“Old Hag” Syndrome Explained

Posted by Xavier Ortega | April 12, 2011 74

The “Old Hag” syndrome. Quite possibly one of the most terrifying sleep related disorders that affects more people than previously thought. Tales of an “old hag” coming into somebody’s bedroom at night and pinning them down while they struggle to breath from the enormous pressure they feel smashing down on their chest, are well too common. These tales span from different races, continents and religious backgrounds. Most assume that these nightly episodes are visitations from something out of this world.

I’ve written about the “Old Hag” syndrome a bit here on GT. There was a great documentary on the subject that I had posted back in 2009. Check it out.

So what is this “Old Hag” and how to you avoid it? The answer might be as simple as blaming narcolepsy for the ghoulish episodes. Neuropsychiatrists have gathered some important data from the dozens of cases studied each year. Most patients have exhausted all avenues in trying to rid themselves of the terrifying syndrome. Some even seeking an Exorcist. But what modern science has to say can put many at ease…at least until they get “the visit”.

In the following article, a Neuropsychiatrist talks about some of the most weird cases involving the “Old Hag” syndrome and narcolepsy:

“I had a patient in the States, a truck driver with an 18-wheeler, zig-zagging on the highway and was caught by the cops,” Mirolo said. “The reason he was zig-zagging was because he was busy going over little green dwarves, and he was feeling how they were being splattered by the truck and everything. He felt it, he saw them, and he heard the splattering. “Another patient was watching TV when a furry animal came out of it and bit him on the arm. These hallucinations are usually in 3-D, in colour, and very vivid.”

Full source: The Telegram

It’s so common, we have a slang term for it: seeing the old hag.

For Denise (not her real name), however, the fact that it’s typical didn’t make it any easier to endure, and at one point, she found herself meeting with her parish priest, asking for an exorcism.

“It sounds so silly now,” she told The Telegram, adding that’s the reason why she declined to use her real name or have her photo printed.

“But there was a point when I really thought something paranormal was going on, and I wanted it gone.”

The first time she experienced the old hag was as a university student, during exams, the 47-year-old said. She woke up in the middle of the night with the feeling of something pressing down on her chest.

“I couldn’t move; couldn’t even wiggle my toes. I tried to call out to my mother, but couldn’t. It was like something was sitting on me, holding me down. I even felt the presence of a ghost,” Denise said. “It was terrifying.”

The old hag came back about a week later. This time, Denise said, she clearly saw a ghost.

“I saw the form of a person, sitting on me, their hands pushing down on my chest. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, but it was very clearly a human. Once again, I tried to scream, but nothing came out. I tried to raise my arm and couldn’t. It‘s like I was paralyzed.”

Because she had no known health problems and had actually seen what she thought was a ghost, Denise was convinced her problems were of the paranormal kind.

After nearly a year of being tormented by the old hag on almost a weekly basis, she turned to her faith for help.

“I went to my priest. I honestly thought there was a chance I was possessed, or maybe my family’s house was haunted,” she said, laughing.

“I asked him to bless me, which he did, and I asked him how to go about having an exorcism performed. At that point, I was dreading going to sleep at night. When the sun would start to set, I‘d start feeling panicky.”

It was the priest who suggested Denise talk to her doctor. A couple years later she visited a sleep disorders clinic in Ontario, and was diagnosed with narcolepsy.

Dr. Hugh Mirolo is this province’s only neuropsychiatrist, and sees many patients who suffer from narcolepsy.

Seeing the old hag is what he calls a combination of sleep paralysis and a hypnopompic hallucination.

Temporary paralysis happens to everyone, every night, while we’re in deep sleep, Mirolo explained.

Sleep paralysis, such as the old hag, occurs during the transition between deep sleep and waking up, as the brain may not always switch off the paralysis right away. It may not switch off dreams immediately, either, causing vivid hallucinations.

Seeing the old hag is a normal occurrence when it happens in isolation, Mirolo said, and can particularly affect those with unstable sleeping schedules, like those who do shift work, as well as people like us, who live in an area where the winters are long.

“The dark season affects us all, not just people with brain injuries,” Mirolo explained. “This is so common in St. John’s, because of the northern latitude and our frequent prolonged overcast weather.”

