The Old Hag Syndrome: A Night Terror

It happens when all dark and evil things happen — the middle of the night.

What had been a peaceful sleep turns into a waking nightmare as you find yourself pinned and unable to move, shocked awake and paralyzed by an overwhelming sense of evil.

The old hag has paid you visit.

While this sounds like a run-of-the-mill urban legend, the curious thing about the “Old Hag Syndrome” is that it is a highly reported phenomenon.

People around the world have claimed, at one time or another, to have woken up in terror, paralyzed.

But this isn’t simply sleep paralysis, they say — they often report seeing or hearing strange things, such as eyes in the darkness or the heavy sound of footsteps. A dark figure looming over their bodies.

Just Doing What A Wicked Witch Does

The story of the Old Hag finds its origins in folklore, particularly in Newfoundland, though variations of the story are present throughout the world. Tales told of an old witch maliciously sitting on the chests of her victims while they lay in bed, or curses placed upon unsuspecting individuals causing them to meet this terror in the night.

The Old Hag
Image: cometstarmoon via CC by 2.0

The global pervasiveness of these experiences, however, has elevated the Old Hag Syndrome to something beyond urban legend.

Of course, the “Old Hag” could still be a case of sleep paralysis, which typically occurs when entering or coming out of REM sleep. A person may become “caught” in a state between sleep and consciousness, during which they remain aware of their surroundings, but are unable to move.

The sense of evil, or the noises, that accompany the “Old Hag” could be nothing more than hallucinations occurring in that state of half-dreaming.

But then, how do you explain the people who have reported similar experiences without the paralysis? The commonality of every reporting? And why, of all the possible hallucinations we could experience, do we sense evil?

Scientists and paranormal enthusiasts may be at odds about what causes the Old Hag Syndrome, but one simple truth may be enough to keep you up at night:

Whatever the cause, it does exist.


Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.