Old Hag Attacks
By Rosemary Ellen Guiley
Old Hag attacks are a nocturnal phenomenon involving nightmares, suffocation, paralysis, and supernatural smells, sounds and apparitions. The Old Hag syndrome is blamed on vampires, restless ghosts, night terror demons or witches. The syndrome has similarities to characteristics of poltergeists, and to the mara, a demon that attacks humans at night and sexually assaults them.
The Old Hag syndrome has been recorded since ancient times. In folklore, hags are sometimes described as supernatural creatures which act on their own volition, or are directed to attack a person through magic. Hags also are described as witches, sorcerers and practitioners of magic who travel out of their bodies to attack other human beings in spirit form, riding their chests at night. The term “hag” is often used to refer to a witch, and to be “hagged” or “hag ridden” means to be assaulted by a witch in spirit form at night.
Victims may be sleeping at night or napping during the day. They almost always are sleeping on their backs. They may hear footsteps, feel and see a form and smell odors, or they may simply wake up suddenly feeling an invisible, crushing weight and paralysis, followed by sudden cessation of pressure and exhaustion. Regardless of the characteristics, the attacks are always terrifying.
In his book The Terror That Comes in the Night (1982), folklorist David J. Hufford estimates that about 15 percent of the general population worldwide suffer at least one hag attack during life. Some individuals suffer attacks several times a year. Rarely, individuals suffer frequent attacks over a limited period of time. Even rarer are those who suffer frequent and chronic attacks. Belief in the Old Hag, knowledge of the supernatural in general, and previous supernatural experiences do not seem to be factors in whether or not an individual has a hag attack.
No adequate explanation for the Old Hag has been put forward. Some cases have been attributed to sleep disorders and psychological conditions. The second-century Roman physician, Galen, attributed it to indigestion. Ernest Jones, an influential psychoanalyst of the Freudian school, equates hag attacks with nightmares in his monograph On the Nightmare (1931). Jones attributed nightmares to sexual repression. He notes that the term “nightmare” comes from the Anglo-Saxon terms neaht or nicht (night) and mara (incubus or succubus, literally “the crusher”). Up until the mid-17th century, the term “nightmare” was used to describe these types of nocturnal attacks. Jones also considers vampires and werewolves to be expressions of repressed sexuality as well.
Sexual repression may be a factor in some Old Hag cases, but cannot explain all cases. Sleep-related illnesses such as narcolepsy also may be a factor in some cases, but cannot account for all, or even a majority, of them.
Supernatural factors cannot be ruled out. As Hufford finds, the Old Hag syndrome has played a significant role in the development of various supernatural traditions, and the hag’s relationship to cultural factors deserves more investigation.
Recorded cases of vampire attacks in Eastern Europe sometimes feature Old Hag characteristics. For example, a case cited by both Montague Summers and occultist Dr. Franz Hartmann features, as Summers notes, “typical instances of vampirism” and strongly resembles the Old Hag encounter:
A miller at D— had a healthy servant-boy, who soon after entering his service began to fail. He acquired a ravenous appetite, but nevertheless grew daily more feeble and emaciated. Being interrogated, he at last confessed that a thing which he could no see, but which he could plainly feel, came to him every night about
twelve o’clock and settled upon his chest, drawing all the life out of him, so that he became paralised [sic] for the time being, and neither could move nor cry out. Thereupon the miller agreed to share the bed with the boy, and made him promise that the should give a certain sign when the vampire arrived. This was done, and when the signal was made the miller putting out his hands grasped an invisible but very tangible substance that rested upon the boy’s chest. He described it as apparently elliptical in shape, and to the touch feeling like gelatine [sic], properties which suggest an ectoplasmic formation. The thing writhed and fiercely struggled to escape, but he gripped it firmly and threw it on the fire. After that the boy recovered, and there was an end of these visits.
Similarly, the famous vampire cases of the Breslau Vampire and Johannes Cuntius also involve Old Hag characteristics.
Hufford notes that Bram Stoker probably was familiar with the characteristics of hag attacks and vampire folklore, as seen in this passage from his 1897 novel Dracula, in which Mina Harker describes a visitation by Count Dracula:
There was in the room the same thin white mist that I had before noticed… I felt the same vague terror which had come to me before and the same sense of some presence… then indeed my heart sank within me: Beside the bed, as if he had stepped out of the mist – or rather as if the mist had turned into his figure, for it had entirely disappeared – stood a tall, thin man, all in black. I knew him at once from the description of the others. The waxen face; the high acquiline nose, on which the light fell in a thin white line; the parted red lips, with the sharp white teeth showing between; and the red eyes that I had seemed to see in the sunset on the windows of St. Mary’s church at Whitby… For an instant my heart stood still, and I would have screamed out, only that I was paralyzed.
Hufford observes that Stoker is not “completely faithful” to folk vampire traditions, but that is almost always the case with fiction. Fiction must depart from fact in order to tell a good story. Nonetheless, Stoker’s paralyzing vampire who appears at bedside portrays an authentic element of vampire lore.
Old Hag characteristics also appear in accounts of modern encounters with extraterrestrials