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

Rob Schwarz is a writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.


  1. When I was between the ages of 4-6 this happened to me, well as often as I can remember. As I got older and researched it I did conclude that it was Sleep Paralysis, I only remember seeing a figure one time, It climbed down my wall and I remember that I knew it was coming for me, I tried to scream and nothing would come out. Finally the thing was looming over me, I never saw a face.
    I am 22 now and I experience sleep paralysis maybe once a year, and its always the same, I am never terrified that I cannot move,its always that I know something is there even if I don’t see it.

    1. Creepy. Thanks for sharing your experience, Danielle.

      I’ve never suffered sleep paralysis, myself. I imagine it’s pretty weird to wake up and not be able to move, though, especially if you see something climbing down your wall.

      I wonder why some people experience it more than others…

  2. I too experienced this as a child (also around 4 or 5) – a tall, slim figure without facial features. It shaked hands with me and slowly vanished into thin air. That happened after a traumatic incident, and just that one time. I wonder if age has something to do with it. Anyway, love your site!

    1. Thanks for sharing!

      Interesting point about age. I always wonder how much (if at all) “paranormal” experiences are related to who we are as people. Age, eyesight, stress, etc. It could explain why some people experience this stuff and others don’t.

      Oh, and thanks for reading. I really appreciate it.

  3. Why is it always traumatic and frightening I wonder? Why is it never a nice young lady or an angel?

  4. Well i think i was around 10 or 11 when i first encountered this stuff i rememeber waking up with no senses to my disposal except sight i was so terrified by what i say that i couldnt move speak or breath i could only watch this girl around my height stand in my door way looking at me just standing there i tried screaming for my mother but i felt like this thing was controlling me but i quickly realized the more i tried to fight it the stronger it got so i started to close my eyes an act like it wasnt their the more i did that then the figure seemed to fade away so i almost had my eyes closed i could feel my strength coming back so i lurched with all my force an tried screaming as loud as i can but nothing this thing only came back stronger an it was alot more visable this time i rememeber my heart beating to fast i blacked out an when i rewoke minutes later it was gone i turned the lights on very quick an ran through the house looking for mom or sis but no one was home so i stayed awake an waited until she came home to tel her what happened

  5. When I was about 10-11 or so, I had a very similar situation except it was a male specter. I woke up in the middle of the night, unable to find my pajamas. I went to bed with them on, but woke up with none. I searched my entire room for them, couldn’t find them so I put new ones on and went back to bed. About an hour or so later I woke up abruptly to this feeling of someone gripping my upper arms painfully tightly, a dark presence looming over me as I tried to struggle but couldn’t move. I eventually calmed, stared at the entity and said I wasn’t afraid of it. The feeling paused then slowly vanished as if someone had just let go. I went back to bed, surprisingly easily may I add, and when I woke up not only were my pajamas neatly folded at the end of my bed, but my upper arms had matching hand print sized bruises. I asked my mother about folding my pajamas to which she had no idea what I was talking about.

    Fast forward about 10 years later, and I was discussing with my mother my experiences. The man in the bed was no where close to the first experience, either. At first she was skeptical then told me how in our family, my great grandmother was considered a ‘witch’ and had been known to predict genders of unborn babies, speak with the dead and more. Even curiouser still, my great grandmother apparently said that this was something that ‘skipped’ two generations, and only went to girls. My grandmother doesn’t have it, my mother doesn’t have it, but apparently I do. Which makes a loooot of sense now.

    I’ve never experienced this sensation since then, nor do I wish to.

  6. I think this also happened to me.

    I was simply sitting in bed, just after reading, and I turned off my “nightlight,” and closed my eyes. Then I hear a rustling near my dresser, to the left of my room. I open my eyes to see a creepy figure just standing there. No eyes, no more noise, just a 7 foot tall figure staring back at me. After about 15 seconds the horrific thing went away, but I was still paralyzed with fear, assuming–no, knowing– something was still in the room. I finally had the urge to move as it was getting to be 11:00. I turned the light on, nothing.

  7. I had this happen to me several years ago. I woke up in the night, I couldn’t move and was afraid to try to move. I felt someone on top of me and they were going to split open my head. I told them to go away in the name of Jesus and thankfully, they did. I was never so scared in my life.

    1. Tanya, how many years ago do you think this happened? This Old Hag Syndrome thing happened to me a min once a year. It doesn’t bother with me anymore, tho. I woke up to something/someone at the end of my bed. I couldn’t move the first dozen or so times. I woke Gary & told him a lady figure was there & said I couldn’t move. I made him tell her to leave me alone and I was trying to get some sleep. It’s been 10 years now.

  8. I have hypnagogic hallucinations without the paralysis about 3 to 4 times a year. So i can imagine its bad with paralysis. Different images have appeared, and only once i saw a the old woman with a black veil, although she wasnt actually scary. I even tried to talk to her. Sometimes its a dark male thin figure. I often confront the hallucinations to the point of running after them and they “disappear” through walls or the roof. Thats why i can imagine the paralyisis with this being bad. When i touch the the wall they disappear at, i realize im hallucinating. Most of them last no more than 10 seconds, and i usually end up with tachychardia. After many experiences i can control the situation and quickly calm down again and try to sleep. Im sort of reliefed its a common experience and very curious to see explanations for this.

