November 30, 2002
Old Hag Syndrome
By Jeff Belanger
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