out-of-body experiences are the result of a deviation of vestibular motor experience. In layman’s terms the nerves attributed to motor skills don’t function as they normally would, this in turn impacts of the body’s ability to process sensations correctly. Combine this with a chemical mishap in the brain and you have yourself a case of sleep paralysis.
Other attributes consist of hypertension, stress, diet, shift work, lack of exercise, sleep position (flat on back), circadian rhythm disturbance, anti-anxiety medication, panic attacks, mental illness (bipolar, schizophrenia) and family history.
While gathering information on sleep paralysis and the folklore of the old hag, I have trawled through numerous experiences, case studies, quantitative studies, brain studies, psychology reports, cultural beliefs, supernatural superstition…you name it. I tried to break the information down as much as possible to help explain this phenomenon in a logical sense. As real as this experience is for sufferers, be it a one off or on a regular basis, this is something that can leave you too terrified to sleep. The science behind the experience helps you understand how the flow on effects of a chemical misfire or dysfunction in the brain can play out. I hope by reading this you have a clearer understanding of the phenomenon that is OLD HAG!
Nic Hume - APPI - 14th March 2012
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