Put the old hag with other symptoms — including excessive daytime sleepiness, insomnia at night, hallucinations when in the process of falling asleep, and cataplexy attacks; sudden paralysis of all or some of the muscles in the body at any time of the day or night — and it’s part of narcolepsy, Mirolo explained. A number of factors could trigger symptoms like the old hag to suddenly appear, he said, including sleep disruption — as in the case of Denise, who had been pulling all-nighters, studying for exams — or brain trauma.

Though narcolepsy can be inherited, Mirolo mainly sees it as a symptom of a brain injury, which, many times, his patients don’t even know they have before coming to see him. They make the discovery after Mirolo assesses them, which can take weeks of interviews with family members and questions about the patient’s life right from birth, or even in the womb. A lot of patients will have suffered a brain injury in a semi-serious car accident, sports accident or playground mishap in the past, but never connected it to any of their current symptoms. People with narcolepsy are going in and out of sleep all the time, Mirolo said, describing it as the invasion of deep sleep into normal life. Those with narcolepsy can experience an abrupt unplugging of the brain — falling asleep in the middle of a conversation, for example — or a more subtle “going, going, gone” type of unplugging. It’s not uncommon for those with narcolepsy to fall asleep during car rides or to never seem able to see the end of a movie before falling asleep.

“A number of times, the patient will not even realize they have (narcolepsy) or they will not realize the extent of it; the sleep attack is usually witnessed by others,” Mirolo said. “The patient will perceive that they just nodded their head, and (in reality) a half an hour elapsed. They’re watching TV and then all of a sudden the news is on.

“Another typical example is as a passenger in the car: they unplug, replug, and where did Gander go? If there’s no time-giver, like the TV or if they have no relatives around, they might not know they have it at all.”

Symptoms can be even worse, Mirolo explained: people suffering from narcolepsy can often perform complex tasks while their brain is unplugged, like making phone calls or driving. They may look to others as if they’re sleepwalking, or they may simply look as if they’re in a daze.

“They can look like they’re playing close attention, but in reality, no one is home,” Mirolo said. “I have patients who were driving on the other side of the road for an unknown amount of time, and then all of a sudden they wake up and think, ‘What the heck?’ It can be very dangerous.”

Because they are constantly going in and out of sleep, people with narcolepsy can experience hallucinations like the old hag at any time of day or night, Mirolo said, and the hallucinations can include visions, voices or sensations.

“I had a patient in the States, a truck driver with an 18-wheeler, zig-zagging on the highway and was caught by the cops,” Mirolo said. “The reason he was zig-zagging was because he was busy going over little green dwarves, and he was feeling how they were being splattered by the truck and everything. He felt it, he saw them, and he heard the splattering. “Another patient was watching TV when a furry animal came out of it and bit him on the arm. These hallucinations are usually in 3-D, in colour, and very vivid.”

Sleep attacks can last between a few minutes to hours, Mirolo said, depending on how severe the narcolepsy symptoms are.

Part of the treatment for narcolepsy is the same as the treatment for anyone who sees the old hag, and involves what Mirolo calls basic brain/sleep hygiene measures. There’s a long list of dos and don’ts, including no caffeine after 4 p.m. (in any form, including coffee, tea, soda and hidden forms like chocolate and soya sauce), no nicotine or alcohol after 6 p.m., and no naps during the day.

Bedrooms should be cool and dark while sleeping, should not be used for anything other than sleeping and sex and should not contain a TV, radio or computer, and we should expose ourselves to natural or full-spectrum light as soon as possible upon waking. A proper night’s sleep is between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., Mirolo explained, and this is based on biorhythms; though we may get the same number of hours sleep if we go to bed a 2 a.m. and wake at 10 a.m., it’s not the same, he said.

Exposure to light in the evenings should be minimal, Mirolo said, adding any light bright enough to enable us to read is bright enough to wake us.

“If you get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, the light should be barely enough to allow you to see,” Mirolo said. “If it’s a bright light, your brain reads that as, ‘Good morning, Sir!’ The brain reads light as time to be awake; the absence of light as time to sleep.”

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Based in Brooklyn, NY, I write about all things creepy and strange. My book based on the real haunting of Doris Bither (The Entity 1982 movie) will be released fall of 2016. Got a question? Drop me a line.

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74 Responses

  • Mr eX.

