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“Old Hag” Syndrome Explained

Submitted by on April 12, 2011 – 11:28 AM60 Comments | 69,886 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.

Latest posts by Xavier Ortega (see all)

  • DarkMagicianGirl

    I’ve had this since I was about four…it started whenever I would walk down stairs in the dark, on the midstep, i’d always see this figure, staring at me, and my heart would start pounding and I’d get dizzy…Soon, I started having breathing problems and sudden heart pounding and chest pains. Then it just kept getting worse and worse, seeing things often, usually the same creature on the stairs, but at random times in corners, or right behind me. In my sleep, I’ll wake up in a panic, eyes open, no movement available, really sweaty and feeling numb all over. And there’s one lurker there; not the stair one; but a tall black shadow with red eyes. Darker than the dark. Im 15 now, I don’t sleep much anymore. I can’t leave my room after dark without having a panic attack, because of the dark hallway. It’s so dark you cant see your hands…I just can’t go there. I pass out and can’t move after, so i’ll literally just be laying on the floor FEELING things run around me and touching me. So I stay up all night, painting and writing away my fear and demons.

  • Jords

    Oh OK, so this applies to people in the dark ages as well?

    The image of an actual “real life” woman appears subconsciously on top of you while your body is asleep and your brain is awake. And you’ll be seeing her ONLY because you read this article AND you have sleep paralysis.

    I don’t think so.

  • Jords

    I totally agree.

    An example I can give you is actually an old woman on my chest. I only discovered that it happens to others as well by reading on the internet afterwards.

  • 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.

  • Paolo

    Visit a new blog of the paranormal

  • 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!!!!

  • 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

    Omg same thing with mW…that painful ticking…under my arms sometimes on my pelvic bone near my ovaries…when I get these episodes that happens sometimes…thought it was just me!!!! Coincidence??? I think not anyone else experience this???

  • 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

  • denny

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

  • truth

    Leave the magic alone and bow your knees to Christ

  • 2plus1


  • Charles Pollock

    Well I hate to disagree with you but I had seen her in 07 or 08 regardless i had a dream of a women in a dark room with a man there and he walked off then I looked on the ground and there were panties so I followed her to the room I was drawn to her I got on top of her and she grabbed me if you catch my drift and she said I have a condition and I said what are you possessed!? And she started speaking in a deep demonic voice I said the Lord’s Prayer and it felt like I was ripped outta my dream an I was now pinned to my bed I heard a voice say go to bed it will be all right and I started rebuking in the name of Jesus and I was set free when I was able to open my eyes there was a women above me long hair crazy looking like you would see in the movie with long nails and defenitily didn’t look as good as she did in the dream then I saw a bright light come and hit her and she was gone then today I decided to do more research and came across the old hag syndrome only for it to freak me out because some of the images they drawn are exactly what I rememeber seeing and I never heard of her before then and that’s a fact