This 1982 study is by David J Hufford, and its complete title is The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions, from the University of Pennsylvania Press.
It’s a fascinating study of the tradition he calls “the Old Hag,” which is a specific series of occurrences that come to some people. The group of most-common symptoms or descriptors include
- lying flat on your back
- feeling awake and aware of your surroundings
- inability to move
- an awareness of the presence of another
- a numinous impression of the Other; this is NOT a common visit from a physical friend or pet or what-have-you
- a sensation of pressure on the body, making it feel difficult to breathe
Oftentimes the spell ends when the experiencer feels themselves finally able to move -- even if only a finger, or shift their head slightly. Breaking the paralysis breaks the experience.
Hufford discovered that this pattern is widespread and has often happened to people who have no knowledge of the folkloric description of this event. Often, an experiencer would be afraid to tell another in fear of being thought crazy. Many times after a lecture on the topic (or a media article or a radio interview) Hufford would meet more people who would report their own “encounters.” Many times the full stories of the experience would mention other common elements that had not been mentioned in his talks or the present discussion.
Other experiencers told about their spell without knowing anything about the widespread occurrence of similar happenings.
The experience happens during (or around) sleep, so is it just “a nightmare,” without objective confirmation?
The origin of the word nightmare is [Middle English, a female demon that afflicts sleeping people : night, night; see night + mare, goblin (from Old English; see mer- in Indo-European roots).] And the Old Hag experience is often dismissed by the uninformed as “only a nightmare.”
The Old Hag is not a nightmare, nor an instance of Sleep Paralysis, although SP is often a feature of the entire Old Hag event. Experiencers are not bad people and they are not crazy. The impulsive action of dismissing the experience as being reported only by “the superstitious” or by “the mentally weak” shows only that the scoffer is small-minded and petty.
The source of the term itself comes from Hufford’s own first encounters with the experience, when he was a teacher in Newfoundland. The term refers to the folkloric idea or a witch “riding” an unwilling person. The term “hag-ridden” when applied to somebody who seems all worn-out derives specifically from this cultural meme.
There are plenty of artistic works which reference the Old Hag. Most of the time the occurrence is not called that, but it “fits the bill” to a greater or lesser extent. Some of these artistic expressions of the Hag are
- de Maupassant’s story “The Horla”
- the book The Entity
- the film of the same name
- the oft-quoted passage that begins Varney the Vampire: She tries to scream again but a choking sensation comes over her, and she cannot. It is too dreadful -- she tries to move -- each limb seems weighted down by tons of lead -- she can but in a hoarse faint whisper cry …. And yet now she could not scream -- she could not move
- Dracula’s visit to Mina Harker’s bedroom when she is forced to drink his blood
- the unnamed thing in “What Was It? A Mystery” by Fitz-James O’Brien
To his credit, Hufford also refers to John Keel’s investigations involving ultra-terrestrials (often aligned with UFOs), and specifically to Keel’s book Strange Creatures from Time and Space (Fawcett, 1970) which has a chapter on these topics called “The Bedroom Invaders.”
The case studies (more than thirty) also show some connections between the Hag experience and haunting or poltergeist experiences. These supernatural trappings pull the Old Hag experiences out of the “odd psychological brain misfire” realm and into the supernatural.
Some of these experiences also involve second parties who saw the respondent during or after the encounter. At times the experiencer’s eyes REALLY WERE OPEN. They REALLY WERE trying to move (appearing to tremble with the effort but not actually moving).
This is a fascinating topic with ties to actual psychological realms such as Sleep Paralysis and Sleep Research. The reported supernatural areas that are also overlapped show that the Enemy of Mankind (that ol’ Debbil) may also be trying to affect people.
WHAT IS IT that is holding the respondents immobile? One case study describes a gelatinous, amorphous thing. Another of Hufford’s interviewees described feeling as if he were being held down by “hundreds of tiny arms.” A source quoted on page 232 says, “The thing feels like warm raw meat, and when punched, has the elastic quality or rubber…”
It’s not a phenomenon that is solely common to “Western Civilization.” In the chapter “The Old Hag and Culture” Hufford also quotes a study that included sixteen Eskimo reports. The experience has a special name in two of the Eskimo languages! There are also occurrences in Samoa and the Philippines.
Say your prayers and keep reading! This is a well-written (though scholarly) look at a disturbing phenomenon experienced for centuries. Well done!