    I hope I can explain this to help others. Firstly brain and
    neurological conditions are not fully known.

    this case of sleep paralysis the brain hasn’t quite managed to switch off the “dream
    state” mode, yet the sensory organs (Eyes, ears, & nose) have switched on.
    It is unknown why. Neuroscience is and forever will be a complex issue IMO. The
    reason why it’s the eyes, ears and nose that awaken (but only “half way”) first
    before the rest of the body is because these sensory organs are all connected
    and play an important primary role of the body’s ability to know of the
    surroundings. The brain sometimes sends signals to all of these at the same
    time, to be alert, on guard. As for the visions of “dark figures” at the side
    of the bed, well, unfortunately I’m no dream expert, but they say the cause of ‘nightmares’
    is usually stress, fear or a combination of worry and anxiety, upset or major
    family crisis. When your ‘sensory’ organs are alert / awake, you instantly perceive
    consciousness, yet when your body cannot move, naturally one will panic, which
    can then create terror. In “dream mode” this terror can create hallucinations. Ghouls
    and demons have been renowned throughout history and the fear of not being in
    control, and having this puzzling and terrifying incident occur can cause “puzzling
    and terrifying” images to appear because you are still in dream mode and subconsciously
    we all relate mystery and terror in the form of monsters or demons so our mind
    creates these and because our sensory organs are half asleep / half awake, we
    can see what our mind creates on a subconscious level. My advice is to have a regular
    sleeping pattern, but also equally important is to eat and drink healthily. A
    lot of these chemicals in the foods we eat can have adverse affects on the
    brains neurotransmitters while asleep. Sleep disturbance such as insomnia can
    be directly linked to food and drink chemicals. This may sound hypocritical of
    me, but although incense sticks are associated with paganism and spiritual
    groups, these actually help to relieve stress. This is advice on how to
    eliminate nightmares. I myself have used lavender incense sticks and they help
    improve mood, freshen the room and according to spiritualists can remove
    negative energy, not that I believe in spiritualism. Listening to music,
    specifically jazz and soft relaxing music can help ensure a peaceful night
    sleep. Better exercise. I know this doesn’t directly relate to “sleep paralysis”
    but I believe it can because it relates to ‘nightmares’. The rest is mechanical
    and electrical malfunction of the body.

  • Emmaxbbzx

    Is it possible to have this just once because I’m nearly 14 and I had one of these things last week I always wake up during the night and turn over or fix my blankets or something so when I woke up I didn’t find it unusual untill I saw like a shadow standing beside my bed about a foot away from my face. It wasn’t actually touching me or moving but when I tried to move I felt as if something was pinning my shoulders down. I waited a while not wanting to embarrass myself by getting scared for nothing until I couldn’t take it anymore, I tried to scream but only squeaked about ten seconds later I was able to turn over. I havnt told my mum about this because I know she will say I’m exaggerating but I told a few of my close friends because it really scared me. Will this happen again? How can I prevent this happening again?

  • steerpike

    its supernatural!!! not scientific!!! basically its a spirit!!! who wants to anchore its self through you!!! regain what it had when alive!! for a brief moment!! I have had this experience many times!!! however I came up with a protective circle!! through which they cannot get to you!!!! a quick diy one!!! befrore you go to sleep!!! say in an assertive voice! ie north east south west my circle is protected nothing may enter and nothing may leave!!! supernatural being go in peace but stay away from me while I sleep!!! the should give it something to think about!!! however they adapt so you will need to beef up your ritual make it up as you go along!!!it will work and give you a break!!!! good luck!!!!

  • esoterica

    Yes, it is a spirit. Actually it is an earthbound ghost, the types that move objects. What happens exactly… life is composed of the body, the spirit which animates the body, and the soul. At physical death of the body, the spirit detaches with the last breath and normally carries the soul to the next dimension. Occasionally unresolved issues cause the spirit to turn back from the light tunnel. As depicted in the movie “Ghost”. The inter-dimensional light door closes after sufficient time to pass through and the reluctant spirit becomes trapped in the intermediate world. Normally the spirit also dies, and is termed… the second death, about 72 hours after the physical death upon completion of delivering the soul back to the light which it came from. However when that door closes and the reluctant spirit chooses to remain earthbound it becomes trapped. In human form we must eat and drink of the earthly elements to survive. In spirit form without this nourishment, the spirit must feed off of vital life force. This force is easily accessible to an earthbound when we are asleep and vulnerable, like a predator looking for vulnerable prey. Should you awake during the attack, which is likely, there is a paralyzing feeling and compression on the chest. Best way to break an attack is through a rapid shallow breathing technique similar to Lamaze, or taking every bit of your strength and curling your fingers. Hag attacks are common in earthbound haunted homes.

