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“Old Hag” Syndrome Explained

Submitted by on April 12, 2011 – 11:28 AM45 Comments | 44,336 views

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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I'm a writer, a runner, and a hell of a coffee drinker residing in Los Angeles. I'm currently working on a book about Doris Bither and her terrifying account of a haunting in Culver City, California. The case was dubbed "The Entity" and it stands to be one of the most controversial cases ever to be studied by parapsychologists.

  • dj killa

    a few time as an adult its happened too once i told my mom about it she say i was riding the witches broom but i will concur that i recall it happening after a vivid dream and trying to wake myself or trying to fall asleep………the most memorable time i recalled it happening was the first time i was in the 3rd or 4th grade visiting my family on cape cod mass..and remember my aunt telling us the children to get ready for bed and my cousin and i talking all night all i remember the room went liquid black like the kind of dark where there is no shadow..i remember waking out of it fast and asking my cousin did he just see that..he didnt know what i was talkin bout and the next thing you know bam im out and paralyzed again this time so long i remember a tear falling down my cheek and when it wore off i was scared to go back to sleep cause i didnt believe i would be able to wake myself again.. then theres the time i tried to do it on purpose..warning do not do this…i figured out when your really tired or cant sleep if you relax and let your brain relax and dont think of anything…you will find yourself riding the witches broom the hard part is snapping out of it one time i thought i would be stuck there forevever…so i dont do it on purpose anymore and i dont recommend you try this either….what i remember most is it was black like being in a limbo of non light and the paralysis was unbearable….but i could put myself in the state over and over…its definetly a physical thing not anything supernatural…reason i say this i would do this in my school classes and couldnt be awoken……my parents and doctors thought i had epilepsy..turned out i just knew how to meet the old hag at will…once i did it while i was walking to the store..next thing you know i was in a ambulance with no explanation of how i fell out…i dont do these things anymore but i still know how LOL why i would do it because i could just to make sure i wasnt crazy now as a adult and with the internet im so glad to know it wasnt just me…for a long time i thaught something bad was after me it turns out ive had sleep paralysis all this time……thanks internet………remember were really never really alone im just saying

  • dj killa

    its just sleep paralysis man!!!!!!!!!!!

  • dj killa

    ma-ryha my family thaught i was having some type of seizures i mean real seizures i remember going to doctors getting ekgs a psychological examines the works i didnt hear about thiis until a few years ago my problem was i could do it at will and still can you sound like you can too the way i fixed it is just sleep and focus on my day or plans for tomorrow if i relaxed my mind and body bam there it is paralyzed now i just sleep and a nite lite or some low light helps dark rooms tend to set it off for me…. hope i helped ..remember were all ok

  • Penny

    Sleep paralysis as it is known as happens when you are in between sleep stages. You are mentally awake but your body is still asleep so you are aware of your surroundings but your body is paralysed which happens when you are asleep and you are still in the dream stage as well thus the reason for the hallucinations!!!!

  • rehabaholic

    Thank you for clearing that up Penny. I could not find that explanation in the article anywhere. You are such a delightful read and oh so very observant. Not!

  • Russ Johnston

    Why are most of the hallucinations being reported, seemingly revolving around some so-called evil entity(s)? All the rest makes perfect sense, except for that part. And that is a huge coincidence. In fact, too big to be explained away by what has been discussed so far. This has happened to me numerous times in the past. Also, it just happened to my wife earlier tonight. This phenomenon is very strange, to put it mildly. Lol!


    I have had the same experience


    That was kinda relieving, knowing so many others have had the same experience like me (from the comments). My reasons could be sleeping disorder. Though I must admit, it was terrifying. And if you read the comments, the victims don’t believe its not paranormal just like me. Because people from different corners of the world experiencing the same phenomena in exactly the same way is very improbable. They all have been said the same things like, “Don’t be Afraid” and to all of them they were rubbery. They haven’t yet proved that yet. They say that dreams merge with reality, but how does it merge with reality in exactly the moment when they have a grey rubbery thing on their chest. I have dreamt of so many good things and so have others, why does the dream not merge in reality then. If the brain accidentally does it, then there are a lot of other moments it could have done this. Anyway, it’s an interesting topic to be researched about, specially when so many have had that experience.