  9. Its a normal thing I alwys get them since i was a kid but more as I’ve gotten older and drink, alcoholics get them more often, preatty much while withdrawals. Sometimes its a sexy girl and can be, exiting and then it turns into something evil, other times as my mother, some different person that has passed away but cant posibly be alive then it turns sinister when i realize their dead. Then im perolize cant move the evil presence and rebuke it in the name of jesus christ till i can finally talk, then move. Thats how ive always gotten off of it, always call on god and your saved, i gotta say i get it so often but im used to them, its very real very vivid whats you feel and see that i used to like it. You can get very interesting conversations, before the demon shows up, still always rebuke shake it off, relax your breathing, and you get and unforgetable experiance.

  10. So this seems so crazy to me!! I think I was about 10 or 11 years old my Mom dropped my sister & I off at my Aunt’s house around like 4am. My sister & I went back to sleep on her couch I thought I was awake but I could not move only breath & open my eyes I was so scared across the room there was an older lady standing there staring at me she was old dressed in black hunched over with a black hood covering her head I remember Only being able to close my eyes it seemed like forever that I couldn’t move when I opened my eyes she was gone & I slowly began to be able to move again!! It scared me so bad!!

  11. Had this same problem except mine was in the morning, in a well lit room. what I seen while paralyzed was an old lady hunched over at the edge of my bed , just staring at me she looked like the old lady from snow white she was wearing all black. and one thing that was different then most peoples stories was her nose was moving side to side I was prettified

    1. Same here. I was 17 and it was during the morning in a lit room. This terrifying Snow White witch/excorcist lady was like floating towards me talking but I couldn’t hear her cause I kept hearing violins playing. I couldn’t move, breath or scream as as soon as she got close enough she told me she’s gonna come back for me, in the future . She started floating backwards and my older sister came into my room for something and everything just stopped including the violins! I sat up trying to catch my breath asked her if she heard me screaming… no .. I just started thinking about that morning right now and was google searching about this stuff and out of all the comments and stories I read, yours was the closest to my experience. That was 13 years ago. Wondering if she really is gonna come back. God I hope not! I shouldn’t have thought about this and looked all this up at this hour at night. I’m scared.

      1. Hi..your experience is very close to mine. I too was 17 and I recall that I woke in the night and I don’t recall having sleep paralysis (but i have had that before) and i saw this old haggy witchy woman in kind of a lump against the wall..on my right bed was up against the left wall. She was dressed in a cloak with a hood..canf remember the color but i don’t think it was black…maybe a dirty looking red or green…and she pointed a gnarled finger at me and said “I’m gonna get you”…think I may have been sitting up kinda on my elbow maybe….cause I think I remember playing back down…anyway I was very frightened….I have had a couple other experiences with things in the night…specifically I remember a few years back with a little woman that came up right next to me on the bed…I refer to her as the “skitterer”…I was able to say through a very thick sleep state it seems…please leave…my husband heard me say this and if came out muffled sounding…like underwater kinda…

  12. I would of just turned 18 (this year), (sorry in advanced if some things don’t make sense I’m drunk and started talking about scary movies that’s how I remember this). Anyways my nan is very much into Jesus and I’m not and we just moved into our new place and she usually prays throughout the house but she didn’t this time. One night I randomly wake up and there was a basically pitch black figure at the end on my bed and it crawled onto my bed and on top of me and reached out to my face. I moved my head to the side and right next to my door there was an old fat woman that was dressed very 50s I’d say and she looked very happy that I was terrified like she was the one that was causing my terror. I just shut my eyes and hoped to go back to sleep. When I told my nan she parted throughout the house and it hasn’t happened since

  13. Had a few experiences when young layer of blue light when awoken in morning another time I thought I was asleep and opened my door to find two demons about 8 feet tall one standing in the wall one was like a werewolf the other reminded me of a mix between pinhead and what you would call slender man with long leather Jacket in my “Dream” I ran past them into the middle of the hall and I thought I woke up in the hall never been a sleep walker was I asleep up untill a few years back i put it down to that but waking up in my dream exactly where I was in my “dream”ive had too many to list but last year maybe 18 months I was in new house and my daughter for the first time slept in her own room she was saying daddy low (she told me after) but I opened my eyes to this old hag I was saying like the apparition in poltergeist walking down the stairs then rushes her as an old hag (if this happened in the film) well I opened my eyes to this thing rushing towards me light blue I let out a shout scared my daughter and must of me aswell and i dont usually give these things any food for fear was this attached to my daughter..? or just another one of my demonic visitations of which i know how it started I had 12 years of the occult …any input would be appreciated

  14. I have a story about old hag. At list this is what I believe it was. I was 33 when this happened, back then I just written my bord exam and had to live with my parents. I just woke up one night to use a washroom. As I approached to the washroom door, I noticed a woman standing in a living room. She was old, overweight and completely naked. My first though was that it was my mom, I yelled something like “mom are you crazy. What are you doing?” Suddenly a small create came out from the her behind. It was maybe 3 ft tall, had a long sharp nose, a hump and one of creatures legs was shorted then the oner so every time it made a step the whole body would move in an unnatural way. To say they I was terrified would be to say nothing. I probably had first grey hair appear on my head after that night. I run back to my room and the old woman run after me. I leaned against the door but she was way to strong. She just push the door open so hard I though it will break.

    By that point the primordial fear kicked in. I was beating her as heard as I could and she never tried to cover herself from my punched, it’s like it was nothing to her. Then she said “Ella, I don’t like you anymore” and she grabbed me by throat. At that moment I woke up and she was there still but I couldn’t see her anymore. She had her hand on my throat for a good 4 or 5 second. During this whole time I tried to fight her. I was punching against the wall so head the clock fell from the wall. It wouk up my mom, who rushed to my room to see if I was ok. I don’t care what anyone say this woman was real I fought her for 5 seconds when I was awake. I never experienced a sleep paralysis, not even ones.