  • esoterica

    and yes, the anchor, it can take possession, I call it semi-possession, because the human is generally aware that they are possessed in this state. It’s like one body inhabiting two souls. The mannerisms and speech, even way of dress take on a whole new aspect within the human being during this type of possession. It can last for several days.

  • denny

    Its happened to me several times. The last time it happened I struggled to say Jesus , I was released immediately

  • Paolo

    Visit a new blog of the paranormal

  • Kim

    Just stumbled upon this… I believe there is a spiritual component because I’ve experienced this. I had no idea so many others had as well.

    In my early 20’s I went home to my parents house and ended up sleeping in what was once my brothers room. He had been dabbling in a bit of occult. As I was in bed almost asleep I heard the door to the room click shut. I looked towards the doorway and saw a human-like shadow. I assumed it was my dad pranking me and called his name. The shadow lunged onto me covering me from my head to my toes. I could feel my body being pinned to the bed and could not breathe at all. I heard the bed creak and could feel the mattress give way. I was so terrified. I struggled against it but definitely felt no hope in freeing myself. All of a sudden it dawned on me to call on the name of Jesus, which I did, and I was immediately released. I sprang up and screamed my bloody head off until my parents rushed in. We could ALL feel the presence and it really freaked them out too. My dad since became a Christian.

    It’s happened only once since then, a day after my brother visited me at university. I was napping in the afternoon in my apartment and I woke to someone gently rubbing my back. I assumed it was my roommate waking me for dinner and as I rolled over to look at her I was pinned again. This time I did not panic but immediately called on Jesus and was instantly released. I have never had it happen since.

    Science and faith are not exclusive of each other. It’s just as foolish to ignore the spiritual realm as it is to ignore science.

  • teetee721

    I’ve definitely dealt with this as a child and I feel it is very much spiritual. It started when I was 6 or 7, let’s just say I’m 30 now and it still scares the hell out of me. Until a couple years ago i m starting to actually feel pain from tickling or on one incidence a sharp fingernail stratching me from my shoulder to my calf muscle. That incident shocked the hell out of me as I’ve never experienced it before other than the pressure of being hell down or a creature placing his lips over mine sucking the life outof me.but for some reason…when I call the name of Jesus the struggle is over..I’ve tried fighting and shaking my head really fast to wake up but with I call Jesus and think of him…the entity/devil/hag or whatever u call it leaves abruptly.

  • denny

    It happened to me several times then I heard it was demon attacks. The next time it happened I struggled with all my might to say Jesus , I was released before completing his name

  • Fed up with this hag sh*t

    This use to happen to me all the time when I lived in my parents home which to this day I believe is haunted… there have been many times when I would wake up to a shadow woman with bright eyes and an evil looking grin sitting on my chest…I would squeeze my eyes shut and wait for it to be over. After I moved out on my own I only experienced it twice…once it happened during the day when I fell asleep on my couch; I couldn’t move but I could see something by my feet, burning them…another time my partner made me sleep on the outside of the bed and I awoke to a woman dressed in black Victorian clothing standing in the doorway, the hallway light shinning behind her. She then lunged for my throat and I could feel her gnawing at my neck, I could feel her breath and hear her chewing. to this day I hate people touching my neck…. the night visits stopped after that…its been almost three years, but I feel them coming back now that I am single…I feel myself becoming stuck in my sleep and I literally have to grab onto the side of my bed and pull myself off so she doesnt get me. Sometimes when its about to happen I hear something behind me and I feel my bed move as if someone is turning and I feel my back burn from head to toe… my strategies arent as effective as they use to be and I dont know what to do.

  • King David

    Download the audio bible and play St John on repeat as you sleep. I used to have things like this happen to me while in prison along with a lot of other guys (all kinda evil shit floating around that place). Anyway it stopped after a heard a preacher talking about sleeping with the bible on. Doesn’t have to be up especially loud just loud enough for you to here the name Jesus. Alotta guys would tell me stories about shit way worse than stuff on here and as yet I haven’t found one that didn’t work for.