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  • ceri williams williams

    i would just like it to stop :(

  • Maria Too

    I was almost 9 months pregnant. I was sleeping on the couch because I was so uncomfortable. My husband felt bad for me and squeezed himself into the love seat cross the living room. We both fell asleep. I’m not sure why I woke up, but I did. I saw the silhouette of what I thought was a women with very messy hair. She was moving towards me. I was never able to see her face, it just looks like dark shadow. I had my arm under my head, like a pillow. She gets to me and grabs my arm with one hand so I that I can’t bring it down. With the other hand she reaches into my arm pit, like she is trying to tickle me only it really hurts and she’s digging really deep. I try to pull my arm down and I can’t. Finally she just disappears. I wrapped my arms around my pregnant belly and had a strange thought, I thought to myself please don’t hurt my baby. My baby died less than a week later. I’m not an irrational person, I know this sounds crazy so I never tell anyone.

  • eddiek

    I have had his condition for many years, it started in my late teens, early twenties,im in my early fourties now,what led me to this site was a bad episode last night, I fell asleep on the couch with the tv and light on, and slept for a couple hours and had an episode, and this was one of the few times I did see the old hag, when I see her she is always behind something or peeking around a corner, I have had the sensation of being dragged, I try to cry out to my wife but cant speak,it varies, once a month, once a week, I snap myself out of it by moving my arm, Ive spoken to my doctor about it, he had no clue, sometimes I get a little scared, not really because I know what it is

  • tina93

    Never had this in my life but my boyfriend has it frm time to time..and he describes it as terrifying. Never seen him so scared in my life…but i was thinking if this happens between the time your waking or about to sleep..that the physical part of not being able to move is normal but the old hag you all see is not and that maybe she actually exist but in a different dimension or parralel world that you fall into when about to wake or fall asleep..because i think its a too big of a coincidence that you all see the same women…could this be possible???

  • Tattoo Therapist

    Actually hallucinations are also very normal when you’re lingering in sleep paralysis. As for everyone seeing the same thing, well that’s not always true. I’ve suffered sleep paralysis recently but when I got the “I can’t breathe something is holding me down” feeling I had imagined crows swarming around me and stealing my oxygen. As a matter of fact a lot of people don’t see this “old hag” until they’ve heard mention of her at some other point in their life. They may not even remember hearing of her. Just like we dream of people we’ve never met all the time, but we’ve seen them before and just don’t remember it. That man you saw in your dream three nights ago, but didn’t recognize, well he’s the same man you glanced at while passing by in the grocery store just last month. See how that works? Our brains create imagery from our memories, memories that are so miniscule we don’t even realize they’re there. All we need is a little description and then the right time and place to experience it. It’s very amazing.

  • Tatted Therapist

    Does it not frighten you to think you are awake but cannot move a limb? (Which is, as previously stated, due to the sleep paralysis.)
    Alright so what’s the next most frightening thing you could imagine if you’re seemingly paralyzed for no particular reason? I would think maybe a demon or evil spirit was holding me down. This is why so many people experience the same thing.
    Think about it, when we dream and even hallucinate its usually of things we’ve either seen, heard of, or thought about at some other point in our lives. Most people have heard of this “old hag” or seen her in movies or even experienced her before, now even more people are reading about her on this very site as well as others. Even people who HAVEN’T seen or heard of her before. But chances are, now that they have, at some point in their lives they will experience sleep paralysis and she may very well be the first thing they see. All just because their reading about her at this very moment. And when they do finally experience her, they may not even remember ever reading this article or any of the comments.

  • BlueStarSeedofLove

    I’m so sorry to hear of that Maria. You may be interested in reading a book that touches on this which I found very helpful and enlightening. It’s called Initiation by Elizabeth Haich. It might help to explain.