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Terror in the Night

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

Hauntmaster 09/15/2005

Fall begins in one week and soon the nights will be longer than the days. While pondering the upcoming seasonal shift and my own insomnia I was reminded of, Now I lay me down to sleep... a common refrain many of us learned as children. A refrain that, oddly enough, somewhat assuaged the fear of the monster under the bed or in the closet or the one just outside the window. For some though, the night and the sleep it brings can be truly terrifying.

Old Hags and Demons

Folklore from around the world tells us there are a number of entities that prey on us when we are at our most defenseless. The common theme in all these stories is an entity that visits the victim during sleep and usually attempts to crush, smother, or strangle them.

From Scotland comes stories of the Old Hag or Night Hag. The Old Hag is a malevolent spirit that visits people in the middle of the night while they sleep. Those who survive this nocturnal visit report being awoken with a feeling of dread or unease but unable to move or speak. They often feel a great pressure on their chest making it difficult to breath and sometimes see an old hag before them or near them in the room. In other incidents the victim will awaken screaming or believe they are screaming, again, unable to move, and have the sensation that they are being bitten or having the life sucked out of them.

Sometimes instead of an Old Hag the victim will have the sensation that there are dark figures with glowing eyes present in the room or will hear footsteps approaching their bed.

In most instances, the attack continues until the victim feels like they are about to pass out or succumb. The victim then feels weakened or drained for a prolonged period of time. This feeling of weakness is where we get the term hagridden and the more common haggard to describe feelings of being rundown.

In French-speaking countries they call it the cauchemar (trampling ogre or nightmare). Germany has the Hexendrücken (witch pressing), Alpdrücken (elf pressing), and Mahr while Greece has ephialtes and mora. In Norway and parts of the British Isles it is called the Mare and is where we get the term nightmare.

In Eastern Europe, particularly around the Balkans, incidents like the above would have been, and still are in many communities, attributed to a visit from a vampire. Contrary to Western beliefs there are many varieties of vampires, not all of which are dapper gentlemen in fancy dress clothing. Several varieties indulged themselves in sitting upon the chest of a sleeping victim and feeding upon their energy.

In the East and Middle East vampires and djinn are reported to be responsible for these types of attacks and much like the vampires of Eastern Europe feed off the life energy of their victims.

The Judeo-Christian belief system has a variety of demons that are attributed with attacking people in their sleep. The most widely known are the Incubus (a demon impersonating a man), Succubus (a demon impersonating a voluptuous woman), and the Night Terror (a demon that attacks men, children, and women in childbirth). Most often attacks by incubi and succubi are of a sexual nature but also exhibit many similarities with stories of the Old Hag. The 

In the British Isles it was once fairly common for people to carry, wear, or protect their farms with a Hag Stone, sometimes also known as a Hagstone, Holy Stone, Nightmare Stone, or Wish Stone. A Hag Stone is a stone or piece of flint with a naturally created hole in it. They could be found in plowed fields or more commonly on beaches and streams. They were thought to posses the power to repel or prevent evil from harming the possessor. These would be worn or hung on the bedpost at night for protection from Old Hags.

Just as the Old Hag is well known in one form or another around the world, Hag Stones too seem to be universal. From Scandinavia to the Middle East people see stones with holes in them as having special properties and are used to protect people from evil spirits, evil eyes, pains and ailments, and even in some cases to change the weather.

Sleep Paralysis and Night Terrors

The medical community has a partial if not more rational explanation for at least some of the phenomena that afflict us during our sleep. There are a number of conditions collectively called parasomnias that can affect us while we sleep. In general parasomnias are disruptive sleep-related events with sleepwalking and narcolepsy being the most widely known.

Visits by Old Hags may be explained as sleep paralysis. A condition in which a person in stage 1 sleep wakes, or believes they have awaken from a dream. Stage 1 sleep is a light sleep occurring both just after falling asleep and again before waking, characterized by drifting thoughts, slow eye movement, and where the sleeper may or may not be aware of sleeping. During an episode of sleep paralysis they feel paralyzed but are able to breathe and move their eyes for up to 3 minutes. This is known as common sleep paralysis (CSP) and is, as its name suggests, quite common yet it is also common that people don't remember CSP when they have fully awaken. Estimates are that 25% of the population has experienced CSP at least once in their lives.

There is a second type of sleep paralysis known as hallucinatory sleep paralysis (HSP). HSP is fairly rare yet often quite disturbing. In addition to the common symptoms of being unable to move or speak HSP is accompanied by nightmare-like hallucination that can be auditory, olfactory, and/or visual. Sufferers often have visions of creatures sitting on their chests or strangulating them. The duration of HSP is also usually double or more that of the CSP. The medical community has yet to find a definitive cause for sleep paralysis but has discovered it tends to run in families. An interesting aside, according to literature on the subject nearly all people who have reported HSP were sleeping on their backs at the time.

Night terror or Pavor Nocturnus is another sleep disorder that can be quite disturbing to those who suffer from it. It's characterized by sudden awakening from the deepest stage of sleep, often screaming, sweating, and with an overwhelming sense of fear or terror and confusion. In this state people often have hallucinations of animals or people in the room with them or of being in places other than their bed. This can last for up to 20 minutes. After returning to sleep those who suffer from night terror usually don't remember the nights incidents. Spouses and other family members on the other hand often have terrifying memories of being awakened by their loved one screaming and thrashing about. As with sleep paralysis, night terror is a poorly understood phenomena and it seems to be a fairly common occurrence in young children but can happen at any age and is not indicative of any serious medical condition.

Paranormal or Quirk of Human Evolution?

Both sleep paralysis and night terror closely resemble what folklore has been describing as supernatural attacks and demonic possession for over 2,000 years. Believers in the more paranormal explanation of the phenomena often site the lack of knowledge of the causes for sleep paralysis and night terrors as support for their beliefs. 


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