  • Antonio Perales

    Interesting article. Sadly, the attempt at explaining this phenomenon fails. First, it doesn’t happen to everyone. Second, those who do have the sleep paralysis experience all share 98% the same elements of that experience (ie. A malevolent being(s), odd smell, etc.). This is odd because those of us who have had the experience are not related in any way. Why would we all share similar elements if it is a hallucination? The so called scientists cannot explain this. I had this experience in 1990, 1992 and 2002. Scared the hell out of me. The third time it happened I tried to say Jesus and I heard a laugh. That really freaked me out. I do believe with certainty that the sleep paralysis experience is of a spiritual nature. I’m not advocating religion, just that there is a spiritual component. We simply are not ready or willing to accept it.

  • capkangaroo

    There are a lot of mislead people here. This is not spiritual. This happens to me any time I don’t get enough sleep. I work over night and typically sleep in the morning. Somedays I get more sleep than other days. From time to time if I’ve only had a few hours in the morning after a work night this happens to me later that night when I am trying to sleep. Something will wake me up and I can’t move and it’s hard to breath. This has never lasted more than a couple minutes and I usually beat it by simply focusing on moving my arms or getting up. It’s simple sleep paralysis. I use to believe that old hag or witch bullshit too. I even said prayers and jesus when it happened. I only believed this because a teacher told me to when in reality it just wore off. I also use to see weird shit but i don’t anore because i educated myself on the issue. Also sorry to bust several bubbles but, if you want to believe that saying jesus will somehow help then educate yourself on your own bible. It’s literally impossible for the saviors name to have been jesus considering the letter j did not exist in biblical times. Therefore saying a false name isn’t going to scare anything spiritual off.

  • LastReal1Left

    you are misinformed. this is spiritual..just not religious. its often confused with sleep paralysis because there is nothing else to chaulk it up to, if you are like 99% of people who do not understand the realm beyond physicality…you just don’t know the difference. you , like so many others who think they understand what is happening, don’t really know how to explain it so its considered ” hallucinations” . I have had these my entire life, and they are much different the souls/ light beings i see and connect with..
    people who have no experience in supernatural realm of things, are expected to believe exactly what you do.But they are two different things. always have been.

  • Alpha Romeo

    The first time this happened to me was when i was in college. During the first and the most memorable ‘visitation’ i believe i heard a (demonic) voice laughing so i started praying – but i cannot seem to find the words to finish the prayer ( the Latin prayer to the medal of st. Benedict), which creeped me out big time.

    Through the succeeding days, weeks, months and years, the frequent (sometimes 5-10 times a night) experiences made me realize that i wasn’t ‘hi-jacked’ by something supernatural but i’m actually asleep (or half). I began to notice minute differences in my room during the attack where the wall and ceiling is actually colored differently or there furniture are replaced and or missing. There came point where i do not fear the experience that much and i’m just irritated that the paralysis is instigating me instead of resting me. Mastered the art of “waking up from this (twitching my toe method then using the momentum to twitch and shake my foot, then leg, then torso so I could wake myself.

    Currently, it only triggers when i am more tired than normal and or i didn’t get enough sleep. I’m always scared anymore but i get more pissed because it’s almost certain that an ‘attack’ will be succeeded by 2 or more before i get to comfortably sleep.

  • Knowldege

    Good write up; many thanks to the author for postings.

    This doesn’t give the full story on hagging though nor does
    it explains the solution to the problem. See link below for more details of
    what happens when you’re being choked in the middle of the night:


  • LastReal1Left

    I find it hilarious that dumb people make excuses for things they do not understand. clueless, they then rely on more clueless people to answer questions about their ordeal. these people can’t answer the questions, so they say it’s “sleep paralysis”..
    there are two different things happening, and they are being confused as one.
    This is spiritual..just not religious. its often confused with sleep paralysis because there is nothing else to chaulk it up to, if you are like 99% of people who do not understand the realm beyond physicality…you just don’t know the difference. like so many others who think they understand what is happening, people don’t really know how to explain it so its considered ” hallucinations” . I have had these my entire life, and they are much different the souls/ light beings i see and connect with..

    I feel sorry for people who pretend its just “being tired”…
    I know the difference between the two…and i also know that when you are in that state of sleep paralysis, its much easier for spirits to mess with you ….

    people who have no experience in supernatural realm of things, are expected to believe exactly what you do.But they are two different things. always have been.

  • frog

    what is the time that this sindrom mostly happens in the night ?

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