Ask Psiguy – The Old Hag Syndrome and Sleep Paralysis

PsiguyI've gotten numerous emails from people who have experienced something that totally freaked them out and yet contained numerous similarities. The person would awaken from sleep, realize that they cannot move and (this is the really scary part) report that there is somebody, or something, in the room with them. This part varies from one person to the next. Some people see only shadows on the wall. Others see more frightening, more ominous visions. Sometimes these "night demons" take on the appearance of monstrous proportions, others see an old woman sitting on top of them making it impossible to breathe. This phenomenon became known as the "Old Hag."

The term Old Hag originates from Elizabethan times when folklore created the image of an old woman sitting on ones' chest, leaning over to terrorize the sleeper. There is an endless number of variations that have been assigned to this phenomena over the intervening years. The same is true of the old story of cats sitting on ones' chest and stealing the breath of children; although the circumstances in the latter case are quite different than those in the former. This was all before the advent of sleep research. We have since learned that these images occur in what is called the hypnopompic stage of sleep wherein the subject's consciousness awakens only to find that the body is still paralyzed due to having just come out of a REM stage. We have learned about the 5 stages of sleep, and particularly the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage, in which the most vivid recall of dreaming occurs. REM occurs more frequently and for a higher percentage of total sleep as one goes through the night. That's why most of us will awaken from the REM state in the morning, thereby usually recalling fragments of the last episode of the last REM state dream (or the entire thing, depending on your recall ability).

During REM, the body of the sleeper produces neurochemicals that essentially paralyze the sleeper, theoretically so that the sleeper does not get up and act out ones' dream. (We do dream in the other states of sleep, called Non-REM dreaming, and sleep walking and talking, interestingly takes place in the slowest-brainwave sleep of all, Stage 4).

The occasion arises wherein the sleepers' consciousness will "awaken" (I'm simplifying this all of course for the sake of brevity) while the body is still paralyzed, producing the effect we address here. When this happens relax, don't get upset, it's all very natural. One has a tendency, until one becomes used to the effects through repetition, to produce all kinds of scenarios to explain what is happening during these states. Keep in mind that this is also the state where one can, through training, take advantage of the perceived state and have Out of Body Experiences, lucid dreams (where one is aware in a dream that one is dreaming and so can exert varying amounts of control over the mentation) and can also have a greater chance of producing positive Psi effects such as clairvoyance and "shared dreams" either with ones' sleeping spouse or a distant sleeper. So it's all very natural and certainly is nothing you should let your imagination get away from you. When it occurs again simply observe and learn and relax. It will pass very quickly once the brain sends out the proper neurotransmittal chemicals that allow the body to awaken to match the brains awareness.

Then, through repetition, play with its unique properties and see where it takes you. It's all about learning about your capabilities; limited only by your willingness to explore the unknown and your trainable self-control.

For more info, there's lots of Sleep Disorder/Nightmare links out there...just do a search through DejaNews. Links to sites with more information:

This article tells of recent research linking SP to some UFO abductions:

The Nocturnal Assuult Research Center

The Sleep Paralysis Page


Society for Research on Biological Rhythms

The Sleep Research Society

Remember - to get Psiguy to answer your question or concerns on the paranormal, unusual or otherwise surreal, write him at with your query. Or you can send a letter to Ask Psiguy, c/o Legends Magazine, 4500 Bordentown Ave., Suite 159, Sayreville, NJ, 08872. You can have your question answered here, in this column, every month in Legends Magazine!